Thursday, 15 March 2012

Government begins consultation on gay marriage

The Government today opened its long-awaited consultation on gay marriage.  This follows the launching of a similar consultation by the Scottish Government in September last year (Scotland forms a separate jurisdiction for these purposes).  Twelve countries around the world (or jurisdictions within those countries) have already introduced gay marriage, most of them in Europe.

The consultation is explicitly linked to gay civil marriage - so there will be no legislation affecting religious weddings or on extending civil partnerships to straight people.  In fact, same-sex marriages will be prohibited from being conducted on religious premises (just as civil partnerships were until the Approved Premises Regulations were amended last December).  This will no doubt come as a disappointment to many gay Christians, Jews and people of other faiths who would wish to have a religious wedding ceremony that is recognised by the state.  It appears from the consultation document that it is a tactical move intended to forestall the possibility of conservative clergy being taken to court for refusing to perform gay marriages: if they have no legal power to marry gay couples, they can't be sued for not doing so.  The stipulation will no doubt be reversed in due course (like the equivalent restriction on civil partnerships).  In the meantime, clergy will be free to host civil partnerships on their premises and to perform non-legally binding religious marriage ceremonies for gay members of their flock.

Civil partnerships will be retained, but there will be a mechanism for "upgrading" to marriage.  The consultation document helpfully sets out some of the differences between civil partnerships and marriage:
• Civil partnership and marriage are two entirely separate legal regimes with different pieces of legislation covering each of them. Civil partners cannot call themselves married for legal purposes and married couples cannot call themselves civil partners for legal purposes. This means that when making a declaration of marital status to an employer, public authority or other organisation, an individual who is either married or in a civil partnership will often be effectively declaring their sexual orientation at the same time;
• Civil marriages are solemnized by saying a prescribed form of words whereas civil partnerships are formed simply by signing the register – no words are required to be spoken;
• Married couples and civil partners are entitled to similar rights and responsibilities but there are some differences around eligibility for some pension rights and laws around adultery and non-consummation and courtesy titles;
• Marriage can currently be conducted either through a religious ceremony or through a civil ceremony. Civil partnerships can only be conducted through a civil ceremony....
There are some differences in the reasons for being able to end a marriage and civil partnership, for example married couples are able to cite adultery as evidence that the marriage has broken down irretrievably whereas civil partners do not have this option when dissolving their civil partnership.
This consultation has been awaited for a long time, and some campaigners have been careful to get their disagreement in first.  The fight against same-sex marriage is being spearheaded by an organisation called the Coalition for Marriage (C4M).  This body is being fronted by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey (who, perhaps surprisingly, voted for the Civil Partnerships Act), after Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British Army and a prominent Evangelical Christian, was allegedly leant on to withdraw his support.  The Daily Mail is on board too.

Several people, including Ben Goldacre and the blogger Dr T, have done some digging on C4M.  It appears that the individuals behind it include prominent members of a network of right-wing Evangelical Christian organisations with a history of campaigning on public and political issues - the Christian Institute, the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, the Christian Medical Fellowship, CARE, Christian Concern, the Evangelical Alliance and the Family Education Trust.  It's also worth noting that the limited company formed for C4M shares its registered office with the Christian Institute, while its website is registered to a Christian Institute executive.  Meanwhile, the campaign's contact address is remarkably similar to those of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship and the Christian Medical Fellowship.

These individuals and organisations are perfectly entitled to campaign against a change in the civil marriage laws, but they cannot be regarded as representative either of the mainstream of British Christianity or of British society as a whole.  In many cases, they are the same individuals and organisations that have been involved in a series of well-publicised but almost entirely futile lawsuits over the last few years in a Quixotic attempt to use the courts to reverse the long-term secularisation of British society.  So C4M is not a broad-based grassroots movement: it is dominated by a small, interlocking coalition of seasoned Evangelical activists.

I wouldn't be surprised of a blizzard of negative responses to the consultation is organised, and the Government has apparently pre-empted this by saying that it will pay attention to the quality rather than the quantity of responses received.

It's worth reflecting on the reasons advanced for opposing gay marriage.  It is often said that marriage has always been conceived of as a partnership between a man and a woman (or, more accurately, one or more of each), even in societies which have had no moral objection in principle to homosexual sex.  This is true, but it is beside the point.  In traditional societies, marriage functions as a mechanism for legitimising and raising children, cementing alliances between different families, and transmitting property from one generation to the next.  The great historian of marriage Edvard Westermarck described it as an "economic institution" as well as a sexual one.  The shift seen in modern western society is that - thank God - love, romance, friendship, partnership and companionship have come to be seen as central features of marriage as well as or instead of the traditional aims of controlling fertility and the distribution of property.  It is therefore accepted, for example, that straight couples may marry without any intention of having children or any ability to do so.

The result of this shift in attitudes - which, be it noted, was brought about entirely by heterosexuals - is that not allowing same-sex couples to marry cannot now be defended on any grounds other than sheer prejudice.  As the consultation document puts it succinctly, "it's not right that a couple who love each other and want to formalise a commitment to each other should be denied the right to marry".

The religious argument against gay marriage doesn't wash.  Archbishop Sentamu of York has said that it isn't the role of the state to define marriage - but it isn't the church's role to act as the watchdog of marriage either.  Sentamu should know this.  In the days of the early Christian community, marriage was primarily a social and secular institution, and the church didn't claim to be its custodian - that only came later.  The church was slow to incorporate a marriage service into its liturgical rites, and the wedding ceremonies actually used by early Christian couples seem to have drawn on pagan Roman models.  The context of all this was that early Christian teaching saw marriage as being at most a second-best allowable option after celibacy: the link between Christianity and "family values" was a good deal more opaque than it is today.

In any event, it is very late in the day to start complaining that the state is encroaching on marriage.  The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which legalised divorce, the Married Women's Property Acts, which fundamentally altered the economic basis of marriage, the 20th century legislation running from the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 to the Family Law Act 1996, which transformed the divorce laws out of recognition, and indeed the Civil Partnerships Act 2005, which introduced same-sex marriage in all but name - all these horses have already bolted from the stable on which Archbishops Carey and Sentamu are seeking to close the door.

Some object to gay marriage because they think it's a vote-loser.  The rather strange conservative Anglican blogger Cranmer has said:
Politically, the Conservative Party needs to be focusing on winning a majority in 2015 (or even sooner)... we’re talking about winning the Pakistani Muslim vote in Luton; the Indian Sikh vote in Southall, the African-Caribbean Pentecostal vote in Lewisham, and the Roman Catholic vote throughout the North-West. These groups tend to have strongly conservative views on moral issues such as homosexuality, and ‘gay marriage’ is quite simply a step too far.
But I doubt that there are all that many votes in homophobia these days.  A long time has passed since the Labour and Liberal Parties felt obliged to support the principle of Section 28 in the House of Commons.  Certainly, civil partnerships have been a great success, with over 46,000 being registered since their introduction in 2005.  In a few years, people will look back on the gay marriage debate and wonder, not only what all the fuss was about, but perhaps also why it didn't happen sooner.