boring boring gay marriage

And if a man shall lay down with another man, they shall be forced to consider booking the hotel earlier next time

It’s March 2012 and the biggest, brightest and most contentious political discussion in contemporary Britain is “Should marriage be redefined so as to incorporate anyone who loves anyone else?”. Flying over one highspeed railtrack of comment is the Religious Express (taking in ‘militant atheism’, ‘dangerous secularism’, ‘tetchy Alpha course preachers’, that sort of thing), whilst clickity-clackiting over on the political branch line is the Post-Blairite Social Policy local stopping service. And lo, didst the resulting points problem outside the station inconvenience us all.
The gay marriage debate is so boring. Redefining marriage to incorporate same-sex couples should be no more contentious than redefining junk food to incorporate Innocent smoothies (oh come on, have you seen the sugar content?). What we get instead is a protracted circus of moral handwringing and social commentary straight from the Big Book of the Bleeding Obvious.  Cardinals whinge, social conservatives clear their throats and homosexual couples are cultural vandals smashing bus-stops with SkullCandy headphones
It should come as no surprise that the religious vox-pops sound to me like echoes of an historic age. In centuries gone by, the words from former Archbishops of Canterbury would be treated with absolute respect because in most cases the holders of that position had long since died and their words were coming through the foam-mouthed babbles of Mrs Humendthwump, the poor-house cleaner. As the old joke puts it so clearly, marriage is an institution and I have no desire to be put into one of those. Whether the persons involved are of the same sex or otherwise is of neither great personal concern; nor should it stoke too may fires amongst the sage old voices of the various Churches.

Christians have every reason to walk upon this subject’s ground with care because of the rules and regulations laid down by the teachings on which their belief is based. Same-sex marriage is not explicitly forbidden, leaving many of the on-high pronouncements conclusions of opinion rather than scripture. And these opinions speak in the accent of panic and confusion, of a form of nostalgia. Remember when every man and woman you met in the street were married and every child was looked after and cared for? Happiness in all its forms, and the only way to pronounce ‘homosexual’ was like Norman Evens or Cisse and Ada.

The debate is boring because, broadly speaking, everything which the Moral Compass Corps. attacks is drenched in the same stodgy mess of paranoia, prejudice and judgement. What results from this is the turning of an interesting subject into a dirge; it’s like Homer Simpson doing impression of white-noise. Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples is the natural extension of civil partnerships, which has not caused the country to collapse or existing divorce rates to sky-rocket anymore than they were doing already. I can’t even consider it particularly important if the redefinition happens immediately or after the next election; it’s an inevitable extension of a common sense policy, one of the rare moments when Blairite social tinkering actually did something good.

What is boring is how tired both sides of the argument sound. We all know circumstances, some very close and personal, in which the claim that marriage between a man and woman does not extend very far beyond “a vague commitment” does not match reality. Settling down with someone for the rest of your life can be a decision made beyond religious considerations – it’s stunning that we still have to frame arguments within these constraints.

Being against the redefinition is not the same as being homophobic, of course. But the ballpark as open gate and I can see the usual suspects limbering up to play. Let us try and keep this year’s political debate getting lost in the moral maze; this is not the year to be “social commentaried” to death….

Holy smoke

His congregation numbers 50. His ‘church’, such as it appears to be one, is called the “Dove World Outreach Centre”. That sounds more furry than fury to these ears at least. He is Terry Jones, a Pastor and current international media focus for his wheeze – “International Burn a Koran Day”.

It should not be right that searching for the word “Qur’an” – I prefer that spelling – returns dozens of results for Pastor Jones and his unbelievably successful promotional drive for the most leaden-footed act of symbolism since the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest. Seriously, give that a YouTube drive, every arms-around-the-new-Europe anthem will have you craving the return of communism before the voting starts.

Pastor Jones is not standing down from his plan to mark the 11th September anniversary with a Qur’an Bonfire, with bouncy castles, clowns and Pin A Beard on the Infadel competitions to boot. It is certainly clever marketing – only by creating another Waco would this religious fringe loon have gathered further attention. Probably more support too: when Sarah Palin advises you to think twice about an idea, that idea is doomed.

