It’s always the smallest things that seem to end up creating the biggest noise. Take the current debate over marriage: I know it seems like a big issue, but if you really look, it’s a debate about semantics and contracts that’s become complicated by the fact that history is so unclear about its origins.
The Church thinks that marriage is theirs and that therefore they have a right to dictate who gets to do it. I used to be partly persuaded by the fact that marriage was the Church’s brand and that those of us who don’t believe in God should not try to muscle in and should instead celebrate our own way which could include vodka, pop tunes and high jinks on YouTube.
However, things just aren’t that simple. Why? Because when an act, however it may have been formed, becomes mainstream in society its relevance and ownership changes. Then, because we are democratic, people want their say on how it continues to evolve.
Of course, it is not clear that marriage was ever the Church’s brand anyway. Don’t tell UKIP but the word marriage is derived from Old French marier (to marry) and ultimately Latin marītāre meaning to provide with a husband or wife and marītāri meaning to get married. Not a word invented by the church, not one that appears until later versions of the bible and even then the Bible does not speak to the topic clearly and consistently.
Marriage, as an act, pre-dates reliable recorded history. Most cultures have their own version, legends and customs that have evolved over time, nearly all of which began with the need to formalise a financial transaction, secure fidelity, stop or start wars, or own a woman. How romantic is that!
Yes, the Church does have views and teachings, but they came after the event. From the early Christian era marriage was thought of as primarily a private matter, with no uniform religious or other ceremony being required. Churches stepped in to become the record keepers of those contracts as society developed and grew. The role of the church in a community for recording all of those life events was unique, and – more importantly – they had the only venue big enough to serve the purpose.
However, being the official record keeper (or, in today’s increasingly secular society, one of them) should not mean the Church can dictate on its significance or who can or cannot get married.
It is wrong of the Church, then, to claim that marriage has always been a religiously motivated ceremony that is governed by the rules in the Bible. If it still wants to get funny about it it should look at what its own aspirations for marriage have been over the decades. The Church has always promoted marriage, wanting it to be a societal norm and using its non-elected places in the house of Lords to try and make that so. On that basis, equal marriage should make the Church jolly happy. It is, after all, what it prayed for.
For me the debate about same-sex marriage is a really a prelude to the real issue: that is of equality of marriage and non-marriage. I am not sure if everyone is aware, but marriage isn’t compulsory. We are conditioned from an early age to accept that, as life progresses, it is something that we should all do and it will make us happy/stable/normal/popular (delete as applicable). But our lives are full of many relationships based on love and not necessarily sex. So why can someone who is not married, who has not chosen that particular contract, have a mutual relationship with someone else that allows them some of the same benefits the state offers to those who choose the marriage contract?
This of course could be expensive. If all the single people decided to set up a mutual contract with a sibling, friend or lover to benefit from the same state pension, succession and other rights then the financial argument would outweigh the argument of rights!
So, let’s look at what the state is really doing: it is funding its “relationship of choice”, the one it has decided, in its infinite wisdom, is right for you. Surely it’s about time that Nanny let go of the reigns, reviewed those rights and either gave them to everybody or no-one at all. It’s radical stuff: those tax-paying singletons would get equal rights too!
Marriage is, at its most basic level, an efficient and (if you make it so) cheap way to make a legal contract in way that allows you to pay for a party rather than lawyers and solicitors. Let me go to a lawyer and make a contract that allows me to have a mutually beneficial contract with someone, to share our state pension, succession and rights, without the need to declare to the world whether or not we are having sex. After all, if there’s one thing that marriage has taught us, it’s that sex is no indicator of a strong and durable relationship!
Marriage is not the Church’s – it belongs to all of us. So let’s make it equal. Voting for same-sex marriage is another step on that journey.
* Laura Willoughby MBE is a Lib Dem member in Islington