Marriage: ‘equality’ and ‘sameness’ are different things
I believe passionately in the immense importance of marriage as ‘the voluntary union of one man and one woman for life, to the exclusion of all others’.
I remember learning this definition as a law student in 1966 from the case of Hyde v. Hyde 1866, when the point at issue was whether marriage could include a polygamous union.
Little did I imagine then that, after 142 years of certainty, the meaning of marriage would come under attack from those who say that marriage should include homosexual relationships.
The issue is said to be one of equality and ‘equal marriage’ is demanded. But the whole purpose of the recent provision of civil partnership was to provide equality, which it does. Civil partnerships already provide to same-sex couples rights that are equal to those of married heterosexual couples.
What is demanded now is not equality, but in effect sameness. It is maintained that a same-sex relationship should be regarded as the same as marriage, traditionally understood; that both should qualify as ‘marriage’ by the simple means of redefinition.
The real issue then is whether marriage is essentially a unique one man-one woman relationship or whether it can be redefined to include, for example, a homosexual relationship.
Marriage has been accepted in virtually all cultures and all ages as the union of one man and one woman, as unique and fundamental to the male and female nature of humanity. In it a man and woman join together in a life-long covenant of fidelity.
In conjugal sexual union, the complementary male and female bodies unite in a mutual act of self-giving which produces an emotional bond of mutual love. This union enables a male sperm to fertilise a female egg and conceive a new member of the human race.
The resulting child is connected genetically to both its parents and enjoys a unique bond with them, so that the bond between husband and wife develops into the family bond of father, mother and children.
Such a family of parents and children resulting from marriage has always been regarded as the bedrock and cornerstone of society, widening into a network of kinship and broadening into benefits for the whole community.
Marriage, therefore, is a unique relationship. It cannot be redefined to include any other human relationship without changing the whole meaning of ‘marriage’.
It is said (for example, by David Cameron) that commitment (or commitment plus love) is the essence of marriage. But many kinds of relationships may have commitment and yet not be true marriage. For example, two sisters living together may not marry, since marriage is commitment plus love plus conjugal union.
Conjugal union is the distinguishing mark of true marriage, making the non-consummation of a marriage a ground for nullity. This aspect is unique and cannot be shared by any other relationship.
It is said by those advocating change that sexual intimacy is enjoyed just as much in same-sex relationships. But conjugal union is more than sexual intimacy, because only in conjugal union can a new human person come into being.
If marriage is redefined to include same-sex relationships, its sexual side will be reduced to sexual intimacy and the intrinsic connection between marriage, child-bearing and kinship will be severed. It will no longer be the relationship that results naturally in children as an integral part of a lifelong relationship.
It is also said by those advocating change that the current law of marriage discriminates on the grounds of sexual orientation. But the mere issue of discrimination is not a valid plea, since there is already discrimination on, for example, the grounds of age (not below sixteen) and kinship (a man and his sister), that virtually all would accept as legitimate and appropriate.
The question then is whether or not it is appropriate to retain marriage as one unique and exclusive relationship as traditionally understood. If, in the name of ‘no discrimination’, same-sex relationships are redefined into marriage, there is no reason, in principle, why other entirely different relationships should not also be termed marriage.
What about the large number of bisexuals? Should bisexuals be allowed to marry a man and a woman? What about those with no sexual desires? Should close platonic friends be allowed to marry?
And if one minority group can be catered for this way, why shouldn’t Muslims be catered for, so that a polygamous union (of up to four wives) is a valid marriage?
But what would ‘marriage’ then have become? It would have lost all meaning and value, and no longer be regarded as the unique relationship it is. A variety of other relationships will be ‘marriage’ and a variety of sexual choices seen as equally beneficial to society. But, without doubt, it is true marriage with its family and kinship that is fundamental to stable society.
The problem is well illustrated by those countries that have embraced same-sex marriage. The terms ‘husband’, ‘wife’, ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘adultery’ and ‘consummation’ have disappeared; seen as unacceptable, inappropriate words, to be replaced by ‘party A’ and ‘party B’; ‘progenitor A’ and ‘progenitor B’. Do we really want to enter this brave new world of unreality?
David Cameron and others see gay marriage simplistically and erroneously as a matter of equality and, therefore, a vote winner; those who resist the idea are labelled as ‘reactionary’. But the issue has nothing to do with political alignment; it is about fundamental and timeless truth.
Equalities Minister Lynn Featherstone asserts that ‘our proposals will strengthen and celebrate marriage rather than weaken it’. But far from exporting the benefits of marriage to homosexuals, this redefinition will import into marriages the instability of homosexual relationships.
The gay community does not noticeably endorse monogamy; it shows little evidence of enthusiasm for a lifelong covenant of fidelity. There is talk of three people relationships, especially in countries which have embraced same-sex marriage (‘group marriage’ in Holland). Canada has even mooted the legalisation of polygamy, harking back to pre-1866!
And if the autonomy of the individual reigns supreme, why should marriage have to be for life anyway? Two-year term marriages have been suggested (presumably renewable at the joint option of the parties!).
Marriage is part of the natural moral order that remains constant from age to age. It is a reality which cannot evolve into something different. It is not something that man has constructed and can reconstruct at will, to suit the political agenda of the day. The Bolsheviks attempted to change marriage in 1920s Russia and the experiment was a disaster.
It is said that those against same-sex marriage are ‘homophobic’, especially Christians. Whilst the Bible does not endorse any sexual relationship outside marriage, it also thunders against greed, rage, envy, malice and arrogance; we all fall short of God’s standards.
Christians are not homophobic when opposing this redefinition, but simply remaining faithful to Scripture. They cannot accept same-sex marriage without compromising their integrity.
Same-sex marriage will place Anglican Christians in particular difficulty regarding church weddings.
The Government insists that churches will not be compelled to conduct same-sex weddings. But Christians will inevitably come under attack, as those who do not accept a law that has been enacted. Homosexuals are bound, sooner or later, to appeal to European equality legislation to try to force churches to conduct same-sex weddings.
Finally, the Government’s consultation on this issue seems a mere sop to the electorate. We were not asked to respond to the question ‘Should marriage be defined?’, but to ‘How should marriage be redefined?’ This prejudges the matter from the start.
There has been a huge response to the consultation and we await an analysis of the responses, but David Cameron has already said he will press ahead with same-sex marriage whatever the result of the consultation.
This outcome has already happened in Scotland, where more than two-thirds of the respondents were opposed to same-sex marriage.
It is frustrating to observe that those proposing same-sex marriage see the issue as only a matter of equality; they have not considered the real issues. Is it too much to hope that our society sees that this is not about equality, but about conserving something of infinite value — the unique and wonderful bond of marriage?
Richard Atherton, MA
The author is a retired solicitor, ‘the husband of one long-suffering wife for 36 years and father of five children’.