Once upon a time, at least so I’m told, words had meaning. Flannery O’Conner even had the audacity to say that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
Those days are past. Several weeks ago, a lesbian couple in Gosport, England, took their son to St. Mary’s Anglican Church to be baptized. The retired Rev. Gebaur was officiating services while the parish looked for a new priest and expressed a willingness to perform the baptism. All seemed well until the Rev. asked the couple who “the mother” was for the purposes of the baptism certificate.
The couple responded that they both wished to be listed as the mother. The Rev., obviously not an enlightened modern, pointed out that this was a biological impossibility, and suggested that for purposes of the certificate the natural mother be listed under the line reserved for “the mother.” The couple apparently could not stomach being confronted with this truth, and later reported that they were appalled and stormed out.
In the same interview, the Rev. said “We have bent over backwards to try and accommodate this family… Their sexuality has no bearing on the issue. It was never discussed. The church baptism register makes no provision for it. We can only make sure the child is theirs. For all we know they may have pinched the child. We suggested time and again that the natural mum be registered as mum.”
The concessions and mild requests of the Rev., however, were not enough to satisfy the couple who said “It’s so hard not to be put off by our experience.”
What is striking about this particular controversy is that does not revolve around a matter of doctrine or church teaching. It revolves around a matter of fact. The clergyman in this case is obviously not a raging fundamentalist or even a mildly orthodox conservative who is taking a stand for the Church’s teachings on sexuality. In fact, he seems to be of the inclusive and tolerant sort. He explicitly admitted that his views on sexuality, whatever they may be, had nothing to do with the reasons for his question and he expressed no hesitation about performing the baptism. He even made the very Christian statement that “Surely baptising the child is more important than being registered.” A sentiment the child’s parents obviously did not share.
Asking who a child’s biological mother is should not be a controversial question. Even with the redefinition of marriage it still has an obvious and factual answer that even the most enlightened of moderns would have a difficult time denying. However, such questions are now off limits. It would appear that certain words no longer mean what they mean.
This episode is an unfortunate proof of the point made by Professor Helen Alvare, who in the wake of the Supreme Court Windsor decision said that,
“Defenders of human life, religious freedom, and children’s interests in marriage should excuse themselves these days for sputtering—for having literally no words to offer in response to recent events. It appears words are currently useless. All the words we would ordinarily reach for are taken, and have suddenly been redefined.”
The incompatibility of religious freedom and the redefinition of marriage is on full display here. The world has made it clear that even if we work to make accommodations, to agree to disagree, and to attempt to coexist with the modern world, none of it will be good enough. If we oblige by taking the more “uncomfortable” doctrines out of the world’s view, they will find natural facts that are just as uncomfortable and insist that we stop insisting on them.
A parallel can be drawn with the prediction made by C.S. Lewis when he pointed out that when “the modern world says to us aloud, ‘You may be religious when you are alone,’ it adds under its breath, ‘and I will see to it that you are never alone.’”