In the UK at least, the question of whether the law should call civil partnerships marriages is a merely semantic dispute. It is not about equality, under the existing legislation in Britain same-sex couples already have that, and it’s not about homophobia either. It is that the term ‘marriage’, by contrast to near synonyms ‘wedding’ and perhaps ‘union’, requires two heterogeneous elements mixed to create something new. To make a crude example, some salad can go together to make a nice salad, but fried chicken and piri piri sauce- that’s a marriage. But of course it goes deeper than that. It is also about mystery, and here the mystery is the unknown nature -yet wondrous complementarity- of the other (in both mind and body).

The semantic dispute doesn’t only come down to whether or not the ceremonies take place in the context of a belief system, but also to the content of a belief. Surprisingly, many people disagree with gay marriage even though they don’t believe that homosexuality is condemned by god.

In our cultural heritage, marriage has always been the Christian sacrament of holy matrimony, a ritual practise which symbolises not just a committed romantic relationship between two people, but the union of two people into one biological whole from which new life (literally) flows as a transformation of their love.

Additionally in Christianity -by contrast to other religions- marriage traditionally was only valid once it had been consummated. It is significant then, that given the diversity of homosexual practises those relationships contain no definite equivalent of consummation. The creation of same sex marriage would therefore require British divorce law to be rewritten.

Essentially, if we respect how the word ‘marriage’ has been used for the great bulk of our history, to decline calling civil partnerships ‘marriages’ is no more discriminatory than maternity care not being provided on the NHS to gay men. The non-Christian might then say, ‘those Christians have no right to impose their standards on society!’, and as a secularist I of course agree. But as a secularist I am committed to the view that likewise non-Christians have no right to impose their redefinitions of Christian concepts upon Christians, particularly when it is such a central concept. I accept that its only natural that the meaning of words changes over time -as indeed marriage has in some comparatively trivial respects- but I object to having them forcedly changed by a third party.

Marriage is centrally important to Christianity because, perhaps surprisingly, it respects sex as a phenomenon of incredible importance to human life. And not only an important one, but one that is to some extent essential because Christianity also sees itself as a framework for erotic/romantic intercourse with God. Here the physical differences between men and women are not viewed as trivial- Christianity is not otherworldly Cartesianism but upholds the significance of the bodily existence.

I can understand if some people think of the term ‘marriage’ as being used rhetorically as a badge of honour, rather than almost scientifically to give a description. Personally, I am completely against denying equal honour to respect to loving gay partnerships. I simply think that it is important to maintain the traditional descriptive sense of marriage as describing a relationship between a woman and a man. After all, gay and straight partnerships are different, and if we insist upon using the same term for both we will end up with straight marriage being commonly referred to as ‘proper’ or ‘real’ marriage, which does then make the term apt to be used as a rock with which to stone homosexuals- a violence which of course goes completely against the Christian understanding of sacraments.

Consequently, the solution I humbly offer is that the law speaks of both gay and straight weddings (or civil partnerships) rather than marriages (it may sound unusual but it makes perfect sense for people to say that they are ‘wedded’. Indeed in tribute to their late idol, atheist campaigners can try and turn ‘Hitched’ into the new cultural badge of honour). Those who prefer to use the term ‘marriage’ can do so at their discretion, but my objection is with the law interfering in religion.

Religion is a cultural phenomenon that is the property of the members of that culture, and not of the state. Do we want the government to dictate to us how to use our own language like Orwellian newspeak? If the state is allowed to interfere with religion, then doesn’t that justify religion interfering with the state? And that is something I think no-one wants to see. Believers in traditional marriage are rightly concerned that if their most intimate relationships become subject to definition by the state then they become susceptible to change (or even abolition) at any time.

Breaking the legal link between marriage and relationships of a procreative kind means that any kind of relationship could just as well be a marriage. This includes marriages between adults and children, close relatives, and animals- perhaps all at the same time (because these are not kinds of relationship typically directed towards procreation then they needn’t require a strong sense of consent). Anything could be a marriage, the whole institution simply ceases to have a meaning. And with this our culture loses something truly valuable.

