Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

How did Church’s moral compass avoid this issue?

Big issues: religious leaders such as Cardinal Keith O’Brien (below) should consider cases such as Tony Nicklinson’s rather than gay marriage

Just what is it with churchmen and sex? Does it never strike them that there is something absurd about a bunch of grey-beards in fancy robes tearing themselves apart over the spiritual legitimacy — or otherwise — of gay partnerships?

Freud would have a field day with these guys. Behind the tangle of woolly theological arguments, they appear to have a prurient, hysterical obsession with what same-sex couples do in bed together. Weird.

In the Anglican church, they have been indulging in an undignified cycle of self-immolation for nearly 10 years, ever since gay priest Dr Jeffrey John was pressured to stand down as Bishop of Reading by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Now it's all revved-up again with the Government's plan to bring in gay marriage.

The Catholic church is fit to burst with outrage on the issue. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, said the “grotesque” plans would “shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world” if implemented.

Unembarrassed by the devastating blow to its authority caused by the abuse scandals, and seemingly immune to the resulting charges of hypocrisy in opining on matters of sexual morality, the Church weighs in regardless.

Taking such a hostile stance to gay marriage damages religious institutions, making them look uptight, repressive and out-of-step with public opinion.

If they really want to stem the tide of secularism, they won't achieve it by harrumphing self-righteously from the pulpit. Except in Northern Ireland, of course, where pious, thou-shalt-not moralising by pompous old men has never really gone out of fashion.

Yet even here, the tide is gradually turning. Especially among the younger generation, there is a new spirit of tolerance in the air.

The sad truth is that while churchmen agonise over the potential of gay marriage to act like kryptonite on the authorised heterosexual version of matrimony, they are deserting their real duty.

There are far more urgent, far more challenging, moral issues that the Christian Church — in its widest sense — should be attending to, instead of allowing itself to be hung up on this one, tortured question.

Take the poignant case of Tony Nicklinson, the paralysed stroke victim who has just won a small victory in his fight for the right to die.

Nicklinson — who says that his life is dull and miserable and that he doesn't want to “dribble his way into old age” — is seeking a declaration that a doctor who intervenes to let him die would not face prosecution for murder.

If he succeeds, it could mean a radical re-interpretation of Britain's murder laws. This raises profound moral questions, a fact recognised by Mr Justice Charles, who allowed Nicklinson to go ahead with his legal challenge.

He said that the underlying issues raised “questions that have great social, ethical and religious significance and they are questions on which widely differing beliefs and views are held, often strongly.” It is a genuine issue of life and death, with consequences for all of us. So where are the Church leaders on the Tony Nicklinson question?

So far, nowhere. They seem to have used up all their energy, passion and conviction on the gay marriage conundrum and have nothing left over for anything else.

Of course, there will be no neat and all-encompassing moral consensus on the issue of mercy killing, all ends tied-up. It is an extraordinarily complex area, with competing ethical demands.

But this is an opportunity for the Church to be a voice of conscience, to provide a sensitive, balanced commentary, informed by Christ-like values of love, tolerance and understanding.

It will be interesting to see if it can stop its futile obsession with gay unions for long enough to really engage.

The polarised debate over gay marriage has become a boring, pointless farce. I'm not playing down its importance for gay people who want a sacred dimension to their vows of commitment to each other. That's fair enough.

But it isn't the defining spiritual dilemma of our age — or, at least, it shouldn't be.

In spite of the high divorce rate, the institution of marriage is as tough as old boots. It isn't about to implode, whether or not gay people can get hitched in church.

If the Church aspires to be a humane arbiter on moral values, it needs to stop poking around gay bedrooms, like a suspicious Victorian landlady, and lift its eyes to the real ethical dilemmas of the modern world.

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