Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Nationalising marriage – a few extra comments


As a brief follow-up to my post on Sunday about the same-sex marriage debate, these are a few more, mostly random, thoughts. I should add that, approximately 12 hours after writing that article, I was struck down by norovirus (and no, I don’t think that’s a divine judgement) and I’m still in the process of recovering (both from the illness and lost sleep), so my brain is possibly not at its best either. So if any of this seems incoherent, that’s my excuse.

I’ve previously commented elsewhere that maybe the solution for the church[1] is to accept that they’ve lost the word “marriage” (just as the word “gay” has been redefined), and arguing for an unchanged definition is pointless. Words can, and do, change meaning, and the simple fact is that “marriage” doesn’t mean what it did a few generations ago. My suggestion then was that, rather than trying to cling to the term “marriage” that, instead, the churches (at least, whose which wish to maintain a traditional view of sexuality) should come up with a new term. My tentative contribution was “Covenant partnership”, which, although unwieldy, is a fair reflection of what marriage has traditionally been understood. It seems I’m not alone in reaching that conclusion; columnist Andrew Lilico made exactly the same suggestion this morning on Twitter. More interestingly, in the course of the discussion which followed it transpires that CS Lewis was also of the opinion that the church should make a clear distinction between state marriage and religious marriage. Having a copy of Mere Christianity (the book in which Lewis made that comment) on my shelves, I had a quick look. Here’s what he wrote:

My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the state with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction should be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

(In my copy – the paperback Fount edition – that’s on page 99. But it’s easy to find, as it’s in the chapter named, unsurprisingly, “Christian Marriage”)

It’s worth noting that Lewis wrote those words in the early 1940s, prior to the passing of the Marriage Act 1949 which established civil wedding ceremonies. To an extent, therefore, Lewis’s words were prophetic, although in reality both the government and the churches, rather than emphasising the distinction between the the two types of marriage, chose rather to fudge it. Presumptive of me it may be, but I think that if Lewis were alive today, he would support the right of the state to redefine the meaning of “state marriage” to include same sex couples while also supporting the right of the churches to maintain their own definition of “church marriage” which excludes them. Which is precisely my position.

Secondly, someone asked me how I’d vote today if I were an MP. I think that’s actually a very difficult question to answer, and to tell the truth I don’t know how I’d vote. I really do not know.

Obviously, those who vote today will divide into two groups, those going through the “Aye” lobby in support of the proposals and those going through the “No” to oppose them. But, within those two groups, there will also be at least two major subsets of voters.

Within the Ayes, there will be some – which I’ll call “Aye-A” – who are not merely committed to the principle of same-sex marriage but also have little concern for any possible arguments against it. They may be willing to make some practical concessions for purely political reasons, as a means of minimising opposition, but they have little or no genuine concern for those holding a contrary position. In particular, they are unconcerned about the the possibility of the legislation to force individuals and groups to act against their conscience (or, in the case of churches which support same-sex marriage, in accordance with it). The second group – “Aye-B” – are, by contrast, those who also support the principle of extending the freedom to marry, but are genuinely concerned about the potential negative side-effects of bad legislation. Nonetheless, despite their concerns, they are prepared to vote in favour because, even though they accept that the legislation is flawed, they believe that the overriding principle is more important (and, maybe, that the flaws can be fixed later, if necessary). They may also believe that if this vote is lost, it will be another generation before they get another opportunity.

In the No lobby there will be a similar division. The “No-A” group will be those who simply do not want the state to permit same-sex marriage at all, preferring instead to attempt to force the state – and society as a whole – to continue with their own preferred definition. The second – “No-B” – group will be those who accept, at least in principle, the redefinition of state marriage, but have sufficiently serious reservations about the proposed legislation to be unable to support it. They may believe that, despite being right in principle, legislating for same-sex marriage at the moment is likely to be too socially divisive to be justified until there is clearer and more overwhelming public support for it. Or, they may be of the opinion that the cause of same-sex marriage will be better served by rejecting this particular set of proposals and reworking them into something less obviously flawed.

Whichever way I voted, I’d be in one of the B groups. So, I think, would be anyone who approaches the issue from the basis of genuine concern for personal freedom. I have little sympathy with authoritarianism on either side, whether it is forcing everyone to obey the dictates of religious conscience or forcing the religious to disobey their conscience. But the problem with that is that, whichever way you vote, from a B position, you’re going to be tarred by association with the As in the same lobby. There are some arguments being made, on both sides of the debate, that I think are not merely wrong but bordering on malevolent. The smearing of opponents as “homophobes”, for example, just for daring to suggest that the legislation is flawed, or the suggestion that supporters of the proposals are deliberately engaged in social engineering in order to damage religion. In a few cases both of those may be true; I am certain it is not of the majority who will go through either lobby tonight. It would be really difficult to give the impression of agreeing with any of those accusations.

So maybe I’d abstain? I still don’t know. If I was standing there tonight as the vote is called, then I think I’d simply offer up a silent prayer and then go whichever way my conscience took me. But I’m not there, and won’t be voting, and therefore won’t have to make that decision. All I can really say is that I don’t envy the task of those who do have to decide.

[1] I’m referring here primarily to those churches which do want to maintain the traditional understanding of marriage. Obviously, not all Christians are themselves of the opinion that such an understanding necessarily excludes same-sex couples, but that’s a different issue that I’m not addressing here.