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ResPonses to the Marriage Debate

The best of the rest: Commentaries on the meaning of marriage, commitment and considerations for its reform

The Current legislation allows same-sex couples to enter into a civil partnership, but not civil marriage. Yesterday the Home Office announced the first British Equal Civil Marriage Consultation on the Government’s proposals to enable same-sex couples to have a civil marriage in England and Wales before the next general election in 2015. This consultation will also ask if the current legislation should remain the same. Such reforms would only apply to civil marriages for homosexual couples and would not affect religious marriages or offer heterosexual couples the option of civil partnership. The launch of the consultation is the outcome of a growing debate, not just over creating equality of opportunity for same sex and opposite sex couples, but also over the appropriate definition and understanding of the institution of marriage itself. The ResPublica team have collated some of the key responses which inform this debate.

Theresa May, Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities posed a central question in the context of the Government’s consultation on legalising same sex marriage in her commentary in the Times today. “Should two people who care deeply for each other, who love each other and who want to spend the rest of their lives together be allowed to marry?”

Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, told the Independent that the Government's response "is a very logical and very progressive step. It is illogical to say we have equality before the law but you can't have a civil marriage because you are gay."

On the other hand, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and Archbishop Peter Smith, the Archbishop of Southwark, have argued in a letter to be read to 2,500 parish churches that this redefinition of marriage would change its "distinctive nature". Other Catholic leaders of England and Wales have added “It would reduce it just to the commitment of the two people involved. There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children.” 

That marriage is formally understood as a relationship between a man and a woman is not merely an argument voiced from religious institutions; it is the lexical interpretation and the legal definition. This reasoning is not exclusive to UK statutory law but has also been adopted by the European Court of Human Rights, as ResPublica trustee, Simon Lee, has argued. Whether this should be changed or not is what is open to debate. The current debate however extends beyond sexuality and equality of opportunity, as Prime Minister David Cameron argued last year, to one of “commitment”, and the understanding of how that commitment should be defined and what it entails.

, founder-member of the Cutting Edge Consortium, writes in the Guardian that “structures of marriage are rooted not in biology or gender difference per se, but in relationality. If not so, those with clearly no potential for fertility could not enter a valid marriage."

Tina Beattie reinforced this idea that marriage “is not just about sex but about a lifelong commitment to bodily unity in difference with another human being in all the interwoven materiality of our lives. Yes, of course, we are our bodies, and in some species (not all) the reproduction of the species depends upon heterosexual intercourse. Yet couldn’t marriage become an inclusive rather than an exclusive sacrament?"

While the Government’s plans to change the definition of marriage are based on reasons of equality and discrimination, the two archbishops wrote in their letter that our present law does not discriminate unjustly when it requires both a man and a woman for marriage. It simply recognises and protects the distinctive nature of marriage."

 Does this difference exclude equality? Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, would argue that it does not; "Civil partnerships” he says “removed the remaining legal disabilities (inheritance rules, hospital visiting rights and so on), so we are left mainly with a change in nomenclature. Taken alongside the repeal of Section 28 and the levelling of the age of consent, civil partnerships have made all citizens equal before the law." But what about the distinctive "virtues you see in married relationships" as Doctor David Ison pointed out in the Times last week, should these not be made "available to people who are gay"? And if the answer is no, what does that mean for us as a democratic and inclusive society?

This is a question we should all be asking ourselves. Featherstone argued last month "I want to urge people not to polarise this debate,

"This is not a battle between gay rights and religious beliefs. This is about the underlying principles of family, society and personal freedoms.

"[Marriage] is owned by neither the state nor the church, as the former archbishop Lord Carey rightly said. So it is owned by the people.”

Yes, “[c]hanging the legal definition of marriage would be a profoundly radical step.  And [i]ts consequences should be taken seriously now.” But is changing legislation sufficient to change the way we think about "one of the most important institutions we have"? Indeed, Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams argued that the law should not be used as a tool to bring about social changes.

Ultimately, as Theresa May has argued, "Society is stronger when people enter into a stable relationship; when they commit to each other"

“I don’t believe the State should perpetuate discrimination and prejudice. I believe that in modern Britain we should seek to eliminate discrimination wherever we find it. Marriage...binds us together, brings stability and makes us stronger.

 If we believe that commitment, fidelity and marriage are good things then we should not restrict them, we should let them flourish."

Forthcoming work from ResPublica’s British Civic Life workstream, will see the extension of our research on the social value of institutions to focus on the place of the Church of England in political life, and will specifically explore the role of faith in public policy as part of our work on the British constitution.

Comments on: ResPonses to the Marriage Debate

Gravatar Mark Cosens 27 March 2012
Lynne feathertsone says: "[Marriage] is owned by neither the state nor the church, as the former archbishop Lord Carey rightly said. So it is owned by the people.” She is right and wrong. True Marriage is the state of divine approval achieved when a man and a woman enter into a covenant not only with the state and each other, but with God. Marriage is central to God"s plan for the happiness and eternal destiny of His children. The spurrious "equality" argument just will not cut it when those presuming to redefine marriage in the public perception are answering for doing so to that God who gave them their freedoms and their very lives.

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Detailed Summary

Date Published
16 March 2012

British Civic Life

About The Authors

Beatrice Ferguson

Beatrice is a former Research Assistant at ResPublica, working within the British Civic Life workstream. She gra...