Why is equal marriage so controversial?

by Jonathan Clatworthy

As part of our series of articles on the theology of marriage equality, Jonathan Clatworthy has written for us on why marriage equality is so difficult for the Church. Jonathan is a theologian with a special interest in monotheism and ethics.  He is a Research Fellow at Liverpool University and has taught philosophy and ethics at both Manchester and Liverpool Universities.  He is a trustee at Modern Church.

Jonathan argues that opposition is, in part, the consequence of a long history of negativity towards sex and displaced guilt and discomfort.

Why is equal marriage so controversial?

It’s not that long ago that public opinion, even in Britain, would have been heavily opposed to it. Today the opposition is concentrated in the churches. Why? I see it as the latest stage in a long history of negative attitudes.


To be realistic, we have to put aside our cultural taboos and talk about sex. Biology has so decreed that unless enough heterosexuals are determined to have sex the species dies out. When our ancestors evolved from whatever-they-used-to-be, they were already forming partnerships and producing children.

Not all of us. Some are celibate or gay. Biologists look for accounts of this. One factor seems to be a relationship between population density and the proportion who don’t do the things that generate babies. Overall, we have to be a varied bunch. Each of us, as an individual, gets the body we are given.

All this was happening long before anyone invented language, let alone marriage. The concept of marriage, when it came, was descriptive: it was about what people actually do. Not everybody, but most people.

Human societies developed needs, and traditions for meeting them. Who is responsible for a newborn baby? The mother. Who else? When men accumulate possessions they like to pass them on to their children; but how do they know which children are theirs?

So societies invented public weddings, to make sure everybody knew who was responsible for what and whom.

This, then, was the order: first the sexual activity, then the notion of marriage, then the notion of weddings.

The Bible

One bizarre 16th-century theory, still popular in some circles today, is that the Bible contains answers to all modern society’s questions. So what does it say about marriage? It does mention various marriages, of various types, most of which wouldn’t be popular today. But, much to the disappointment of liturgists, it isn’t really about marriage. Mostly, it simply echoes the norms of ancient near-eastern society. It was a man’s world. Women were owned first by their fathers, then by their husbands. They had to do what they were told by their men.

There are two exceptions. One is that, in some texts, Jesus and Paul seem to have thought of women as equal to men. It didn’t last: even within the New Testament, somebody claiming to be Paul writing to Timothy and Titus put a stop to that.

The other gets just one hint in 1 Corinthians 7:1. It seems that some Corinthians thought becoming a Christian meant giving up all sex for life. Scholars debate the reasons, but by the third century some Syrian churches wouldn’t even baptise you unless you renounced all sex for life. Marriage, equal or not, was banned.

Of course, if there were no marriages and heterosexuals stopped having sex, there would be no children. That’s the point, said Jerome in the fourth century: ‘Marriage populates the earth: virginity populates heaven’.

It wasn’t just equal marriage: it was all marriage that many considered sinful. Some were more liberal and described it as merely second rate: if you want to be a good Christian, become a monk or a nun.

The eighth century produced the first penitentials. These were handbooks for priests when hearing confessions. They told the priests what questions to ask and what penances to give for what sins. Many of them expected priests to ask in great detail about the sex lives of penitents: who put which part of their body where, what happened and when. Even for married couples sex was often forbidden throughout Lent and Advent (so no weddings then) but also on Wednesdays, Fridays and various other days. Again, it was sexual activity in general which was being constrained. Same-sex sexual activity was definitely on the list of forbidden practices; but the list was very long, and most of it has now been forgotten.

One imagines that, for priests who struggled with obligatory celibacy, asking the questions was their version of pornography.

Church leaders put a lot of effort into putting themselves in charge of administering weddings. Eventually they succeeded. For Catholics, by the later Middle Ages, marriage was a sacrament. For some Protestants it was an order of creation. In either case the word ‘marriage’ changed its meaning. It no longer just described what people did. Instead the idea arose that a marriage was only valid – only a real marriage – when the church gave its approval.

I still remember being a troublesome student at my theological college in the 1970s. Our ethics tutor told us that marriages are made in heaven. I asked the obvious question, the one the Sadducees asked Jesus about a woman whose husbands kept dying and being replaced – who would be her husband in heaven? I’m afraid I can’t remember his answer, but I do remember being dissatisfied, and feeling guilty about giving him such a rotten time.

This negative attitude to sex did slowly decline. A significant moment was Luther’s reformation, encouraging monks and nuns to marry. Models for good Christian marriage were developed. The absolutely irrefutable argument in favour of marriage being God’s will was that otherwise there would be no children.

This, of course, means that being married is okay because it produces children.

The negativity towards sex was weakened, but remained. It kept finding outlets. In the 19th century there was a major controversy about marriage to one’s deceased wife’s sister. We then moved on to contraception and divorce. On each issue there was a widespread sense of disgust at the perpetrators of these wicked acts. Conversely, the people who did them must have felt a strong sense of having guilty secrets.

The pill arrived in the 1960s. Church leaders panicked about the moral decline resulting from sex without pregnancy. The tabloids supported them. How could the government make sure the pill never got into the hands of the unmarried? A 1967 papal encyclical forbade Catholics to use contraceptives. At the time it was just upholding what most churches were teaching, but it soon came to seem outdated.

Today we have forgotten just how big an issue it was. By the 1970s, even churchgoers were getting used to the idea that, despite the fuss, the use of contraceptives didn’t seem to do any harm.

So I find it telling that this is the time when campaigning against gays and lesbians took off in earnest. No doubt there were other reasons as well; but for heterosexuals, it was an ideal displacement activity. Consciously or unconsciously, the contraceptive-using heterosexual mind was still awash with guilt feelings. Solution: redirect one’s righteous anger onto an unpopular minority who are doing the really wicked things.

Since then public opinion has changed. Churches are agonising over whether to follow its lead. One of the oddest arguments against equal marriage appeared around the time when the UK first permitted gay marriages. We were told that there couldn’t be gay marriages because the word ‘marriage’ meant, by definition, a partnership between a male and a female.

‘Marriage’ is a word. It means whatever English-speaking people mean when they use it. In the same way the French word ‘mariage’ means whatever French-speaking people mean by it. They may mean something slightly different; but even if the French ‘mariage’ included same-sex partnerships while the English ‘marriage’ did not, nobody would deduce that therefore same-sex partnerships were more morally acceptable in France than in England.

To summarise, the current resistance to equal marriage is the latest stage in a long process of changing attitudes to sex in general. There are other reasons why some people react negatively to the thought of same-sex activity – for some it’s just the way their hormones work – but in Western countries with a Christian background a lot of negative attitudes are rooted in our history and need to be unlearned. We are very slowly, piece by piece, disentangling a tradition which for most of its history was hostile to all sexual activity.

It was around the 1970s that campaigners, especially within the churches, singled out gay and lesbian sexual activity as especially sinful. It had been considered sinful before then, but only along with a lot of other activities – like married couples engaging in intercourse during Lent or divorcees remarrying. The 1970s liberated heterosexuals. At last they could do what they wanted, without fear of unwanted children and with little or no disapproval from moral authorities. All those guilt feelings, which we today no longer have, were still strong. It was important that 1970s heterosexuals could finally dispense with them. But a deep-seated sense of guilt is difficult to get rid of. It’s easier to divert it onto someone else.