FIVE YEARS AGO TODAY my partner and I had our first date. Little did we know as we met in that café that we would make the news in 2012 as the first couple in the UK to register a civil partnership in a place of worship.
Yesterday I found myself on the news again, as the UK government leaked a report that it plans to permit churches to ‘opt in’ to offering marriage services for same-sex couples within two years.
The story broke at lunchtime, and my partner and I wondered if we would get any calls from the media. Later the local BBC radio station rang my partner requesting an interview. As he was in work, he was unable to speak, so they gave me a call about an hour before the live broadcast.
We knew the results of the Government’s consultation on civil marriage equality would be published this month, but the consultation was not intended to include marriage in religious buildings. So we were surprised and pleased to hear the news, and saddened by many of the responses from politicians and church leaders.
Some who oppose marriage equality fear that their faith communities would be obliged by law to conduct marriage for same-sex couples or risk prosecution by the European Court of Human Rights.
In the short time I had to prepare for the interview I looked up some details about the consultation to inform my response. The Government received more than 228,000 responses, the largest public participation ever seen in England and Wales.
The Law Society, which represents the legal profession in England and Wales, said there was no precedent for a church to be sued under European law, as the European Court of Human Rights has already indicated that it sees same-sex marriage as a matter for national authorities, and that it is not going to force religious groups to conduct same-sex marriages.
The Society’s vice president, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, said it was ‘inconceivable’ that the Strasbourg court would force a faith group to conduct a gay wedding against its beliefs, but they might object more to a blanket ban on religious gay wedding ceremonies.
There is clearly a legal precedent for church law and doctrine to take precedence. The Catholic Church, for example, reserves the right not to marry someone who has been divorced, and I am unaware of any legal challenge, successful or otherwise, on this issue.
So why do opponents feel threatened by marriage equality?
Some argue that changing the law would mean redefining marriage, which Cardinal O’Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, called a ‘grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right‘. The evangelical Christian who was interviewed alongside me claimed that ‘redefining words is what dictators do’.
But the view that marriage is and always has been a sacred and unchanging institution is a fallacy which doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Marriage only began to be referred to as ‘sacred’ or a ‘sacrament’ in the Roman Catholic Church in the 12th century, and it did not take its present form until the 16th century. The Church of England itself was created in the 16th century by a monarch who redefined marriage for political purposes.
The significance of marriage has also changed dramatically in the last century. Marriage to someone from a different faith, race, or social class, was, and sometimes still is, actively discouraged (or even illegal in some parts of the world) but is now more widely acceptable. Also the age of consent for a man to marry a girl was anywhere between 7 and 14 years old for centuries in English law, which would be illegal today.
Sadly there wasn’t time to explain all that in the live radio interview. I have been unable so far to get a recording of it – if I succeed I will update this post with a link.
The Government appears to be going further than originally intended with equal marriage legislation, which suggests to me that they must feel they have a sufficient mandate to do so from the results of the consultation.
The Anglican and Catholic Churches have both said they want reassurance that they will be exempt and legally protected to abstain from conducting same sex marriages. Yesterday’s leaked proposal suggests that any willing faith community, like the Unitarians who hosted the blessing of our civil partnership, will be allowed to ‘opt in’, which seems like a reasonable solution. Whether this will be enough to pacify opponents remains to be seen.
Another argument against marriage equality, which is inconsistently applied, is based on traditional gender roles:
The strength of marriage lies in the complementary nature of men and women, and how they support, encourage and complete one another. – The Truth about Same-sex ‘Marriage’ page 4.
Yet traditional gender roles evolved dramatically in the last century. I doubt that many who oppose marriage equality would wish to return to the ‘golden age’ before women claimed the right to work and receive equal pay and respect for their contribution to society. What it means to be a man or woman in society is also culturally determined and differs widely around the world.
As the scientific understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity develops, so challenges to ‘traditional’ gender roles are likely to increase. Much homophobia and transphobia is based on assumptions about gender roles; for example, anyone who is perceived to be ‘different’ from what society expects of a man or woman may be considered ‘unnatural’. Yet the diversity of human biology and psychology is greater than most people realise. If you would like to find out more, I shared a resource which explores this during Transgender Awareness Week last month.
Then there is the argument that marriage requires openness to procreation. If this is a defining characteristic of marriage, as some people suggest, then the logical conclusion of this would be only to permit a heterosexual couple to marry after a fertility test for both partners and an agreement that both intend to have children. Would a registrar or minister refuse a couple who did not want children? Who could not conceive? Who were ‘too old’? I am not aware of a precendent for that, nor do I imagine many advocates of ‘real’ marriage would be prepared to go that far.
