Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

23 May 2013

Gay marriage: a very English muddle

I’m opposed to the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill. I have no problems with gay – or, as the PC term is now, LGBT – equality as a general concept, i.e. that LGBT people should be treated equally to any other citizens and should not be discriminated against. However, I do take issue with some of the ways LGBT equality has been implemented in practice, such as the requirement under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 for adoption agencies to take on gay and lesbian couples on an equal basis to heterosexual couples. That has meant that many Christian adoption agencies – which were generally recognised as providing an excellent service – have had to close, as they took the view that it is in the best interests of the child to be adopted by opposite-sex, preferably married, couples. By holding out for this view and not taking on same-sex couples, they would have run the risk of breaking the law.

Gay, or same-sex, marriage had, and arguably still has, the potential to present similar crises of conscience. If marriage is construed, like adoption, as a service that religious organisations such as churches provide to the public, then once same-sex marriage enters the statute books, those churches could be held to be in breach of the law by not offering marriage to gay couples. Section 2 of the present Bill, which passed its reading at the report stage earlier this week, offers churches and other religions protection against that eventuality by requiring religious organisations to opt in to the right to conduct same-sex marriages. In other words, there is no obligation on such organisations to provide same-sex marriage services if they do not agree with them on grounds of conscience.

So, no problem then? Well, the peculiar problem in England is that the Church of England historically has always had the obligation to marry any persons that requested it to do so, so long as the marriage thus solemnised was legal, e.g. not bigamous or prohibited for some other reason. Hence, introducing gay marriage could have put the Church in the position whereby it uniquely, as the established Church, had to offer gay weddings if gay couples asked it to do so. This is why the Bill has resorted to the drastic measure of actually prohibiting the Church of England (and the Anglican Church in Wales) from celebrating same-sex marriages. If it had not done so, there would have been a serious possibility of a legal challenge from gay couples who had been refused marriage by the Church.

As part of this obligation of the Church to marry those who ask it to do so in good faith (if not always in actual Christian faith), there has hitherto been just a single legal definition of marriage in English Law, i.e. no distinction between civil and religious marriage as exists in many countries in the rest of Europe. The new Bill maintains this tradition of recognising only one form of marriage but extends it to gay couples. Thus a somewhat absurd situation has arisen whereby the Church of England is still obliged to marry opposite-sex couples in church, and a single legal form of marriage (straight and gay) that applies to both religious and civil ceremonies is maintained, but the Church is prohibited from providing that form of marriage to gay couples.

This contradiction is absolutely bound to lead to legal challenges. But the fact that the new law will ban the Church from conducting same-sex weddings is intended to deflect those challenges away from the Church (which will have no option but to refuse gay couples) on to the law itself. Hence, the challenges, when they come, will take the form of judicial reviews or appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

This is a very English muddle; indeed, one might even characterise it as very Anglican. England’s Church, and indeed English society, is a broad church, tolerating a wide spectrum of faith, ethics and sexuality. In one sense, the big joke in all this is that gay relationships and couples, involving vicars and bishops in many cases, have been quietly tolerated in the Church of England for decades. The real problem, for the Church, is perhaps that the possibilities of being either obliged to celebrate, or prohibited from celebrating, such relationships forces a resolution of the Church’s ambiguities on the morality of homosexuality. It pushes the issue out of the closet and into . . . the church. Will the Church turn down the wish of its gay congregants to marry in their places of worship, or will it utter a collective ‘I do’?

Well, the answer may soon be taken out of its hands, if indeed there are successful legal challenges to the ban on Anglican same-sex marriage. Ironically, the Church of England is perhaps more vulnerable in this area than other churches and faiths, which historically have not had the obligation to offer marriage to allcomers, as has the C of E.

The problem, as I have indicated above, is the single legal definition of marriage in England and Wales, which will now encompass same-sex unions. Over and above the fact that this may ultimately bring about the disestablishment of the Church of England – if it refuses to provide same-sex marriages once the ban on its doing so is overturned by the High Court or the ECtHR – this is the reason why I oppose the Bill.

I wouldn’t have any objection to gay civil marriage if law and practice made a distinction between civil and religious marriage. Indeed, making a split between civil marriage (open to gay and straight couples) and religious marriage (open by default only to straight couples but, at the discretion of each religious organisation, capable of being extended to gay couples) could have been a way to resolve the parallel muddle that has arisen over civil partnerships: the current civil form of recognition of same-sex unions (‘gay marriage’ in all but official documentation), which the Bill in its present form is neither abolishing nor extending to heterosexual couples – hence creating another anomaly and inequality. Indeed, even if a church or other religious organisation did not choose to conduct gay religious marriages, it could be open to them to conduct gay civil marriages within their own premises: equivalent to celebrating civil partnerships now, as civil partnerships would be ‘upgraded’ to ‘civil marriages’, equivalent to straight civil marriages.

