The Bible, Gay Marriage and the Disaster on Donegall Street

According to the Royal Black Institution’s website, it is a thoroughly Scriptural organisation. The first point of its Mission Statement is to “Study Holy Scripture in order to understand the Christian faith”. The same website states that “its foundations [are] based firmly on scriptural truths and the propagation of the Christian Reformed Faith”.

Speaking at an entirely peaceful and orderly RBI demonstration in Plumbridge, the Sovereign Grand Master of the Black, Millar Farr, invoked Scripture as the basis for his opposition to marriage equality. “In God’s law there is no provision for same-sex marriage,” he said. “Holy scripture is quite clear on the subject – marriage is between male and female only.”

Meanwhile, 60 miles away, Belfast Black Grand Master William Mawhinney was, quite literally, tearing up the Parades Commission’s determination that no music should be played in Upper Donegall Street at Saturday’s Black parade. As Stephen Glenn has noted, under the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 it is a crime to incite other people to disobey a ruling of the Parades Commission.

Immediately following this, bands accompanying the Last Saturday demonstration deliberately and wilfully broke a Parades Commission ruling that no music should be played passing St. Patrick’s Church. Stewards enthusiastically encouraged this. The Young Conway Volunteers band, quite rightly banned from that part of the parade after its antics on The Twelfth, was given a rapturous reception and a virtual guard of honour as it broke the law.

What does this have to do with Scripture? Writing to the early Christian community in Rome, St. Paul took the view that obedience to the government was an absolute, unbendable, duty. Governments, he argued, were instituted by God and those who rebelled against the government were rebelling against God, and thoroughly deserved whatever punishment they received.

I’m not usually one for quoting long passages on Scripture on secular websites, but it’s worth reading this one in the light of the flagrant and premeditated law-breaking at the weekend by a bunch of self-professed Bible believers. The reference, for those interested, is Romans 13:1-6.

Every person must submit to the authorities in power, for all authority comes from God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him. It follows that anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution and those who resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive. Governments hold no terrors for the law-abiding but the criminal. You wish to have no fear of the authorities? Then continue to do right and you will have their approval, for they are God’s agents working for your good. But if you are doing wrong, then you will have cause to fear them; it is not for nothing that they hold the power of the sword, for they are God’s agents of punishment bringing retribution on the offender. That is why you are obliged to submit. It is an obligation imposed not merely by fear of retribution but by conscience.

I believe there must be prosecutions under the Public Processions Act for Saturday’s actions. Without them, the entire edifice of parades management in Northern Ireland will be blown apart and we will revert to the status quo ante, where the police are left as piggy-in-the-middle making decisions based on which side, paraders or protestors, can summon the greatest force on the day. Anyone prosecuted needn’t pretend to be martyrs to their faith, particularly if their faith is of the conservative Protestant variety. St. Paul’s message on this is clear – you broke the law, you therefore rebelled against God, and you should man up and take whatever punishment the State chooses to deal out to you.

Now, personally, I think St. Paul blew this particular call. It was right for Christians in Apartheid South Africa to disobey the laws of an unjust state (incidentally, the people who designed and operated apartheid were conservative Evangelical Protestants who claimed Scriptural warrant for doing so). It was right for Christians in Nazi Germany to plot to assassinate Hitler, although he was the legally appointed Chancellor, and it is only a pity they didn’t succeed. It was right for Christian slaves in the American South to rebel against their ‘owners’, and right for Christians to operate the Underground Railroad in defiance of what was then US Federal Law.

I can see why St. Paul wanted to encourage members of a sect, extremely vulnerable due both to its tiny size and its refusal to submit to the Imperial cult, to be good Roman subjects and take advantage of the potential freedom offered by a multi-faith Empire and the security offered by the Pax Romana. Paul remained, in all his writings, a loyal, indeed proud, Roman citizen. He also was keen to ensure that Christians were of unimpeachable character, a living advertisement for their faith. At that point, the mid 50s AD, the Church was of little interest to the authorities anyway. But obedience to the government of the day as an absolute guiding principle? That was pretty much blown apart even while Paul was still alive, with the first great persecution of the Church under Nero.

Like the overwhelming majority of Christians, now and since the beginning of the Church, I don’t believe the Bible is an inerrant law textbook. Even the 39 Articles, regarded as the touchstone of Anglican authenticity by the conservative Evangelical wing of the Church, state that “Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation.” They don’t say you have to believe everything in the Bible to be saved.

When I say that to conservative Evangelicals in Northern Ireland, especially with reference to the homosexuality debate, they accuse me of picking and choosing which bits of Scripture suit me. Well, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews said, the word of God “cuts more keenly than any two edged sword”, and in this instance, it very much cuts both ways. You can’t claim the unbendable, inerrant, word of God as grounds for outlawing gay marriage or abortion and then run around acting in such flagrant breach of it. At least not if you want anyone to take you, or your religion, seriously.