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Unlike the Government’s proposals, the Church of England’s document on marriage is thought through

The Coalition seems to have no understanding of what marriage actually is

By on Wednesday, 13 June 2012

I did promise myself that I would steer clear of the gay marriage debate, but after reading the submission of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales (there is a link to it here ), I find myself driven to comment once more.

The first point the Bishops make is an excellent one:

6. The burden of proof for serious changes to the law falls to those proposing the innovations. The radical change in social policy being proposed by the government requires very careful thought and analysis. The government’s proposals for such change and innovation in marriage should be open to extensive discussion and debated thoroughly, prior to the announcement of its determination to instigate legislative change.

7. It is of serious concern to the Bishops therefore that this proposal, which has the potential to impact so immensely on the social stability of our society and which has significant implications for the unique institution of marriage and of family life, appears not to have been subject to such careful study and analysis. The proposal for same-sex marriage legislation is based only on two very brief Party Conference announcements. There has been no Royal Commission, no manifesto commitment, no Green Paper and no White Paper.

Quite so. The Bishops also point out that the consultation is quite bogus, though they are too polite to say so in such direct language. The Government has already decided that change must happen, and the consultation is merely about how the change happens. The exercise is called “the Equal Civil Marriage Consultation”. That title presupposes only one possible answer. No one could be against equality, could they?

Most of what the Bishops have to say on this matter has been gone over before, and will, I fear, make little impact. The government has made up its mind, and the legislation will pass the House of Commons with little difficulty: there will be some opposition from the Conservative benches, and some from the Labour ones, but not enough to stop it. Or so I am told.

Only one passage made me sit up, and it was this:

37. Men and women are different physically, mentally, and spiritually. They are, in all respects, complementary, both designed and suited for the task of begetting and raising children over a sustained period. Marriage is the legal recognition of this, and without the physical consummation of marriage, where that complementarity is most fully expressed, a marriage is voidable under English law.

38. The consultation document makes clear (para. 2.16) that the concepts of consummation and adultery would apply equally to same-sex marriage. But instead of considering how the law should define these issues for same-sex couples, it simply abandons the matter to future case law. But the common law method proceeds by dealing with the real and difficult cases before the court. The scope for expansion through precedent of what kinds of relationships are covered by marriage or civil partnerships is very real unless there is legislative clarity at the outset defining these issues.

This is all very straightforward, and it calls to mind those court cases, thankfully rather rare, but always notorious, where a court is called on to hear evidence as to whether consummation has taken place or not, and whether adultery has taken place or not. We all know, or ought to know, what constitutes consummation, and what does not, though most of us are, thankfully, completely in the dark about what is meant by “Hunnish practices”. But the sting is in the tail. The courts will decide what constitutes consummation for same sex couples, and the Bishops say “the scope for expansion through precedent of what kinds of relationships are covered by marriage or civil partnerships is very real”.

What on earth does this mean? They cannot possibly mean polygamy, can they? I am really in the dark as to this one, and I wish it were clearer.

The Anglican Bishops have the following to say on the same matter, to be found at paragraph 19 of their document :

We note that in paragraphs 2.14—2.16, the consultation document leaves the complex question of defining adultery, non-consummation etc. to be determined by case law. The stated objective of having identical reasons for ending both a same-sex and a heterosexual marriage is problematic and does not seem to be achievable given that the existing definitions of adultery and non-consummation cannot be applied to the case of a same-sex marriage. The proposed reliance on case law to sort out these points is unsatisfactory. More fundamentally the analysis fails to take account of the fact that consummation has always been an integral part of the common understanding of marriage between church and state, with annulment possible where consummation does not occur.

One notes here no concern about case law and “the scope for expansion”. The Church of England document is very well argued and makes some excellent points about the law as it currently stands, and the way new legislation will bring challenges in its wake. In other words, this is a document that has been thought through (as has the Catholic one). How one wishes one could say the same of anything our Prime Minister has come up with of late: his sudden championing of gay marriage is as problematic as the pasty tax, the granny tax and all the other ill-conceived recent initiatives of the Government. But in this case, a U-turn, though desirable, does not at this stage seem possible. As both documents point out, the government has little understanding of marriage itself. It is no surprise then that this proposed legislation – the modification of something that they do not understand – is so deeply flawed.

