THE issues surrounding the government’s gay marriage bill have been somewhat lost in the controversy and partisan points scoring of Westminster politics.
The landmark vote has become less about the moral and religious arguments for and against the blessing of same sex couples in a religious setting, and turned into a referendum on the coalition with commentators making sport of counting how many Tory MPs abstain or vote against the measure.
Looking beyond the Westminster infighting, the bill has the potential to have a huge impact on our gay and religious communities, and perhaps even wider society.
There are many who believe marriage and religion are not matters on which the state should legislate, while others argue that change - in particular equality - can not happen on its own. Regardless of the outcome, some people are going to feel let down.
The bill itself sets out to legalise gay ‘marriage’ in a religious setting of any denomination apart from Anglican. It creates an ‘opt in’ scenario to allow for such ceremonies to take place, and stipulates that religous organisations which do not want to conduct ceremonies will be respected. The Church of England and Church of Wales have been exempt. There are fears, however, that the ‘safeguard’ is unlikely to hold water should the bill become law. Reverend David Phillips at the White Church in Fairhaven believes the impact of a ‘yes’ vote could be more widely felt.
He says: “This is a half-thought-through policy and is frankly a mess. The safeguard for churches is an empty promise, I don’t see how they can maintain the opt out given the influence of the European Courts who I believe will want to prevent the exclusions from being enshrined, if this bill goes through I can’t imagine it will be long before it is law. “As a man of conscience I would have to follow my conscience and refuse. That would either mean having to break the law or that the White Church would no longer perform any marriage ceremonies of any kind.”
The debate has centred around the meaning of the word marriage. Many in the church argue it does not simply means a committed relationship between two people, but that it derives directly from the Bible’s description of the union of one man and one woman married in the sight of God and, ultimately, for the procreation of children. For others, modern society’s evolution of marriage should see it encompass any committed couple, regardless of gender.
But that would not constitute marriage according to Rev Phillips. “Who defines what marriage is? If marriage is a faith based institution, a covenant between two people in the face of God, then the government of the land has no place interfering. The church says it is based in history, tradition and scripture. It is between one man and one woman according to the bible, not two men or two women, or a man and three women. If the state chooses to define marriage from the secular point of view it will, therefore, become a civil act only. “I can see us moving towards a situation where all weddings are conducted by a registrar with people of faith able to have a religious blessing afterwards, like they do in France and Italy. It’s a logical step in the standardisation of culture across Europe and the loss of a unique British identity.”
Most religious organisations have registered opposition to the bill, to one extent or another, including Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh organisations, though the liberal and reform Jewish synagogues are in support.
But in the face of opposition, and with equal legal rights provided by Civil Partnerships enshrined in law since December 5 2005, why is this new legislation needed at all? More than 500 civil partnership ceremonies have been conducted in Blackpool since the first on December 21 2005.
“It is an important next step towards full equality,” argues Adrian Thornton who tied the knot with civil partner Pete Coats almost seven years ago. “Civil Partnerships gave us legal rights and meant that couples who were partners for years could officially be each other’s next of kin. This gave peace of mind and meant same sex relationships were socially acceptable, giving more people the confidence to be open and honest about it. “Legalising marriage in church is about equality, it says you’re no different to a heterosexual couple, love is love. We’re all human beings and we all come from the same place and end up in the same place.”
Adrian would welcome the bill and feels a religious blessing for their seventh anniversary would be the ideal way to reaffirm those vows. “I grew up in the Catholic religion and have always felt welcome in the church, I’ve never been told I am wicked or anything like that.
“I still have my beliefs and would like to have been married in a church and so if it was possible I would like to have a religious blessing, that would really be the icing on the cake.”