Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Oxford Dons' Case Against Marriage

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:


  1. I agree wholly with the drift of your criticism of the gentlemen from Oxford. Their proposals appear to be largely negative and merely reiterate the current proposals for SSM, but without much by way of substantial argument to warrant change.

    Their casual dismissal of 'gender' as the primary building blocks of traditional marriage and their words "marriage is not intrinsically between a man and a woman", betrays a contempt for what most people regard as absolutely essential, and in effect a rejection of complementarity as the real world in which marriage take place.
    One has to question why the comparison needs to be made between 'gender' in marriage and long outdated arguments about race in the USA!

    Quite why they say that gender classification is "invidious" is not clear - presumably because they do not like the exclusive nature of traditional marriage - one man and one woman for life.
    Also it is disingenuous for these academics to pretend that their aim is not to redefine marriage as presently understood, when they state that procreation is not essential to marriage. But we know that in principle the only framework in which children are born, nurtured and integrated is the natural one of family initiated by a sexual union.
    Procreation may not always be possible as all would concede, but that does not invalidate it as a desired objective, and one which of course presupposes heterosexual complemtarity.
    It is not good enough, certainly in terms of a legal definition of marriage to assert as they do that "mutuality and faithfulness are enough".
    However, there is a far greater and fundamentl objection to their approach which is to ask the question on what basis should society legitimise in law practicing sodomy?
    As you rightly ask, why need SSM stop there? The absence of any discussion of the logical extension of their premise is significant, and of course is the primary reason why the church could never endorse SSM in any shape or form.

    Your quotation from C S Lewis is apt because in effect equality legislation and the Civil Partnership Act does indeed make reality "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."

    Therefore for the men of Oxford to blandly declare that "separate is not equal" is frankly meaningless. CP gives homosexuals virtually all that marriage gives to heterosexual couples, and as one MP suggested to me, proposals for SSM are not needed and Parliament could if necessary simply amend the CP Act.

    It is a pity that these woolly minded academia were unable to articulate any definition of marriage of their own by way of clarification, or any sound reason why the Christian understanding of marriage over centuries is somehow inadequate, and not least why there should be a radical redefintion of marriage at the behest of a tiny minority of vocal campaigners.
    My own view is that Christians do not need to justify the status quo by engaging the complex humanistic arguments of disaffected liberals, but rather need to reiterate the simple definition of marriage as Scripture, and Christ himself defines it.

  2. The Oxford Dons' mistake lies in the very first point they address: complementarity. This initial mistake gives them freedom to make more mistakes.

    We have been trained to use the word "Gender" instead of "Sex". "Gender" is an identity. "Sex" is a physical reality. Their approach to complementarity comes from the viewpoint of gender, not sex. This is perhaps why they overlook the physical difference between a man and a woman. They propose, quite rightly, that differences must be "functionally relevant" in order to be recognised by the state, but by overlooking physical reality, they overlook the fact that the physical differences between men and women must themselves be functionally relevant to something. That something is the physical act of marriage. John Sentamu is the only public figure to have made the distinction between the emotional and the physical. We are seeking to equalise in the name of emotional equality. Yet we are seeking to do so in the context of a physical relationship. A redefinion of marriage is actually a legal declaration that there is no such thing as a male body or a female body.

    If the institution of marriage is not founded on the principle of procreation, what is it founded on? As usual, there is no real effort to put forward an alternative reason for the existence of the legal institution. The fire brigade was founded, in principle, to put out fires. Yet we do not need to put out a fire to become a firefighter. Nor do we need to be a firefighter to put out a fire. The principle is not the act. I thought dons knew that sort of thing...

    I agree with Graham's last sentence. Why is it that the status quo is being asked to justify itself, when those wishing to change the purpose of the institution cannot even pinpoint a grounds for discrimination within the institution? Whether your understanding of marriage is informed by God, nature, design, or evolution, the conclusion is the same because the conclusion is reality: the act of marriage knows no discrimination. If the scales are balanced, then it follows that moving the scales will create imbalance.

  3. Dear John,
    It is not surprising that these Dons are from Oxford. An establishment renowned for producing what might be described as rebellious proponents.

    Graham Wood is renowned for his comments on the flaws in the argument for SSM and I agree with both of the above commentators. How we need people with reasoned arguments to be able to present their case loudly in the media. How sad the minimal voice from the Middle England population. Half a million petitioners is good but small in relation to the overall population.

  4. Perhaps now is a good time to guide our communities into the terms "marriage" and "statutory marriage".

    * Marriage: for life, monogamous, heterosexual, and with an explicit bias towards procreation (solely) within the union. (aka "historical marriage")

    * Statutory marriage:whatever the law of the land currently defines it as.

    (from NSW, Australia)

  5. What your god claims to think has no bearing on this debate, as the secular law is not proposing to restrict your freedom to choose who to marry. We have no need to refer to your definition of marriage, which is not relevant to the secular sphere.

    I think you need to realise that this is going to happen. There is a very large parliamentary majority for this change. Your issue is how to deal with it.

    Mike Homfray