Some marriage equality opponents also claim that ‘There is no better environment for children to prosper’ (ibid.) It is fair to say that, in an ideal world, two supportive parents, one female, one male, are hugely beneficial to a child’s healthy development. However, that does not mean that every heterosexual marriage is a safe and stable place for a child to grow, nor does it mean that marriage is a guarantee of stability and security, nor that any other family structure is inadequate. Those same sex couples who wish to have children can only do so after much careful consideration. There can be no ‘accidents’. The Government’s statistics on ‘looked after’ children in England show an increase in children not living with their family of origin. Three quarters are in foster care, but an increasing number are being adopted. This is due in part to a change in the law which has made it easier for lesbians and gay men to become carers and adopters of children in care. Most organisations which support children and young people value the contribution of same sex couples, and their research challenges the myth that children are at greater risk of harm with two same-sex parents. Research into children with a lesbian or gay parent showed that there was no effect on their relationship and neither on the child’s socialising or mental health, according to the UK’s leading adoption and fostering association. A recent survey of children with gay parents revealed they like having gay parents and wouldn’t want things to change but wish other people were more accepting.
The main issue for me is that as society has changed in the last forty years, our use of language has not kept pace. While other countries like Canada and Spain went straight for full marriage equality, others like the UK introduced something similar, but not quite. Civil partnership became legal for same sex couples only in the UK in December 2005. Most people who have been through one consider themselves married, and supportive friends and family may speak of their civil ceremony as a marriage already.
My partner and I consider ourselves to be married. As the cartoon from one of our greeting cards shows, ‘Just Civil Partnershipped’ doesn’t have the same ‘ring’ to it. When I offered my partner a ring in a restaurant overlooking Sydney harbour, I didn’t ask him to ‘civil partnership’ me!
However, because of the legal distinction in the UK, we were careful not to use any language associated with traditional marriage in our service. We made promises, not vows, and made a covenant to one another, based on ancient rites of adelphopoiesis or ‘brother-making’, dating back to the early Christian church. In news reports which followed, we asked that they did not refer to us as ‘married’ as we did not want to risk exposure to the hostile end of the spectrum of views on marriage equality.
Unfortunately the local paper sold the story and photos to the right-wing Daily Mail without our knowledge and they were not so considerate or accurate. The version that made it into the print edition was ok, though it was in the context of claims that marriage equality would be responsible for splitting the Anglican Church, which was a shame. We don’t really have that power, and are a little tired of being scapegoats for other people’s problems that are not of our making. The online version was originally inaccurate, claiming we had ‘wed’ and exchanged ‘vows’, and made other references to traditional marriage which we consciously avoided.
After several emails of complaint, the Mail corrected their report, but they did not remove the many hostile and offensive comments underneath which we believe were fuelled in part by the inaccurate language of the article. Plus their corrections came too late, as the incorrect story spread to other websites as far afield as India. Another version remains on the site which escaped my notice when I complained. In the context of a comment column optimistically called ‘Right Minds’, in which a gay Conservative opposes marriage equality, a photo of us appears with the caption:
Married: Kieran and Warren became the first gay couple
to be wed in a religious building, but do other want the same?
It made me wish we had not spoken to the local paper, or at least that they had asked our consent to share the story. And I also wished I’d had a hair cut before they took the pictures that made it online!
There is, essentially, very little difference in UK law between a marriage and a civil partnership. Civil partners are entitled to the same property rights, the same exemptions on inheritance tax, social security and pension benefits as married couples. They also have the same ability to get parental responsibility for a partner’s children as well as reasonable maintenance, tenancy rights, insurance and next-of-kin rights in hospital and with doctors. There is a process similar to divorce for dissolving a civil partnership. The two main differences I am aware of are:
- Civil partners of male peers or knights do not receive a courtesy title to which the spouse of a peer or knight would be entitled. So I become a Lord, my partner does not become a Lady!
- The names and addresses of couples seeking marriage are displayed publicly several weeks before the service, but for same sex couples only their names are published in case a homophobic person decided to pay them a visit.
The difference in terminology exists principally due to protests from religious groups about recognising same-sex couples and heterosexual couples in the same way. During the civil partnership ceremony no reference to religion is permitted, but that is the same for civil marriage in a register office.
Then in December 2011, following a Government consultation on civil partnerships in religious premises, the law changed to make it possible for places of worship to register civil partnership, provided the legal document is signed separately from any religious service in a room with no religious imagery. Although the Unitarian Church we had booked was not the first to register its intention to host civil partnerships with the Register Office of the local authority, we were the first couple to register our partnership in a place of worship after the law changed.
This gives us a unique experience and perspective on the current marriage equality debate. For the benefit of other couples who may not appreciate the opportunities available to them, and to put a human face on the debate for those who would be swift to judge our relationships, I feel we have been given an opportunity and a responsibility to share our story.