The archbishop of York, John Sentamu, hopes that people will pay attention to other things in his most recent interview than his attack on gay marriage. Fat chance. When he said that the government will be acting as dictators have done if it introduces gay marriage, he put himself squarely in the wrong on a matter that people care about.
Nor does he give what I think are likely to be his real, animating reasons: that he believes gay marriage is bad because it makes being gay look normal and even admirable, and because gay people should not have sex with each other. Around most of the world, and certainly in most of the Anglican Communion, these would be perfectly respectable and uncontroversial things to say. But in modern Britain they are a minority view, and certainly not a respectable one. They are not going to win a political argument – and that’s what he’s fighting here.
He could defend marriage for heterosexuals only on the grounds that the Bible comes out of a culture where gay marriage would be an abomination. But he doesn’t. What he actually talks about in his interview is history and tradition. The trouble for him is that history and tradition are up against the argument from justice. In that contest the argument from justice will always win, unless it inconveniences too many of the powerful. Gay marriage doesn’t.
Sentamu says: “I don’t think it is the role of the state to define marriage” – so whose role is it? It may be that the archbishop supposes it is the church’s role. But he has been a lawyer, and he knows that can’t be true. In Britain the state and the church have long disagreed about the definition of marriage. As soon as civil divorce and remarriage between men and women was allowed, and I think the relevant date is 1915, the state had redefined marriage; and over the next century, the church shuffled slowly into line behind the state and behind society.
The spectacle of “dictators” doing so is not convincing either. I can’t think of a single dictatorship that has legalised gay marriage. There have, it is true, been dictatorships that were profoundly hostile to the family – Soviet Russia comes to mind. But they were not correspondingly in favour of gay marriage or even gay equality. They just wanted nothing to stand in the way of the power of the state.
What the religious conservatives are facing here is not a “dictatorship” but a genuine change in popular morality. Equality has come to seem a sacred value, one which unites society in as much as we all submit to it. And the more grossly this value is defied economically and politically, the more people will treasure it elsewhere.
If a majority of the population favours gay marriage, or can’t see what all the fuss is about, and the government makes it legal it is not imposing, as a dictator might, its views on an unwilling people. It is not even directly imposing them on an unwilling church. No one is going to have to celebrate gay marriages in their churches if they do not want to.
So politically the argument is already lost, and I suspect Sentamu knows this. Why else would he want to draw attention to his other views, on subjects like Jamaica leaving the Commonwealth? That’s not the behaviour of a politician trying to focus on his message.
But when the law is changed, it does exacerbate a huge difficulty for the Church of England: when civil partnerships went through here, the African churches were outraged that the church recognised them as legal. Gay marriage will repeat this pattern, only worse. The Anglican Communion will then demand that the Church of England reject or repudiate it.
In the end, the church may have to choose between communion and establishment. Sentamu has often, loudly, and rightly defended “Britishness” and British traditions. And if it comes to a choice between the Anglican Communion and the Church of England, British history, and British tradition, would then demand that the Anglican Communion be told, politely, to go away and commune with itself: that the archbishop of Lagos has no more jurisdiction in this country than the bishop of Rome.