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Features

Marital rows

Sarah Hagger-Holt

Now that same-sex marriage is on the statute book in England and Wales, Sarah Hagger-Holt ponders what difference it will make for couples both gay and straight - not to mention the 14-year-old on the verge of coming out.

 

When people ask me whether or not I'm married, I always hesitate before replying. It's really not a straightforward answer. After the awkward pause usually comes the kind of response that begins 'yes, but...' or sometimes 'no, but..'

'Yes, but... despite making vows to my partner in a church to be together 'till death us do part', our partnership isn't recognised as marriage by any religious authority.'

'No, but... I am in a civil partnership, giving me and my partner almost identical legal status to any couple who have had a civil marriage.'

In recent months, the issue of 'gay marriage' has exercised MPs and Lords, repeatedly made headline news, triggered a huge postcard campaign orchestrated by the Catholic Church and given the Church of England in yet another bit of bad PR. It is bewildering to find my relationship the subject of comment pieces and news bulletins, so controversial and so threatening that everyone has to have an opinion on it.

Extending marriage to the likes of me and my partner - finally recognised by law in England and Wales in July - has been variously described as the 'redefinition'1, 'undermining'2 or even 'grotesque subversion'3 of marriage by those opposed. Objections which are met with assurances from those in favour that this is really a very minor change, and business as usual will resume shortly.

 

OUTDATED IDEALS

The ideal of marriage which same-sex marriage is set to destroy: a young blushing bride promising to love and obey a handsome groom, their plans for a family, her at home with the kids, him working at the office, it all looks decidedly old fashioned now, even to straight couples.

I admit I'm caricaturing the Church of England's reference to 'the uniqueness of marriage - and a further aspect of its virtuous nature - is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women'4. But without being given any other picture of what might make a committed same-sex relationship so radically different from an opposite-sex one that they couldn't both be termed 'marriage', it's hard to see exactly what they are driving at.

I would argue that 'gay marriage' - or equal marriage as it's properly termed - won't destroy or even redefine marriage in the UK. It's too late for that. Well before the bill became law in England and Wales, it had already happened. Marriage in the UK today is a world away from when marriage was 'blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ with those celebrating a wedding at Cana in Galilee' as the introduction to the Church of England wedding service reminds us5.

 

SWEEPING CHANGE

We don't even have to look that far back. In the last century alone, marriage has changed radically: changes which have had nothing to do with gay people and very little to do with specific pieces of government legislation. There have been sweeping social changes: contraception is widely available; women can now support themselves financially and live independently; weddings are more expensive and divorces easier to get.

For a woman getting married at the turn of the 20th century, marriage meant children. An average of 3.5 per family, compared to 1.7 today. Knowledge about and availability of contraception was low. Publisher after publisher turned down Marie Stopes' ground-breaking Married Love because of its controversial chapter on contraception. Yet it sold out five editions when it was finally published in 1917, such was the demand for information.

Unsurprisingly, Stopes' work was met with fear, rejection and charges of indecency from both Anglican and Catholic Bishops. The Christian idea of marriage which the Bishops of the time sought to defend was of marriage as the one relationship with the potential to create new life at its heart and where the possibility of children should always be welcomed. This argument has surfaced again in the Anglican and Catholic Churches' recent objections to same-sex marriage.

Their argument is, of course, that same-sex marriage does not have this possibility for procreation. A view which may be disputed by the 10,000 or so same-sex couples bringing up children in the UK. But regardless of whether or not marriage is extended to same-sex couples across the UK6, the widespread use of contraception, fertility problems among that couples who have delayed starting a family and the number of children born outside of marriage, called this definition of marriage into question long ago.

 

GIVEN AWAY

'Who gives this woman to be married to this man?' asks the priest. 'I do' replies her father. Not words you hear so often at marriage ceremonies any more. Yet they made perfect sense at a time when a woman would go straight from her father's house to her husband's, and when her social and legal identity were tied up with a man's, rather than hers in her own right. After all, hundred years ago, women were not allowed to vote, couldn't get a mortgage without a male guarantor and couldn't be awarded university degrees - although in some cases they were allowed to attend lectures and take exams. Politically, financially and even intellectually, as a woman you needed a man.

Of course, the First World War meant things were about to change radically. The presence of women in the workforce then - as it has become again now - was an economic necessity. The list of jobs that women are barred from continues to shrink, equal pay for equal work is enshrined in law if not always in practice and, despite a considerable pay gap and glass ceiling still in existence, far more women are able to support themselves and live independently than they were hundred years ago.

Divorce was so stigmatised, financially crippling and hard to achieve, that only 580 divorces took place in 1911. In 2010, it was nearly 120,000 7. There's now little economic need for a woman to marry young, passing from your father's care into your husband's, or to stay in a failing marriage. Yet while the reality - and some of the wording - has changed, much of the ritual has remained surprisingly constant: even some of my most high-powered female friends have waited for their male partner to propose - and only then after he has asked her father first.

 

WEDDING INDUSTRY

A few years back, I found my grandparents' wedding invitation from the 1930s in a box of old photos. A service at West London synagogue, followed by a sit-down lunch of prawn cocktail and pork (clearly their Jewish commitment didn't extend to a kosher wedding). It was all considered pretty fancy at the time. Yet it would have added up to nowhere near today's average wedding cost over £16,000 8. A whole industry, of wedding shows, magazines and websites, has developed to make sure your wedding is 'the best day of your life'. This pressure to make it perfect, is another reason why people put off getting married. They are waiting until they feel they can afford it.

