Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Straight answers on gay marriage

I'm probably not the right person to hold forth on gay marriage, being neither gay nor married, but that hasn't stopped lots of rather unpleasant people (mostly Tory MPs) from weighing in (you'll get that joke if you follow the link), so why not me?

As far as I can see, the current legislation extends the right to a religious ceremony to same-sex couples if they want it. Another reason for me to keep my mouth shut - I'm not religious either. I'll ignore it. When it comes down to brass tacks, I don't see why superstitious homosexuals shouldn't be afforded the same privileges as superstitious heterosexuals. Jesus never mentioned sexuality in his bit of the Bible other than to make friends with prostitutes, while the Old Testament is quite happy to condone polygamy, something several Tory MPs have inexplicably failed to promote in today's debate. On the other hand, I don't think that law can make people believe differently, only behave differently. If you think God compels you to condemn gay people, knock yourself out – just don't expect to be taken seriously by the rest of us.  

However, I do view this entire event as a big political stunt. Gay people's rights are being toyed with by a Conservative leadership trying to look cool while actually ensuring that nothing radical happens. The proposed legislation legalises religious marriage for homosexual partners… except in churches which don't like it. Here are the magic words:

So if Catholics and Anglicans, the two biggest denominations in the country by far, ban gay marriage – even if the rabbi, priest or vicar of a particular parish wants to conduct the ceremony – then the marriage is illegal. That's perhaps worse than now. 
the legislation states that no religious organisation or individual minister can be compelled to marry same-sex couples or to permit this to happen on their premises.
if a Church of England vicar wished to hold a same-sex marriage at a time when the church was opposed to such marriage, that ceremony would not be recognised in law. 
So the Tories get credibility for legalising gay marriage while sneakily making sure that virtually nobody can go through with it unless they're prepared to abandon their doctrines and communions for a different sect. About 0.5% of the population belongs to the Christian groups willing to conduct same-sex marriages (chiefly Unitarians), while 0.1% of the population belongs to the Jewish (Reform and Liberal) wings open to the idea. 

I think we've succumbed to the idea that religion should be a prominent component of the marriage contract. Contrary to what most people think, European marriages in the Christian era weren't primarily Christian: they were private contracts between individuals (and while we're at it, Catholic priests weren't absolutely required to be unmarried until the 11th century). Gradually, churches became places to register your marriage, understandable given the clerisy's near-monopoly on literacy, but registration wasn't a legal or religious requirement. Gradually the Catholic church began to exert more authority in the marital sphere and given the entwinement of Church and State, it came to dominate marriage arrangements. With the Reformation, the State took a greater interest, and the counter-Reformationary Catholic church only then defined a true marriage as one between a man and a woman in the presence of a priest. 

So what should we take from all this? Firstly, that you can't trust the Tories. Secondly, that religious authorities have way too much say in what's essentially a secular population. And thirdly, that you can't trust the Tories. 

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