So according to Tim Montgomerie, the government will shortly announce plans to introduce same-sex marriage. Without knowledge of the full facts or plans, it is difficult to comment but a few thoughts spring to mind.
- What will happen to those already in civil partnerships? Will yet another ceremony be required? In the highly unlikely event that I was in a civil partnership, I would be mightily irked by the prospect of needing to “upgrade” and any subsequent fees.
- Where does this leave civil partnerships? It has been suggested that perhaps civil partnerships will be extended to opposite sex couples, in order to achieve “true equality”. What on earth is the point? What are the discernible differences between marriage (given that one may have an entirely civil service) and civil partnerships?
I have to confess to being concerned by this attempt to empty marriage of its meaning. Marriage is a union that exists in all cultures. It is not just a private arrangement between two individuals. The Catholic Church in particular sees marriage as a holy vocation, and other Christian denominations hold it in equally high esteem. Genesis makes clear that marriage and sexuality are gifts from God given for our benefit and for the procreation of children. Marriage is a channel through which God’s grace flows to a couple and their offspring. The Catholic Church understands marriage between a baptized man and woman to be a sacrament, a visible sign of the grace that God gives them to help them live their lives here and now so as to be able to join him in eternity. Marriage is social as well as religious, but the religious aspects are just as important to all practicing Christians. The Bible repeatedly compares the relationship between man and wife to that between God and Israel ( Hos. 9:1) or between Christ and his Church ( Eph. 5:21-32).
Since the Church sees marriage as holy, it believes it must be treated with reverence and respect. It also recognizes that marriage is basic to the health of society and therefore a public institution that must be defended against harm. Consequently, proposals that could harm the institution of marriage such as offering civil partnerships must be subjected to the same sort of objective analysis that we give any public policy question. If civil partnerships are the same as marriage, then what is the point in them continuing to exist, other than to devalue marriage itself? The problem is that if marriage just becomes an expression of private temporary states and not a social institution with a real meaning, connected to biological realities, (though of course that is now being overcome with same sex surrogacy and IVF, which presents a whole new set of ethical dilemmas), then surely in the interests of fairness and equality, polyamorous marriages should be permitted? Why can’t groups of men be allowed to marry groups of women? Why can’t a brother marry a sister, or a man marry his cat, a geek his x-box, if marriage has absolutely nothing to do with children, but is simply based on romantic feelings and attachments in the here and now?
It is this devaluation of the institution of marriage that will be of concern to Christians, as opposed to the private, financial and romantic arrangements of individuals. I should imagine that most conscientious Catholics will refuse to refer to the oxymoron of gay marriage as such, a marriage being a particular sacrament reserved for an opposite-sex couple. Catholic priests will not have too much of a headache circumventing the marriage laws. There is an important legal distinction between Catholic priests and Church of England vicars, the latter being known as a “clerk in holy orders”. A Catholic priest has to apply to the relevant civil authorities in order to be able to perform the legal formalities and therefore if he was stripped of this function, due to vexatious litigation which would seek to compel him to conduct a gay marriage ceremony, this would not present a problem in as much as a registrar could presumably be brought in to witness the legal formality of the signing of the register.
It becomes much more problematic in the Church of England whereby the priest “is a clerk in holy orders” and is therefore compelled to obey the law of the land in these matters.If gay marriage is to be introduced it will require a whole new liturgy and perhaps more worrying is the imposition of an entirely new set of beliefs upon the Anglican Communion by Parliament, one that is not in concord with its existing precepts and values. I suspect the answer will be along the lines of divorcees – gay marriage will be something of a postcode lottery, whether or not a priest will conduct a same sex marriage service will be down to individual discretion, although it won’t be long before one gay couple, disappointed at being denied the chocolate box church setting will seek legal redress on the basis of “equality” and much talk will be had about discrimination and the denying of services. Vicars who wish to exercise religious freedom of conscience, who are unable to exercise sufficient mental contortions to be able to justify setting aside 2,000 years of sacred scripture and tradition, will be labelled “fundy bigots” who wish to do harm to people and no doubt this will go all the way up to the European Courts of Human Rights.
My feeling, perhaps unfairly, is that the Church of England will, once again, seek to be all things to all men (and women) and will thus do itself a huge pastoral disservice as a result. I take no pleasure in this, I still retain a huge affection for the Church of England and feel the pain of disunity acutely. If the C of E does seek to formalise gay marriage, eventual re-union seems an ever more impossible goal.
David Cameron is treading a very rocky road here, balancing the demands of his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and desperate to regain his standing in the opinion polls. It is unthinkable that a Tory government could well be responsible for disestablishment, for this is the only way in which this conflict may be satisfactorily legally resolved.
My personal feelings are that civil partnerships seemed to be working well as they were. Gay marriage seems to be nothing more than an expensive exercise in semantics, a costly Conservative Party crowd pleaser and one that leaves many Christians more politically disenfranchised and marginalised than ever before.