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Alex Salmond, Archbishop Devine, gay marriage, gay ministers, Gordon Wilson, humanism, same sex marriage

If David Cameron can support gay marriage – so can Alex Salmond.

      The campaign against the Scottish government’s proposals to legislate for gay marriage reached critical mass last week – if you’ll excuse the pun – with two senior members of the Scottish Roman Catholic hierarchy backing the former SNP leader, Gordon Wilson’s call for a referendum on the issue.  Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow and Bishop Joseph Devine of Motherwell have condemned same sex marriage as an abomination. “Those in government need to be respectfully reminded”, said Archbishop Conti, that a mandate to govern does not include a mandate to reconstruct society on ideological grounds, nor to undermine the very institution which, from the beginning, has been universally acknowledged as the natural order and bedrock of society, namely marriage and the family”.  In other words: Alex, get your pink tanks off our lawn.  

    Archbishop Devine went even further: “We now have a straight fight between faith and atheism, morality and amorality, a culture of life and a culture of death,” he said last week. “The institution of marriage should not be corrupted by the transient fashions of society or by malevolent forces seeking to undermine the place of religious faith in society.”  This is turning into a Holyrood epic, with pointed hats firmly pointed at the SNP government. Alex is ducking for cover. 

   Now as an atheist, or rather a humanist, I have to object here that the gay marriage issue is not about undermining religious faith and undermining he natural order of society, whatever that is, still less an attack on religion.  Actually, if truth be told, the concept of same sex marriage is a triumph for the traditionalists and for people of faith.  It is an admission that there is something more to love than living together and that relationships need 
to be put on a firmer moral foundation. That moral foundation for – most people – still seems to be the essentially the Christian, to the extent that marriage is a Christian institution. 

 The fact that even gay people – the ultimate sexual outsiders- are now are seeking the sanction of marriage is surly the most obvious confirmation of that.  If there really is a straight fight going on, the Christians appear to have won.   That so many senior figures seem not 

to realise this is strange.

   Only twenty years ago, atheists, feminists and marxists condemned the “nuclear family” and marriage as a bourgeois institution that served to oppress women and block social progress.  Marriage was seen as inherently conservative, as a transmission belt for reactionary attitudes of nationalism and patriarchy.  Radical pyschiatrists like R.D. Laing – who has heard of him recently – railed against marriage as the  cause of mental illness and even extreme political movements.  In the sixties and seventies, people tried all sorts of alternatives to marriage – communes, ‘open’ relationships, serial adultery.   Marriage appears to have emerged from arguably the greatest challenge it has faced in its two thousand year history. 

    Gay marriage is now supported by the Quakers, the Episcopalian Church and unitarians.  The Church of Scotland has opened the door for gay marriage by accepting in principle the presence of openly gay and lesbian ministers.  It would surely be inconceivable for the Kirk to allow homosexuals to speak God’s word from the pulpit and yet not allow them to marry each other.  Why is it that the Roman Catholic hierarchy seem to want to make this a political issue rather than a moral one?  

   I am treading into deep waters here and I don’t have my arm bands on, so I’ll leave it there.   The Church hierarchy is seeking to hijack the Scottish government’s current consultation on the subject. And it has done pretty well so far, especially now that the former leader of the Scottish National Party, Gordon Wilson has come out in favour of a referendum on gay marriage.  He hopes it will be rejected.   I’m really not so sure: the only opinion poll I have seen on the issue suggests that 60% of Scots favour legalising gay marriage.   But judging from column inches, the Bishops are ahead on points. 

We always said that the SNP’s uncanny unity under its leader Alex Salmond couldn’t last, but who would’ve guessed that it would be gay marriage, not independence lite or keeping the Queen – that would threaten the unity of the nationalist movement. And who would have guessed that Gordon Wilson, the most respected elder statesmen of the Scottish National Party, should be leading the splitters. Mr Wilson says same sex marriage is a “danger to Scotland” because it will lead to “social disintegration, sexual confusion and greater intolerance”.

