One thing about having been brought up in an era of increasing civil rights for LGBT people, is that I feel like I am being debated all the time, and sometimes I don’t find that fun. At the moment, for example, the British Government is considering expanding the legal partnership rights for same-sex couples. The extant law allows couples to enter into a Civil Partnership. This is very similar to marriage but for a few small differences:
- There is no requirement to consummate – so CPs cannot be annulled for non-consummation, and legally there is no allowance made for dissolution on the grounds of adultery;
- CPs of male peers or knights don’t receive the titular rights of a wife;
- It is not legally necessary to have a public ceremony, or even to both be present at the time the register is signed, as long as each signature is made in front of witnesses and a registrar;
- Currently, they cannot be conducted in places of worship, or by a minister, or include religious liturgy / readings.
I realise those sound like small things, but they are enough to ensure that there remains a line between CP and marriage. After all, they are concessions made by the last government to prevent religious leaders from blocking the change to the law in the House of Lords.
This is the basis on which the government wants to make a change from CP to marriage. Essentially, even the consultation is an acknowledgement that there are certain differences between CP and marriage – and, therefore, that the government accepts that separate but not equal is not equal. (So when government spokespeople or cabinet members say there’s no difference between CP and marriage, they are making a mockery of their own decisions, it’s daft.)
So, here’s the thing, these changes are certain to resonate within the religious community – especially amongst those Anglicans who have a say in the lawmaking process – because they are designed to remove the concessions that the last government made to the church. The separation of church and state simply doesn’t exist in the UK (particularly England), with the Queen as head of the Church of England and the PM nominally appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury. This particular consultation challenges the church’s power by attempting to remove any part of the CP law that the church had asked for. It’s actually much bigger than just gay marriage; we’ve seen this again in the last couple of days with the challenge to the Sunday Trading regulations (which will be relaxed during the Olympic and Paralympic Games).
It’s understandable, therefore, that the debate tends to assume that there is a polarisation between what is right for same-sex couples and their allies, and what is right or appropriate for the church. After all, those are the terms that even the government is framing the changes within. The subtlety and complexity of the issue has been lost.
For example, there are many in the LGBT community who aren’t all that fussed about the changes. And who can blame them? The true impact is negligible for a lot of people. How many queer peers do we have, anyway? And how many people really care if the government expects them to have sex or not (as long as they’re getting what they want when they want it without coercion or abuse)? And, since the changes don’t affect the rules on religion, those of us who want to involve God in our lifelong partnerships are still put out. What is being achieved, except the use of the word ‘marriage’?
As I have already said, one can clearly understand why the church has got a bee in its biretta. What I can’t understand, however, is the way in which some opponents of gay marriage / equal marriage / [insert your preferred term here] are defending their position.
There is a tendency amongst ethicists to resort to what is known as the ‘slippery slope’ argument. For example, if we allow shops to open longer hours on Sundays during the Olympics we are opening the way for the Sunday Trading rules to be repealed. Sometimes, like in the above example, this is perfectly logical. Often, when talking about human sexuality, it is not possible to use the slippery slope argument logically. It does not directly follow that if we allow two men or two women to be married, the law will eventually be forced to allow one to marry a sibling, a child or an animal. Whilst homosexuality was once illegal, it was never considered to be abusive, as are incest, bestiality and paedophilia. It is downright offensive to suggest that loving, adult relationships are comparable. Yes, there are lobbies that claim otherwise, I accept that, and I don’t know what will change in the future. But I do know that societies create laws and moral and draw lines. Sometimes the placement of those lines stops making sense, and we move them; sometimes not.
I’m not particularly going to try to make the case for gay marriage; if you’re reading this you will have heard it and you will probably have strong views one way or the other. All I would say is that, whether those views are based on church tradition (or lack of), your own experience, or political bias; be aware that these issues are not abstract, and whatever you say will offend someone. I’ve had my fair share of uncomfortable conversations with people I (still) respect, and that’s ok. Goodness knows, whether they are separated or not, both church and state make mistakes all the time (left-handedness, poll tax…), and sometimes we won’t know the mistakes for what they are at the time. To err is human, after all. The important thing is that we don’t allow these ultimately petty, worldly concerns to lead us away from loving God, and one another, unreservedly. If we can manage that, we can hang in here for a little while longer.