At the Ecumenical meeting during his visit to Cologne for World Youth Day in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI spoke in very encouraging terms about the extent of the progress towards unity among Christians. That does not mean that he was unealistic about the present state of ecumenical dialogue - his remarks about the significance of the common Sacrament of Baptism and fraternity in the relationships between the Christian denominations were balanced by the following remarks with regard to unity in witness in matters of ethics:
Another urgent priority in ecumenical dialogue arises from the great ethical questions of our time; in this area, contemporary man, who is searching, rightly expects a common response on the part of Christians, which, thanks be to God, in many cases has been forthcoming.
There are so many common declarations by the German Bishops' Conference and the Evangelical Churches in Germany that we can be grateful for, but unfortunately, this does not always happen. Because of contradictory positions in this area our witness to the Gospel and the ethical guidance which we owe to the faithful and to society lose their impact and often appear too vague, with the result that we fail in our duty to provide the witness that is needed in our time.The UK has seen in the past week precisely this phenomenon of a divided witness from Christians on the question of gay marriage. On the one hand, Archbishop John Sentamu has clearly spoken out in an interview in the Daily Telegraph against the Coalition Government's intention to legislate to allow same sex couples to contract marriage on an absolutely identical basis to a man and a woman (do watch the video clip, as well as reading the short text on the Telegraph website):
Our divisions are contrary to the will of Jesus and they disappoint peoples' expectations. I think that we must work with new energy and dedication to bring a common witness into the context of these great ethical challenges of our time.
“Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman,” says Dr Sentamu. “I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.
“We’ve seen dictators do it in different contexts and I don’t want to redefine very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time and then overnight the state believes it could go in a particular way.Whilst Catholics might have a different prudential judgement about the wisdom of supporting previous legislation with regard to civil partnerships, Archbishop Sentamu's argument that the state has not the authority to define, or change the definition of, what constitutes marriage would be exactly common ground in the present political debate. His reference to tradition and history has echoes of a paragraph from the address that Pope Benedict XVI had intended giving during a visit to La Sapienza University in Rome in January 2008:
“It’s almost like somebody telling you that the Church, whose job is to worship God [will be] an arm of the Armed Forces. They must take arms and fight. You’re completely changing tradition.”
At this point I would like to describe briefly how John Rawls, while denying that comprehensive religious doctrines have the character of “public” reason, nonetheless at least sees their “non-public” reason as one which cannot simply be dismissed by those who maintain a rigidly secularized rationality. Rawls perceives a criterion of this reasonableness among other things in the fact that such doctrines derive from a responsible and well thought-out tradition in which, over lengthy periods, satisfactory arguments have been developed in support of the doctrines concerned. The important thing in this assertion, it seems to me, is the acknowledgment that down through the centuries, experience and demonstration – the historical source of human wisdom – are also a sign of its reasonableness and enduring significance.
During the same week, another Church of England Bishop has announced that he has "changed his mind" about gay marriage. According to a report in The Times on Friday:
The Bishop of Salisbury, the Right Rev Nicholas Holtham, has told The Times he believes that there is no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual unions...One can clearly see the difference between Archbishop Sentamu's sense of a tradition of human cultures - and, if you watch the video clip on the Daily Telegraph site his explicit in referring to the range of human cultures - providing an authoritative indication of the nature of marriage and Bishop Holtham's acceptance of the most recent concensus as being normative for Christian life and practice. The significance of the Church of England's accepting the ethical legitimacy of contraception is notable in Bishop Holtham's position.
Bishop Holtham told The Times: "We are living in a different society. If there's a gay couple in The Archers, if there's that form of public recognition in popular soaps, we are dealing with something which has got common currency. All of us have friends, families, relatives, neighbours who are, or who know somebody, in same-sex partnerships."
For a long time he believed that marriage could only be between heterosexual people. But he said: "I'm no longer convinced about that. I think same-sex couples that I know who have formed a partnership have in many respects a relationship which is similar to a marriage and which I now think of as marriage. And of course now you can't really say that a marriage is defined by the possibility of having children.
"Contraception created a barrier in that line of argument..."
He said that, in the Church, marriage was defined by two people promising to love each other faithfully for life in the context of a sexual relationship, and that they might have children."
We can see a common witness with regard to the nature of marriage between Archbishop Sentamu and the Catholic Bishop's Conference; but the effectiveness of that commonality in witness is undermined by the intervention of the Bishop of Salisbury.
[The full text of Archbishop Sentamu's wide ranging interview, given during a visit to Jamaica and of which the remarks about gay marriage form only a small part, can be found at the Archbishop's own website.]