I have pondered whether it is worth saying anything more on the topic du jour: marriage between those of the same sex. But I have been surprised by a) the number of times I have been asked around the parish by non-churchgoers what I think of “gay marriage” (their term) and b) fascinated to find that all who have asked me have wanted me to oppose it. That’s obviously a self-selecting group, but I note it for whatever it’s worth.
I repeat the conclusion of my piece back in March:
There is a sense (to adapt Marx on religion) in which the criticism of marriage is the premise of all social criticism. Does the new gay desire for marriage represent the death of queer criticism and the triumph of hetero-normativity? Will only a celibate Catholic clergy, sworn to preach the virtues of marriage, be the last bastion of a lived out critique queering domesticity and romantic love? That would be irony indeed.
There are, in short, new queer as well as old straight voices insisting that the two relationships are not the same kind of thing. Whether these relationships should be given equality in the same institution, or be given two equal but different institutions is a serious and genuine question.
I still think that question has failed to get the attention it deserved and deserves. And I haven’t really changed my mind. I still tend to think that gay and lesbian relationships are sufficiently different to need a distinctive but legally equal institution.
In a curious kind of way, the government’s proposals try both to maintain the rhetoric of the same institution – marriage – for both relationships, while changing the actual details of relationships for gay people. The language may be “equal marriage”: the legislation is not. The detail of the legislation rather seems to agree that the institution needs to be different, even while it applies the same name to it.
It is not just that gay people will have the option of two institutions, civil partnership and marriage, whereas straight people will only be able to choose one. It is that the grounds of divorce are significantly different (if I have understood the proposals rightly) for marriage between people of the same sex.
I grant that it might have been rather tricky to define “consummation” either for gay men or lesbians, but it seems rather more straightforward to define adultery. The fact that adultery is not a ground for divorce in a same-sex marriage raises very big problems for the definition of all marriage as an intentionally life-long exclusive commitment, if we are presuming to talk about the same institution. for both gay and straight couples.
In other words, the legislation itself seems to be proposing that marriage for gay people is not the same as marriage for straight people, and undermines its own rhetoric about equality.
In part, the church has made a rod for its own back by first (at the official level whatever it claims now) offering a heel-dragging and grudging acceptance of civil partnerships. It has made the situation worse by refusing to explore whether and how to create a liturgy to bless them, in case that made it look like marriage. The paralysis of internal politics has driven out any chance of creative or generous responses to social change or pastoral need. But I wonder whether a generous acceptance of civil partnerships might have strengthened the institution sufficiently that it was seen as good in its own right and appropriate to the distinctive nature of the relationship.
Either way, we are where we are now, which seems to me the worst of all possible worlds, applying the language of marriage equally to relationships which are being treated in the detail of the law as having differences and distinctions between them.