Friday, 22 June 2012

Round and round we go ...


It’s a good job we don’t have heresy trials anymore.
If we did, I am quite sure that I, along with many others would now be facing charges for our views on same-sex marriage.  After all, according to the Church of England, we are contravening both Scripture and tradition in insisting that such a dangerous thing might be possible.

I mention this because, as I read the arguments used by the Church of England to oppose same-sex marriage in its recent submission to the UK Government, I found myself being reminded of a furious dispute which gripped the Church in the 17th Century.
The dispute was not about sexual morality, but about the position of the Earth.  The Church was relentless in defending the belief that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe, and that the Sun revolved around the Earth.  To suggest anything else (eg that the Earth revolved around the Sun!) was to oppose the Church and God because it invalidated the truth of Scripture, our understanding of the created order, and the authority of the Church.  If such a thing were held to be true – the Church claimed – it would unpick the whole fabric of faith and society!

Today it is hard for us to begin to imagine how this could have been such a major issue.  We take it for granted that the Earth orbits the Sun.  It doesn’t challenge our faith or belief in God.  We do not believe that this contradicts Scripture or any eternal truth of God.
But in the 1600’s this was a matter of the highest importance, and no effort was spared by the Church to fight this dangerous innovation.

As a result on the 22nd June 1633, the astronomer Galileo was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition.  He spent the rest of his life under house arrest; his writings (both past and future) were banned; he was silenced from preaching such dangerous heresy.
Here are some of the things that were said,

Cardinal Bellarmine, said that interpreting heliocentrism (the Earth orbiting the Sun) as physically real would be "a very dangerous thing, likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false.”
The investigators said that the idea that the Sun is stationary is "foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture..."

Finally Galileo was put on trial "for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the centre of the world".
The rest – as they say – is history.

All of the above made me think of the Church of England’s recent response to the UK Government.  What would happen – I wondered – if we replaced the issue of same-sex marriage with the (now defunct) controversy about the earth orbiting the sun.
And I found that the translation works rather well – judge for yourself.  Below are some of the paragraphs from theCofE response on marriage, followed by my translation back to the times of Galileo.   I have numbered the paragraphs as they appear in the CofE official response.  I think you might see what I mean…

7.         Throughout history, in the laws of the land and in the Church of England‘s Book of Common Prayer on which the laws concerning marriage are grounded, marriage has been understood to be, always and exclusively, between a woman and a man. This understanding is deeply rooted in our social culture. While marriage has evolved as an institution in many other ways this aspect has remained constant. For the consultation document to talk of a ―ban‖ on same sex couples marrying is a misuse of the language. There can be no ―ban‖ on something which has never, by definition, been possible.



Throughout history, in the laws of the land and in the Church’s doctrine on which the laws concerning scientific exploration are grounded, the earth has been understood to be, always and exclusively, at the centre of the universe. This understanding is deeply rooted in our social culture. While our knowledge of the earth has evolved in many other ways this aspect has remained constant. For the consultation document to talk of a ‘ban’ on an understanding of the earth as rotating around the sun is a misuse of the language. There can be no ban on something which has never, by definition, been possible.



8.         Many, within the churches and beyond, dispute the right of any government to redefine an ages-old social institution in the way proposed. It is important to be clear that insistence on the traditional understanding of marriage is not a case of knee-jerk resistance to change but is based on a conviction that the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole.



Many, within the churches and beyond, dispute the right of any government to redefine an ages-old institution in the way proposed. It is important to be clear that insistence on the traditional understanding of the position of the earth is not a case of knee-jerk resistance to change but is based on a conviction that the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole.



9.         Despite the continuing debate in the Church of England on some key ethical issues in this area, the proposition that same-sex relationships can embody crucial social virtues is not in dispute. To that extent, the Prime Minister‘s claim that he supports same-sex marriage from conservative principles is readily understandable. Same-sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity, two of the virtues which the Book of Common Prayer uses to commend marriage. The Church of England seeks to see those virtues maximised in society.



Despite the continuing debate in the Church on some key ethical issues in this area, the proposition that exploration of the earth can embody crucial social virtues is not in dispute. To that extent, the claim that some support a new view of the universe from conservative principles is readily understandable. Scientific exploration often embodies genuine virtues which we would commend. The Church seeks to see those virtues maximised in society.



10.       However, the uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation. And, even where, for reasons of age, biology or simply choice, a marriage does not have issue, the distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning.



However, the uniqueness of the earth – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of the created order. This distinctiveness is seen most explicitly in paths of the sun and stars across the heavens. And, even where, for reasons of the creative mystery of God, they follow paths which would suggest an alternative understanding of the universe, this is part of what gives the centrality of the earth its unique meaning in society.  



13.       We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.



We believe that redefining the earth to include the concept of a globe circling the sun will entail a dilution in the meaning of creation for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of heaven and earth from the social and legal definition of creation.



 And finally…

16.       The one justification for redefining marriage given to us by the Equalities Minister was that it ‘met an emotional need’‖ among some within the LGBT community. Without wishing to diminish the importance of emotional needs, legislating to change the definition of a fundamental and historic social institution for everybody in order to meet the emotional need of some members of one part of the community, where no substantive inequality of rights will be rectified, seems a doubtful use of the law. We also note that by no means all LGBT people are in favour of redefining marriage in this way.



The one justification for redefining our understanding of the earth that was given to us was that it ‘met a scientific need’ among some within the scientific community. Without wishing to diminish the importance of scientific needs, legislating to change the definition of a fundamental and historic social institution for everybody in order to meet the ‘scientific need’ of some members of one part of the community, where no substantive inequality of rights will be rectified, seems a doubtful use of the law. We also note that by no means all scientists are in favour of redefining the position of the earth in this way.



 Perhaps today, on the 379th anniversary of Galileo's conviction, the Church would do well to learn the lessons of history…




5 comments:

  1. Benny, thank you for this. It is absolutely brilliant and so so true. You are a star!

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  2. Brilliant and very amusing:)

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  3. Thank you preacherwoman, Pam and Sue. Let's hope some of the decision makers read it ...

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  4. This post is so good it must have been divinely inspired! Your posts actually make valid points unlike ones I read from the anti- same sex marriage brigade who just drone on about how we're all damned.

    Thanks!

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