I have just been reading through a paper written by a number of Oxford academics, arguing against the Church of England’s submission to the government’s ‘consultation’ on ‘equal (ie same-sex) civil marriages’.
The essence of their argument seems to rest on two principles. First, gender is a legal irrelevance except in a very restrictive sense:
Women and men are, in fact different, but in modern society those differences must have functional relevance before they can be recognized by the state [...] In this sense, in the absence of a functionally discernible difference, modern liberal society does in fact ‘assert that men and women are simply interchangeable individuals’ ¶ 12.
Rejecting the notion that marriage, by definition, entails procreation, this allows the authors to assert that it should be open to people of the same gender. At the moment, of course, it is not. But their second assertion is that marriage is whatever a society defines it to be in its laws:
This argument raises the continuing question, what does define marriage? Surely the answer must be, the law does.
And so they continue,
If the provisions concerning civil marriage, which are common to religious marriage, define marriage as a social institution, the legislature can unilaterally modify that definition, to make the capacity to marry civilly and the impediments to civil marriage, as well as the grounds rendering civil marriage void or voidable, identical to the current regulations for civil partnership.
Earlier the authors appealed to the fact that English law already recognizes marriages other than between one man and one woman for life. Referring to a nineteenth century ruling regarding polygyny, the authors note that the criteria no longer apply:
However, that decision was legislatively overruled by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, and at present plural marriages are afforded many of the same protections as monogamous ones, so long as they have occurred between non-UK domiciliaries in a jurisdiction where they are legal. The UK has been able, under certain conditions, to adapt to plural marriage, not only in its society but in its courts.
And of course divorce has long been acceptable, so that the definition of marriage as being between ‘one man and one woman for life’ has long since become an aspiration rather than a requirement.
The more one considers their document, however, the more one realizes that in the process of gaining ‘marriage’, the authors will, in fact, lose it, for at the core of what they are saying lies a willingness to redefine marriage in its entirety.
In their desire to include partners of the same sex, the authors are prepared to abandon everything else that has come to give marriage its Christian definition. The abandonment of ‘lifelong’ marriage is simply the beginning, since their argument relies on, amongst other things, the legal acceptance of polygyny and the suggestion (above) of modifying the prohibited degrees. (Indeed here they could, though don’t, appeal to legal precedence in the ‘Deceased Wife’s Sister’ Act of 1907).
But of course the question, ‘Why stop at same-sex couples?’ invites the further question, ‘Why stop there?’ If polygyny is acceptable in principle, then why not polyandry? And if marriage between people of the same-sex, why not polygamy between the same — all on the principle, of course, that any such unions can, on principle, be dissolved? Almost any combination or permutation is possible, once marriage is open to redefinition.
Indeed the authors surely missed a trick when they quoted the second earl of Pembroke as saying ‘parliament could do anything but make a man a woman and a woman a man.’ They comment, ‘The current debate over same-sex marriage may come close to this line, but it does not cross it.’ Yet surely the proposed changes presented in the government’s consultation as regards gender reassignment do exactly that as regards the legal definition of the person’s involved.
Thus we could envisage a ‘legal’ marriage between a gender-reassigned woman and two other women, one of whom is related by a currently ‘prohibited degree’ (since there is no possibility of reproduction there is no danger of genetic consequences). And why not?
Now those who support the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples may, at this point, object that this is being ‘alarmist’ or an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum — and in normal circumstances it would be. But we all need to take a sober look at what is being suggested, and to remember that what is now under consideration would have been inconceivable just fifty years ago.
If one follows the logic of the argument, namely that gender is irrelevant and marriage can be redefined (and indeed that relies on it having been redefined already to a degree), then one must ask whether it is not our own prejudices that lead to the accusation of being ‘alarmist’, rather than a frank acknowledgement of the logic of our position.
Interestingly, the authors quote, as I have done previously, a passage from C S Lewis’s mere Christianity in support of their position:
I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question — how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community ... My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with the rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members.
Affirming what Lewis said, they add, ‘Offering civil marriage to same-sex couples is perfectly consistent with this view of the law and with this theology of marriage.’
But they seem to forget the thrust of Lewis’s argument, which was not that ‘state’ marriage ought to be anything the state wants it to be but rather that Christian marriage ought to be truly Christian (beginning with a lifelong commitment).
If the authors’ case were to be fully accepted and fully adopted then there would indeed be two kinds of marriage in this country. One would be the Christian marriage, based on Scripture in general and Jesus’ teaching in particular. The other would be something else entirely, and quite unlike the first. Marriage, but not as we have known it.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: