The Archbishop of York made the front page of the Daily Telegraph yesterday by saying that David Cameron would be acting “like a dictator” if he introduced legislation to recognise same-sex marriage.
The archbishop, John Sentamu, knows more about dictatorship than most of us, having been imprisoned in Uganda under Idi Amin. It is therefore particularly saddening that he should lower himself to this sort of insult over marriage law.
Cameron last year promised same-sex civil marriage in England and Wales by 2015. He is not even considering granting legal recognition to religious same-sex marriage, despite the many religious people who would welcome it.
This is hardly a major part of the coalition’s programme. It appears to have been introduced as a sop to the Liberal Democrats. The Scottish government is moving much more quickly on the question. Despite the speed which the coalition can slash disabled people’s benefits and treble tuition fees, it seems that the next step towards marriage equality has to wait for four years.
Sentamu and his allies are entitled to promote their view that same-sex marriage is wrong. Both within the Christian Church and within society as a whole, people should be free to express their views on marriage. I want religious groups to be able to carry out ceremonies they believe in, without being forced to carry out ceremonies they don’t believe in.
This would mean that those faith groups that believe in same-sex marriages could celebrate them, while those that don’t believe in them would not have to. Both could promote their positions and seek to persuade others to believe in them. This is religious liberty.
It is sad that so many people who profess a belief in democracy – such as John Sentamu – will not accept this situation. They want to use the law to impose their view on marriage, which suggests that they doubt their ability to uphold this view without the force of law behind them. It is a curious fact that many opponents of same-sex marriage concentrate on preventing legal recognition rather than making ethical arguments against it. In contrast, none of the groups campaigning in favour of same-sex marriage want to force churches or other faith groups to carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies against their will.
We should be having important ethical, social and theological debates about the nature of marriage. This is hampered when some of those involved in these debates persistently demand that the law sides with their own position, instead of engaging in discussion in a context of democracy and religious freedom.