On Thursday, the Government launched a 12-week consultation on allowing gay couples in England and Wales to marry. The full consultation document can be read here. We've known this was coming for quite a while. In September 2010 the Liberal Democrats at the party's conference endorsed same-sex marriage. In February 2011 the Government expressed its intention to begin a consultation to allow both religious same-sex ceremonies and civil marriage for same-sex couples. In September 2011 the Government announced that it would introduce same-sex civil marriages by the next general election (2015). It's important to understand the scope of this consultation; the Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said, "The essential question is not whether we are going to introduce same-sex civil marriage but how". It will happen before 2015.
What exactly is the Government proposing? In summary, they are;
- to allow same-sex couples to marry in a register office or other civil ceremony
- to retain civil partnerships for same-sex couples and allow couples already in a civil partnership to convert it into a marriage
- to allow people to stay married and legally change their gender
- to maintain the legal ban on same-sex couples marrying in a religious service
Lynne Featherstone couldn't be clearer on the last point, "We're not looking at changing religious marriage, even for those that might wish to do it". The Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has said, "Churches who want to celebrate gay marriage [should have] the chance to do so". Not to do so is for Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, "... not only homophobic but also an attack on religious freedom. While no religious body should be forced to conduct same-sex marriages, those that want to conduct them should be free to do so". But it's not going to happen yet.
However, the proposal to "redefine marriage" has brought down a torrent of invective and Armageddon like prophecies. The campaign group, Coalition for Marriage has said, "Marriage is so much a part of everyday life. If we change its meaning in law, it will have a knock-on effect in everyday life". What in god's name will this knock-on effect be? Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has called the plans "grotesque", and if implemented would "shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world". Don't you just want to scream? The Church of England says, "Arguments that suggest religious marriage is separate and different from civil marriage, and will not be affected by the proposed redefinition, misunderstand the legal nature of marriage in this country". But it's this status quo that is being addressed. It's being redefined and broadened out; there is no misunderstanding.
The other Sunday, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in England, wrote a pastoral letter to be read at mass across the country warning about the proposed changes. He said, "There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female, or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children". So does this mean that those male and female married couples who have failed, for whatever reason, to have children have failed in their marriage?
I have read scores of articles, blogs and comment boards on the Government plans, and frankly I'm appalled by some of the language used, which I cannot bring myself to copy here. Of course, as a fervent believer in freedom of expression, everybody has the right to express their opinion, but what they don't have is the right to express that opinion in a way that becomes almost a hate crime. When this is done in the name of God, it is reprehensible. Thankfully, there are those within the Churches who do not share the views of their 'leaders' or support the bile from fellow communicants. Following the Roman Catholic letter read out across their Churches, one communicant wrote a letter to the national press. I'm happy to reproduce one paragraph of it here. "I walked out ...into the fresh air ... I am ashamed to call myself a Catholic today. I am heterosexual and I have a solid marriage and have two beautiful and amazing children. But I am astounded at the bigotry that was read out at mass last Sunday. My adrenaline was pumping and heart was palpitating, and I was already sweating. I could not sit in that room. To ostracise a whole group of people, to demonise them, to exclude and deem them a laughing stock and not real human beings with human feelings is an outrage, an atrocity and unbelievable in this modern age. And what I was reeling at most was the hatred. Religion is about love, surely?"
Equally, not all "religious groups" are closed to the subject. The Quakers at their 2009 Yearly Meeting decided to recognise opposite-sex and same-sex marriages equally and perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. They have asked the Government to change the law so that such marriages in their Meeting Houses would be legal. I do love the Quakers.
It's those who claim to have a religious persuasion that are making the most noise about same-sex marriages, but why should we take any more notice of them than anyone else? The answer we're often told is because we are a Christian country, and our values are Christian. But I beg to differ. Britain is an increasingly secular society, with only a small minority regularly taking part in religious rites. In the question on religion in the 2001 Census, 37 million people said they were of the Christian faith (there were around 54 million people living in England and Wales), yet in the British Social Attitudes Survey run most years from 1983 to 2008, the percentage of respondents reporting religious affiliation was down from 70% to 55%, and respondents who said that they attended Church at least once a month was down from 21% to 15%. So in 2008, the survey shows that those who do not attend some Church at least once a month was 85.1%. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of Britain being a Christian country.
The religious campaign group, Catholic Voices commissioned a survey which was reported in The Telegraph today. The results of the poll showed that 70% of people were opposed to same-sex marriage, and so the Government were completely out of touch with public opinion. Now I don't have a lot of time for opinion polls, but lets play along with it. So Catholic Voices says that 70% are against same-sex marriage, but a poll conducted by YouGov a week ago showed that 43% were in favour and a further 32% supported civil partnerships, with only 16% opposed to the recognition of homosexual relationships all together. If we go back even further we find a Gallup poll in 2004 having 52% of people agreeing with same-sex marriage; in 2008, ICM Research had 55% agreeing; in 2009 Populus had 61% agreeing, and in 2011, Angus Reid Public Opinion had 43% agreeing with same-sex marriage and a further 34% for civil partnerships. Rather than the Government proposal being out of touch with public opinion, it is fully in line with it, and the trend has been for increased support over the years.
It is worth noting also that about twice as many Britons now marry in secular, civil ceremonies than in religious rites. When Cardinal O'Brien said that same-sex marriage "would shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world", it was as if the UK was the first to go down this route. As far as I can tell, the list of countries that allow same-sex marriage includes Spain, Canada, Argentina, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden and Belgium. Hardly a list of back-wood countries is it?
Since civil partnerships were introduced in 2005, there have been around 50,000 of them, and who knows how many same-sex couples will want to get married. I haven't canvassed the gay community, or spoken to those that I know are gay, because how many is not important. Whether there's one couple or one hundred thousand couples, the issue is the same. Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay rights charity Stonewall, has said the issue was neither about religious freedom nor party politics. And I agree with him. For him, "Ultimately it's about the freedom of a small group of people to be treated in exactly the same way as everyone else".
I leave the last word with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams who said, "The law should not be used as a tool to bring about social changes such as gay marriage". What an extraordinary statement. The law has been used to bring about social changes for generations, but gay marriage should be exempt. Just pick and choose what social changes you want the law to bring about. Incredible. It really is time for the Church of England to be disestablished.