I see that the Guardian is running a series of opinion pieces this week centred around the question: “Is gay marriage a religious issue?”
So far, we’ve had four different people take four different stances. First, we had Candace Chellew-Hodge, an American gay Christian and associate pastor, arguing that marriage existed long before Christianity got its sticky fingers on it. Next up was Martin Prendergast, a British gay Catholic, arguing that the Catholic sacramental view of marriage could be applied to same-sex unions. While his heart is clearly in the right place, I can’t help feeling that he’s flogging a dead horse while the current Pope and his coterie are in power. Still, as he points out, the Catholic Church has itself recognised same-sex unions in the past, so it’s possible that once Benedict bites the bullet, reason, equality and doing the right thing might once again prevail.
Then we got Theo Hobson, arguing that marriage should be opened up to gay people. Fine, except that, being Theo Hobson, his arguments are a pile of old codswallop. He gets off to an abysmal start in his opening two sentences:
Is gay marriage a religious issue? Yes, in the sense that we can only really understand marriage with reference to religion.
Er, sorry? The evidence for that assertion is, what, exactly? Theo attempts to explain:
The event has a religious dimension, even if the couple are atheists, for they are affirming a tradition moulded by religious values.
Ah, the “sticky fingers” argument. Well, sorry, Theo, but my civil marriage ceremony had no religious dimension to it whatsoever – God didn’t get an invite (how could she, when she doesn’t exist?).
The ideal of total communion between two souls is religiously rooted.
There you go again, Theo, I don’t have a soul either – that’s a concept that indeed is religiously rooted, but is total nonsense. However, two people can want to get married because of their love and commitment to each other – no souls required.
And so is the discipline that this entails: confining sexuality to one relationship, for the sake of nurturing a new social entity, the family, involves an idea of social duty that has long been seen in religious terms.
It may have “long been seen in religious terms”, but that doesn’t mean that that is the only way of seeing it. Discipline and the family are not the sole prerogatives of religion, no matter how much Hobson seems to need to believe it. He should try taking off his blinkers once in a while. But what really irritates me about Hobson’s piece is his final paragraph:
Yes, this makes marriage a wider concept, but it doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that many of us will still feel that there is something more real about heterosexual marriage, because of its union of gender opposites, and because of its reproductive potential.
“More real”? Patronising, or what? Excuse me while I catch my breath.
Today, Mark Simpson weighed in with his take on the subject, arguing that marriage is outdated, and that the existing civil partnership laws are all that is needed in 21st. Century Britain, and should be open to heterosexuals, not limited just to gays and lesbians. While there’s something to be said for this point of view, the fact of the matter is that in Britain, at present, straight people, religious or not, can get married, while gay people can only enter into a civil partnership. There’s the discrepancy and the discrimination right there.
Britain is stuck in a halfway house at the moment. Perhaps the way out is indeed, as Simpson suggests, to open up civil partnerships to all.
It’s interesting to reflect on the situation here in the Netherlands. We’ve got both civil marriage (open to all) and civil partnerships – known as registered partnerships (again, open to all). The point is that “marriage” is completely secular: two people must get married in a townhall for their marriage to be recognised as such. If they are religious, then they usually walk across the market square into the church to perform a church marriage, but that is a purely religious ceremonial, it has no standing in the eyes of the State. When Prince Willem-Alexander and his Maxima got married a few years back, that was the pattern they followed: civil marriage in the Townhall, followed by the religious marriage in the church.
There are few real differences between civil marriage and civil partnerships here. If you want the nitty-gritty detail, then this paper by Kees Waaldijk will tell you all you need to know.
I’m probably biased, but the Dutch model seems to be eminently pragmatic, sensible, and treats people equally. I wish more countries would adopt the model.