The best of the rest: Commentaries on the meaning of marriage, commitment and considerations for its reform
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.”
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.
Martin Pendergast, 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."
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?"
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."
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.
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.
as Theresa May has argued, "Society
is stronger when people enter into a stable relationship; when they commit to
“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.
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.