On March 11th a letter from two Archbishops was read out in 2,500 Catholic Churches in the UK arguing against proposed changes to make marriage available to people in ‘same-sex’ relationships.
According to the BBC, the letter states the following:
“There are many reasons why people get married. For most couples, there is an instinctive understanding that the stability of a marriage provides the best context for the flourishing of their relationship and for bringing up their children.”
“Society recognises marriage as an important institution for these same reasons: to enhance stability in society and to respect and support parents in the crucial task of having children and bringing them up as well as possible.”
This law would “gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage.”
“There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children.”
Catholics have a “duty to do all we can to ensure that the true meaning of marriage is not lost for future generations”.
The government response to this letter was: “The government has made clear its commitment to equality. We believe people should have the option of civil marriage, irrespective of sexual orientation.”
Responding directly to the Archbishops’ letter risks giving it more credibility than it deserves. Often simply presenting a counter-argument suggests that there is some merit to the original argument, which clearly – in this case – there isn’t. Hopefully by now people are familiar with the wealth of research finding that ‘same-sex’ couples are just as good parents as ‘opposite-sex’ ones, and that there is no evidence that their relationships are any less ‘stable’. If not then the reviews of the research produced by the American Psychological Association on same-sex parenting and same-sex marriage should prove helpful. Hopefully also the principle of equal rights to people of all sexual identities is embraced by the vast majority of people, as reflected in the government statement.
Here, then, I want to move the discussion in a slightly different direction. First I’ll present a brief argument that flexibility in the laws and rules around relationships might be something to embrace, rather than resist, and secondly I’ll suggest some further questions around the kinds of relationships which might be included in such a flexible approach.
Embracing the transformation of ‘society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage’
In these discussions reference is often made to tradition. Archbishop Peter Smith, one of the authors of the letter, frequently justifies his position with the argument that the current form of marriage has been present since ‘time immemorial’.
However, looking to history we can see that marriage has changed markedly both in terms of who has access to it, and what it is for. The current form of ‘opposite-sex’ marriage can be regarded as a relatively recent invention, as argued by historian Stephanie Coontz in her history of marriage. Marital laws’ assumptions about the age, kinship relationship, and race of partners; the number of partners a person can marry; and the rights of partners to own property and to bring legal actions against one another have all changed over time, and there is no reason to regard the gender of those involved as any more intrinsic than those aspects. The historical Christian ceremony uniting people of the ‘same-sex’ is also interesting to reflect upon in this context.
Many scholars have argued that the nature of intimate relationships and the family have changed radically, again, in the past fifty years or so. It seems telling that the Catholic Church have chosen to focus on ‘same-sex’ relationships rather than other shifts such as: rates of separation and divorce, cohabiting before – or instead of – marriage, the increase in numbers of people living alone, shifts in gender roles in relationships, or rates of infidelity and increases in forms of open non-monogamy. Perhaps these should all be reasons to regard such relationships as in a constant state of process, rather than as something static, and to embrace regular reflections on whether the policy and practices surrounding them needs to shift accordingly.
Further potential transformations
Of course there is a wider debate to be had over whether the state should have a role in intimate relationships at all. However, if we proceed on the basis that it currently does have a role, for example in determining who is supported in adopting, or bringing up, children, and who is recognised as a legitimate partner in the case of medical emergencies or in relation to shared money and property ownership, then such rights and responsibilities clearly need to be extended beyond the married ‘opposite-sex’ couple, and any two-tier system (such as marriage and civil partnerships) is problematic since it still gives the message that some relationships are more legitimate than others. This is clearly linked to heterosexism and prejudice towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people.
Whilst religious organisations remain free to celebrate specific events in a person’s life in the ways that they wish to (which differs from group to group), any civil recognition needs to be available to all. One example of the ridiculousness of the current situation is in the case of married couples who have to go through annulment and civil partnership if one person changes gender such that they become a ‘same-sex’ couple.
Another important point, regarding equality, is made by The Bisexual Index. Talk of ‘gay marriage’ in many media reports of these debates is problematic because, of course, many of those in ‘same-sex’ relationships are bisexual rather than gay. Furthermore, at the same time as extending marriage to ‘same-sex’ relationships, it is important to extend civil partnerships to ‘opposite-sex’ relationships such that all people would have access to either of these (there being political reasons, relating to the gendered baggage of marriage for example, why some would prefer a different form of relationship recognition). The Bisexual Index concludes that “the way the law is currently written does not mention sexuality, but instead the genders of the people. Why can’t the people campaigning for equality understand that the way to amend the law isn’t to talk about ‘gay vs. straight’ but instead to address the genders – remove the genders from the law and it’s not just gay and straight men and women who’ll have equal love, but all of us.” Making the gender of those involved irrelevant to the right to marriage/civil partnership would also end the need for the unwieldy ‘same-sex’, ‘opposite-sex’ terminology which doesn’t represent all experiences of gender either.
Moving on from this we might want to explore, more broadly, the kinds of relationships which should be possible to recognise in these ways. For example, in order to be co-parents, or committed co-habitees, people do not necessarily need to be in a sexual, or a romantic, relationship. Close friendships and asexual and aromantic relationships challenge these assumptions. Similarly, it is possible for more than two people to co-parent, to co-habit in a committed way and/or to be romantically and/or sexually involved so we should certainly consider extending relationship recognition beyond the ‘couple’.
Given that intimate relationships, and the social norms surrounding them, are in process rather than static, it is important, and necessary, that policy and practice relating to them is also flexible and fluid, rather than rigid and restrictive.