Epiphany

EPIPHANY: A CHRISTIAN’S CHANGE OF HEART AND MIND OVER SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
By Michael Coren

It’s often been observed that we grow more conservative and more fixed in our opinions as we age. All the more remarkable, then, is the “conversion on the road to the rainbow” of author and broadcaster Michael Coren: his transformation from Anglo-Catholic opponent to same-sex marriage to “champion of gay rights and outspoken campaigner for full acceptance of gay people into the Christian church.”

Epiphany describes this momentous movement of the mind and documents the backlash Coren experienced in response to his change of sides. Justification for his new position is made through an appeal to scripture and principles of faith. First-person accounts of the lives of gay Christians are also included to ground the theological debate in the experience of those in the “front line” of the struggle for equality.

In brief, Coren sees those who oppose gay rights as bigoted and hypocritical. Their objections are based less on faith and more on “social convention, lack of comfort, and sheer prejudice.” With regard to hypocrisy, he writes that the Roman Catholic Church (to which he used to belong) “employs more gay men than any other institution in the world,” and estimates “that one out of every three priests is gay, and by no means are they all celibate.”

Coren is, first and last, a rhetorician. His platform style is a barrage of adverbial absolutes – “surely,” “certainly,” “entirely,” etc. – that brook no opposition. We may recognize the aggressive conviction of a fresh convert to a cause, and over the length of an entire book it can be overwhelming.

There are, however, caveats to be registered, even by a reader in complete agreement with his general point. Entering into the messy field of Biblical exegesis was probably not a wise move. The best that can be said (and Coren makes the argument, though not always persuasively) is that the Bible is not overly concerned about homosexuality, and ambiguous in some of its more notorious references to the subject.

In getting to this point, however, Coren adopts a tricky set of principles. He repeatedly insists, for example, on the necessity of understanding the Bible’s commandments and injunctions in their historical context. Doing so, we will be forced to recognize that many of them are bizarre, cruel, and “completely irrelevant to a modern society.” In the very next sentence, however, he explains that we can’t just “pick and choose which ones we believe and observe and which ones we don’t,” because that would place prejudice above “common sense and intelligent reading,” not to mention “God’s plan for His creatures.”

So picking and choosing is essential, but it has to be done with the main criterion for our selection being how relevant a passage is to modern society. This is reasonable, but reason and faith are not always good bedfellows. There is more, for example, to the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage than the Bible; there is a long history of church teaching on the subject. When Coren, however, argues that “equal marriage is not unnatural. It’s non-traditional and that’s something entirely different,” he is placing nature firmly above this tradition.

Again, this is perfectly reasonable, and just. But if religion is not a tradition, it’s nothing. Appeals to nature, common sense, and even a reading of the Bible “in context” (that is, as a historical document of limited utility in dealing with modern society), are all compatible with secular thought. Coren doesn’t need Christ to get where he’s going. Indeed, a more provocative point: he might have got there faster without him.

We can at least be optimistic about the future. Western society continues to progress toward the ideals of legal equality, personal freedom, and social justice. Churches that continue to discriminate will, in Coren’s view, continue to lose younger members and “within a generation or two may well appear as museum pieces.” Of course, this may just as easily happen to churches that don’t discriminate, and it will be another step in the same, essentially secular, direction.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2016.