  • davidaslindsay

    Graham James of Norwich is as
    liberal as you could possibly imagine. When even he is against the redefinition of legal marriage, then they
    really ought to take notice. But they won’t.

    Ed Miliband will, though. Never
    having threatened to whip this, he should now undertake not to include it in
    Labour’s manifesto, either. It was in no one’s last time. But both Coalition
    parties pretty much have to have it in 2015.

    Labour does not, so it should
    not. Instead, it should simply make it clear that if anyone tried to bring this
    back as a Private Member’s Bill, then Labour MPs would continue to have a free
    vote on it, as has always been the case.

  • JByrne24

    Readers on this website may have seen the BBC News interview with Andy Burnham yesterday (12th June) in which he gave his strong support for Gay marriage.

    Andy Burnham is, I think, Labour’s Shadow Home secretary (hence his interview following Teresa May’s).He explained his view as a Catholic – educated at a Catholic Comprehensive school (in St. Helens, Northern England) before he went up to Cambridge.

    It is well know that Ed Miliband is also in favour of this move and many hope to see this as part of Labour’s manifesto – in addition to its almost certain inclusion (if necessary) in the Tory and LibDem manifestos.

  • T Sorensen

    Andy Burnham is shadow health secretary. Both him and Ed Miliband have voted very strongly for equal gay rights in the past, and would almost certainly vote for gay marriage in a free vote, but this doesn’t mean it would necessarily be labour policy.

  • theroadmaster

    It looks like the public consultation process concerning the coalition government’s upcoming legislation to extend marriage to same-sex couples, was created to give the false impression that a fixed position has not been reached by said government.  The pertinent points(as revealed above in the quoted paragraphs) raised by both the Catholic and Anglican official responses, reveal a poor appreciation on the part of the incumbent administration, for the social ramifications of such an attempt to radically redefine something as intrinsically well-understood and distinct as marriage.  Delicate but practical questions are raised, in relation to what would constitute a physical consummation of a same-sex “marriage” or by extension adultery.  These questions should not be decided on the hoof by future test cases, as clarity is of the essence as soon as practicably possible.   One will encounter troublesome issues here, which go to the heart of what defines our understanding of gender and sexual relationships as nature intended.  One can be fully sure how these matters can be resolved in relation to the natural complementariness between one man and one woman within marriage but one needs more than an appeal to “equality” or “rights” to deal with them in sexual configurations which are don’t conform to this.

  • JByrne24

    Apologies for the error and thank you for pointing it out – knew he had that job, but thought, wrongly, that he had been moved.
    The Shadow Home Secretary is Yvette Cooper (Ed Balls’ wife) – you can be fairly certain that she is in favour of Gay marriage, I think. Andy Burnham is a Catholic though.

    I agree with your point that this may not necessarily be (future) Labour policy; but I am inclined to believe that a progressive party like Labour would be even more sympathetic to it than the Conservative party.

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

    and the Bishops say “the scope for expansion through precedent of
    what kinds of relationships are covered by marriage or civil
    partnerships is very real”.What on earth does this mean? They cannot possibly mean polygamy, can they?

    Oh, probably. The Christian Right “case” against same-sex marriage is massively borrowed from the US campaigns against same-sex marriage, which invariably turn to the ridiculous argument that if the ban on same-sex couples marrying is lifted, this will mean omg!polygamy!

    Polygamy, as practiced by an extreme minority of the Mormon church in the US, is a real if not very large problem in some parts of North America. It consists of the high-status adult men in the polygamist community exiling the majority of their sons in order to marry each others’ daughters. It causes significant, real harm.

