The Bishop of Exeter the Rt Rev Michael Langrish debates redefining marriage.
Humpty Dumpty sat on his wall talking to Alice: "There's glory for you," he said. "I don't know what you mean by glory," Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't till I tell you. I meant there's a nice knock down argument for you." "But glory doesn't mean a nice knock down argument," Alice objected. "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."
That is precisely how it appears to be with the Government's use of the word 'marriage'. A shared common meaning, with its roots deep in all cultures and faiths, is to be thrown aside and the term re-fashioned to mean what they wish it to mean, though reading the Government's response to the Consultation and the Secretary of State's Statement to the House of Commons, so many questions are left unanswered that I am not sure that the Government knows what it wants to mean!
Maria Miller has spoken of how marriage has evolved through human history; and it is true that it has, but one thing and one thing only has remained constant and that is that it relates to the union of a man and a woman. There have been many other restrictions on such unions which have varied from time to time and place to place with different laws relating to age of consent, number of permitted spouses, termination and what is allowed or prohibited or allowed between members of the same family group. What has stayed constant is an understanding that marriage is between male and female, based on the complementarity of the two sexes.
Those who advocate 'same sex' or 'equal' marriage have sought to define opposition to this development as a 'faith' issue. That is simply untrue. It is a societal issue, as it redefines marriage and that will have consequences for us all. For example, common to the definition of marriage up until now accepted by both Church and State, has been an understanding that the making of a marriage is not completed in the marriage ceremony – wherever that may take place. It must be 'consummated' in the sexual union of male and female, an act which also brings with it the potential for the creation of new life. Failure to consummate has been one of the grounds on which a marriage may be declared as invalid and annulled. What does consummation mean in the case of two people of the same gender? The Government has said that this is a matter that will be left to the courts. But then either there must be two separate definitions of marriage, which ministers say there cannot be, or else these judicial decisions will shape how any marriage including those already in existence, will be said to be a true marriage. In spite of this huge difficulty, until this point I thought I could see where the Government was coming from. Why was it that civil partnerships were insufficient for those of the same gender who wished to make a public commitment to a permanent sharing of their lives? As we know, the law already provides for those in civil partnerships to share in the same legal benefits of marriage, and if there are remaining differences, it is easy to tidy up the law. However it seems that something more is being sought here because a civil partnership is simply an act of registration. Marriage however, in law, is seen as a 'performative act' bringing something new into being, something that until the exchange of vows and consummation did not exist. A desire for such a performative, celebratory act are aspirations I can understand and there are ways in which the law could be changed without depriving the concept of marriage of its single, central meaning.
But then Maria Miller suggested that an existing civil partnership could be transformed into a 'marriage' simply by signing a register. And if one marriage is simply a matter of civil registration with no vows, no performative acts and no criteria for consummation, then for every other marriage it must be the same; and each of us who is married will have seen that to which we have committed ourselves – some of us over many decades – irrevocably changed.
The Government has been keen to portray any difficulties with what they are proposing as an issue of faith, but it is a matter that touches one of the key building blocks of our society and therefore affects us all. It is not just a matter of special provisions for churches and other faith communities. Exemptions from conducting 'gay marriages' are being offered to churches, but nothing is being said about the education that is to be offered through Church schools. In Devon 30% of Primary School pupils attend Church Schools, and our presence in the Secondary sector is growing. Are Church schools to be allowed to teach a traditional understanding of marriage while in non-church schools a different understanding is to be taught? Or will Church Schools be forced by law to conform to a new understanding which has no roots in the doctrines of any of the major faith communities? If so this sets an extraordinary precedent for the State's power to determine articles of faith, unparalleled in history apart from in those repressive ideological states of the extreme right and left. At this point we will have left the realm of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland for the land of George Orwell's 1984.
Whatever the humane desires and good intentions that may have led Mr Cameron to embark on this project, there are so many unanswered questions and unforeseen consequences that ought to suggest caution before serious damage is done to the very thing that has been so precious a part of our social fabric – the lifelong union of one man to one woman to the exclusion of all others for the creation and nurture of the generations to come. It is possible that what is created may not even end up fulfilling the hopes of those couples it was intended to serve.