Defending Marriage at Oxford

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The Rev’d Dr. Peter Johnston, Ministry President of Anglican Compass, interviews the Rev’d Calvin Robinson, an Anglican deacon in the Free Church of England, about his participation in a debate at the Oxford Union in Oxford, UK, on whether Christianity should allow same-sex marriage. In his speech, he defended the traditional Christian view of marriage as between one man and one woman.


Calvin, great to speak to you. Today we are going to talk about your speech at the Oxford Union, defending the Christian doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman.

Thank you for having me.

So first, how did you get the job of defending marriage at the debate?

I didn’t think I was the right person to be making the case, having only been ordained a few months. I felt that it was above my station. But the vast majority of Church of England bishops are progressives. Three of them were on the other side of the debate. And every Roman Catholic bishop had been invited, but they declined.

I suppose I got the job because I was the only one willing to do it!

You’ve mentioned that this debate felt different from your other speaking engagements. How did it feel different?

Most speeches I write on the day, but this one I wrote at least a week in advance. I felt sick every night in the pit of my stomach. I felt a lot of anxiety, and I wasn’t sleeping. I didn’t know why, except that I felt that there was a lot at stake.

I felt the pressure because it is so important. It is about the future of the church in this country. It is about who we are as Christians and what we believe.

Do we believe in the inerrant word of scripture, or do we believe that progressive bishops can alter the faith in order to meet societal norms? And I don’t believe that this should be the case, but this is what the debate was essentially about.

In the midst of this anxiety, where did you turn?

I was praying for strength, courage, and wisdom, and for the Holy Spirit to use me as his voice, to argue for his word, as best as I possibly could.

What sources did you look to as you developed your speech?

To scripture and tradition.

I went back to the Church Fathers, to St. Thomas Aquinas, to St. Paul, and to Christ’s words himself. I went back to the Bible, to the source, and broke it down systemically. I picked up the Book of Common Prayer, I picked up the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And I found that I was verified, that marriage for Christians has always been the lifelong union of man and woman.

Was it clear from the beginning of the debate that the atmosphere was going to be hostile?

Yes. From the vibe alone when we walked into the chamber, it was obvious that we weren’t going to win the debate, and also obvious that we were not very welcome. In fact, before the recorded session, the Chairman of the Oxford Union shared that they had received a letter saying that the topic should not be up for debate.

You could feel a pin drop through the whole thing, which was very different from a previous debate I did at Cambridge. At Oxford, there was an intense, negative silence.

Why enter a debate when it is clear that the people there are already opposed to the truth?

I didn’t doubt for a minute that I had to do it. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew that I had to. The reason is that the truth has to be proclaimed. We have to speak it. I didn’t feel that anyone in the room was hearing it. But it’s not about me, and it might not even be about them, which might be the biggest lesson.

We lost the debate massively, and I came away from it very disappointed. But it has borne fruit. Maybe it was not heard by many people in that room, but it has been heard by more than 3,000,000 people all around the world. We can never know what God’s plan is, but he always has one. We have to have faith in that.

In your speech, you made a distinction between the sin and the sinner: “I want to specify that it is the sin that is the problem, not the sinner. God loves every single person. God forgives us all of our depravity, but we have to turn away from our sins and turn towards him.” You also said, “The church should absolutely be inclusive. Christ spent time with tax collectors and prostitutes, but it is they that went away changed, not Christ.” Did you feel that the audience understood this distinction?

Not really.

I wanted to make the point that I am a sinner. We all need to repent; I need to repent, but so do you. That is the Christian message, but I don’t think it is heard enough. The moment people hear about sin, they think they are being judged or put down.

I think it fell on deaf ears at the time.

You conducted yourself with decorum, clarity, and compassion. There’s something about the mode of speaking that can communicate, even when words don’t.

I try to follow the behavior that Christ modeled. His kenosis, his emptying of himself. To be filled with God’s will. I’m trying to be a funnel for God.

I think I have my platform for Christ, for his kingdom, and for spreading his good news, and for speaking his truth. And what I find is, every time that I do that, my platform rises. But every time I put my ego into it, my platform falls. And so I’m convinced that this platform isn’t mine, it’s his.

How would you encourage others who are entering discussion or debate of the Christian understanding of marriage?

Be courageous. It’s too easy to say, I can’t speak up here, because it will cause trouble; I need to protect my job or livelihood. We have to be truthful. We can’t hide the truth, or be ashamed of the truth. We have to live the truth. We can’t just say that we believe something, and not practice it.

So my advice is to stand up. People are afraid of the consequences, but the consequences are negligible in comparison to the saints of the past. If we look at the apostles, they even died for the faith. We’re not going to die. We might have some people look at us funny, or get cross with us, or we might lose a job.

But God will provide. As long as we are true to him, he will be true to us.


View the Rev’d Calvin Robinson’s debate speech here:

 


Photo of the Radcliffe Camera and the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, UK, by Buntworthy for Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

Published on

October 19, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

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