25 May 2012

Gay or equal marriage?

The government in the UK has recently issued a discussion document about “gay marriage”, though the proposals will only apply to England and Wales. There has been lots of criticism of this proposal, though I hadn’t given it much thought until I saw Remittance Girl’s blog piece, in which she argued that trying to attack bible-thumping opponents with more bible-thumping wouldn’t work.

The discussion document gives a very clear view of just what marriage is, what a civil partnership is, what the differences are, and what the proposed changes mean in terms of today’s legislation.

So, just what is the fuss about? I’ve tried to clarify my views, more specifically with regard to the position in England and Wales. What is marriage, and why shouldn’t be be about equality?


The standard narrative describes (“straight”) marriage beginning around the time of the change from a hunter/gatherer existence to one of settled agriculture. It’s difficult to know whether the hunter/gatherers, bands of up to about 150 people, practiced pair-bonding of if they were sharing all their resources.

Settled agriculture required division of labour, the emergence of specialised trades, and the beginnings of the concepts of “property”, “wealth” and “paternity”. The man would want to know that his work and wealth, when inherited by his children,  would go to people who were indubitably his children, not someone else’s. And that requirement certainly required monogamy — at least on the wife’s side. So, marriage and sex (or female exclusivity) seem to have been intertwined from an early stage.

Marriage was a compact; the man’s labours and the woman’s child bearing and rearing. If you ask why the paternity of the children was so vital, why a patriarchy was so concerned on it, my answer is that I don’t know. A child’s maternity is never in doubt, but it’s paternity clearly can be. So why not make it easier, and have a matriarchy; again, I don’t know.

Paternity and patriarchy have been accepted as “normal” in most subsequent societies; and marriage continued as a contract concerned as much with progeny as with wealth and dynasty. “Love” as the basis for marriage is a very recent idea; our ancestors may well have been fond of their spouses, but the didn’t always marry for love. And if they wanted love and affection, well there were always courtesans, catamites and gigolos.

Homosexual affection and love was well recognised in ancient times; there were, for example, armies with paired males, the theory being that the two lovers would fight better, to protect the other.

Religion and marriage

If we were all once pagans, a dominant influence in the past few millennia has been religions in the Judeo-Abrahamic tradition. In the western world we were all once catholic; starting with St Paul (who the arch-atheist Richard Dawkins described as “inventing Christianity”), a vast theological corpus was erected by Saints Jerome, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas et al. Curiously, such theology says that the ultimate Christianity is abstinence; but if that’s too difficult, then heterosexual marriage is sort of acceptable. Abstinence, if religiously practiced, would see the end of Christianity. Power and control; and all written by men.  Saint Thecla, an early priestess and follower of St Paul appears in the Apocrypha, but has otherwise vanished.

Catholic England split from Rome because the Pope wouldn’t grant Henry an annulment; Henry’s problem was that he wanted a male heir. Henry styled himself as head of the church in England; the monarch still is. Rather oddly, during Henry’s difficulties, Martin Luther said that Henry could marry bigamously. Two CoE archbishops and 24 bishops still sit in the UK legislature.

The Church of England carries a lot of theology of catholic origin; marriage was first declared a sacrament during the 11/12th century. The CoE’s expressed position on marriage is in the Book of Common Prayer. After a preamble, it says that marriage is for:

  1.  Progeny
  2. Avoidance of sin and fornication
  3. Mutual comfort and support

The first edition of the Book of Common Prayer was issued in the mid 16th century. At that time, religious observance was compulsory, and transgressors were dealt with in church courts; authority passed later to the civil courts. Adultery could be a capital offence; the last judicial hanging for sodomy in England was in the 1830s. (It wasn’t any more tolerant in the US.)


It was once enough to make a declaration before witnesses for a marriage to be valid. In 1753, Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act regulated who could marry, when and by whom. The present legislation is from 1949. A religious marriage is possible:

  1. In a Church of England ceremony
  2. In a Jewish ceremony
  3. In a Quaker ceremony.

Other marriages may take place in churches, but it is the declaration and the signing of the register which legalises it; the priest, pastor etc is an agent of the state, a licensed registrar. Or, a in a civil ceremony, a registrar requires a declaration from a couple, and the signing of the register; there can be no religious ceremonial.

Gay Marriage

There is no such thing as gay marriage at present in the UK. Instead, a couple go to the registrar’s office, and sign the book; there is no declaration. Afterwards, they can describe themselves as being in a “civil partnership”. This gives them most, but not all, the privileges of marriage.

The present discussion is about equality as much as it is about marriage; the intention is to make “straight” and “gay” marriage equal in status before the law. Gay or equal marriage will only be legally possible in civil setting, in a register office or other licenced place. Gay marriage will not be possible as a religious ceremony, or in a church.


In the UK, the proposals for “gay” marriage are about equality with “straight” marriage; and the proposals only apply to civil ceremonies. As there are no religious implications, there cannot be any sensible, coherent, cogent religious arguments against it or equality.

Further, any religious arguments are really nebulous; there is little clear instruction in the bible. Christian theology is an artefact, it has evolved over time, and it could and should evolve further. Do we, for instance, really avoid fornication these days? How many of us believe in sin?

And as for progeny: adoption is commonplace these days. Comfort and support is what we would all like, no matter who we are.

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