Since he stood down in 1990 Mr Wilson has largely avoided policy debates so as not to be accused of being a back-seat driver. He speaks for a large number of ordinary SNP members and cannot be dismissed as a homophobic nutter. Worse, his call for a referendum on gay marriage evokes memories of Section 2a and Brian Souter’s “Keep the Clause” referendum in 2000. Mr Souter is, of course, the SNP’s principal pay master, having funded most of its election victories and has deep pockets. SNP MSPs like Bill Mason and Bill Walker have tabled motions critical of same sex marriage – a move which caused the Nationalist MEP Alyn Smith to refer to “the small, mean angry heads of bigots.”

This is all horribly reminiscent of 2000, when the newly-devolved Scotland seemed to be tearing itself apart over whether or not teachers could refer to homosexual relationships in class. Only it’s not Donald Dewar, but Alex Salmond who finds himself battling on two denominational fronts. On the one hand the Roman Catholic Church has been mounting a determined campaign against gay marriage – undermining the SNP leader’s attempts to court Scotland’s 600,000 strong Catholic community on issues like denominational schools or the Act of Settlement. Now, he has Free Church member Wilson on his back. Salmond has said he personally favours gay marriage, but opposes it being imposed on `”unwilling denominations”.

Yet,in Holyrood most people thought that gay marriage was pretty much a done deal. Even the Tory leader David Cameron supports gay marriage – “because I am a Conservative” as he told the Tory conference last week. Civil partnerships had been so successful that it seemed a mere technicality to give the same sex relationship the same status as heterosexual marriage. The Church of Scotland voted in May to allow gay and lesbian ministers, opening the way for recognition by the Kirk of gay marriage. When the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon announced a consultation on the issue last month she said that the SNP government was “minded to support gay marriage”. She didn’t realise that she was walking into the same moral minefield that blew up under the Communities Minister, Wendy Alexander in 2000.

It took a speech by Tony Blair to the Scottish Labour conference the next year to kill the Keep the Clause issue when he said that the idea of pupils being force fed gay sex education was “utter nonsense”. It is time for Alex Salmond to do the same. He can’t allow this issue to fester away in the SNP undergrowth. He needs to show leadership and imagination to prevent this issue becoming a nationalist schism. Like Blair should confidently argue the moral case for same sex marriage while reassuring social conservatives that priests and ministers are not going to end up in court for violating the Human Rights Act.

Gordon Wilson’s claim that society will disintegrate because of gay marriage and that Christians will be “ostracised and discriminated against” is neither reasonable nor rational and the First Minister should address this head on. The idea that same sex partnerships undermine marriage is surely wrong: if anything it strengthens the institution in an age when it is under threat from divorce and cohabitation. Gay couples have discovered that they need more than just a recognition that they are financial partners. They need to make a formal commitment to each other, and in a sense to become one moral personality. While marriage may have been sanctified by the church, there is no legal or historical justification for saying that marriage is an exclusively religious institution. The European Convention on Human Rights regards the right to be married as inalienable and irrespective of faith. 

This surely is the way round this awkward question. Leave the religious vows to the church and marriage to the people. In civil society, discrimination on grounds of race, colour religion or sexual orientation is of course intolerable. But this does not mean that individuals are forced to act in a way that violates their conscience. Members of the Roman Catholic will still be allowed to exercise discrimination of the mind by continuing to regard same sex relationships as a violation of God’s word.

I can understand that there is a risk that Peter Tatchell or other gay activists might seek to make a test case out of a free church minister’s refusal to conduct a gay marriage. But I can’t see any prospect of it succeeding. So far as I am aware there has been no attempt to demand that homophobic passages in the Bible should be censored, or that wee frees attend re-education classes organised by the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender outreach workers.

