A fair consultation?
The government has opened a consultation until mid-June on equal-marriage
One of the best illustrations of the current debate on changing the law on civil marriage was given in a recent television discussion on taxation. ‘Today, every government,’ the commentator insisted, ‘is economically right wing. Just as every government is culturally left wing.’ ‘Can you give an example?’ asked the host. ‘Well, there’s equal rights for homosexuals… And, er, gay marriage… And, er, so on.’
An ethical a priori?
Gay marriage is totemic. It is not a symptom of cultural liberalism; it is cultural liberalism. It is the campaigning issue par exellence; even free speech, a long-time staple, cannot match it as a crusading cause. We must recognize this. For it explains why the government’s consultation is not about -whether but how ‘the ban can be lifted on same-sex couples having a marriage through a civil ceremony’ – note the loaded use of the word ‘ban’.
The principle has already been accepted, even though it played no part in any party’s manifesto. Peter `Ihatchell of Stonewall goes still further, ‘I am not convinced that there needs to be any consultation at all.’ True, he is not the most irenic of men, but such an authoritarian absolutism is characteristic of this issue. It is for many people an ethical a priori. It is simply true. It is a given. It therefore requires no argument, which is why there is no ‘need’ for consultation.
What is the problem, and why is the word ‘marriage’ so important? Equality. The feeling among the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) that a civil partnership is not as good as marriage, and that the differentiation between the two is the basis for discrimination and homophobia. There is no arguing against the feelings of a minority which feels itself to be victimized. The majority simply have to take their word for it.
The most common metaphor is that of ‘apartheid’ and the most common analogy that of the ‘civil rights struggle’. The most widespread justification is that it has happened elsewhere; and indeed it has: equal-marriage has been introduced in Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and parts of Argentina, Mexico and some states in the US. So why not here?
Ignoring the consequences
What is wrong with the government’s proposals? This is best summed up in the Ministerial Foreword to the Consultation Document (CD), by Teresa May (Conservative) and Lynne Featherstone (Liberal Democrat),
‘Quite simply, if commitment and marriage is a good thing we should not restrict civil marriage only to opposite-sex couples.’
‘Quite simply’. The case being put forward is a classic of Pollyanna politics. It completely – and deliberately – ignores the consequences of so far-reaching a change. Whatever you may believe about inter-Coalition bickering and bartering, there should be no denying the good intentions of the proposals. What is at issue, however, is the long-term effect on the institution of marriage.
Marriage is not ‘quite simple’. A key point for the CD is that
‘there is no legal definition of religious and civil marriage’,
for if there is no legal definition, it implies, then there is nothing to stop the government modifying existing laws as it sees fit. In one sense, there clearly isn’t. On the other hand, the reason marriage has no ‘legal definition’ is that it is a traditional institution that has developed over the centuries, with roots and forms older than parliamentary government itself. There are deep social and moral reasons why it happens to have no ‘legal definition’.
The most obvious change, though difficult to express in clear and simple terms for this very reason, is the unexpressed removal of children from the core of marriage, to be substituted by the (rather modern) notion of ‘commitment’. This complete lack of reference to children as a fundamental part of the institution (if not of every instance) of marriage suggests that either they have failed to consider the issues involved fully enough, or that they are deliberately simplifying a complex institution in order to push through a specific agenda. I suspect the former, but either option is worrying.
An underhand change
Another serious, and frankly underhand, change is nowhere mentioned in the CD, but can be found only in the much more technical Impact Assessment. A core part of the government propaganda is that these proposals will have no effect upon religious marriages, and yet it is stated in this second document quite clearly,
‘The changes proposed would therefore only apply to civil marriages, and not to ‘religious marriages’ conducted in places of worship, and would create a legal distinction between the two.’The impetus behind these proposals is that ‘many people are unhappy with the existence of separate legal provisions and do not consider them to be equal’,
hence the title ‘Equal Civil Marriage’. It does this by creating instead a clear separation and legal distinction between civil marriage and ‘religious marriage’ (note the provocative use of quotation marks for the latter, inferior category). Believers may be able to accept this: we know what we believe and to hell with the state. Ordinary non-church-going young couples who want a church wedding are going to have what they often call ‘the real thing’ taken from them.
Who will lose most?
One of the subtleties of the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony in one of our parish churches, for a couple who may be wonderfully vague and confused about their faith and beliefs, is that it is both the same and better than the secular, hotel version.
The couple know this, even if they cannot fully express it, and over the months of preparation, one can share the excitement of this great mystery, this gift of God in creation.
I know many colleagues do not like doing weddings, and would be happy to see this division established as soon as possible; but I remain convinced that it is these couples, who aspire to something more, who will lose most by what is being proposed.
Given that, as a matter of history and culture, it has been Christian marriage that has created, formed and nurtured civil marriage in this country, this deliberate separation will have untold consequences. It is one thing to seek to include same-sex couples within the orbit of the ancient tradition of marriage (which may be an admirable aim), and quite another to destroy the ancient tradition in order to create a new institution of equal-marriage, for both opposite-sex and same-sex couples.
Equality must not be ignored. But after a decade of legislation that culminated in the Equality Act 2010, which aims to place all issues of equality under one comprehensive legislative umbrella, we do have to ask how this entirely different approach can be justified.
Serious social engineering
If it is an equality issue, it should be resolved by the equality legislation. A completely new legislative foundation sets a compromising and equivocal precedent. Especially so when it never featured in either Coalition party’s election manifesto.
This does not mean that it is wrong, only that it has an unpleasantly anti-democratic smell to it. The altering of an ancient institution, involving the changing of thousands of pieces of legislation – this is not nothing: this is serious social engineering. The consultation is about
‘how we can
remove the ban
couples having a
civil marriage in
a way that works
They are asking the impossible. There is not a ‘ban on same-sex couples’; there is an ancient institution, of crucial importance for the care of children and the creation of society, that cannot both be fundamentally altered and kept the same.
At a time when marriage is already under attack, by government legislation (as it happens), this is not the time to dismantle it entirely, for the idealistic but ill-thought-out alternative of equal-marriage.
‘Quite simply’ the two ministers say. I would submit that it is not ‘quite simple’. It is immensely complex; the ramifications are far-reaching; the changes devastating.
It should have been done with greater concern for the democratic norms and expectations of our ancient parliamentary constitution, and for those who deserve the protection of the state of which they are members.ND
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