When the first gay weddings are celebrated this weekend in the UK, those who feel discomfort at the state’s redefinition of marriage will be made to feel even worse by being jeered at from some quarters as homophobes and bigots. The brilliantly successful attempt to frame the redefinition of marriage as the final stage of a civil rights campaign for gay equality has had its effect; and many Christians, rightly appalled at finding themselves cast in the role prepared for them, want desperately that the Church now “demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being”, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has put it.
Feelings run high, because many gay people have been persuaded that those who oppose gay marriage object to them, or their love, or their desire for equality. They have been told that not just by campaigning organizations such as Stonewall, but by the Government itself, which has sought to capitalize on gay peoples’ feelings of anger and exclusion by offering them gay marriage in sympathy. In this trading of self-interest — gay groups needing to deliver victories, governments needing to feel good about civil rights — opponents of SSM have been scapegoated. They have been painted as irrational people driven by phobia — or in the case of religious people, by atavistic theological impulses — which will make it will be harder for them, over time, to be teachers or public servants. The state has introduced a new, official definition of marriage which is wholly out of keeping with that of society, and those who dare to say so will pay the price.
Catholic Voices, which has been a prominent advocate of retaining the conjugal understanding of marriage since the move was first announced out of the blue in the party conferences of 2011, has had a fair share of abuse hurled at it, its arguments for conjugal marriage dismissed as rationalizations for homophobia. It has often got personal. Just last night one of the CV speakers, Caroline Farrow, was spat at and told she was ‘disgusting’ as she left the BBC Question Time studio at Brighton University after she opposed same-sex marriage (SSM) from the audience. Her Twitter feed afterwards filled up with the kinds of insults and language that at one time, ironically, gay people used to suffer.
“Love is love,” the deputy prime minister declared today, as if that’s what this was always about — the opponents of SSM believing, presumably, that love is never, or sometimes not, love. It is part of a frame that casts opponents of SSM as grim reactionaries fuming from the sidelines while the champagne flutes sparkle and the wedding cakes are cut and love is declared.
But it’s not gay people, or love, or equality that we oppose, but the evisceration of marriage. And that is why we find it hard to stay silent.
What is at stake
What is at stake is that, in order to accommodate one group’s desire to have their love legitimated by the state — a dubious idea in itself — the state has emptied marriage of its essential meaning. It has changed marriage from an understandable, recognizable, conjugal institution, one hallowed by faith and civil society, to an ersatz, hollowed-out arrangement that cannot be called an institution at all. That matters because it makes marriage less interesting, less attractive and less important. People — gay or straight — will increasingly come to ask: why do I need a piece of paper from the state to prove I love someone? If marriage is simply “about” the love between any two people, what has the state got to do with it anyway?
In the past, that question has been simple to answer. The state recognises, protects and supports the pre-existing social and cultural understanding of marriage as an institution linked to, but not conditional on, reproduction, at the heart of which is a sexual relationship between a man and a woman. That relationship is apt for, even if it does not always produce, children; and because the rearing of children by their biological parents matters, the conditions of marriage — permanence and fidelity — are designed to support that end. That is the only reason the state has ever wished to single it out and promote it: not to recognize, or endorse, the love between two people, which is no business of the state, but to regulate and protect an institution whose elements are designed to benefit children, even when no children issue.
Were it not for reproduction, marriage would not exist. The fact that some marriages are childless, or do not last (because of death and divorce), or involve adopting children, does not detract from this understanding. Marriage has a meaning. It offers a model, an understanding — what the Greeks call a telos — which makes it what it is. You may not want it, and you may not qualify for it, but you know — you used to know — what it stands for.
Although much is made of the fact that gay couples will now be admitted to this hallowed, timeless social institution, the uncomfortable fact — and Stonewall and the Government, who drafted the legislation know this all too well — is that they are being admitted to another institution altogether: an ersatz, eviscerated, parody of the real thing.
An ersatz ‘institution’
For a start, their sexual activity is irrelevant; consummation, in the new definition, is not required (at least for gay people; part of the anomaly of this law designed to bring about equality is that it creates two categories of marriage): thus an institution linked to reproduction is now a desexualised institution. (The Church, which has long insisted that sex is for marriage, must now insist, counter-culturally, that marriage is for sex.)
Second, marriage has always been understood as the bringing together of man and woman; it is a gendered, gender-specific, gender-complementary institution. Yet the new version of marriage “means the union of two people”, according to Hackney Council’s new script. Any two people.
Third, marriage has been understood to be about fidelity. Yet sexual exclusivity is no longer a requirement for a gay marriage: adultery has been stripped from it as grounds for divorce.
The new version of marriage, then, is not about sex, not about a man and woman, and not about permanence and fidelity. What, then, is left? The answer is Clegg’s: it is sentiment — the feeling (but not the sexual act) of love — between two people.
Love is not the condition
Many would agree that love is what the institution of marriage is “about”. But love has never been the sole condition of marriage. What makes marriage are all these elements: one man plus one woman, brought together through love and affection, sexually bonded for life, faithful to each other, in order to provide the best environment for the creation and rearing of children.
The government edition is a vague, sentimental partnership, parasitic on the richer, deeper meaning of marriage — would gay people want it if it weren’t? — yet at the same time destructive of that meaning. It cannot last.
