Marriage (Same Sex Couples)

Memorandum submitted by Revd Dick Wolff (MB 52)

Submission to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee considering the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2012 - 13

A. Key points :

1. The Bill does not intend to redefine ‘marriage’, but it does. It says that it would allow same-sex couples to legally marry, but in Schedule 4 Part 3 it strikes out adultery as grounds for divorce for same-sex couples and thereby removes a key understanding of ‘what marriage is’ from the legal definition of same-sex ‘marriage’. It therefore does not offer same-sex couples ‘marriage’ as marriage is widely understood.

2. The internal essence of ‘marriage’ - as generally understood in Britain, I submit - is that of a one-to-one erotic/sexual relationship, to the exclusion of erotic/sexual relationships with people outside the marriage. In the debates in Parliament and in committee, it seems to be simply assumed that marriage is about exclusive erotic/sexual relationships, but (with a couple of exceptions) this has hardly ever been overtly stated.

3. There is actually little reference to this exclusive sexual/erotic nature in marriage legislation generally, but where it is most explicit is in the acceptance of adultery (that is, a sexual relationship outside the marriage covenant) as unreasonable behaviour in breach of the marriage contract, and therefore grounds for divorce.

4. By striking out adultery as grounds for divorce for same-sex married couples (whilst retaining it for heterosexual couples) the Bill - contrary to what Maria Miller MP said in the Parliamentary debate - effectively defines adultery as ‘not unreasonable’ within such marriages, and therefore redefines same-sex marriages as not being essentially sexually exclusive.

B. The danger of legal confusion

B1. There has been some discussion about whether openness to the possibility of procreation is the key element of marriage, and much affirmation of the ‘mutual loving and caring’ aspect. The former would seem to deny the validity of marriage for infertile (or ‘post-fertile’) couples. The latter is just confusing : an elderly brother and sister could live together, caring for each other ‘till death us do part’, yet the suggestion that they should be married, even were it legal, would be simply odd.

B2. The only people to have referred to the ‘one-to-one erotic relationship’ heart of marriage are former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey whose comments were cited in the early part of the Commons debate, and Revd Dr Jeffery John who said :

I am not sure about the details of the law of adultery as it stands. I would like the assumption to be, for gay people and for straight people, that sexual fidelity is an absolute demand of the marriage bond, and that should be made clear in the legislation, however that is made clear.

In this legislation it is not only not made clear, the matter is actively made open to confusion and uncertainty.

B3. Alice Arnold, in the same discussion, said :

I think everybody knows what "married" means in general terms. . . . there is an allowance for either desertion or unfaithfulness, which would be unreasonable behaviour. It is not that difficult to say, "My partner’s left me for somebody else; that’s unreasonable behaviour." We do not have to go into the sexual ins and outs of that. It is fairly clear to everybody that that is an irretrievable breakdown of the relationship.

I believe she is mistaken. By excluding the adultery clause in Schedule 4 Part 3 the Bill defines adultery as ‘not unreasonable’. But further, there are many people who abuse the marriage contract by committing adultery whilst having no intention of ‘leaving them for someone else’. In the divorce courts, the lawyer for the ‘wronged’ party would have a hard time securing a divorce from an adulterous partner who wished to contest the divorce. Even if they admitted adultery they would be able to deny that this was legal evidence of ‘irretrievable breakdown’ or unreasonable behaviour. This is a recipe for much distress and confusion in the courts.

C. The reason why erotic/sexual behaviour lies at the heart of the definition of marriage.

C1. One of my primary reasons for supporting same-sex marriage - indeed, for believing that it is long overdue - is that I believe ‘one-to-one erotic behaviour’ is best expressed, and for the sake of a healthy society should be confined to, married relationships ‘forsaking all others’. Since ‘forsaking all others’ clearly doesn’t mean ‘not having any relationships of any sort with anyone else’, it clearly refers to an ‘exclusive sexual relationship’.

C2. Marriage (for both hetero- and homo-sexual couples) is the best model because of the nature of erotic love.

C.3 The purest form of love - what the Christians call ‘agape’ love - is totally selfless. Its only concern is the welfare of the other. At its extreme, it is ‘love your enemies’. If it is done for selfish reasons it ceases to be ‘pure love’ in this sense. You do not need to be married to someone to love them in this sense.

Erotic love, however, is a different sort of love - although it does not exclude agape love (as some suggest). In fact, the two go very well together.

C4. Unlike ‘agape’ love, the giving of erotic pleasure typically involves the receiving of it, too. One-to-one erotic behaviour can therefore be a very powerful way of strengthening the bond between two people. I would argue that this, rather than the making of babies, is its primary purpose. The fact that erotic behaviour produces a personal erotic ‘reward’ is one of its great blessings, because it gives people who might otherwise (in the busyness of life) drift apart a motive to get ‘up front and personal’ and renew their relationship erotically. The sex drive can drive us together - it is a bonding drive.

C5. By constraining erotic urges within an exclusive committed relationship, the marriage model of relationship ‘channels’ sexual energy to hold couples together. To be consistent - "Equal" - either Schedule 4 Part 3 needs to be struck out, or the Marriage Act needs to be amended to remove adultery as grounds for divorce in heterosexual marriages too, thereby separating marriage from sexual behaviour altogether and leaving people (and judges) to decide whether one partner being promiscuous was or wasn’t ‘unreasonable behaviour’ on a case by case basis.

C6. The fact that one-to-one erotic behaviour produces a personal erotic ‘reward’ is also its danger, of course. It can so easily become a selfish act. In its most distorted form it becomes the using of another person for sexual purposes. If one of the purposes of marriage is to channel people’s sexual urges into forging enduring partnerships that can form strong building blocks for society, then the complementary purpose is that of protecting society from the dangers of abusive (that is, purely selfish and exploitative) sexual behaviour.

C7. I would say that indulging in sexual behaviour outside of a committed relationship (without the partner’s knowledge or agreement) is at the very least selfish behaviour, in breach of trust. To exempt partners in a same-sex marriage from this constraint is effectively to say ‘if your partner acts selfishly by sharing one-to-one erotic behaviour with someone else, you have no grounds for complaint’.

C8. As I have said, the actual erotic preferences of the couples involved are completely irrelevant to this. Society’s laws only need to reach into that private domain where the protection of individuals (other partner, or children) from abuse by one of the partners has become an issue.

Conclusion

The Bill is effectively an adulterer’s charter for some, and if it were consistent it would be an adulterer’s charter for all. It effectively ‘desexualises’ marriage. It deals with the same-sex issue by running away from it. Far from affirming the sexual nature of same-sex relationships, it denies the significance of erotic behaviour in human relationships altogether as irrelevant.

That is a recipe for a lot of confusion, misunderstanding and hurt - in people’s lives, and equally in the divorce courts.

It would be quite simple to correct this fundamental flaw : just remove the same-sex adultery and non-consummation exemptions at Schedule 4, Part 3. Then we might have ‘Equal Love’.

Information concerning the Revd Dick Wolff

I have been an ordained minister in the United Reformed Church since 1981, during which time I have interviewed many couples seeking marriage and conducted many weddings.

I have participated in the discussions and debates within the United Reformed Church, and more generally, about same-sex relationships for over twenty years.

I have come to the conclusion during that time, not only that same-sex marriage is permissible, but that it should be the model or ‘ideal pattern’ for all sexual relationships.

Both of the local churches I serve are minded to support the conducting of same-sex marriages on our premises although this has not been formally tested in Church Meeting, and the financial implications may make it difficult.

I am also an Oxford City councillor for the Green Party.

February 2013

Prepared 27th February 2013