Marriage (Same Sex Couples)

Memorandum submitted by Revd Paul Burr, Rector of Swardeston, Norfolk (MB 70)

The wisdom of generations

1. Marriage is the wisdom of generations. It offers a way of life tried and tested by parents and grandparents. Marriage provides stability to children growing up in a complex and uncertain world. It sustains love, loyalty, and unconditional acceptance over a lifetime – most critically when we are at their most vulnerable – in infancy, sickness, and old age. Marriage cements the generations by the joining of families and creates a network of belonging which fundamentally shapes our identity. It is a primary means of learning: it is how we pass on beliefs and customs which enable us to make sense of the world and gives us social capital from which we build our lives.

A restricted way of life

2. For the individual, marriage is a costly (and risky) solution to the human condition. It is conventionally grounded on unconditional promises and imposes far-reaching restriction on freedom – most obviously sexual continence, the obligation to co-habit for a lifetime, and the need to adjust oneself to a partner who is not fully known (on traditional models) until the marriage covenant is secure. Marriage is therefore a loud ‘No’ to the permissive society where promiscuity is endemic and where self-determination and self-fulfilment are non-negotiable rights.

Romantic love

3. Many couples enter marriage without adequate understanding of what they are committing themselves to. The liberalisation in the law over wedding venues has led to large numbers of couples designing their own weddings and expressing their own understanding of what marriage means – ordinarily an expression of romantic love. This has corroded the common understanding of marriage as an institution recognised by society for reasons which transcend romantic feelings.

Everyone’s business

4. The arguments for same-sex marriage are frequently couched in terms of the right to love the person of your choice. But marriage neither enables nor prevents such a thing – most couples who marry are already living together. A familiar argument is that ‘who I choose to marry is no one else’s business’. But if marriage is about recognition, then who I choose to marry is everyone else’s business. That indeed is the meaning of marriage as an institution and a matter of public record. Marriage elevates private love to legal relationship by means of public ceremony. Legal recognition means legal definition. Changing that definition may have many unintended consequences without necessarily securing for gay and transgender couples the benefits they desire. Some of the benefits that accrue from marriage are integral to the husband and wife relationship and are not simply socially conditioned through legal recognition. You cannot legislate against biology.

Conflicting definitions

5. The case for the Bill rests on the rights and interests of those the present law restricts. But millions of couples already have a huge stake in marriage because they have entered it in good faith – and in doing so have irrevocably shaped their own identities and that of their families. Every couple married hitherto in England and Wales has done so on an express definition of husband and wife. This Bill subverts that by providing a new and different definition of marriage. That is a serious issue for the many for whom marriage isn’t primarily a matter of legal definition but of personal belief - which includes at least all those who have married in church (because marriage services clearly articulate belief about marriage).

Freedom of expression

6. For such people the Bill presents a threat both to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. ‘Marriage’ will be a word whose meaning has been hi-jacked. This is serious not just because it is an everyday word about a ubiquitous institution which shapes the identity of so many, but because of the unyielding hostility of some who have embraced the ‘equality’ agenda.

Not just marriage ceremonies

7. Protections for churches and ministers of religion are important, but they are unlikely to be enough. The difference between this reform and previous changes in the law of marriage is that there those who lobby for ‘equality’ are relatively well organized and funded and have strong ideological commitment - and the Human Rights Act makes litigation by (or supported by) campaigners almost inevitable. It is a very odd state of affairs when the national church is prohibited from doing something which is lawful anywhere else.

Religious freedom

8. But ministers of religion and marriage ceremonies are only one issue. Many institutions, most obviously in the public sector, have equality policies which curtail or prohibit expressions of belief which fail to conform to their particular orthodoxy. Teachers, doctors, nurses and NHS staff, civil servants and local government employees, employees of large progressive corporations (and in all likelihood the employees of those companies with whom they contract) will all be particularly vulnerable and therefore forced into a quiescence or risk losing their job. Religious freedoms are routinely trumped by rights rooted in sexual identity and expression: same-sex marriage focuses conflicting rights and is liable become a vexed and costly battleground.

An express right to dissent

9. We therefore need an express right of freedom to express views about marriage which differ from those in the bill. Failure to do this will remedy one perceived injustice for the few at the cost of a far greater infringement of liberty for the many. Otherwise the Bill risks not being the permissive reform that is promised, but a coercive and inherently illiberal piece of legislation.

February 2013

Prepared 4th March 2013