What will the effect be? It is too early to say conclusively. The UK is one of just 15 nations to have dethroned conjugal marriage, and the first was one to do so was barely a decade ago. But we can make some predictions based on the experiences of those other countries, as well as common sense, all of which point to the progressive weakening of the significance and meaning of marriage in society. Here are three.
1. Civil marriage will over time come to be seen as insignificant and incoherent. People will ask, “why bother? What is it? Why do I need it?” Fewer will marry. And the main victims will be the children of poor families, who are the ones who most benefit from being raised by their biological parents in a stable environment. (See the studies cited here pp 257-8).
2. Despite the claims of lobbies and the Government’s own wishful thinking, gay marriage will not strengthen marriage. The take-up in other countries, and the expected take-up in the UK, has been far too low to make any impact on marriage as a whole — even if gay marriages were strong, which they are not: the divorce rate among those few same-sex couples who do enter marriage is far higher than among straight couples — and in lesbian couples is above 70 per cent.
3. Marriage will be further weakened by future claims from sexual groups also seeking legitimacy from the state. The lesson from other countries is not that gay marriage leads to the legalisation of polyamorous and other kinds of unions — although it has in some places — but that the state is urged to consider them, and must oppose them from a unstable, even incoherent, juridical basis. If marriage has been redefined in one particular (man plus woman) why not in other particulars (fidelity, permanence, restricting numbers to two)? The arguments are incoherent, and further weaken the idea of marriage.
The equality chimera
Does the desire for equality have any part in these discussions? When she was making up her mind about the law which she bravely — to the horror of her parliamentary colleagues – voted against, Sarah Teather, the Lib-Dem MP and former minister, a passionate advocate of equality and gay rights, came to the conclusion that the rights involved counted for very little. She told the House:
The argument in favour of same-sex marriage has mostly centred on rights. But this isn’t the only liberal philosophical perspective on the legislation. The more I considered this bill the more I was unsure about the state’s role. If an important reason for marriage is that it is a space for having and raising children, I can see the relevance for the state being involved in regulating it and encouraging stability for the good of society and for children’s welfare. Similarly, if there is a need for protection of rights to property and rights to make decisions, there are good reasons for the state to provide regulation. But neither of these things is what this legislation is trying to do. In this case, the state is regulating love and commitment alone, between consenting adults, without purpose to anything else. That feels curious to me, as I would normally consider that very much a private matter.
And there is the rub. The campaign for gay marriage — inviting our politicians to be part of an intoxicating, historic civil rights campaign opposed only by dinosaurs and bigots — was never about securing legal rights or ending the exclusion from the benefits of the law. If being unable to marry was a symptom of discrimination against gay people, why was it never mentioned on the marches? Why was it never part of the gay rights battle against discrimination? (In countries where same-sex marriage has been legalized, the take-up has been small, and dwindles over time.)
This was always a symbolic, political move by a lobby seeking from the state an endorsement — a secular blessing — for gay relationships. The price for that political victory has been paid in the destruction of marriage’s core meaning.
Stonewall’s strategy throughout has been to frame the opposition to gay marriage as a kind of homophobic spluttering from suburban old people in cardigans. “Same-sex couples are living in committed, loving relationships and people have realised that the sky has not fallen in,” says its spokesman today. But that is wholly to deflect the point. It is not homosexuality or gay people that opponents have a problem with but the evisceration of marriage.
That is why we must continue to speak up, and refuse to be labelled as anti-gay. As Catholic Voices showed in the only ever UK survey of attitudes to SSM among gay people, there are many, many gay people deeply opposed to this move — and even more who believe it has been wrong to press for it.
A time to rebuild
We must continue to speak, too, against the other tactic of SSM advocates — to paint religious opponents as driven by some kind of theocratic urge to impose its theological understanding on society. That is a gross misreading. Not only does the Church respect the secular autonomy of civil marriage, it also believes the state should continue to defend and uphold the meaning of marriage which neither Church nor state has the power to change. Church and state have traditionally provided two avenues to the same institution, an arrangement that serves the common good. That partnership will now be under severe strain.
The sky will not fall in. But now that the state has destroyed marriage’s intrinsic meaning, the gap between the true understanding of it and the ersatz version confected by the state will grow over time. On the plus side, that makes evangelization easier.
The passage of the UK’s gay marriage law was a shocking display of naked state power: there was no real debate, no authentic consultation, no proper time given to the issue. Unannounced in any campaign manifesto, it was driven by the collusion of all three parties, driven at speed through Parliament in order not to give time for civil society to organize in response.
That is why the mobilization of energies and resources in support of marriage called for by Pope Francis in the Catholic bishops’ synods of 2014 and 2015 could not come at a better time. The recovery of the key institution of human society needs to begin from below. That is the task to which the Church must now turn.
The battle was lost; but now is not the time for growling or sulking. Opponents of SSM will not celebrate this weekend, but nor should they stand grim-faced at the sidelines. While the state hollows out marriage, others must begin rebuilding it from below.
Catholic Voices speakers are today appearing in many media. Fr Edmund Montgomery is quoted here, Fiona O’Reilly here. Fr Edmund has been on Sky and BBC R5 Live. O’Reilly has been on BBC News. Ivereigh has been on BBC ‘Today’ (at 52 mins here) BBC Radio London (Vanessa Feltz show), and on Radio 2 ‘Jeremy Vine’ show. Laura Keynes has been on BBC Radio Cambridge. Many of these, and other clips, will be available later on our website here.