But as the law continues to be based on a single definition of marriage – civil and religious, and now gay and straight – this means that what is at issue is not merely LGBT equality in the matter of civil marriage but English society’s collective understanding and formal definition of marriage per se. By legalising gay marriage, the British parliament is declaring that the official meaning and purpose of marriage in England and Wales are no longer as understood by traditional Christianity, which holds that marriage is the life-long union of a man and a woman, and is the foundation of family life and strong communities. (I’ve written about this extensively in my previous post from the point of view of traditional Christian faith, so won’t go back over this ground here.)

This is what is ultimately at stake for England here: our understanding and beliefs about the meaning and value of human sexuality, and the importance of the traditional family based around the rock of an unshakable union between a husband and a wife committed to each other and their children for life.

Let’s not be under any illusions here. The most ardent and determined LGBT-equality campaigners won’t be content with mere equality under the law: they want society not only to hold and propagate the view that gay sex and marriage are equal to their straight counterparts, but that they are equivalent to them, morally, socially and spiritually. They want to marginalise and stigmatise anyone who stands up for the traditional understanding of marriage, and brand them as bigots and homophobes. Indeed, that’s what they’re already doing. You wait for the challenges against churches, and church and other religious schools and their teachers, to come in.

Now that it’s law, it’ll become mandatory PC speak to acknowledge the ‘equal value’ and importance of gay and straight marriages. And what will inevitably be next is demands for ‘reproductive equality’: the equal ‘right’ for gay couples, especially if they’re married, to access ‘fertility services’ enabling them to have children (which, after all, is what marriage is supposed to be all about, they might say). So fertility clinics will not be allowed to give preference to straight couples having difficulty becoming joint parents in the natural way over gay or lesbian couples requiring treatments such as artificial insemination or surrogacy enabling one of them to become a parent, even though neither could become a parent under any circumstances if left to nature alone. Equal adoption and marriage rights: equal fertility rights – watch this space.

Would it matter if the traditional family disappears under the impact of an increasingly secularised society’s obsession with enabling every individual – gay or straight – to pursue and fulfil the same goals in the name of equal rights? Well, I think it does matter. Society needs people who are prepared to place their commitments to other people – wives, husbands, children, families, communities – above their dedication to pursuing their personal life goals and sexual, or other, destinies. And, I would say, society needs faith: the belief in, and commitment to, some thing or some being higher than oneself. Is this need met by changing society’s understanding of marriage so that it is merely the affirmation of two people’s love and passion for each other, and of their pursuit of personal fulfilment, divorced from the broader social and familial context?

Well, I guess we’ll muddle through. I hope so anyway. Maybe those who want dogmatically to insist we all acknowledge the equal value of gay sex and unions will not in fact win their ultimate victory, and English society will continue to tolerate diversity, even if hypocritically in some contexts, such as the Church.

The fact that the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill is such an unholy English muddle gives me a sort of desperate hope.

1 Comment »

  1. This comment is off-topic – I’m just leaving it here because this is the most recent post on the blog.

    I’m currently watching England play Ireland in the cricket, and something that is increasingly like fingernails down a blackboad is the commentators’ repeated reference to “the Irish” when discussing Ireland’s team – it is never reciprocated by calling England’s team “the English”. Now that I think about it, this is common across virtually all sports – in the rugby, talk of “the Irish”, “the Welsh”, “the Scots” and “the French” is commonplace, but I don’t think England are EVER referred to as “the English”. In football, I sense this verbal tic is less common – teams are more often referred to simply by their names – but I will pay closer attention to future commentaries.

    This all makes sense, and dovetails with so many of the themes you have covered in the past. Ireland’s team is seen as synonymous with and inextricable from ireland as a people, a nation, whereas England’s is just an abstraction – something that represents England in a dry, technical sense, but is more like a club side – not rooted in the people nor embodying their aspirations and passions. Separate from them. I wonder if this cultivated sense of detachment feeds through particularly to England’s footballers, whose play is regularly and visibly timid, restrained, devoid of passion. Impossible to prove, but the inconsistency of commentators’ language is not. The England team is only ever “England”, never “the English”.

    P.S.: lamentably, the England team actually is removed from the English people in a significant way, namely the selection of non-English players. Today’s team features Morgan and Rankin, two full-on Irishmen who have actually represented their own country before “switching” (a process whose legitimacy never seems to be questioned) to England, as if moving from one club to another. In this context, Sky presenter Charles Colville, solidly establishment, has just patronised his Irish pundit Kyle McAllan by referring to “the Brits” poaching Ireland’s best cricketers. “The Brits”, Charles? Really? Do you mean “the English”? Britain does not play and never has played any part in world cricket. In part he may be playing up to an annoying tendency among the Irish to deliberately refer to England and things English as “British” (while always affording full recognition to things Welsh and Scottish as such), but mostly I suspect it’s just the upper-class habit of subsuming things English under the B-word to avoid the peasants forming too much of a grass-roots national identity that will rock the British boat. Colville! His very name belies his Norman credentials.

    Comment by Rob — 3 September 2013 @ 1.23 pm | Reply


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