Wednesday, March 31, 2004

"Marriage" for all?

Today the Government have begun the process of introducing State Registered Same Sex Partnerships. These are legally registered partnerships that offer many of the same rights to partners as marriage. Two cheers are due.

The remaining cheer is withheld because it is not straightforwardly called 'marriage'. Indeed, the government is very nervous of the 'm-word' in this context. However, if it looks like marriage and smells like marriage ...

The government are nervous, no doubt, because of the opposition of those who have already been getting press coverage by suggesting that this somehow weakens marriage. Let's stop for a moment and consider how that is possible. How can an arrangement which is clearly dependent on the existing arrangements for marriage weaken those relationships. Surely this is a welcome acknowledgement that marriage is a stable and life-affirming relationship that those who are not presently involved in it should be able to enjoy. These partnerships affirm the value of marriage, they do not weaken it.

The only reasons that gay people can be denied marriage is if marriage is by definition only for a man and a woman. The reasons given for marriage in the Church of England rite are that marriage

a). enables the partners to know the grace of God;
b). is the foundation of family life;
c). is the context for the birth of children;
d). brings strength, companionship, comfort and growth in love to the partners;
e). is a sign of unity and loyalty, and of the love of God for the world.

Of these, only (c) cannot apply to gay couples. And we do not prevent straight couples who cannot bear children or who are beyond child-bearing age from being married. The danger is that we will prohibit (a) - a serious matter for any Christian. Perhaps more worrying are the ways in which the church denies that the grace of God is ministered to gay people by their loving relationships. This is perilously close to the sin against the Holy Spirit!

Some gay people would agree, saying that marriage is an essentially heterosexual institution and that they don't want it. Equally there are those who are saying that these partnerships should be available to heterosexual couples who don't want to be married. I think that both these groups need to reconsider what marriage actually is. As outlined above, marriage is a publicly recognized status from which certain legal consequences arise.

If marriage is considered inherently heterosexist or consumerist or whatever then perhaps this is a critical comment on the cultural construction that marriage is in our society. Given the large sums of money that people spend on weddings, and the Hollywood-inspired expectations that accompany them, there is much to think on here. The church is quite complicit in all of this!

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