Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien made headlines last week when he wrote a Telegraph article describing government proposals to introduce same-sex marriage into UK law as “madness” and “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”. The substance of his article was lost in the fury that erupted over his language, and hardly anyone seems to have noticed – or cared – that his argument wasn’t remotely faith-based.
Under the civil partnership scheme, he said, same-sex couples already have the same civil rights as married ones, such that redefining marriage would give them no tangible benefits; in no real sense, therefore, should this be seen as a debate over equality or about gay rights. This is a debate about the nature and value of marriage.
While its form may have varied across cultures, marriage – whether Christian or otherwise – has always and everywhere been understood as existing, in the Cardinal’s words, “in order to bring men and women together so that the children born of those unions will have a mother and a father.”
This timeless and universal conception of marriage has children at its heart; we cannot redefine marriage as “committed loving relationships between adults” unless we jettison its primary purpose, that being to provide a safe, stable, and balanced environment within which children can be born and reared.
Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat junior minister with responsibility for equality, has accepted that neither the State nor the Church “owns” marriage; in response, Cardinal O’Brien pointed out that “No Government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.”
The Government certainly has no electoral mandate for such a radical change; proposals to redefine marriage were conspicuously absent from the manifestos of both Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in the 2010 election, and were accordingly absent from the agreed programme for government.
Such silence was hardly surprising. The 2004 Civil Partnership Act, giving committed same-sex couples the same rights the State had long given to married couples, had satisfied all reasonable demands for civil equality. If neither David Cameron nor Nick Clegg campaigned for same-sex marriage in 2010, this was because there was no popular demand for such a thing.
Same-sex marriage was effectively absent from Britain’s political radar until last September’s Liberal Democrat conference, when Lynne Featherstone announced plans to introduce it; David Cameron echoed her at October’s Conservative conference, declaring, “I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”
I’ve no idea how the Prime Minister kept a straight face while claiming that redefining a timeless social institution is in any way conservative, but it’s easy to see what motivated this revolutionary proposal.
It’s common knowledge that the Liberal Democrats felt betrayed by the Conservatives in the aftermath of last year’s electoral reform referendum. Although the coalition agreement allowed for Conservatives to campaign either way in the election, the Liberals felt their centrally co-ordinated campaign to block the Liberal attempt to make parliament more accurately reflect the will of the British people to be wholly contrary to the spirit of the coalition agreement.
Since then the Liberals have become far more discriminating in their willingness to support Conservative policies, forcing the Conservatives in turn to appease their newly obstructive junior partners.
The Liberal Democrats must have proposed the introduction of same-sex marriage in the hope of being able to brandish such a change as a totemic victory to restore the faith of their many disillusioned voters. This proposal would have been a bitter pill for many Conservatives, but for others, close to the Prime Minister, it would have offered a way of helping banish their popular image as “the Nasty Party”.
Even allowing for internal dissent, this surely looked like an easy win, but the Government seems to have miscalculated popular feelings on such a radical social experiment.
Already the Coalition for Marriage’s petition that the Government preserve the legal definition of marriage looks set to receive more signatures than any other petition since the modern e-petition system was established. What’s more, a Catholic Voices-commissioned ComRes poll published last week found that more than two thirds of British people continue to believe marriage, defined in the traditional way, should be promoted by the state.
UKIP, that lost tribe of Conservatism, now publicly oppose the redefinition of marriage, and though a tiny minority party they could easily do serious damage to the Conservatives’ prospects in the next election, given the winner-takes-all nature of the voting system the Conservatives fought so hard to retain last year.
In marginal constituencies, the loss of a few hundred votes on the right could easily lead to dozens of Conservative seats falling to the Liberals or Labour.
The Government also seems to have given no thought to the complexity of their proposal: redefining marriage would require the amendment on hundreds of pieces of legislation, not least – arcane though this may seem – the 1662 act licensing the Anglican prayer book.
People too easily forget that the Church of England is in many respects an arm of the British state, and it is Parliament that speaks when the 1662 prayer book identifies marriage as a union of man and woman, all marriages being unlawful unless in accord with what “God’s Law doth allow”.
Does the Conservative party really want to interfere in Anglican services, given how this could be a decisive step towards the disestablishment of the Church of England? But how could it avoid doing so, if doing otherwise would entail allowing the established Church to contradict the State?
Lynne Featherstone claims that religious bodies wouldn’t be compelled to celebrate same-sex marriages, but – mistaking weddings for marriages – this misses the point. The law would still require religious people to accept same-sex unions as marriages, and those who refused to accept such unions as marriages could be found guilty of hate speech.
In a recent Tablet column, Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominicans, wrote warmly of the blessings gay people bring the world, but began by saying, “The Catholic Church does not oppose gay marriage. It considers it to be impossible.” If marriage is redefined in order to institute same-sex marriage, such statements could be construed as section 5 public order offences.
Cardinal O’Brien’s language may have been inflammatory, but he made some important points, not least by asking what would happen, were marriage to be legally redefined, to those who hold and teach that marriage can only mean and has only ever meant the union of a man and a woman.
I don’t think David Cameron wants to define ordinary mainstream Christian teaching as hate speech or to criminalise ordinary teachers, priests, and parents. I suspect he’s not thought this through.
-- Originally published in The Irish Catholic, 15 March 2012