After all the build up to today’s vote in the House of Lords, the result was more one-sided than many were expecting. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill passed easily by 390 votes to 148. And so same-sex marriage draws another step closer and ‘traditional’ marriage is consigned to history in this country.
It’s a sad state of affairs that when you hear someone trying to defend the traditional understanding of marriage at the moment they so often start by explaining that they are not in any way criticising gay people, usually justifying the statement by letting you know that they have several gay friends who are lovely people, whom they have a deep respect for. It’s disappointing at a number of levels. It reveals the shallowness of the same-sex marriage debate that discussing what marriage is and should be is seen by many as a personal attack on gay people, which at its core it most definitely isn’t. It also reflects on the way that gay people have been treated so badly in the past by the state, the church and the majority of the public, that arguing that marriage should be exclusively for heterosexuals is seen to be continuing in the attitude of previous times when gay people have been institutionally harassed and oppressed. Even as I write this I’m wondering whether my language is coming over as homophobic. There is so much baggage being carried by us all that publicly discussing the nature of what marriage should be objectively is near impossible. Many people feel unable to voice their opinions openly because of the reaction they fear they will receive. This is especially true if you bring religion or God into the conversation.
I’ve heard from a reliable source that this has been the case with some MPs during the progression of the Marriage Bill, but judging by the speeches yesterday in the House of Lords, some of the Peers don’t seem to have been too worried by this fear. Maybe it’s an older generation (the average age of the House of Lords is 69) being more comfortable about expressing their opinions or maybe it’s the lack of concern over what voters might think, but the debate prompted this observation from Baroness Berridge:
She is correct on this point. Justin Welby did not mention God explicitly during his creditable speech. He did however apologise that church has often not served the LGBT communities in the way it should. He also gave a damning critique of the current failures of the Bill as it stands, holding little back in his defence of marriage as it currently stands:
“The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as covenant is diminished. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society – as we’ve already heard – is weakened.”
Maybe the reason for Welby’s failure to give God a mention was explained at the end his speech where he explained that marriage is not, at heart, a faith issue; it is about the general social good. He is of course right. It is not owned by any religion or faith group or any institution for that matter. It is, as the Pope describes it, Natural Law – something that is intrinsically part of our human make-up for the stability of relationships and the common good.
Even though marriage is not a faith issue, for each one of us, our view on whether it is a man-made construct or the creation of God is likely to profoundly affect how we approach it. If it has been formed apart from God then it would be perfectly acceptable to see it evolving in a similar way to the development of equality between men and women over previous decades and centuries. This should still be on the proviso that benefits of such a move could be established and those drafting the necessary legislation don’t make a hash of it. In the Lords today for example Baroness Stowell who is an equalities spokeswoman for the Government said that extending the concept of adultery to same-sex marriages would not make sense, which goes to show that trying to make marriage fully equal is never going to happen.
One the other hand, if we believe that marriage is a gift from God and part of the Creator’s design for the world then we should be treading very carefully when any change to its fundamental structure is proposed. It’s no wonder that the majority of Christians and also those of other faiths are deeply worried by what the Government has been trying to achieve. To tell these people that they are out of touch, or backward is to completely misunderstand how having a religious faith guides your approach to life and thinking. If anyone expects those who for religious reasons believe marriage should stay as it is to get over it and move on if and when the Marriage Bill comes into effect, they are guaranteed to be disappointed. A faith that can be swayed that easily isn’t worth holding on to.
For those who hold religious views on marriage, this episode has caused a lot of soul-searching, deep thinking and prayer to happen. The church has mostly become much more positive in its language towards gay people. The value of civil partnerships has by-and-large been affirmed, many people have realised just how much marriage means to them and our political leaders received a huge amount of prayer. Much of this has happened with a good deal of grace despite the labels of ‘Bigot’ repeatedly being thrown around.
I heard someone recently explaining that by creating this bill, the Government had effectively put God in the dock, by explicitly forcing those voting on the issue to choose between God’s ways and man’s. There is an element of truth in this, but maybe more so we have put our nation in the dock. In doing so we are finding out if as a society we are capable of allowing freedom of speech where those with views from all sides of the argument are listened to with respect and allowed to voice legitimate beliefs and views without fear.
Assuming the current Marriage Bill will go through, there is still plenty to do to see it moulded into a form that is not going to leave many people fearful that their views will be respected if they do not agree with the changes. There are far more who fit into that category than those who will benefit from a redefinition of marriage. If those who feel unable to support this move, especially because of their beliefs run the risk of being marginalised or even persecuted then this whole endeavour will have been a disaster. Those who are overseeing this bill have an important responsibility towards all of society to make it work effectively. They owe it to us all and the institution of marriage not to treat any aspect of it with contempt.