A Brief History of Gay People Not Getting Married in the Church of England by a Partial, Prejudiced, & Ignorant Student

(Picture: Thomas Reuters Foundation)


I grew up in a High Anglican church in the early 2000s, the time of church that author Andrea Frazer would describe as a time of ‘Bells and Smells’, due to the excessive amount of incense and general faff. When my parents started going in the 80s there were more gay couples than straight, and I attended one of the first-ever civil partnerships in Britain in 2005. In my mind, the Church of England wanted to love and accept everyone, partly because they had to keep up with the changing opinion of the public, even if it was (in grand Church of England fashion I might add), 30 years behind the rest of the country. But then, two weeks ago, the headline ‘Sex is for married heterosexual couples only, says Church of England’, burst my blissfully ignorant bubble.


It seems in the past year or so, the world is turning backwards. Whether it’s prominent daytime news presenters openly insulting those who identify as anything besides their assigned gender, or white men claiming they have been subject to racism because they dislike being forced to think about walking in someone else’s shoes. Rolling back the clock on abortion rights in America, and comparing feminists who would just like equality, to a historic regime that killed 6 million Jews, makes me think that maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s nothing new, but reinstating what their stance has always been, and yet it feels like a fresh stab in the back.


In the Old Testament, marriage is about family and looking after one another. If a man’s brother dies it is recommended that he marries the widow for economic security and stability. In Genesis, the main message is to  “Be fruitful and multiply” in order to populate the earth that God has built. This, I’m sure most people would agree, has been done, there are now 7 billion of us. In the grand tradition of banning everything, Leviticus  claims that ‘men lying with men, as men lie with women’ as an ‘abomination’ (in typical Biblical and historical fashion, lesbians are ignored, shocker) . Other actions of Godly disapproval include eating shellfish, and using fabric in clothing. However, to many Christians, it is the less hard-line New Testament that is considered more important to follow.

In it, there is nothing about sex, nor the sanctity of marriage; which Jesus even encouraged people to turn away from . St Paul was a big celibacy advocate,  and viewed that as more important. Moreover, the writers of the Bible had no word or understanding for homosexuality, with the term not emerging until the 19th century. Karl Westphal‘s article ‘Contrary Sexual Feeling’, published in 1870, was described by  Foucault as the “date of birth” of the categorisation of sexual orientation.


Before the reign of William II, most people didn’t get married. Marriage is an expensive and time-consuming ordeal, when you can live together and have children without involving the Church. Marriage was encouraged for tax purposes and it was the job of the Roman Church to persuade the English public to marry, and that homosexuality was sinful. This again may have been for procreation reasons. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century Catholic monk (who was later honoured with sainthood), argued that whilst he thought homosexuality was unnatural, the purpose of two people of the same sex lying together was for happiness. Therefore, gay sex was comparable to straight sex for pleasure and not for reproduction which was also considered unnatural by the church at that time.


The Church of England was founded partly because Anne  Boleyn wouldn’t put out until she was Queen, but I think more importantly, because Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell saw increasing contradictions in the Catholic Church, especially when it came to marriage. Henry was able to marry his brother’s wife and divorce her with different biblical references. Despite being notoriously bad with wives Henry VIII made male homosexuality, punishable by death, in what was known as the ‘Buggery Act’  (Whether he just didn’t know that lesbians were a thing, or simply didn’t care, is frankly a puzzle for historians). This remained in place until 1861, (although there was a brief period under Edward VI when this was revoked, but he was only King for 6 years bless him). King James the First (or Sixth if you’re Scottish) wrote an English translation of the Bible that is still used today and had several boyfriends. His favourite, George Villiers, was promoted to Duke of Buckingham, and the king even built a secret passage between their rooms.


In 1866, the common law definition of marriage was established after Lord Penzance decided he was not down with polygamy. This case is important because Penzance decided that “I conceive that marriage, as understood in Christendom, may for this purpose be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others”. Although it was legal to be gay (in private) by 1967, The Nullity of Marriage Act in 1971 explicitly banned marriage between same-sex couples. The introduction of Civil partnerships in 2005 was pretty revolutionary, considering the past centuries of discrimination. ‘Rev’, a BBC comedy about an Anglican Priest has an episode in which he gives a gay couple from his congregation who had received a civil partnership a blessing. The couple dressed it up as a wedding, but the priest was unable to affirm a proper blessing without being fired. This episode highlighted an important dilemma. There are gay people in the Church that want their union to be recognised by God, and there are priests that would love to  recognise it, but the Church does not permit it.  The fact that the main premise of the show was based on a priest trying to keep his church open and get people through the door is a growing issue that most vicars can relate to.


Patrick Delvin’s ’Philosophy of Law’ argues that common morality holds societies together, and perhaps the Church is grasping at straws trying to maintain common ground in order to hold an ancient institution together. More than half the population say they do not belong to any religion, and Sunday attendance is decreasing every year. The exception is, of course, Christmas, which has seen a rise in attendance, probably because most adults want to recreate the teal towel dressing gown costume for their kids that they once wore as a shepherd in some dingy church for their grandma, and want to sing the hymns they practised at primary school. Britain is a Christian country, and there are cultural aspects that are part of most people’s lives. The Church of England reaffirming their views on same-sex marriage was prompted by the proposal for civil partnerships for straight couples. The Church doesn’t just want gay people to not have sex, but also straight unmarried couples, in a wild move that alienates about half the population and makes a lot of people unhappy. Delvin also acknowledges that Morals change. The legalisation of Gay marriage in 2014 should mean that the Church follows suit in obeying the law of the land, for ‘God is the one who has put the power in the government’ (Romans 13:1-2). Dwindling congregations and crumbling buildings converted into climbing centres, nightclubs or left derelict. The ability to get married outside of the Church, and societies increasing disregard for the need to get married, overpowers this outdated institution which for so long has disrespected the LGBTQ+ community. Maybe the fear is that civil partnerships for heterosexual couples will remove potential candidates for Church weddings. If civil partnerships offer the same legal practicalities, then there may be even less appeal for marriage for non-religious people. One way of proving that they are maintain and attracting members is through marriage and the more members they have the more power they hold. Does this recent affirmation mean that the Church as a whole does not care? Or that it cares too much about protecting marriage in the only way it thinks marriage can be protected?  I like to think that one day, preferably in the near future, you will be able to  marry the person you love in the faith that you follow regardless of sexuality and that religious leaders would be more than happy to do so. But in the drunken words of a friend after three blue shits in Lowther  “I would love for everyone in the world to all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ Bella, but it’s not going to happen.”

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