Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Is gay marriage a cardinal sin?

Sorry- couldn't resist the play on words, but I felt the need for one more post on marriage/partnership before I change subject.

Speaking of words, I think Steve has a lot of wisdom in his observation that we live in a culture of changing words and definitions. Whatever your opinion on how certain words are used, they do alter in a changing culture, and we may well be living in a time where the meaning of the word 'marriage' is changing. We no longer live in a society or culture where the only kind of relationship which can be registered and certified is heterosexual. In a parallel universe, the language might have evolved to give us a generic term for all kinds of registered partnerships, another term for gay ones and 'marriage' for heterosexual ones. If that is how things were moving linguistically, it would be quite logical to argue that the term 'marriage' be reserved for heterosexual commitments, without any moralistic overtones.

However, that's not where we are, and refusing to acknowledge that is like, well, insisting that 'gay' doesn't mean homosexual... Although the legal rights and responsibilities of civil partnerships are now the same as those for a married couple, the term 'marriage' clearly has a siginificance for those currently denied the opportunity to use it formally. I would genuinely be interested to hear more about that from gay people. I've heard the counter-argument from both ends of the opinion spectrum - from social conservatives who wish to deny gay people any equivalence, and also from gay people who reject the historical baggage that the term 'marriage' can carry. But there does seem to be a growing consensus that marriage is becoming the generic term.

What we have seen recently in the media seems to me to be one argument dressed up as another. The case presented by the Coalition for Marriage and others uses a lot of terminological and linguistic argument, and is careful to acknowledge the right of people to register a civil partnership, However, it is clearly backed by quite a lot of people who essentially disapprove of all gay relationships, whatever they are called and however they are registered. It also alienates those whose marriages have ended in divorce, asking for the following legal definition: "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others." There's a minefield there...

Maybe what we need now is simply to accept that the language is changing. How much difference will it really make in practise to the stability of traditional marriages to change the terminology?  If the Christians represented by Coalition for Marriage are so passionate about supporting marriage, wouldn't the energy be better put into helping people prepare for the commitment of marriage? Or helping them cope with the external pressures upon their marriage, or maybe resolve some of the baggage that can impair a relationship? Problems with communication, finance and latterly affairs arising from relationships formed on social networks are some of the biggest factors damaging marriages. Many people don't even choose to get married, so what positive things have we got to say to commend such a commitment to them?

Therefore, it doesn't make any sense to me to suggest that gay relationships being called marriages will have any damaging effect. What possible damage would it do to my marriage or anyone else's for civil partners to call themselves married? We can still have ethical debates about what may be acceptable to particular faith communities, but do we really think this is the big issue driving social and societal disintegration? I suspect there are other battles much more worth fighting.
I do share the belief that marriage can contribute to the stability and order of society - it provides some of the structure and framework by which we know who is connected to whom, and all that goes with that. It means that relationships aren't just arbitrary and subjective but have external verification and accountability. I just don't see how excluding gay people from that framework makes for greater order and stability, or enhances heterosexual marriage. Sorry, I won't be signing up.


Pete Hamborg said...

Difficult to disagree with your logic Mike. People are indeed using the language issue (i.e. what is the definition of "marriage?") as a guise for their general argument for or against homosexuality. At least Cardinal Keith O'Brien was upfront yesterday about his real convictions, even if what he said will have offended some. And you point out the hypocrisy of churches claiming to uphold heterosexual marriage but not always demonstrating it in the way that they prepare couples for marriage, and continue to support them afterwards etc. Very true, and a challenge to me as well!

I think the difficulty for those who do hold a conservative position on homosexuality is that accepting the societal shift in language definition without causing any fuss would be inconsistent. It's a bit like the way in which those who disagreed with women's priesthood 18 years ago have continued to object to the consecration of women bishops - and what else would we expect? They know that they are likely to lose the debate since they are the minority, but it is nevertheless respectful to them that we continue to hear their views. I value them as colleagues and "brothers" (for the most part!), and if I am unwilling to let them voice their different perspective this hardly communicates that I value them...

And what if you genuinely believe that the growing acceptance of homosexuality is damaging for society? That children are better being raised by a mother and father than by two parents of the same sex? Would you not seek to slow the process down for as long possible, rather than let it be reduced to "an ethical debate about what may be acceptable to particular faith communities?" This is the real issue, not what we call it. For those who hold to this perspective calling it "marriage" just feels like the final nail in the coffin, as it confirms that society wishes to place homosexual relationships on an equal footing.

Where do I stand personally? I agree with you that this is not "THE big issue driving social and societal disintegration." There are much bigger issues that get overlooked. But for me it is still ONE OF the issues, be it a lesser one. I have more problem with the very real culture of homosexual promiscuity, so perhaps legalising gay "marriage" could be a good thing if it counteracts some of that.

robertatforsythe said...

I agree with your post entirely. I think you might find my blogging and facebooking comes from the same ilk. I found your blog through a comment on Charles Hope's facebook. It is really important that the churches move into the modern world where most people exist and don't remain in some sort of past fantasy ( slavery and women as second class citizens was all normative). At a nuance I very much agree with "
Maybe what we need now is simply to accept that the language is changing.". It does, it always has done.