Sunday, June 17, 2012

Redefining Marriage

There is a considerable amount of debate at present about the proposed legislation to redefine marriage, with the prospect – it seems – of a schism between Church and State if the proposed legislation becomes law.

I’m no expert on the issues being debated, and in order to aid my understanding I’ve borrowed heavily from a sermon on this topic given by Rev’d Toby Marchand back in May. From what I’ve understood so far, the re-defining of marriage is being raised in order that gay and lesbian couples might be able to marry, rather than enter in to Civil Partnerships, which is what they are allowed to do now.

The Church, in the shape of the Church of England, is against the idea, as can be seen from this official response to the consultation. The submission, sent to the Home Secretary under a short covering letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York (after consideration in draft by the House of Bishops and Archbishops Council) also points out:

·       Several major elements of the Government's proposals have not been thought through properly and are not legally sound. Ministerial assurances that the freedom of the Churches and other religious organisations would be safeguarded are, though genuine, of limited value given that once the law was changed the key decisions would be for the domestic and European courts. 

·       Such a change would alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history. Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which includes, for many, the possibility of procreation. The law should not seek to define away the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. 

·       The Church has supported the removal of previous legal and material inequities between heterosexual and same-sex partnerships. To change the nature of marriage for everyone will deliver no obvious additional legal gains to those already now conferred by civil partnerships. 

Under the current legislation there are three options:

You may marry if you are a heterosexual who has never had, or are now free from, former official relationships. You may, if you wish, marry in church. We might label that “religious marriage”.

You may marry if you are a heterosexual who has never had, or are now free from, former official relationships, in a Registry Office. We might label that “Civil Marriage”. Whilst that is not overtly religious it is possible to follow it with a Blessing in church, though many choose not to do so.

 You may, if you are a homosexual, either male of female, enter in to a Civil Partnership which has to be registered. This has been possible since 2005.

Rev’d Toby Marchand’s sermon, which I referred to earlier, crystallises the issues as follows:

Reasons for accepting the change:

  1.  Same-sex marriage is indistinguishable from the marriage of two people unable to have children.
  2. We bless 2nd marriages of non-churchgoers, but reject faithful couples who long to bring their love and commitment before God.
  3. It is an extension of the sacrament of marriage comparable to the extension of the sacrament of Ordination to women.
  4. It is not physical gender that matters but quality of commitment, and response to the call of God.
  5. If marriage is a cornerstone of stable society the extension of it to gay couples will be a welcome extension and will have a stabilising effect on all around. It is the reinforcement of an ancient tradition.

Reasons for not accepting change:

  1. The institution of marriage is very ancient and has been the bedrock of societies world-wide in every conceivable culture
  2. The public don’t want change. 70% want to keep things as they are. 230,000 people have already signed a petition against it in only a few days.
  3. Marriage has never meant simply the right of all couples to have their relationship legally recognised. If you start unpicking a social convention so fundamental to our lives where do you stop? Why shouldn’t Muslims be allowed polygamous marriages?

I guess that everyone will have their own opinion on all of this, and no doubt there will be strident views from both sides of the equation. But personally, I support the official response from the Church of England, and wonder whether in fact the Government are confusing a “wedding” with a “marriage”.  

Civil Partnership is surely the best way of affirming same-sex relationships. It gives legal protection, can receive the blessing of the Church in the form of a “wedding” between the couple and it preserves traditional understanding of “marriage”.

I personally believe that “marriage” still has to be between a man and a woman if it is to be marriage, with the possibility (or not) of procreation. Such a huge change in definition and thinking that is being proposed will take a long time to be accepted and certainly shouldn’t be done at such a speed and with such little consultation or listening.

I’d be interested in anyone else’s views on this – not insignificant – debate.