    In more than a hundred years, no attempt to make this kind of polygamy marriage legal in either Canada or the US has ever succeeded. Utah was only granted statehood in 1896 after the Mormon church formally ceased to support polygamist marriage. Cases brought by polygamists in recent years occasionally point to same-sex marriage as an example of how they should be allowed to make their marriage legal too, but they always fail because while same-sex marriage demonstrably harms no one and affects no other marriage, polygamy as practiced by these Mormon fundamentalists demonstrably harms entire families and creates dysfunctional communities.

    More here: Polygamy’s Not Our Problem.

    That the Christian Right in the UK are bringing up polygamy as a “slippery slope” towards which British marriage may fall when same-sex couples can marry, is proof enough that the campaign is ideologically, and probably financially, inspired by the right-wing religionists of the US.

    There is, of course, no reason in a free country why any church should object to other churches having the freedom to decide who they will and will not wed according to their own faith. Nor is there any reason why any church should be allowed to rule on who can and can’t have a civil marriage.

  • Parasum

    “It is of serious concern to the Bishops therefore that this proposal, which has the potential to impact so immensely on the social stability of our society and which has significant implications for the unique institution of marriage and of family life”

    ## Quite unlike divorce. These men, Catholic or Anglican or both, are a joke. If these silly men would only be consistent, and point out that adultery is not often commended in the Bible, and that divorce is not highly praised either, any more than fornication is; & if they had the courage to criticise the sexual shenanigans of royalty & other influential & highly-placed persons in addition to this, they would have a case. It would be possible to respect and admire their consistency & their courage: for it takes courage to criticise those who can get their own back, all the more if they are well-placed to harm their critics.But no; other, far more prevalent, sexual activities are ignored, and this alone is objected to. Who needs atheists to act, when bishops are so adept at playing the hypocrite & coward ? Can they do anything else ?

    Considering that the  C of E is a Church that does not require its ministers to believe in the Resurrection of Christ, or even in God, Catholics are unspeakably stupid to make common cause with people who believe far less than most Catholic “progressives”. Especially when Catholics make a never-ending racket about the evils of unorthodoxy. All of a sudden, lack of orthodoxy stops mattering, & Anglicans or Muslims or whoever-it-may-be are clasped to Rome’s bosom as allies.

  • davidaslindsay

    Yes, but they have never threatened to make anyone else vote for it. I know for a fact from Catholic Labour MPs, of whom still quite a lot, that there is no pressure on them at all, and I include Shadow Ministers in this, to vote in favour of something that has got them their biggest post bags ever on a “moral issue” as conventionally defined. Miliband will vote it. Burnham might vote for, although it would be interesting to see if he just didn’t turn up; he would still like to be Leader one day. But neither of them will mind if anyone else doesn’t. And neither of him would ever introduce legislation for it, something that Jack Straw as Home Secretary explicitly ruled out in very tarditional terms.

  • davidaslindsay

    No, it wouldn’t be. It never has been. Labour is genuinely amazed that the Conservatives got put themselves into this mess. Most Labour MPs, or at least the majority, are preparing to vote in favour. But plenty, including plenty of Shadow Ministers, are most certainly not. And that, they have been assured from on high, will be fine.

  • Parasum

    To put it bluntly: how people who are not Christian, would not be seen dead being Christian, have perfectly satisfactory religions (or none) of their own, behave themselves, is none of the Churches’ damn business.

    The C of E has no problem acting as national registrar to the weddings of baptised people who could not tell an Apostle from an Apostle-spoon, and if acting as witnesses for them is not opposed to Christian marriage, what is ? It seems to  have escaped the C of E that, for some reason, Jesus Christ is vaguely important to the Christian Faith, & to the meaning of Christian marriage. Yet people whose knowledge of Him does not extend beyond using His Name as a curse-word, can marry in buildings for Christian worship.  And none of that is in any way inconsistent with Christianity. Apparently.

