Tuesday 21 May 2013

Libertas vel liber: Marriage, Civil Partnerships and the Freedom to Choose

I was interested to hear of the disarray in our Coalition government, even among members of the same section of it, on the subject of gay marriage. Of course, part of this is a latent homophobic tendency in the right wing, submerged now and often iceberg-like in its tendency to show only a little of its bulk above the surface. But I think there is also a genuine recognition that marriage is fundamentally an institution that cannot be altered to fit the whims of our particular generation. It has a tradition going back millennia, quite possibly into the very earliest human societies of the Pleistocene, and at its heart the union between one man and one woman with the possibility implicit that that union will culminate in a family. Although I hold no brief for any kind of homophobia and count several gay people among my friends, I can see that this point of view has a validity that it is hard to overturn.
            For many there is also a religious element, that Christian marriage has held a particular status in a society that has been, even if it no longer is, built on Christian values. Certainly the Church has always held that marriage is a sacrament, with a spiritual and symbolic quality in addition to its physical reality. And the relationship between Christ and the Church has been compared, by St Paul among others, to that between husband and wife. It is hardly surprising, then, that many Christians feel strongly about marriage as a fundamentally and unalterably heterosexual institution, and will feel that the unholy conjoining of disparate parts of Coalition and Opposition to defeat the so-called Wrecking Amendment is one more indication of a long slide away from the values that they hold dear. And I will not be alone in viewing the proposal to penalise registrars who don’t want to officiate at gay marriage ceremonies on grounds of conscience as a serious erosion of liberties. There has already been a long-drawn-out case involving two nurses who refused to supervise abortions for conscience reasons and whose NHS employers have threatened to sack them as a result. Owners of bed-and-breakfast accommodation are no longer allowed to choose whom they allow to stay in their own homes if there is a suspicion that their objection to a couple has anything to do with their being gay. It is one thing to pass laws to protect the vulnerable and ensure social order and peace, but quite another to  insist that everyone takes the same view and must act in the same way. There is more than a whiff of Big Brother about all this – in the Orwellian sense not the reality TV one, I hasten to add.
            The suggestion of promoting equality by allowing heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships, which has come into play even as some politicians are considering phasing out these partnerships when (if) the Gay Marriage Bill becomes law, has been ridiculed by some of the news media. But making access to these partnerships available to couples of all orientations seems to me to be a splendid notion, and something that I have in fact been touting among friends for some while. It would have the advantage of giving gay and straight couples equal status. It would also allow for long-term relationships of a quasi-marriage type, such as cohabitation, to be given proper standing, as civil rather than spiritual or religious arrangements – something which would suit many people who see their relationships as purely civil and whose marriages are conducted by non-religious registrars in a variety of venues. Civil partnerships allow for some legal status for spouses with regard to inheritance, which would be of great benefit to cohabitees who do not actually want to be married, for whatever reason, but who wish to act responsibly – and this could extend to some legal recognition for women in such partnerships where a relationship breaks down. It would also lead to the word ‘partner’ acquiring some real meaning, rather than being a rather vague euphemism for ‘live-in lover’ or ‘father of my children’ or ‘current boyfriend’, covering a wide range of possibilities and often creating confusion and embarrassment when ‘business partner’ is actually what is meant!
            It is time we began to think clearly about the kind of society we are trying to create, rather than lurching from one proposition to another, propelled by a desire for political correctness along a vaguely liberal and secular line that is often ill-thought-out and full of its own type of prejudice with regard to anyone who happens to disagree with it. “Liberal” ideas are supposed to allow people freedom for contrary opinions, not curtail it according to a received set of values and opinions, as is fast beginning to happen. The word has its roots in ‘liberare’ – ‘to free’ – not ‘liber’ (a book).
            No, let’s not go back to ‘doing it by the book’. Please.