Personally I don’t particularly like the idea that gay couples might be barred from being married in certain churches, but I don’t particularly schools that discriminate on religious grounds either. However, there’s nothing to be served by going to war over these anachronisms. And it doesn’t help for members of sexual minority groups to force confrontations with people of faith any more than for religious leaders to make hysterical declarations about gay marriage leading to the end of civilisation as we know it.

Live and let live is always the way to resolve these difficult issues of conscience. Gay marriage is coming whether its opponents want it or not because the couples themselves demand it. As with the issue of gay ministers, religious organisations only marginalise themselves by excluding people who love each other but happen to be of the same sex.  True Christians should surely embrace them.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


28 thoughts on “If David Cameron can support gay marriage – so can Alex Salmond.

  1. when the Bishops request the excommunication of the mass murderer Tony Blair then I might listen to what they have to say.

    Posted by Anonymous | October 16, 2011, 10:22 am
  2. Oh Dearie me ! what shall we do listen Iain Macwhirter pen for hire Journo.Or the revealed word of God given to us through his chosen Representative on Earth our revered HOLY FATHER.

    Posted by Nikostratos | October 16, 2011, 3:25 pm
  3. Nikostratus' post is a good illustration of why religion should have absolutely no place in politics. He is free to believe whatever nonsense he likes but he is not free to control other peoples' personal lives.The bishops are doing nothing but harm to their religion by preaching hate and discrimination. Perhaps someone should remind them that, unlike elected politicians, they have absolutely no mandate whatsoever.

    Posted by A decent human being | October 16, 2011, 4:20 pm
  4. Who gave these unelected dinosaurs a free pass to interfere in other peoples' personal lives?Do these bigots actually think of themselves as moral leaders?Politicians of all parties should state, in no uncertain terms, that they are there to serve the electorate, not a bunch of old throwbacks to the dark ages who seem intent on making Scotland an international laughing stock.

    Posted by Anonymous | October 16, 2011, 6:18 pm
  5. The opinions of the church – whatever denomination – are only ever consultative and should never be considered binding. Politicians should not take religious doctrine into account when legislating – that way lies Saudi Arabia.The most ridiculous part is that Scottish Catholics are not some large homogenous group who vote at the whim of the bishopry. If anything, I would think most Scots Catholics would be prepared to vote in favour of social justice and equality before they would defend the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which rather a lot regard as cluttered and anachronistic.

    Posted by Craig Gallagher | October 16, 2011, 6:29 pm
  6. It's worthwhile repeating the language used by a senior clergyman (and again, why are so many elderly celibate clergymen so often so prurient and obsessing with homosexuality?): "We now have a straight fight between faith and atheism, morality and amorality, a culture of life and a culture of death,” … “The institution of marriage should not be corrupted by the transient fashions of society or by malevolent forces seeking to undermine the place of religious faith in society.”

    Posted by Ted Harvey | October 17, 2011, 12:25 pm
  7. Let no man or woman come between any other man or woman and his or her God.Bishops of the Roman Catholic faith please take note.

    Posted by Anonymous | October 17, 2011, 3:19 pm
  8. Iain,Have you seen what our feral bankers are up to?Under the guise of lending to SME's, the newly printed QE money is instead going directly into housing via RBS Shawbrook Bank, a new British lender backed by Royal Bank of Scotland Group plc opens for business today challenging the other big Lenders, Lloyds Banking Group plc, Barclays plc and HSBC Holdings plc. The bank joins new British banks such as Aldermore and Metro Bank and will offer lending and savings products to small and medium–sized businesses, and individuals. Shawbrook combines three financial businesses; Whiteaway Laidlaw Bank, Link Loans and the lending platform of Commercial First, and is 100 per cent financed by RBS Equity Finance. It will be chaired by Sir George Mathewson, who ran Royal Bank of Scotland up until 2006. http://www.smeweb.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3076:new-british-bank-shawbrook-lloyds-barclays&catid=53:news&Itemid=89 Link Loans are loans for homeowners, presumably for BTL http://www.linkloans.co.uk/ Commercial first are business mortgages presumably for BTLhttp://www.commercialfirst.co.uk/ "Shawbrook has no legacy lending from the financial crisis, so we’re free of toxic debt" – so presumably free to create some!https://www.shawbrook.co.uk/about-us/

    Posted by Anonymous | October 17, 2011, 7:51 pm
  9. Not much argument from Iain as usual. Just the normal assumption that what's been dreamed up in the last 15 minutes as a good way of organizing society has to outweigh +2000 years of Judaeo-Christian thought.