Ultimately, the biggest reason religious people are on the defensive about the new proposals -other than latent homophobia- is the concern that Church marriages will have legal sanctions imposed against them in the future. However speculative, this concern is grounded in the fact that the same-sex partnerships lobby repeatedly insisted that they were not going to push for gay marriage if and when they achieved civil partnerships and yet it is the same lobby and indeed the same particular campaigners who are now insisting just as adamantly that they will not subsequently push for the criminalisation of marriage providers who do not offer to marry same-sex couples. You cannot blame the religious that these promises ring hollow.

This is only one view; if the majority of people in society want to call it marriage then that’s a good reason for it to be legally binding (though there is no evidence they do- none of the major parties had it in their manifestos at election time).

Cultural solidarity is much more important today than most people seem to think, yet this is not worth getting angry about. Indeed, same-sex couples provide stable units of community at the most basic level of society. Even if they are not ‘building blocks’ in the sense of producing their own biological offspring they still provide firm sources of hospitality for the vulnerable (including -significantly for many against same-sex marriage- unplanned children). And they can support other couples in their own relationships -both hetero and homosexual- and indeed they have the advantage in this of not being constrained by traditional gender roles.

See my article on homosexuality and the bible.

Gay Marriage?


11 responses »

  1. As a Christian and pastor, I must say that it is remarkably refreshing to hear a secularist advocate for the mutual respect of differing cultures and belief structures, as opposed to the standard abolition of religious belief which is often touted. Thank you.

    It is unfortunate to me that so many Christians cling to such a disproportionate elevation of homosexuality in contrast with other perceived sins. Even if one believes homosexuality to be a sin (a conclusion I am not convinced of), it hardly deserves the weight it bears. Within our own congregations, unmarried heterosexual sexual relationships are rampant, yet the amount of discourse given to this issue pales next to the weight given to homosexuality. Regardless of which side of this issue a Christian comes down on, the reality is that the characterization of an entire demographic on the basis of their “sin” is akin to victimization.

  2. I have a very different attitude. To me so long as society defines marriage as essentially heterosexual (and god ordained) then many others including Christians and heterosexual couples are squeezing themselves into this definition. More and more of us just don’t feel comfortable doing so and end up landing with gay couples outside the picture.
    You see its not just gay people excluded by complementarian models of marriage (which are at the heart of making them essentially heterosexual) but all of us who don’t share that theology of gender.
    That’s a lot of people. Of all different faiths.

    • Very good point Tony. But I should add that as far as I’m aware (which isn’t very much) the other major religions have similar views of committed relationships. I was talking specifically about Christianity because I was talking about the UK.

      • I can only speak about Australia and even then we often travel in cultural bubbles on this issue I think.
        That said I think polls repeatedly show that religious leaders are at odds with narrow majorities of their active members (so church attending not just nominal Christians) on gay marriage.
        What I’m saying is that for those people (like myself and my female partner) it is not an issue of extending marriage to gay people. It is an issue of being excluded ourself by a marriage language that is essentially gendered and privileges heterosexuality. How does this exclude us? Because although heterosexual we subscribe to egalitarian models of gender and love such that we see our relationship as the same in principle as a samesex couple. Deny gays you deny us and my partner is a weekly church attending Lutheran who co-runs Sunday school!

      • We’ll you (and by extension the homosexuals that you represent) are only choosing to interpret it as a denial. Logically speaking, from what I have said, it should be clear it is not intended as exclusionary/bigoted.

      • Alas this might have been a solution without the history that brought us here.
        Given that marriage has been used as the measure of relationship seriousness and quite frankly a form of bragging and demand for respect…
        Given that “marriage defenders” have described recognizing gay marriages as insulting to themselves, as degradation or pollution….
        Given that these attitudes continue…
        I don’t think “domestic partnerships” will do.

  3. If the term Marriage is a legal term and legally binding and I believe that anyone who has gone through a divorce will agree it is, then it needs to be for all ‘married’ couples regardless. If the church or the state think ‘marriage’ should be kept to religious cultural beliefs then remove the word from law and use civil partnerships for all, keeping religion out of it completely.

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