The SBS program Living with the Enemy broadcast on Wednesday 3 September has hit on recipe for success with its new series. Put a gay male couple in a house (well, a caravan) with a conservative male Anglican priest and watch the sparks fly. The formula works because it is generally assumed a representative of the church will be opposed to gay marriage and any kind of homosexual activity, and that a gay couple won’t have anything to do with religion.
The truth is more complex. For a start, the category “Christianity” does not map seamlessly onto the category “heterosexuality”. There are many people of faith who are not heterosexual who do not struggle to “reconcile” their religion and sexuality. Moreover, recent surveys show that not only is a substantial majority of the Australian population now in favour of marriage equality but also that a majority of Christians are in favour.
The real issue here is the contest for moral authority in a secular society. Who decides what kinds of human relationships, including sexual relationships, are permissible? In the West this is an arena which the state has regulated in recent centuries, absorbing a role once occupied by the church.
In Australia, the present commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of religion means that, while faith groups are not permitted to impose their beliefs on others, they can make themselves heard and advocate for their point of view. This is precisely what conservative Christian groups have done on the question of marriage equality.
The challenge for government is to find the line in the sand separating freedom of religious practice from trespass on the freedom of other citizens, especially where that trespass causes harm. The challenge for faith groups is to recognise that the whole point of a civil society is to achieve change and manage disagreement through persuasion, not force.
Thus, what seems like a battle between the gays and the Christians over marriage equality is in some respects a cipher for a larger debate about the place of belief in postmodern society.
Politicians do respond to lobby groups, who are increasingly few and far between in a postmodern democracy. Faith-based groups are therefore very effective in light of the decline of other forms of political association.
Yet the churches face an uphill battle if they are perceived to be acting to protect their cultural authority, especially in the area of sexuality. In Australia the evidence presented to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has amply illustrated the perils that flow from putting institutional strength ahead of justice. Nothing could be further from the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ than an institution which acts solely to protect its power.
In Britain, where marriage equality has now been introduced, the Church of England failed spectacularly in its attempt to be the moral voice of the nation, an attempt predicated on the failed idea of Christendom. The church’s bishops came off poorly in the marriage equality debates in the House of Lords, where they seemed out of touch with the will of the people and unable to articulate a coherent stance.
This was partly because they changed their tune (it suddenly seemed that civil partnerships were acceptable to the church, where marriage was not), and partly because they were seen as attempting to wield power. By contrast, Pope Francis has been widely lauded in the church and media for his willingness to listen to new ideas, and to preach a gospel of and for the poor, even as Catholic teaching has not actually altered.
The churches lost control of the marriage debate decades ago, when the state legislated to relax laws on divorce and remarriage, and as increasing numbers of people chose civil celebrants over clergy, or simply living together without a marriage certificate.
So what would happen if the churches decided not to “live with the enemy”, but, in humility, to act out of charity towards their neighbours whilst exercising freedom of religion? The best outcome for everyone would be state-sanctioned marriages for those who choose it, gay or straight, and freedom for religious groups to determine which relationships they will bless, if any.
Then the churches could get on with lobbying government and people about poverty, the refugee crisis, and human dignity.