Another Sunday and another set of intolerant and out of touch comments from senior Church leaders who have set their face against the Coalition plans for equal marriage. It’s clear that some parts of the Church are on a collision course with Parliament and the people. But, rather than showing themselves to be modern defenders of values we all share, they are showing how out of touch they are with British society today and the institution they seek to protect. They are also plain wrong: extending marriage to same-sex couples will not undermine the institution; it will renew and reinforce it.
As Lynne Featherstone said last week, the Church “doesn’t own marriage”. Indeed, marriage as an institution predates Christianity. Not only is it older than its so-called defenders want us to believe, it’s also been very different to the picture they want to paint.
As Kevin Alderson and Kathleen Lahey, made clear in Same-Sex Marriage: The Personal and the Political, the places, in pre-Christian history, where same-sex couples could get married include “at a minimum: Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, China”. And that’s just marriage between two-people: many cultures and faiths have had and still do recognise and operate various forms of polygamous marriage.
What’s clear from the research is that, across time, marriage has reflected the society it serves and, through the virtues that come from the commitment that married individuals show each other, has been seen as a social good.
The argument that extending marriage to same-sex couples somehow undermines the institution flies in the face of the research. The many same-sex couples that aspire to marriage do so, not as fifth-columnists determined to infiltrate and then bring down the institution, but because they recognise and want to share in the benefits marriage can bring.
Social studies show that the extension of marriage to same-sex couples would have the same stabilising effect that it does on opposite sex-couples: reinforcing relationships, reducing promiscuity, promoting good mental health and a happy family life.
Research suggests the opposite is true too: not extending equal marriage to same-sex couples can be positively harmful. Institutional discrimination can affect people’s mental health and one study suggests that anxiety disorders among the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population more than double in states that ban same-sex marriage.
The Church, with a timeline stretching over hundreds of years, doesn’t seek to be popular in the modern sense. But Church leaders should nonetheless make an effort to reflect and understand the attitudes of the societies they serve, if they want their commentary to be relevant.
When deeply Catholic Spain brought in same-sex marriage in 2005, it did so with polls consistently pointing to the support of over 60% of the country’s population for the measure. Spain was the third country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage and in the first year over 4,000 same-sex couples got married. At the time, the Catholic Church in Spain opposed the extension. But, in the seven years since 2005, the institution of marriage in Spain has gone from strength to strength, with none of the doomsday scenarios Spanish Church leaders predicted coming to pass.
Here in the UK, far from diminishing, support for equal marriage is growing. In 2004 a Gallop poll suggested that 52% supported equal marriage; in 2008 ICM found 55% of Britons in support and Angus Reid, in 2010, found a massive 78% supportive of change.
The last Government recognised the changing times and made huge progress towards equality. The mainstream of David Cameron’s Conservative Party is radically different from the party that brought in Section 28. But with ill-advised and intolerant language that doesn’t reflect society, or indeed their congregations, Church leaders seemingly remain out of touch.
Thankfully, the polling suggests they will face an uphill struggle rallying opposition to equal marriage – but their statements risk reinforcing a perception of a fuddy-duddy clergy, moralising at others while unable to sort out their own houses, and deeply out of touch with the societies they seek to serve.
Marriage is about the love and commitment that individuals have towards each other and want to demonstrate to the world. It is a building block for a stable society and a healthy family. And it’s precisely because of the role marriage can play in promoting social goods that it should be open to all parts of the community.
There’s no doubt there is a bumpy road ahead – the forward march of equality has always had its opponents – but as Nick Clegg put it yesterday “By 2015 there will be the first gay marriages”. The challenge is getting from here to there.
* Steve Gilbert is Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay