Friday, 23 September 2011

Till death us do part - unless you're a gay, of course.

I now pronounce you…man and wife.

Now I’m fairly sure that a thousand different people could take issue with the somewhat archaic and sexist way of announcing a union between two people – man, take home your wife, your property. Woman, you are now someone’s wife. Even – you may kiss the bride. Not terribly 21st century is it. But then, as you will be told time and time again, God’s will doesn’t change, so neither should the view or teaching of religion. ‘Women, be subject to your husbands’. Etc. The list goes on, and that’s only Christianity. So why on earth would the state want to broaden the church’s view of marriage to include gays?

Well, first and foremost, the church has missed the boat on this one. They lost their stranglehold on marriage once the concept was accepted as law from other religions, and then when the state took the step of making marriage, in name and form, a state function. In fact, marriages are only legal if the presiding person is empowered by the state to sign off the legal documents - and this is not the way a lot of churches now work. Of course, their argument will be that the act of marriage is separate from the state accepting it as a legal fact. That may be the case, but the reality of the situation is that marriage is now, in name and in legal reality, a function of the state.

Now what is marriage for? Not perhaps something we can come to a clear answer on - and with good reason. In fact, the inability to come to a single answer for all those who enter into it suggests just how pluralistic the definitions are, and indeed, should be.

Those from a church background seem to be the most vociferously opposed to the recently announced legislation to call a union between two people of the same gender a marriage. In fact, it's one of the five non-negotiables ( - things that Roman Catholics must not vote for - indeed they must not vote for a candidate who is even lukewarm on the issues. On the list are genuine matters of life and death: abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, embryonic stem cell research. But gay marriage? Really? Of course, the arguments surrounding the sacraments and their 'denigration' could go on forever - I do suggest reading the non-negotiables simply to read the wonderful phrase, that 'legal recognition of homosexual unions actually does homosexual persons a disfavor [sic] by encouraging them to persist in what is an objectively immoral arrangement'. But it seems those in the church and elsewhere miss the point - they believe in free will - and what the allowing of gay marriage is really doing, ismaking a change to civil law. It is generally accepted (as parties were voted in with it as an objective) that the citizens of the UK do not oppose gay committed long-term partnerships. Civil marriage means many things to many people. Many, if not all, of these things apply as much to gays and lesbians as they do to straight couples. So to call such a union between two people anything other than civil marriage, if that is what is wanted, seems disingenuous, silly, pointless, and not terribly grounded in fact.

Now I anticipate the standard complaints here, and I'll tackle a couple of them.

Firstly, marriage was and is for the creation of children. The standard argument against is 'but what about old people getting married, shouldn't they not do it, as they can't procreate...etc etc'. Well I imagine a Roman response would be that, if by a miracle, God wanted them to have children, it would be possible. This is pretty shoddy reasoning (I mean, it's about as likely for a gay man to have a child with another man as any post-menopausal woman or one who's had a hysterectomy) - however, it's not the only shoddy bit of reasoning amongst some church teaching, so it can't come as a total surprise. But this is missing the point. Over time, institutions, rituals, etc, all change and remould themselves to the current state of affairs in a democratic nation. So, although 'marriage' was originally the church's alone (together with teaching on children), since becoming a civil institution, marriage is pluralistic in its definitions, and hence saying 'this is what it used to stand for and you can't change it' doesn't hold much ground; welcome to democracy, your Holiness. What we call civil marriage is often for different reasons, and hence may be considered as different to religious marriage (particularly traditional Roman marriage). But you lost the name when the state got hold of it - and you don't have the monopoly on it. Which takes me onto my second point:

The inclusion of homosexuals within the legal civil marriage framework does not mean that this is a threat to religious marriage, and neither is the state forcing religions to perform such marriages. In fact, it's interesting that the church even cares about it; every marriage in the UK not celebrated by a Roman Catholic priest is 'invalid' anyway - so just add this to the list! What is interesting is that groups like the Quakers are upset that, at present, they CANNOT perform gay marriages or even civil partnerships in their buildings, despite them having no religious reasons not to - the state is in fact preventing them from performing rites that they want to perform - not allowing much religious freedom there then! What the current proposed law will do is allow these ceremonies to be performed by the state, just like ordinary civil marriage, and also give more religious freedom.

Adoption is also something which is constantly dropped into arguments against gay marriage - as though one comes hand in hand with the other. The arguments that surround this could go on forever, but let's not deliberately join the two. Just because gays can marry, it doesn't necessarily mean that adoption is going to be slipped through the back door. The two are separate arguments. Let's keep it that way.

'Civil partnerships are enough; why bother with marriage'. Because civil partnerships are generally considered to be a somewhat derogatory and offensive way of denigrating the importance of a union. Why shouldn't there be two married husbands or wives? Anyone suggesting civil partnerships are 'enough' needs to look at their semantic complaints - marriage is marriage, it's recognised as an official union. There is no need for two steams - it's equality or nothing.

This all sounds a little hard-line, I suppose, but I suppose it is somewhat tiring to hear pseudo-philosophical meandering from within the church criticising state civil gay marriage as though it causes major problems to them. 'It offends the sacraments'. Deal with it. Gays have dealt with a fair bit of offense from the church over the years - and it's here that the church has got left behind. They could have been the institution of love - but instead, too often it looks like it's the institution of rules for rules' sake, and casting of the first stone.

I haven't even had a chance to rejoice rally against the injustice shown to intersex, XX males, XY females, transgender people, and a whole number of others - who should a man who is genetically female marry, for example. The church is well behind, and so is the state - these are true 21st century things to be thinking through; gays are so last century.

So let's rejoice in the slow but sure advance towards equality for homosexuals in expressing their love. And I suppose let's feel a little bit sorry for the church which rather missed the boat.