Nicholas Turner on Civil Partnerships and Bishops divorced from reality
The Civil Partnership Bill began in the House of Lords, and it was there that it had its final debate on November 17th, just in time to pass into law before the prorogation of Parliament. It went almost unnoticed. The issue of gay marriage had hit the headlines when it touched Europe (with the rejection of the Italian EU commissioner) and when it touched America (with the massive rejection of gay marriage during the Election Day votes), but when it came to this country, nothing. There was virtually no media interest, either when this Bill was discussed in the Commons, or a week later in the Lords.
This self-censorship, over a Bill that imposes its own silence on its intentions, is worrying, for it is probable, when the Act comes into effect in a year’s time, that it will be a major news item, complete with pictures and comment, as the first gay couples ‘marry’. Sadly, it is likely that atavistic fears will then surface, and prejudice will be heaped upon the first couples to take advantage of the law’s provision. There is no condemnation for those who are now planning to do what the law allows, but there is much that is troubling in the legislation, and it is this that should have been more seriously considered.
I have covered many of the issues already (ND June, July, September 2004), and there was little that was new in the final debate. Instead, it epitomised the frustrations of the whole exercise. Since the only discussion permitted by ministers had focussed on the amendment to extend the inheritance tax benefits of a civil partnership (CP) to siblings, other absurdities, such as the nullity clauses, never surfaced in the debate.
The government minister expressed the official double think well. After quoting Martin Luther King, she declared, ‘We in this House have the power to do something remarkable for people who have been without succour and support for a very long time.’ She later spoke of the undertaking of the same-sex couples ‘to love, to support, to help and to provide’ for each other, she spoke of them ‘joining in harmony and making a life together’. Which in itself is fine. But in the next breath she roundly condemned those who sought to find any parallels between a CP and marriage; she excluded any consideration of a ‘sexual relationship’ or commitment in a CP, and so on.
More seriously, we should ask ourselves, ‘Did the government get help from the bishops?’ It is not an unreasonable question. If bishops of the Church of England are to sit in the House of Lords and share in the responsibility for civil legislation, then we are perfectly entitled to ask whether they have fulfilled their duties in accordance with their higher calling.
The Bishop of Chelmsford, John Gladwyn, gave great succour to the government. ‘It would be good’ he said, ‘to have on record that the public understanding of marriage held in the law of this country is not affected by this Bill.’ It could have been a question, but coming from a bishop of the realm it was taken to be a statement. Baroness Scotland, the government minister, was clearly delighted with his support, ‘The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford is absolutely right when he says that there is a clear distinction between these provisions and those of marriage. Marriage is not affected in any way by the Bill.’
This is manifestly false, as the government’s own notes admit (ND September 2004). Not only will CPs affect marriage, they are intended to. The existence of the Act will give clear impetus to the planned changes to civil marriage. Later in the debate, the Baroness offered this cryptic vote of thanks (to the House of Bishops as a whole?), ‘The right reverend Prelates have made plain that they rightly wish to preserve the distinction between marriage and registered relationships. We have listened to that comprehensively. We think that the right reverend Prelates are right.’ It looks as though the fine intentions of amateur politicians have been taken by the cunning professionals as just the sort of support they needed. Here is a new, undisclosed definition of marriage; but all is well because the guardians of matrimony are on our side.
Thankfully, the Bishop of Chester spoke for common sense. ‘The history of social legislation in this country is often that the consequences are not quite those that are stated as intended.’ Quite so. More precisely, ‘the difficulty is that the details of the Bill as it stands so closely parallel the arrangements for marriage that there is a real danger of a de facto introduction of same-sex marriage by that process.’
Ten working bishops attended this final debate. Eight voted in favour the Bill; only +Chester and +Southwell voted against. Should we be worried? In view of the mess the bishops made of the Gender Recognition Bill, by losing the amendment over church marriage, we ought to be concerned whether they are not (even inadvertently) hastening the decline of traditional Christian values. Others are entitled to do that, but not bishops.
The problem of the CP Act is not that it offers rights and privileges to gay couples. The government’s refusal to extend some of those rights to siblings living together in the same house, in view of their original appeal to natural justice, is particularly mean-spirited; but that is not the fault of gay couples. The real problem, for Christians, for members of the CofE, for parish clergy, is that this Act will almost certainly have a serious and damaging effect upon marriage. Wishing/hoping/stating that it won’t (+Chelmsford’s and the government’s approach) is unconvincing.
We have this legally recognized relationship between two people that mirrors, down to the most trivial detail, the legal mechanisms of marriage. What is this relationship? All we know is that it is between two people of the same sex not related to each other nor in an existing CP, and it cannot be established in order to gain an EU passport. We are not permitted to make any assumption whatever about permanence, commitment or faithfulness, nothing at all about any sexual relationship, and obviously nothing to do with children.
We will have, therefore, a social and legal institution that copies marriage and yet possesses no content whatsoever. This is, quite simply, dangerous; like a vacuum it will suck oxygen away from its parallel institution. If in the first few years, it provides support for many gay couples, all well and good; but it is inevitable that it will corrupt and drain the far more important social and legal institution, on which the life and upbringing of children so crucially depends. In a decade or so, civil marriage will be but a copy of a civil partnership: its content, built up over centuries, will have drained away.
Nicholas Turner is a Curate in the Diocese of Bradford.
+ St Albans
+ St Edmundsbury & Ipswich
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