Nobody can have missed that the first gay weddings in the UK were celebrated this weekend. Nor can they have missed how those discomforted at the state’s redefinition of marriage have been made to feel – indeed to look. The brilliantly successful attempt to frame the redefinition of marriage as the final stage of a civil rights campaign for gay equality has worked. Opponents have been cast as homophobes and bigots who, in time, it is hoped will eventually come to see the error of their prejudiced ways
Amongst them are Christians, appalled at finding themselves cast in the role prepared for them, who desperately want that the Church now “demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being”, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has put it.
Yet they should stand firm. They are not bigots. It is the Government that is cynical. It is the Government that has capitalised on gay people’s feelings of anger and exclusion by offering them gay marriage in sympathy, and in order to underline their own human rights credentials. But the outcome – the state’s introduction of a new, official definition of marriage – is wholly out of keeping with any historic, religious or normative understanding of the institution. It has stripped marriage of its meaning and purpose.
In this extract reproduced by kind permission of Catholic Voices, Austen Ivereigh explains what is now at stake:
“What is at stake is that, in order to accommodate one group’s desire to have their love legitimated by the state — a dubious idea in itself — the state has emptied marriage of its essential meaning. It has changed marriage from an understandable, recognizable, conjugal institution, one hallowed by faith and civil society, to an ersatz, hollowed-out arrangement that cannot be called an institution at all. That matters because it makes marriage less interesting, less attractive and less important. People — gay or straight — will increasingly come to ask: why do I need a piece of paper from the state to prove I love someone? If marriage is simply “about” the love between any two people, what has the state got to do with it anyway?
In the past, that question has been simple to answer. The state recognises, protects and supports the pre-existing social and cultural understanding of marriage as an institution linked to, but not conditional on, reproduction, at the heart of which is a sexual relationship between a man and a woman. That relationship is apt for, even if it does not always produce, children; and because the rearing of children by their biological parents matters, the conditions of marriage — permanence and fidelity — are designed to support that end. That is the only reason the state has ever wished to single it out and promote it: not to recognize, or endorse, the love between two people, which is no business of the state, but to regulate and protect an institution whose elements are designed to benefit children, even when no children issue.
Were it not for reproduction, marriage would not exist. The fact that some marriages are childless, or do not last (because of death and divorce), or involve adopting children, does not detract from this understanding. Marriage has a meaning. It offers a model, an understanding — what the Greeks call a telos — which makes it what it is. You may not want it, and you may not qualify for it, but you know — you used to know — what it stands for.
Although much is made of the fact that gay couples will now be admitted to this hallowed, timeless social institution, the uncomfortable fact — and Stonewall and the Government, who drafted the legislation know this all too well — is that they are being admitted to another institution altogether: an ersatz, eviscerated, parody of the real thing.
An ersatz ‘institution’
For a start, their sexual activity is irrelevant; consummation, in the new definition, is not required (at least for gay people; part of the anomaly of this law designed to bring about equality is that it creates two categories of marriage): thus an institution linked to reproduction is now a desexualised institution. (The Church, which has long insisted that sex is for marriage, must now insist, counter-culturally, that marriage is for sex.)
Second, marriage has always been understood as the bringing together of man and woman; it is a gendered, gender-specific, gender-complementary institution. Yet the new version of marriage ”means the union of two people”, according to Hackney Council’s new script. Any two people.
Third, marriage has been understood to be about fidelity. Yet sexual exclusivity is no longer a requirement for a gay marriage: adultery has been stripped from it as grounds for divorce.
The new version of marriage, then, is not about sex, not about a man and woman, and not about permanence and fidelity. What, then, is left? The answer is Clegg’s: it is sentiment — the feeling (but not the sexual act) of love — between two people.
Love is not the condition
Many would agree that love is what the institution of marriage is “about”. But love has never been intrinsic to society’s understanding of the institution of marriage. Love is a good of marriage, like children; it is an expected, a hoped-for byproduct; and like children, marriage is designed to nurture and encourage love.
But neither love nor children are the conditions of marriage. What makes marriage are the elements: one man plus one woman, sexually bonded for life, faithful to each other, in order to provide the best environment for the creation and rearing of children.
The government edition is a vague, sentimental partnership, parasitic on the richer, deeper meaning of marriage — would gay people want it if it weren’t? — yet at the same time destructive of that meaning. It cannot last.”