    Posted by Lazarus | October 18, 2011, 10:24 am
  10. If two people love each other and want to make a public commitment to support each other for the rest of their lives then good for them. The Catholic objection that procreation must be involved is so absurd (will Charles and Camilla have kids?) that one sees it more as a fig leaf for revulsion against same sex relationships.I'm heterosexual but why should we discriminate against people who are different from us?

    Posted by topher | October 18, 2011, 7:16 pm
  11. LAZARUS overlooked the other major Abrahamic religion, namely Islam.I wonder Why?

    Posted by Anonymous | October 19, 2011, 9:55 am
  12. @AnonYou complain that I omit Islam as an argument against same sex marriage and ask why.Well, because as a Catholic, I am not relying on Islamic teachings in a way that I am on Christian (after Christ) and Jewish (before Christ). The Old and New Testaments demonstrate a continuous tradition of disapproval of homosexual behaviour, a tradition currently articulated by the Church.But if you wish to point out that Islamic teachings also embody a correct understanding of natural law on this point, I'm very happy to agree with you!

    Posted by Lazarus | October 19, 2011, 10:41 am
  13. The Abrahamic religious family believe in the same God. Am I right?If I am then Lazarus is simply indulging in sectarianism.And we all know in Scotland where that can lead to.

    Posted by Anonymous | October 19, 2011, 11:26 am
  14. Slightly bizarre, Anon!Not relying on Islam to make my case doesn't make me a sectarian, any more than not relying on Confucianism, Animism or the Wit and Wisdom of Richard Dawkins. I'm a Catholic -clearly I don't agree with all aspects of Islam. But I bet I agree with and respect a lot more of it (monotheism, seriousness about worship, sexual self discipline etc) than you do. And certainly, I'd welcome a more self confident and articulate Islamic contribution in debates on social issues in Scotland: I'm sure this would help in breaking down the rather cosy liberal consensus that this blog posting represents.On the specific question you ask: yes, Muslims do worship the same God. But they have some different (and in the eyes of the Church erroneous) understandings of him.

    Posted by Lazarus | October 19, 2011, 2:08 pm
  15. Anon and others; no point in debating with the believers like Lazarus when they intrude on sane discussion (what Lazarus despises as cosy liberal consensus). As Richard Dawkins said, 'faith will always trump rationality and reason' – because if you demonstrate the illogicality and the contradictions of their endless reiterating of the dogmas they have learned from others, they will always reply "well anyway that's what I believe". They will readily sacrifice common decencies and tolerance between individual human beings on the alter of learned dogma, supposedly 'revealed' by some fictional deity or other. Indeed, whenever major religions are allowed unswayed power they have readily sacrificed 'unbelievers (and even quite a few 'believers') in preference to practising tolerance and the possibility that their 'revealed truths' are perhaps just the confections of human thought and imagination gone wrong.Some of the religionists now point to the evils perpetrated by 'secular' governments as some sort of excuse or mitigation of what 'their side' has done in history – bizarre indeed; but there gain there is that old adage that opposite extremes often end up meeting in the middle.It's all down to the rest of us to keep the humanity show on the road – onwards and upwards!

    Posted by Ted Harvey | October 21, 2011, 4:18 pm
  16. Alex Salmond already supports gay marriage Iain. Where have you been? What he also supports however is for churches (of whatever faith) not to be forced to conduct such ceremonies if they cannot do so. I think that's fair.

    Posted by Jo G | October 21, 2011, 7:00 pm
  17. "no point in debating with the believers"Ted, and why would that be? Because you can't hack the debate? Rumour has it that more churches than the Catholic Church are deeply unhappy with the gay marriage issue except some are keeping mighty quiet on the subject. Interesting that eh?And on the numbers affected, do you have statistics at all? Because the furore generated by this issue seems to me to be out of step with the number of people affected by the legislation. But, hey, I forgot, its a "trendy" issue. If only the poor in Scotland had this much clout perhaps they would not be so hungry or so cold. If only they were gay!

    Posted by Jo G | October 21, 2011, 7:13 pm
  18. Oh and Iain,"Archbishop Devine ….."Joseph Devine is a Bishop, not an Archbishop. That journalists of your calibre can get such things wrong explains why so many of us out here now no longer take you seriously.

    Posted by Jo G | October 21, 2011, 8:18 pm
  19. "by preaching hate and discrimination."Actually, they don't. They merely preach the word of God which is that marriage is something shared by a man and a woman. That is their job after all. If God is the MD in the boardroom who is going to go before Him and say, "We changed because people were bullying us." Would Sugar have to put up with such rubbish? I think not. Why should God?

    Posted by Jo G | October 21, 2011, 8:26 pm
  20. Rumour has it that the Vatican reopened the case against Gallileo but concluded that under the inquisition he still stands guilty of heresy

    Posted by Anonymous | October 21, 2011, 9:22 pm
  21. "Ted, and why would that be? Because you can't hack the debate?"I see Joe, you didn't even read my posting that explained why the above – but it wouldn't have made any difference anyhow. Other rational folks here will doubtless see this as further illustration of my points already made; with pontifications about something called 'the word of God' that somehow gets mysteriously conveyed in ways that generate intolerance and unyielding dogma..

    Posted by Ted Harvey | October 22, 2011, 12:56 pm
  22. "Ted, and why would that be? Because you can't hack the debate?"I see Joe, you didn't even read my posting that explained why the above – but it wouldn't have made any difference anyhow. Other rational folks here will doubtless see this as further illustration of my points already made; with pontifications about something called 'the word of God' that somehow gets mysteriously conveyed in ways that generate intolerance and unyielding dogma..

    Posted by Ted Harvey | October 22, 2011, 12:56 pm
  23. The SNP is going through an evolution with its UK counterparts. I read this here http://lettertoscotland.blogspot.com/2011/10/recasting-snp.html

    Posted by Anonymous | October 23, 2011, 12:06 pm
  24. My understanding is thatConsummation of a marriage is still required to make a marriage legal.How is this defined in a Gay Marriageis it Husband A having Sex with Husband B or Husband B having Sex with Husband A that officialy consumates the Marriage and whathappens with Lesbians?

    Posted by JinglyJangly | October 23, 2011, 6:42 pm
  25. Jingly Jangly,Consummation of a marriage is NOT required to make the marriage legal. Whether a marriage is consummated or not is the business of the two people in the marriage and no one else.You may be confusing the practice of annulment of a marriage on the grounds that the marriage had not been consummated. This used to be about the only route by which Roman Catholics could end their marriage but it required the Pope to grant the annulment and it was a pretty long drawn out, expensive and distressing process.

    Posted by CWH | October 23, 2011, 7:09 pm
  26. I am beginning to see the parallel between what is going on at St Paul's Cathedral and the usurers who occupied the synagogue back in Jesus's days.The usurers got their revenge – they helped crucify Jesus.The Holy people of St Paul's see their revenue stream dry up, the landlord has come knocking, some of them Bankers. They have however reluctantly asked the protestors camped at their door to move on.

    Posted by Anonymous | October 24, 2011, 9:36 am
  27. "If David Cameron can support gay marriage – so can Alex Salmond."- But he does Iain?

    Posted by Anonymous | October 24, 2011, 10:15 am
  28. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    Posted by Anonymous | November 12, 2011, 5:56 pm

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