Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Marriage of convenience

I am probably the least qualified to write on the subject of Gay Marriage, not being gay or married or religious and not being terribly interested in becoming any of those things. I have, however, followed the online discussions on the subject with an increasing sense of bewilderment, and here's why.


As far as I can see it, there are two types of marriage. One is a legal declaration, with implications for how the state deals with you in terms of taxation and the provision of services. The other is a declaration in front of the god of your choice that you wish to be recognised as a couple - with all the various societal rules and traditions that implies. In the UK, the former has derived from the latter in much the same way as many of our secular laws have derived from the development of the country in a Christian framework, and indeed the law recognises a church marriage as being legally equivalent to a registry union.


So what about same-sex marriage? Well the civil partnership was introduced to give the same legal status to homosexual couples as to heterosexual, and that is a huge leap forward as far as I am concerned. I can't quite see why it was necessary, however. Surely it would have been just as easy to alter the existing law to be gender blind. But if the effect is the same - a same sex couple having exactly the same legal rights and obligations as a mixed sex one - then my pragmatist brain says all's fair.


Religious marriage, on the other hand, is a whole different kettle of fish, and here my lack of personal insight into these matters begins to tell.


Initially, I couldn't even begin to understand why anyone would want to belong to a club that so obviously hates them. The concept of a gay Christian seems incredibly contradictory - on the one hand you believe in the sacrament, the word of God etc., etc., and yet on the other you are determined to live in a condition that your chosen faith calls sin. They say that the definition of genius (and madness) is to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time, but that seems to me to be taking it a bit far.


The Dean of St Albans, The Very Reverend Jeffrey John, in a recent article in the Times (reproduced outside the paywall here) cleared the position up for me a little, although there is a certain amount of 'well he would say that wouldn't he' about his stance. His view seems eminently sensible to me, if coloured slightly by the fact that I don't share his faith. The key point seems to be that religious marriage is a declaration of intent to commit yourself (for life) to a relationship with just one other person, and in so doing to glorify the name of God.


Now the root of all this quite probably is procreation. If we're being reductionist about religions, then the rules and regulations they come up with have to have a point somewhere. Defining a long-term, monogamous relationship in a religious context - where the punishment for breaking that vow is eternal damnation and hellfire - is one way of improving the welfare of any child born of that union. A stable, two-parent family and a lack of doubt over fatherhood of the child are both good things. In a way, though, the legal aspect of marriage is far more important for any children than the religious undertaking, as it defines the rights those children have, whereas a purely religious union is about the couple, not their offspring.


As an aside, it's also rather unfair of the church, and others, to say that gay couples cannot marry because they cannot procreate. True, they cannot procreate together, but there are many gay families where one of the partners is the biological parent, the other half of the equation having been provided by a Turkey baster or a womb-for-hire. There are families where death has us parted and the surviving partner has found solace in the arms of someone of the same sex. There is, although misguidedly infrequent, adoption by gay couples. There are endless permutations of relationship - as many as there are people. The important thing is surely the declaration of intent - and the framework in which you make that declaration would suggest how serious you are in keeping to it.


So the church is perhaps mistaken in it's homophobia - missing a chance, as the Dean might put it - but that, I feel, is its right. Religion is no longer compulsory in this country, and by its very nature excludes those who don't adhere to its tenets. The idea that it should not be able to define its own membership rules if it wants to seems to me absurd. You don't have to be a member. If you don't like the rules, go join a different club - there are some out there clamouring to be allowed to marry same sex couples. Form your own church. Nail some declarations to a door or something.


The same cannot be said of society. In the UK we are all, as subjects of Her Majesty the Queen, bound by a legal framework out of which we cannot opt.* Thus where there should be proper equality is in the structure of legal marriage. If there is no difference between a civil partnership and a registry marriage except in the gender of the participants, then there really should be no need for two separate legal entities. This, I believe, is where the government is trying to get to with its recent consultation paper that has stoked up so much controversy.


As for religious marriage? Well, as far as I am concerned, it should have no legal significance whatsoever. A church wedding is a matter between two people and their god - and no-one else. Even the witnesses are really only there for the free booze. After your bridesmaids-and-confetti extravaganza, if you want to enjoy the different rights our society affords to couples over single people, then you should hie yourself down to the registry office, where you can be officially recognised as a couple regardless of the contents of your respective trousers.


* at least in theory. But that's an even bigger can of worms.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Tina Marsden said...

Hey Mr Oswald, just wanted to say I downloaded Natural Causes and LOVED it. If I could have stayed awake it would have been one of those books you stay up to read. Thank you for making it a free download for Kindle, on principle so far I'm not doing anything other than free books, not least because it lets me find authors I've not heard of before. So thank you again, just waiting for the next book now. Tina Marsden

May 26, 2012 7:43 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

I'm glad to hear you liked it, Tina. Thanks for letting me know (via multiple channels!) The next one should be out by mid-June, barring major incident. Keep your eyes peeled and check the kindle charts.

May 27, 2012 11:01 am  

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