These and other factors, notably the increasing social acceptance of co-habiting, combine to make the average age of marriage older and older: 36 for men and 33 for women in 2010. A wedding is no longer the start of a journey, it's a stage along the way, a solidifying of years of commitment or simply a big party. It doesn't create a new unit, it witnesses an existing partnership and a shared household, often of many years standing.

I'm not arguing here about whether these changes are good or bad. Although, you may be able to tell that I'm all in favour of how, for the most part, marriage has become more equal and more freely chosen for women. It is increasingly accepted as a equal partnership, rather than a hierarchy with the husband as 'the head of the wife' (Ephesians 5:23). Good or bad, the point is that these changes have happened. They have happened gradually, as a result of campaigning, political pressure, economic forces and changes in social attitudes. Each may have caused controversy in its time, but change has happened. Marriage has changed. Extending it to same-sex couples is just one more of these changes.

 

MEANING WHAT?

So if this new legislation is not going to bring the world as we know it crumbling around our ears, what will it mean? Here's my hunch.

For straight people, married or unmarried, it will mean very little indeed. You might get a few more wedding invites from your gay friends now eager to tie the knot, but that's probably it. In the words of the atheist bus campaign, you can now 'stop worrying and enjoy your life'.

For people like myself who are part of a samesex couples, it obviously has a bigger effect. But even then, not as radical as you might think. More than 50,000 couples took advantage of civil partnership legislation in the first five years after it was passed in 2005, compared to government advance estimates of 11,000-20,000 during that period9. With the legal stuff now covered, what I think of as 'marriage creep' has inevitably followed. Regardless of whether the legislation is in place in your specific part of the UK, you can already celebrate your civil partnership in pretty much the same venues, in the same style, with the same buffet, the same frocks and at the same eye-watering cost as you can a civil marriage. You can send out invites that say 'wedding', you can stick a 'just married' banner on your car, you can book the 'honeymoon suite'. The language of marriage is already out there, so to speak.

You can even as we did, with a bit of legwork and negotiation, find a way to bless your relationship in a religious building with a religious minister, using words largely taken from the Christian marriage service. Legal? No. Meaningful? Definitely. Romantics may well seize this chance to have another ceremony to change their civil partnership to a marriage. The rest of us should just be able to fill in a form, pay the admin fee and 'upgrade' by post.

 

CONFLICTING VOICES

No, the person who I think this makes the most difference for is the 14 year old coming out now. The high profile of this whole debate gives her (or him) two conflicting messages.

Firstly, you are not a second class citizen. Marriage is years away, it's not as pressing as being bullied for being different, or whether that girl or guy you like will ever like you back, but it's a sign that, yes, your relationships can be seen as just as good as anyone else's, thank you very much.

Secondly, unfortunately many people still think that you are a second class citizen. And many of those people will couch this belief in biblical Christian language. However much the surrounding detail of statements from different denominations affirm the commitment, fidelity and mutual support of many same-sex partnerships - although often they don't even manage to do this -sadly it's the headlines that hit home.

Just four years ago - when my partner and I were editing contributions from more than 50 lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians, their families, friends and church leaders for a book10 - civil partnerships had only recently become law and same-sex marriage was barely mentioned. Opinions on marriage were divided. Some of our contributors rejected any kind of ceremony, some seized the chance of legal recognition, some were content with commitment ceremonies they'd done themselves years before legal rights were possible, and others were biding their time for civil, or even religious, marriage.

 

A BIGGER PATTERN

Whatever the differences between them, you could say that each of these relationships is breaking new ground. For, in most of the world and through most of recorded history, relationships like these would have gone unrecognised and uncelebrated. Through their very existence, committed same-sex relationships redefine marriage more than any law can. Yet at the same time these relationships are simply part of a bigger pattern. A pattern of sudden changes and gradual shifts, deliberate action and unexpected consequences, definition and redefinition. They are part of the way in which marriage has changed and evolved into its current 21st century expression, but they are not the end of the story.

 

NOTES

1 Coalition for Marriage, http://c4m.org.uk/ and Evangelical Alliance, http://www.eauk.org/current-affairs/media/press-releases/ consultation-on-same-sex-marriage-discredits-democracy. cfm

2 Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, http://www.thetablet. co.uk/latest-news/5021

3 Cardinal Keith O'Brien, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/ 9121424/We-cannot-afford-to-indulge-this-madness.html#

4 Church of England briefing, http://www.churchofengland.org/ media/1657614/ssmarriagebillbriefing.pdf

5 http://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/ texts/pastoral/marriage/marriage.aspx

6 a bill proposing same sex marriage was introduced for debate in the Scottish parliament in June, while the Northern Ireland assembly voted against any such legislation the same month

7 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/mro/news-release/the-titanic- and-society---a-century-of-change/titanicnr0412.html

8 http://www.ukweddingbelles.com/weddingmagazine/budgeting/ 267-wedding-costs-2012

9 http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/dec/21/marriage- gay-rights-civil-partnerships

10 Hagger-Holt, R&S, 'Living It Out: A survival guide for lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians, their friends, families and churches' (Canterbury Press, 2009)