Frankly, I have little time for most religious books and teachings. I have been led to understand that the word of whichever deity is being followed lives in the heart and mind; the idea of collating the teachings in book form occurred for less benign reasons than ease of reference. Thousands of students from times past and present will tear up the more tedious bits from Kings or Acts for joint material without FOX News knocking their schedules into an outraged hat. There may be somebody right now – right at the moment your eyes fall upon these words – using a torn page from Little Book Of Zen to snort whichever hybrid legal-high/washing powder has arrived in the post.

I almost wish Jones well. His publicity trick has worked. People feel aggrieved and irate, as though the books prepared for turning into ash are the only symbols of the Islamic faith. This entire event is fed by ignorance, on both sides of the argument. Islamic extremists use their cherry-picked cuckoo-bananas version of their faith to justify mass murder, while right-wing nutjobs who only just qualify as “Christians” blather from their pretend churches on the purity of their own specific thought processes. To have garnered so much attention for what, basically, cheapens all sides of the argument is one pretty impressive feat.

It was always going to take something to beat the hysteria around the “Ground Zero Mosque) – which is neither a mosque, nor at Ground Zero. Well, smack my mouth and call me kafir, here’s one just round the corner. If the word and teachings of a particular faith really do exist in more forms than just the written word, then both Jones and the crowds against him are partaking in utter wastes of effort. Symbolism is not a one-way argument.

Lessons of Praise

OFSTED has raised concerns about the teaching of religious education in schools. In response – perhaps inevitably – the Church of England has expressed “concern”, the National Secular Society has suggested RE should become optional.

My memories of RE at school – comprehensive school, how out-of-date a phrase does that sound in this age of Academies – are faded muddles of textbook copying and asking the only Muslim child in the class to write our names in Urdu on the blackboard. The compulsory element of RE was ditched for the final two years, and on the whole we all downed the subject faster than the shared bottle of 20/20 in Gateway’s carpark.

As I get older, my attitude towards the teaching of religion in non-faith schools grows less certain. I used to be pretty ambivalent on the matter, coming to this point via total disagreement – “Parents chose a non-faith school for a reason!”, that sort of thing – to lukewarm support – “If it helps increase understanding between faiths in this difficult time”.

I am not surprised by OFSTED’s observation that teachers aren’t entirely sure what their lessons are supposed to create. My memories include heated discussions on morality and sexuality, far removed from the Year 7 days of copying out from a textbook the basic layout of an Anglican Church. I understand that RE has been diluted into something resembling a high school version of A-Level General Studies, an hour-long free for all where both teachers and pupils are perilously close to crossing into forming their own opinions on political and cultural topics of the day, and I suspect the Department for Education is still uneasy about that.

It is clear in my mind that unease about Islam and other faiths in young people comes from both front-room and class-room. If structured lessons can help explain the basic elements of all faiths, to root out the urban myths and misunderstandings, then in the long-term that could be very good for this and future generations. However, schools have had quite enough restructuring under the previous government, do teachers really need to become ‘citizenship’ lecturers on top of everything else?

The National Secular Society is quoted suggesting that, like the teaching of foreign languages, religious education should be optional. Let’s face the truth on this; pur national reputation for languages is dire. Since becoming an optional subject, the learning of French, German, and Spanish in High Schools has plummeted. The long-term consequences for our economic well being may yet to be fully realised; could the same be said for taking away religion from the timetable?

Could the rise of the English Defence League and such Facebook groups as “Our flag offends you but your benefits don’t!” be linked to a lack of multi-faith understanding at primary and high school levels?

The NSS is right, in my opinion, to cast doubt on the right of the State to decide if doctrine should form a part of the school timetable. The problem clearly is that nobody quite knows what to do with religion now, especially in a nation which will never be as Christian as it once was. As someone who believes in the separation of Church and State, I am nevertheless uncertain about how much children should be shielded from religious teaching within school hours. OFSTED have thrown the debate into the air.

I wonder if anything good (or Good) will come from their report…