    But gay Christians can’t be married even in a registry office: that would change the meaning of marriage for everyone. One can conclude only that being gay is worse than atheism. Or that atheism is a variety of Anglicanism. Anglicanism will marry an adulterous heterosexual divorce – but it raises Cain at the prospect of gay marriage. Prince Charles can tread marriage underfoot, and gain by his wickedness: but for lesser beings, who wish to be left alone by religion, there is a different rule. They have religions for which they care & which have no claim on them, telling them how to live. Royal rutting outside the marriage-bed with a woman married to a different man, is rewarded – but gay marriage is so terrible that it will destroy all marriage, & possibly society. To invent such idiocies is impossible. Only Christians could be so desperately ridiculous & hypocritical.

    Why Catholics should care about what bothers Anglicans, who knows ? The CC is not the national Church of England. They don’t even have the same understanding of marriage, let alone the same relation to the nation: one is the Church of the nation, the other is a body no more legally established than Judaism or the Jedi Knights. Besides, Scotland has its own national Church – in case that was forgotten.

  • Oconnord

    6. The burden of proof for serious changes to the ………radical change in social policy ..This proposal is less radical than others enacted by government. The decriminalisation of homosexuality was far more radical. It led to a freer, fairer and better society. Would you rather live in the UK or one of those countries which execute gay people? It’s also being debated far more, and far more openly, than previous “radical” laws.We are proof of that.7. It is of serious concern to the Bishops……  impact so immensely on the social stability of our society …..How so? It will lead to the fall of the monarchy? Or man marries dog? Or polygamy? ( I notice no one mentions polyandry). Will I leave my wife because the two fellas next door got married? Silly slippery slope arguments.  37. Men and women are different physically, mentally, and spiritually. They are, in all respects, complementary, both designed and suited for the task of begetting and raising children over a sustained period. Marriage is the legal recognition of this, and without the physical consummation of marriage, where that complementarity is most fully expressed, a marriage is voidable under English law.That’s just so unreal I had to quote in full. Designed? Suited? Complementary? Task?This is a change to civil law, which applies to citizens, not canon law, none of which can be used to apply to citizens in a civil society aiming for equal civil rights amongst citizens.38. The consultation document makes clear…..that the concepts of……Well yes, every law needs further judgements, society relies on it. Technology makes it necessary. Adultery is a good example. 20 years ago was there any idea of online adultery?But now if a man were to spend his evenings on a cam, committing sexual acts, his wife could claim adultery. Even if her husband had never met the woman. Things change quicker than parliament, so laws will always be judged on merit. 

  • Oconnord

    6. The burden of proof for serious changes to the ………radical change in social policy ..
    This proposal is less radical than others enacted by government. The decriminalisation of homosexuality was far more radical. It led to a freer, fairer and better society. Would you rather live in the UK or one of those countries which execute gay people? It’s also being debated far more, and far more openly, than previous “radical” laws. 

    7. It is of serious concern to the Bishops……  impact so immensely on the social stability of our society …..

    How so? It will lead to the fall of the monarchy? Or man marries dog? Or polygamy? ( I notice no one mentions polyandry). Will I leave my wife because the two fellas next door got married? Silly slippery slope arguments.

    37.” Men and women are different physically, mentally, and spiritually. They are, in all respects, complementary, both designed and suited for the task of begetting and raising children over a sustained period. Marriage is the legal recognition of this, and without the physical consummation of marriage, where that complementarity is most fully expressed, a marriage is voidable under English law.”

    That’s just so unreal I had to quote in full. Designed? Suited? Complementary? Task?
    This is a change to civil law, which applies to citizens, not canon law, none of which can be used to apply to citizens in a civil society aiming for equal civil rights amongst citizens.

    38. The consultation document makes clear…..that the concepts of……

    Well yes, every law needs further judgements, society relies on it. Technology makes it necessary. Adultery is a good example. 20 years ago was there any idea of online adultery? But now if a man were to spend his evenings on a cam, committing sexual acts, his wife could claim adultery. Even if her husband had never met the woman. Things change quicker than parliament, so laws will always be judged on merit and in local courts.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I agree, the slippery slope argument is not a good one and is per se consequentialist.

