I’m sure you are all aware of the current furore over the issue of gay marriage. For those of you who’ve just returned from your 2-month solo rowing trip across the Atlantic the basic premise is that the government is planning to legalise gay marriage by 2015 and the Roman Catholic church is leading the charge against that notion. Various religious organisations are coming down on both sides of the fence, and the most recent development is a letter signed by 2,500 churches and a couple of archbishops condemning the whole idea.
I think it is assumed that gay marriage is a great idea – lots of equality, legal recognition (already granted by civil unions, but still) and by passing it some upstanding politicians will get a warm fuzzy feeling from knowing that they have been extra-PC today. I’m sure you’re familiar with that most wonderful of feelings.
An evening in Pizza Express; I am chatting to a group of friends, one of whom is gay and generally has her head screwed on. This topic came up and I was surprised when she came down firmly against the idea of gay marriage, making me realise that I’d simply presumed that gay marriage is the best plan and was fully prepared for that warm fuzziness when the law was passed. Now, having spoken to her about it, I am not so sure.
What she was saying boiled down to this: marriage is a religious tradition and whilst it has been written into law and knit into the fabric of everyday life, it ultimately remains religious in origin and should be governed as such – by religious institutions. She found the idea that gay campaigners were effectively forcing the church to subject one of their most celebrated ceremonies to a definition change on the pretext of equality abhorrent, and shameful. Yes, she conceded that many non-religious people got married and that this was indeed a partial blow to the ‘religious tradition’ argument, but equally that those people who were non-religious and got married still did so according to the basic religious definition of marriage: a joining between a man and a woman.
At this point, especially after a couple of glasses of wine, I was floundering. A civil union and a marriage in the UK are legally identical – rights and responsibilities, tax and property etc are all managed in the same way regardless of which umbrella you fit under. As such, the only difference between the two things is in the name, and the fact that only homosexual couples can engage in a civil union.
That is where the problem lies. Civil unions are in need of legislation broadening their accessibility by heterosexual couples, and I believe that out of respect to centuries of tradition and spiritual significance marriage should be left as it stands. The word marriage means a lot to the church and to its followers, and to impose laws forcing them to accept what they believe in heretical* into one of their sacred ceremonies is deeply disrespectful. Gay people, of course, believe that not being able to call it marriage is deeply disrespectful. It basically comes down to who deserves the respect more – something mired in a bias so thick that wading through it will never be possible.
My gay friend has convinced me that I do not believe in gay marriage. Instead, I support non-discriminatory civil unions. Give marriage back to the church, I say, and let it be once again a religious ceremony to be celebrated and administered by the beliefs from whence it came. For everyone else a civil union is legally viable and is no barrier to a big party, and is held back only by short-sighted legislation forbidding it to the majority of the British population (and by the lack of a smooth verb to describe it – unioned? Civilised? Someone needs to think hard about this). I am shocked by my support of the Roman Catholic church (don’t hold your breath for the next occasion) but I realised that I was supporting gay marriage only because I hadn’t really thought the matter through properly – alongside everyone else I just saw the word ‘equality’ and assumed it was a step in the right direction. Equality may be a worthy aim, but in this case it’s being gone about in the wrong way.
*rant for another time.