Equality – not quite
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act passed into law on 17 July this year. Although it’s a step closer to equality, it isn’t an amendment to the Marriage Act 1949, which governs different-sex marriages, and consequently it is different.
Peter Tatchell has been campaigning for equal marriage rights for many years. His goal is that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry and different-sex couples should be allowed to have a civil partnership. You can read his thoughts on the problems of the new law here.
I have been studying the arguments for and against gay marriage for my forthcoming novel, A Very Civil Wedding, that is due out on 1 November 2013 and I fear that Mr Tatchell’s goal of equal marriage is not going to happen for a long time, if ever.
The big sticking point is the Church. I am using ‘Church’ broadly. I don’t just mean the Churches of England and Wales that have been exempted from performing same-sex marriages under the new law. All the world’s major religions have a problem with same-sex marriage to a greater or lesser degree.
The news in May that a Muslim lesbian couple from Pakistan who, in order to get married, was having to seek asylum in the U.K. because of fears for their physical safety illustrates just how unequal the state of marriage is for those gay couples who are also religious.
Marriage means something very specific for most religions. It means the union of one man and one woman. This is not just semantics, or a case of refusing to evolve language. This is fundamental to many religious texts, teachings, and liturgy on the subject. If Churches were heritage organisations and ‘marriage’ were a building, it would have a Grade I listed status.
I have a certain amount of sympathy with those who argue that to force Churches to accept same-sex marriage is an infringement of their rights to hold a particular set of beliefs. I don’t agree with their beliefs, but I can see their point. Freedom to believe and worship how you want is as fundamental as the freedom to love and marry whom you want.
Recently, I have come to the conclusion that the government and the equal marriage campaigners have picked the wrong fight. In trying to change marriage, they are battling centuries of religious doctrine. It seems unlikely that they will influence enough Church hearts and minds to achieve equal marriage.
So, how about targeting civil partnerships instead? The words ‘civil partnership’ have no doctrinal value and are therefore uncontroversial for the Church. Open this institution to different-sex couples and you will have created a vehicle for uniting everyone under the same terms. It won’t be equal marriage, but it will be equality, and surely that’s the most important thing?
Having done this, it is then a small step to the French wedding system in which couples are legally tied by a civil authority not by the Church. As controversial as it might be to remove the ability of Churches in the U.K. (particularly the Church of England and the Church of Wales) to legally unite people, it has many advantages for Churches, not least that a non-legal marriage service would focus the service on the religious aspect rather just being a convenient way to get a marriage licence for many non-believers, and it would enable them to retain the word ‘marriage’ for use as they see fit.
To find out more about the arguments for and against, and how I reached this conclusion, you’ll need to get hold of a copy of A Very Civil Wedding in November. It’s a fun read, not too heavy, with a romantic storyline.
Copyright © 2013 Liberation Publishing (www.liberationpublishing.co.uk)