Dear The Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and Head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales,
I write to you in response to the pastoral letter you sent to all of the Roman Catholic churches in your diocese of Westminster, which was read aloud in pulpits yesterday. In it you extolled the virtues of family life and the “vision of family [that] is rooted in the faithful love of a man and a woman”. You ended it by entreating your fellow faithful Catholics to write to their MPs to express their concern about the government’s proposals to allow same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies.
As a gay man who has long had an interest in gay couples being allowed to marry, I have heard, from the Catholic Church and others around the world, all of the arguments that you make in your letter before. I have heard many times that allowing gay people to marry will tear up the fabric of civilised society and destroy the precious institution of marriage forever. I have heard over and over again that God made men and women to marry one another and not men and men or women and women. And I have been bombarded over the last few years with the argument that because gay people cannot procreate naturally they should not be allowed to marry. These are, quite depressingly, the standard Christian arguments against allowing people like me to have the happiness of a proper marriage (like every other member of my family), rather than a pale imitation that only allows me to call the love of my life the anodyne and clinical legal term, “civil partner”.
I have no doubt that these arguments will be reiterated with force over the coming weeks, months and years as the government bravely pushes ahead with its plans to allow gay people to marry. As has always been the case with these arguments, as they are reiterated and reiterated, fervent hardline Christians (and that means by no means all Christians) will continue to believe them fervently, no matter what I or anyone else say, and gay people, and their supporters, who believe that marriage should be equally available to all, will continue to think them offensive and untrue. It’s the same old circle of argument, again and again. I realise it, and I think you do too, which is possibly why, in your letter, you allude to another argument that I haven’t come across anywhere near so much before, but fear I will more and more; namely, the fear that, by allowing gay people to marry, children will somehow be damaged as teachers have to teach that it is an acceptable form of family life.
Out of all of the arguments against equal marriage, I find this to be one of the most offensive, grossly inaccurate and despicable of all. And as a teacher with 10 years experience of teaching children from the ages of 4 to 11, I feel very much qualified to hold an opinion on it.
I entered teacher training in September 2002 as a young, fresh-faced (ish) graduate, full of the joys of spring and with great anticipation about what I would be able to teach the children in my charge over the next however many years. Since then, I have taught upwards of 500 children everything from how to say Où sont les toilettes? to how to punctuate a sentence correctly with apostrophes to why Henry VIII had so many wives, and I have throughly enjoyed doing it. But more, so much more than that, I have enjoyed teaching children the most important things in life: respect, tolerance, self-belief, confidence, kindness, helpfulness, gratitude…I could go on. In fact, don’t tell anyone, but between you and me, as I’ve grown older and more experienced, I’ve begun to care less and less about whether or not an 11 year old child can name the different types of river or can recite their 12 times table in under a minute (when they need it, they’ll learn it), and I’ve begun to focus much more on teaching children the things that really matter in life and which will make them kind and lovely people, the kind of qualities I mentioned earlier. And, in my humble opinion, any teacher worth their salt would say the same thing.
And, in my humble opinion, any teacher worth their salt would happily teach children that the country in which they are living allows all people, straight and gay, to enter into marriage. How on earth could it be a bad thing to encourage children to open their minds, to be accepting and tolerant of difference, to love others as they would like to be loved themselves? How could this be a negative thing? There’s only one way, in fact, that it could be a negative thing; if children who had been taught by good, accepting teachers that marriage was open to all went home to hardline Christian parents and priests who confused them by claiming on the one hand to be loving and caring whilst showing, on the other, that they weren’t, by teaching their child that it is good and correct to discriminate against certain sectors of society. The child’s resulting confusion would not be the fault of the school and its teachers, although they would most definitely be blamed. It would be the fault of the Church and its paranoid belief that it will one day disappear forever if it doesn’t mangle the minds of as many children as possible in the hope that some of them at least will grow up closed-minded and bigoted enough to become its future leaders.
Children are wonderful. They are funny, smart, witty and kind. That’s not to say that every child I have ever met has displayed these characteristics. Some have been cruel, violent, shy, mean and even downright nasty. But, do you want to know something? Underneath all of those unattractive qualities, they have still been children and, as I said before, children are funny, smart, witty and kind. The only reason some of the children I have met haven’t appeared to be these things is because of us, adults, and how we treat them as they are growing up. Children are not born bigoted, closed-minded, mean, nasty or violent. They learn this behaviour from the adults they encounter. Tell a child constantly that it is worthless and no good and you create one of two adults: a shy nervous wreck with no self-confidence or a violent frustrated thug with no self-confidence. Tell a child constantly that it is wonderful and special and you create one adult: a self-confident person able to face the inevitable difficulties of life head-on with gusto. Tell a child constantly that certain people in society are not as good as others and you create one adult: a bigot. Tell a child constantly that all people are equal and deserving of love and acceptance and you create one adult: a caring, accepting, tolerant person. And that, in a nutshell, is the reason I’m a teacher; to do my bit to be one of the good adult influences children encounter.
Contrary to what you appear to believe, schools (primary ones at least) do not spend hours and hours teaching about marriage. Children will cover it, at best, in a lesson on Christianity perhaps once or twice in their primary career. Marriage is very unlikely to form the basis of an entire lesson and might be mentioned in passing. I haven’t taught Sex Education for a while, but when I did I used to mention marriage during those lessons, but, again, only in passing. To suggest that allowing gay people to marry will necessitate a massive overhaul of the curriculum and that teachers up and down the land will be having to teach explicitly about the ins and outs of two gay people marrying is ridiculous and is, quite frankly, scaremongering, of which you and the Catholic Church should be ashamed. I have never taught a whole lesson on straight marriage so why would I teach one on gay marriage. You are correct to suggest, however, that teachers would be required to mention that marriage is open to gay people as well as straight people, and to teach that this is correct and fair. Any teacher who had a problem with that shouldn’t be teaching. Teachers should not be in the business of creating closed-minded adults.
This letter is getting quite long so I’d better wrap it up here. I know that is very difficult to change the mind of a hardline Christian who has been raised to believe that homosexuality is an aberration, or to change the mind of someone whose paid job it is to say that what is in the Bible is 100% true (people such as yourself). Having once been a Bible-believing Christian myself, I understand how constrained some Christians are by their beliefs. However nice they may be as people, however kind and caring, they cannot adapt what they believe. They fear that if they do, they may as well believe nothing. I can see the logic. However, when it comes to the minds of the children of today, and the adults of tomorrow, it’s just too important to let hardline Christians fall behind the cover of religion and the Bible yet again. In the UK, we are lucky to live in a free, democratic and increasingly equal society. Our schools (the non-religious ones, at least) have long taught tolerance, kindness and respect and will continue to do so for the sake of all our futures.
In conclusion, my job is all about moulding the minds of the future, and, in a way, so is yours. I know 100% what type of adults I’m trying to mould. What type of adults are you trying to create, Archbishop? As we enter 2013 in a few hours’ time, please think carefully about how cutting and hurtful the words of a powerful man like you can be. And please reflect carefully on whether you want to be responsible for perpetuating inequality and bigotry, or for supporting tolerance, fairness and kindness.
Have a very Happy New Year.