Why, you might ask, have gay people insisted on ‘marriage’ rather than ‘civil partnership’? Is the word itself really so important, so long as you’ve got equivalent rights? There is a quirk of our constitution, because England has an established church, which makes the issue significant.
Back to basics; people make all kinds of legal arrangements for both their personal and their business lives. In some cases these arrangements are so common that for convenience the law provides what might be called ‘templates’ of these, standardising them, bringing them under common legal procedures. Partnerships are an example in commerce, adoption in personal affairs. In some cases these arrangements may be considered so beneficial to society in general, beyond those directly involved, that they come with tax breaks, next-of-kin rights and other benefits. Marriage is one such example.
In religious states like Muslim countries with their Shari’a law, the marriage laws will reflect the beliefs of the religion in question – though they may allow some latitude to foreigners’ marriages. In the countries of ‘Christendom’ the marriage laws have generally reflected the teachings of the Christian Church, though most Western states have long allowed secular (‘registry office’) marriages, divorce, and other features not quite according to Christianity. Until comparatively recently it was pretty much taken for granted that marriage was between a man and a woman, especially since homosexuality, being a sin, was illegal anyway in such ‘Christian’ states. Now that homosexuality is legal, and indeed many other sexual practices between consenting adults have been decriminalised, things have changed and the formerly persecuted gay community now seeks to be as equal as possible – or at least a very vocal segment of it does.
If you were designing from scratch a plural society which respects many different beliefs and unbeliefs, you would I think include a ‘civil partnership’ which in a way would not need a sexual implication, a deal for companionship and shared life which might be very flexible. It need not, for example, be ‘monogamous’, given the number of religions which accept polygamy, though if tax breaks and the like were involved it might not be unlimited in terms of the number of such partnerships one person could form. The various religions existing in the state could use the ‘civil partnerships’ as a legal foundation for religious marriages but would also have internal disciplines for their members in the matter (as sporting bodies have their own internal rules for various things).
Unfortunately in the UK we aren’t designing an ideal pluralistic system from scratch. Indeed although in so many ways we do act like a pluralistic democracy, we are still technically a Christian country with an established Church. Technically the Church of England is still the legal norm and everyone else, including other forms of Christianity, are only ‘tolerated’ in an impliedly ‘second-class’ way. Anglican marriage is still significantly privileged in small ways.
If you are a gay person seeking equality, this is basically unacceptable. A church which is technically part of and deeply entangled with the state refuses to treat the gay community as equal; this is not just “there are some people around who disagree with us”; this is effectively continued discrimination against the gay community in and by the state itself. For now we have ‘same-sex marriage’ equally for all – except still the state church is allowed to refuse it – indeed has been positively banned by law from doing it, as has the connected but disestablished ‘Church in Wales’! I think it unlikely that this compromise will endure. I think in the end one of two things must happen; either the ‘Church of England’ will have to accept gay marriage, to keep their established privilege but not be discriminatory, or they will have to accept being disestablished. And they may face similar arguments in other areas as well.
Churches which are not established, and have no special privileged position in the state would be a different matter; it would be reasonable for them to disagree with homosexuality and choose not to do same-sex marriages for their own members – interestingly they might nevertheless use the neutral civil partnership for non-sexual relationships….
The tragedy of this is that the present bitter controversy need never have happened, at any rate as a dispute between an established church and the gay community. Christianity was never intended to be established, as I’ve been saying elsewhere in this blog, and so should never have been involved as it was in the criminalisation and effective persecution of gay people. Ideally, Christianity should have remained a voluntary religion, of those who humanly speaking choose to join the church; and they would not be seeking to rule society at large, so everyone else would be free to do – well, not quite whatever they liked, but whatever the state and/or its alternate state religion might allow. I’m not saying the situation would be friction-free; but the whole dynamics would be very different.
As it is, the imposition of Christian behaviour on everybody in a ‘Christian’ country has created all kinds of problems. These included persecution of other religions and of variant forms of Christianity; and legal intervention in all kinds of sexual issues, of which homosexuality is pretty much the last one outstanding – the others beyond that being things like paedophilia and rape which are unlikely ever to have wide social acceptance…. This inappropriate imposition beyond Christian ranks has also created all kinds of attitude problems.
Put bluntly, the only way there can be a resolution is for Christians to abandon the notion of ‘Christian states’ which seek to impose Christian morality on all citizens, and return to the New Testament notion of being an independent voluntary organisation within the earthly state. Only then will we be able to work out a ‘modus vivendi’ with people whose morality in this matter we disagree with. As I say above, this makes the Church of England’s position untenable one way or the other; they must sacrifice either Christian sexual morality or their favoured position and influence in the state – they cannot continue to uphold both.