Monday, 9 June 2014

Tom Tugendhat and Same Sex Marriage

Several months ago, not long after the open primary at which he was selected, Tom Tugendhat received emails from local Christian groups, questioning his attitude to same sex marriage and how he justified that position within the boundaries of his own declared faith.

Tom's reply, which I reproduce in full below (with his consent), is perhaps one of the most articulate and thoughtful defences of equal marriage I have yet read.

Although Tom has not shared the correspondence with me, and rightfully so, he informed me today that the group who wrote to ask for his views have replied and stated that whilst they do not share his view on this subject, they will be voting for him in 2015 due to his thoughtful and considerate reply.

It is a lengthy reply, but no-one could read it and not be moved by Tom's intellectual clarity or personal honesty. If anyone should wonder why this apparent "outsider" managed to get selected for one of the UKs safest seats, this should leave you in no doubt.


Thank you for taking the time to write to me.  I hope you will forgive the delay in responding but I wanted to make sure I gave a considered answer and not a quick one-liner.

I was glad of the opportunity to talk with you.  I was grateful to be challenged in my views as it is only through challenge that we think hard about what we think and therefore understand it ourselves.  It would be good to arrange meetings with people in the community frequently so that I can hear views and learn what matters to the our friends and neighbours.  I believe politics is a responsive calling based on principle.  What I mean by that is that it requires an understanding of what people feel as well as a bedrock of considered belief before one can know how to act.  For me that is where the Judeo-Christian tradition comes in.

Before I start down that road, perhaps I should set out my own background in faith.  I would not, as I believe I told you the other day, call myself a strong Christian.  I come from a strongly Roman Catholic home and was brought up with the principles of the Church firmly taught by my family.  I do not claim that this made me a saint, nor that we lived fully by the teachings of Christ, but it shaped an understanding of our place in the world, in society and the role of the individual, the state, and more importantly, the Christian principles that underpin the British political settlement.  Because as you so rightly say, Britain is a Christian country.  Our ethos emanates from the tradition of individual rights, the rule of law, justice and equality that are all to be found strongly rooted in both the Old and New Testament.  Indeed, whether you are of any faith or none, if you are British or merely share British values, you imbibe a Judeo-Christian tradition.  You are quite right to point this out.

So far, I think we agree.  I will set out my further views for consideration.  Perhaps we will disagree, if so, I would be very grateful if you would let me know so I can understand where your perspective better.  I don’t promise that we will end this discussion in full agreement but I value the opportunity express my opinions to an intelligent critic.

My comment on religion in Parliament is a very specific one.  It is based on Parliament’s role setting laws based on Church teaching.  In this I think we must be very careful because the teaching of the Church has changed over time as they have interpreted the words of Christ in their age.  Though it is shaming to us now, the Church once supported slavery and chauvinism as part of doctrine and many other abuses as part of practice.

But you rightly challenge me to move beyond the failures of men and women who hold Church office and focus on Christ’s message in the Gospel.  Today of all days I am reminded of the anointing at Bethany in Mark’s Gospel, just before the betrayal.  You argue that the place of women throughout the Gospel is one of equals and though I would agree with you many fellow Christians would not.  I note that the first to see the risen Christ are Mary, His mother, and Mary Magdelene but others, including in my own Church, focus on the fact that none of His apostles are women.  This alone has been used to argue that women should not hold leadership positions in the Church.  My own Church in particular has resisted female ministry and Pope Francis shows no signs of changing this teaching.  But none of this has stopped us passing equal rights legislation in the United Kingdom.  Indeed, if we instead focus on the Pauline message in Galatians about the equality of all before God we can see something approaching the origins of our own equal rights legislation, though St Paul does not argue that slaves should be freed, rather that all who are baptised are children of Christ.

The Church of England chose to change the role of women in the Church’s ministry in the 1990s.  When it did so it was not for Parliament to block the move, even though there were many who disagreed.  It would be quite wrong for Parliament to legislate on the nature of ministry even in the established Church as each Communion must set the parameters for the leadership they seek.  The same is true of marriage.  Each Church must take its own decision on what a marriage is.  My own Church, as you know, does not recognise divorce.  This means that the union of divorcees is not recognised as a marriage in the Catholic Church although it is perfectly legal in, say, the Baptist Church, or indeed in Judaism or Islam.

So in a case like marriage or the role of women or the many other areas in which faith communities divide, what should the state do?  Indeed what is the role of Parliament?  I believe this is where the role of Parliament is to act on the basis of the Judeo-Christian traditions of the United Kingdom but ensure they are open to further interpretations which are not inconsistent with that tradition.  I would argue that this is where equal marriage sits. I know many will disagree but perhaps you will allow me to expand my position.

As I said, the concept of marriage is one which has various meanings, even in Judeo-Christian cultures.  We understand polygamous marriage and the Old Testament is full of examples of it.  Protestant Churches recognise second unions of divorcees as marriages.  Some Churches permit unions between cousins or other close relatives that the Anglican Communion would not.  There is not one standard understanding of the term ‘marriage’, although it is true to say that the term has always historically defined a mixed-sex relationship.

This is where I would argue that I come at the question of equal marriage from a Judeo-Christian perspective, not a humanistic one.  While I would in no way compel my own Church, or any other, to recognise or celebrate same-sex unions, it is a matter of belief for the Church to decide upon itself, not for the state to legislate for, likewise it is not for the state to limit the individual rights of citizens.  This division of roles goes back to the 'render unto Caesar’ tradition when Christ threw the money changers out of the Temple and has a strong tradition in Judeo-Christian heritage.

This is the basis of my position on civil partnership which as a contract in law with no religious requirement falls under the equality legislation not religious jurisdiction.  Furthermore, it could be argued that the concept of equality which it draws from has its wellspring in St Paul’s injunction to the Galatians.  Though admittedly homosexuality was not considered at the time nor were things, including racial segregation.  That, tragically and wrongly, some Churches have used the story of Noah and the Book of Genesis to justify.

So for me, the concept of a union between two women or two men is a civil matter and therefore one on which the State, and Parliament, can therefore make a ruling based on the British, and before that Judeo-Christian, tradition of equality.  From that point on, the change of title from civil partnership to marriage is, in reality, inevitable.  Simplification of language, equality of terms, and the media all mean that the term will grow in prominence until it becomes appropriate to change the term from ‘civil partnership’ to ‘equal marriage’.  Indeed, if one looks at the law the change is merely one of wording.  But that wording imposes nothing on the churches, mosques, synagogues or temples around the country.  It changes nothing in their faith or practice and imposes no requirements upon them.  So today, just like female ministry, or the union of divorcees, the question remains one for the individual Communion of believers and not the State to decide.  Indeed that is all the Act of Parliament has done.  By legislating for equal marriage, the State has legislated for equal secular marriage.  The law has, quite deliberately, excluded all Churches and other places of worship from the Act and it is up to them to decide if they wish to recognise or celebrate the union of same-sex couples.

Though I understand that this is not the answer that many in faith have come to, it is not, I believe, incoherent with the Judeo-Christian traditions of which we are rightly so proud.  Nor - and this is equally important to me - does it infringe upon the freedom to worship and practice of those who find the change incompatible with their beliefs, anymore than calling the union of divorcees a marriage changes the definition for a Roman Catholic.

I don’t doubt that there is much in this with which you will disagree and to which you may indeed object but I hope that you can see that I come at this not in a utilitarian, nor humanistic fashion, but based on my own history as British citizen raised in the traditions of my family's faith and Church.

At this Easter time I wish you every good wish.

Tom Tugendhat

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