  • Nat_ons

    The saddest part is that no ‘liberal’ democratic (Conservative/ Lib Dem or Labour) government ever needs to get into such a tangle over conflicting truths (these are, after all, but one and the same truth seen from differing perspectives). What the saecularist desires to change .. if he is true to his perspective and not intrusive into that of others .. is that of a social ethos in its material or concrete or temporal structure. Here, in relation to marriage, it is the form of contract that he wishes to amend leaving any spiritual aspects to others; the material aspect of the ‘marriage’ contract being addressed is finance and inheritance not Sacrament.

    In other words, all that need be adjusted is not marriage – which has been a sacred union legitimised by family, society and realm even in non-catholic states – rather it is the form of a civilly recorded contract of union. Whether this law-ruled union is between one man and three women or a woman and two men or two men or two women is a matter for civil record (and legal dispute) not divine promise in regard to family. The Catholic Church, in its more orthodox expressions, requires that Christians limit this union to one man and one woman, unto death, as a Sacrament – whatever other civil rules apply … e.g. in Islamic jurisdictions.

    Another agenda is at work, therefore, than merely adjusting civil regulation in regard to the legal recording of social contracts of union (for whatever purpose, not all unions are for the sake of ‘marriage’: mas, maris, maritus, i.e. a man [and his household]). Redefining ‘a man [and his household]‘ might seem a fruitless exercise – simply to extend its meaning to ‘any person [and his/her/their] household(s)’ – yet this example of political correctness in linguistic hijinks its purpose. As with AD and BC now popularly written as CE – being a suppose but undefinable and non-existent ‘Common Era’ – the sole and properly stated object is to distance man, society, the law from Christianity (not Judaism or Islam or Gnosticism or atheism, only Catholic Orthodoxy).

    Yet as with ‘CE’ the Christian need not fear such French Revolution/ Politburo antics; CE, even as redefined, is still the Christian Era (which is the only common factor uniting the dating system used to its source). It would be laughable if it were not levelled at so serious an issue as marriage = a man [and his household] because this strikes not at the liberty of a man but at the legal dues required of men (in relation to their dependants). The wit of man cannot be so dull as to overcome the folly of word-play and agree a form of words that will allow the State to regulate its own civil contracts without interfering with the rights, dues and privileges of the church’s Sacraments (where a faith group has such things); not least in recognising a legal contract to establish kith relationship (after all, adoption is a contact not a sacrament).

    That kinship formed by means of a socially approved union does not require a formal and legally binding contract need not be controversial, yet its secure inheritance does; that a contract also need not take the form of a divine covenant (whether of Hera and Hymen or Jehovah and Allah) but might do – according to custom – is clear; however, the covenant of marriage in uniting one man to his ‘house’ his wife and their offspring, as one flesh, requires much more than any legal civil contract can offer – indeed it might not need that, extraordinarily – it requires that the two freely and willingly become one, open to fruitfulness, and till death .. and in Christian Faith man cannot undo it (however many polls show that it could be popular statistically).

  • JByrne24

    The question of polygamy is an interesting one in that most people today view polygamy as immoral while the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns it. The first instance of polygamy/bigamy in the Bible was that of Lamech in Genesis 4:19: “Lamech married two women.” Several prominent men in the Old Testament were polygamists. Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and others all had multiple wives. In 2 Samuel 12:8, God, speaking through the prophet Nathan, said that if David’s wives and concubines were not enough, He would have given David even more. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (essentially wives of a lower status), according to 1 Kings 11:3.

  • MaryM

    Please explain what “Hunnish practices” are and of what relevance they are to this discussion.

  • Oconnord

    What about my other three points, briefly put…

    6. Radical laws can be good laws and there is no lack of discussion about this law.

    37. That’s a religious/canonical view of matrimony which doesn’t apply as this is a civil law defining which citizens are allowed to be married, in parity with other citizens.

    38. It’s common for laws to be interpreted through the courts on a case by case basis. It is often unavoidable as circumstances change.