|A woman signs the “Petition for Marriage,” an effort in the United Kingdom that by late April had drawn more than 460,000 supporters, and asks for respect for traditional marriage and voices opposition to attempts to redefine it. Stephen Simpson/LNP/Newscom
The United Kingdom’s coalition government announcement last summer that it planned to introduce gay marriage came as a bolt from the blue. There had been nothing about redefining marriage in the Conservative Party manifesto before the May 2010 general elections; neither was it in the post-election deal struck with the Liberal-Democrats. The prime minister, David Cameron, told his party that he believed in the “ties that bind,” and that he supported the move not “despite” but “because” he was a Conservative.
Lacking entirely any mandate to do so, the government in March began its “consultation,” making clear that canvassing public opinion was not the point.
The question was not “whether we are going to introduce same-sex civil marriage,” the equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone, said on the day the consultation began, “but how,” adding that the aim was to legislate by 2015.
The powerful gay rights group Stonewall, which lavishes millions on lawyers and lobbying, has already drawn up a draft bill, whose first clause deletes the words “husband” and “wife” from the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, replacing them with the words “parties to a marriage.”
The government has been continuously stressing that the reform proposed is to civil marriage alone, and that, because civil marriages cannot be carried out on religious premises, the churches will be entirely unaffected.
The churches have responded by pointing out that the government has confused marriages with weddings. In reality and in law, they say, marriage is a single institution with two separate routes (religious and civil) into it, not two separate institutions; that the state has no right to reconfigure a natural institution that precedes both church and state; and that redefining marriage in one of its essential characteristics — gender complementarity — undermines the purpose and benefits of marriage. This argument — a defense of marriage as a natural institution, rather than a religious one — has put gay marriage advocates on the defensive, undermining their claim that church opposition to gay marriage is an attempt to impose a “biblical” conception of marriage on a secular society.
The campaign is being led mainly by the Coalition for Marriage (www.c4m.org.uk), a grassroots movement of mostly evangelical Christians who have the support of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales.
The coalition, which has secured a record 460,000 signatures on its petition to retain the current definition of marriage, is now asking signatories to respond to the first two questions of the consultation to express their opposition.
Even if only a fifth do so, the government faces a monumental mailbag that will be hard to ignore.
Public opinion is divided and confused. Gay marriage advocates point to a slew of surveys showing slender majorities in favor of “equal marriage”; more neutral polls show majorities slightly opposed. Yet surveys that point out that civil partnerships (introduced under the last government in 2005) give same-sex couples the same legal rights and privileges as marriage reveal clear majorities in favor of retaining the current definition. A March poll, for example, showed 70 percent support for the current definition of marriage as an exclusive commitment between a man and a woman. Put together, the results show that people fail to grasp that opening marriage to same-sex couples requires redefining the institution, and that, once they realize it does, turn against the idea.
Given that most British people oppose gay marriage yet never go to church, and given that the churches have been almost alone in standing up against the move, U.K. church leaders have found themselves in the unusual position of acting as voice of the voiceless. They have argued that it is because of the unique benefits to society of children being reared by their biological parents that marriage is held apart and promoted by the state; and that once marriage is reduced to a mere sexual and emotional commitment between two individuals, it will be inexorably damaged as an institution. Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster told the BBC that it was “utterly astonishing” that in the government’s consultation document there was not a single reference to children. “That shows that the vision of marriage contained in the consultation document is reduced,” he said. “It is excluding things that are of the very nature of marriage.”
While the evangelicals in the Coalition have run a consistent and well-managed campaign, the Anglicans have been less sure. The Church of England’s official position is that English law reflects the Biblical understanding of marriage, which should be preserved; yet recently senior Anglicans, including a number of former bishops, announced that “the fact that there are same-sex couples who want to embrace marriage should be a cause for rejoicing in the Christian Church.”
For its part, the Catholic Church has been consistent and clear in its opposition — but not always coordinated. In March, a blistering article and painful follow-up interview by Scotland’s most senior bishop, Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, were regarded as intemperate and ill-judged by bishops south of the border, who saw him falling into the trap laid for the churches by gay-marriage advocates.
Cardinal O’Brien’s widely-reported intervention prompted the bishops of England and Wales to bring forward the release of their own letter on the issue, which was read out at parishes in both nations at the beginning of March. Rather than attacking the proposal to introduce gay marriage, the letter put forth the case for the state upholding traditional marriage — “to enhance stability in society and to respect and support parents in the crucial task of having children and bringing them up as well as possible.”
Feeling the heat
There were signs, at Easter, of the prime minister feeling the heat. At a meeting with church leaders, Cameron said he “didn’t want to fall out over this” and even seemed to raise the possibility of the government failing, noting that “if this doesn’t go ahead there will still be civil partnerships.”
A face-saving retreat may lie in the legal complexities. Unlike other European countries and U.S. states which have introduced gay marriage, England has an established Church whose vicars are automatically marriage registrars.
The Church’s lawyers are already warning that the government’s reassurances that priests will not be sued for failing to marry a gay couple will not hold in law.
Others point to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg whose rulings show that, while European law recognizes no right to same-sex marriage, states which introduce it must be careful not to discriminate in the marriage services offered to gay couples.
According to Neil Addison, a Catholic barrister specializing in religious freedom cases, “a good legal case can be made that any place or person who is registered to perform marriage must be willing to perform same-sex marriage on the same basis as they conduct heterosexual marriage since, in law, there will be no difference between the two.”
The best hope for opponents of gay marriage is that the government will balk at the prospect of unleashing time-consuming and costly lawsuits. Forced to choose between its pledge to gay rights activists to deliver “marriage equality” and religious-freedom guarantees to the Churches, the government will yet be forced to kick the idea into the long grass of a future parliament.
Austen Ivereigh writes from England.