Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Church, State, and Marriage in the UK

Paul Adams

The previous post by Michael Cook on an important legal opinion about the impact of the UK Government's planned redefinition of marriage raises some interesting questions.

The Church, like English and American common law as I understand it and the Natural Law, regards marriage as one of those God-given institutions that precedes the state and does not depend on the state for its definition or permission to exist.  For the Catholic Church and the Orthodox, it is a sacrament like baptism and the Eucharist.  The Church could not simply stop celebrating this sacrament any more than any other as a way of avoiding legal action or persecution.  The state could, of course, refuse to recognize, for civil and legal purposes, marriages celebrated in church before a priest, though such a move (like SSM itself) would not be politically popular.

Such a cutting off of civil from religious marriage would be more complicated for the Church of England because the state controls the Church and imposes laws on it about such things as whom it must marry.  It is not clear that the C of E would have a legal basis, though there is certainly a theological and ecclesial one, for refusing to marry two people of the same sex.  The two would be physically incapable of consummating their "marriage," of course.  There could be no one-flesh union in a conjugal act that was open to new life.  Any children the pair acquired would not and could not be the result of such a union and necessarily would grow up without at least one of his or her natural parents.  But if the state insists than such an intrinsically barren union must be celebrated as a marriage, how can the state's church refuse?  Woolly and accommodationist to secularism and the sexual revolution as the C of E (and even more its American partners) may be, it seems there must be a point where the body must heed the anti-totalitarian principle enunciated by Christ himself, to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's.

If the state imposes its own secularist and anti-Christian sexual morality on the Catholic Church, the Church must and will resist, no matter the cost in terms of persecution.  Serious Christians as well as Orthodox Jews and Muslims doubtless will do likewise.  The C of E is more problematic.  A product of the state against the universal Church from the start, it seems to be approaching a point where it can no longer plausibly claim to be both Christian and the state church, with the monarch as its head on earth.  Disestablishment may not save the C of E from the persecution that faces the rest of us but it might enable it to maintain some integrity in the process.

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