Opinion: A letter to a constituent regarding equal marriage

The following is the text of an email that I sent to a constituent earlier today. He wrote to me to ask about my views of the government’s proposals “to re-define marriage”, which he believes “will have far-reaching consequences…[that] will have an adverse effect on the stability and flourishing of our local community.” I beg to differ.

Dear sir,

Thank you for your email regarding the government’s proposals to change the law on marriage in the United Kingdom. This is not a local authority matter, and so has no relevance to my role as a local councillor. However, as you have asked to know my views on this matter, I am happy to oblige.

There are, in my view, two discrete roles that marriage plays in society. The first is legal: it creates a clear contractual basis between parties that enables them to share property and divide the proceeds of their joint enterprise between them. It protects each party in the event of the other’s demise. And it provides a sound legal footing for children. In so doing it ensures that, in the event of bereavement or separation, each party is protected. Spouses and children are assured their inheritance; property is fairly shared in the event of break-up. This is especially important in an environment where it may be rational for one party to specialise in wealth-creation while the other specialises in non-financial contributions to the household, including rearing children.

The second is ceremonial. A marriage – and in particular a wedding – is an opportunity to signal to the world that one is entering into a special, unique and (one would hope) permanent relationship. It is also an opportunity for religious people to consecrate their union in the appropriate manner, and for all people to celebrate the union with a big party.

Both these functions are valid and serve an important social role.

Neither of them require the involvement of the state.

The legal function, like other legal contracts, could be facilitated by anybody with a sufficient level of legal expertise. There are thousands of solicitors and professionals with legal training who would be able to draw up appropriate contacts. It is likely that, very soon, a few standard forms of marriage would emerge as the most popular. Some of these would undoubtedly have been commissioned by religious organisations that would incorporate them into their ceremonies alongside the consecration of the union. The different forms that would emerge spontaneously would enable tailoring the contract to the parties’ needs. The role of the state would be limited to ensuring freedom of, and honouring of, contacts and adjudicating contract disputes.

As for the ceremonial role, it seems utterly unnecessary for the state to provide for ceremonial functions – indeed, existing civil marriages are very streamlined affairs, with the celebrations being organised privately by those getting married.

To suggest that marriage should be defined by the “roles that a mother and a father play in the raising of children” implies that those who are not going to have children do not benefit from, and should not be allowed to enter into or enjoy, marriage. That would exclude not only homosexuals, but also (inter alia) the infertile, those who fall in love after childbearing age, and those who choose not to procreate.

As the above should make clear, individuals who fall into any of the above groups can derive a huge benefit from entering into a legal contract of marriage that protects them against unforeseen (or unavoidable) events. Equally, many such individuals will share the desire to celebrate their union. Consequently I do not accept that childbearing is integral to, or should define the nature of, marriage.

The government seeks to create a fair system for everybody who wishes to get married, while at the same time retaining the monopoly on defining and licensing marriage. I believe that it is the government’s ongoing wish to be the final arbiter of what is, what is not, and who can engage in, marriage that is the source of the conflict over this issue today. I hope that we can one day move to a system whereby individuals are free to define their union, celebrate it and – where appropriate – have it blessed in whatever manner they chose. In the meantime, I welcome the current proposals as a small step forward in creating a free and fair system.

If you have any questions about this or any other matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Best regards,
Cllr Tom Papworth

* Tom Papworth is a member of Waltham Forest Liberal Democrats

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  • A very objective, dispassionate defence of equal marriage; good to see 🙂

  • Oops – that was meant to be a smiley face! 🙂

  • Joseph Donnelly 15th May '12 - 3:48pm

    A very good piece which I pretty much entirely agree with.

    Same Sex marriage is obviously something all liberals should support but ultimately we should look at some point at why the government needs to be defining marriage at all.

  • I’m afraid I just can’t agree with this. To legislate that members of the same sex can get married is, it seems to me, just the same as legislating that a black man is a white man and expecting that ,by reason of that legislation, disadvantage imemdiately disappears. It is Orwellian talk, and can only discredit the party. This is clearly demonstrated by the qualification of the word ” marriage” by the use of the words “gay” or “same-sex” (as in gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage”) in pretty well any conversation anyone ever has about same sex couples in this context.

    The aims are worthy, especially the pargraph beginning “As the above should make clear, individuals who fall into any of the above groups ……..” But those aims are already dealt with by the civil partnership ceremony and related legislation, which to my mind is the true advance. (It would be helpful to have a better name for it) and I see no reason why it should not be open to different sex couples).

    The attempt to make marriage available to all regardless of the gender of the people involved seems to me to be anti-liberal – an homogenisation of individuality by seeking to make everyone the same. A liberal’s job is to celebrate difference, ensure others tolerate it, and to ensure that no one is enslaved because of it, not to pretend difference doesn’t exist.

  • Joseph Donnelly 15th May '12 - 5:08pm


    It is not anti-liberal at all…you are looking at the problem from the wrong way round.

    We aren’t asking the government to make everyone the same or not celebrating differences,

    At the moment the government is intervening in the lives of individuals by defining marriage and securing a monopoly on i that it enforces and then restricting who has access to that service the government has decided it needs to provide. So the government is forcing people to be different and make choices for them.

    The job of the liberal is to make sure that people have the freedom to choose what they want, that means gay and straight people can choose to be married or not married or what ever they want. That isn’t making everyone the same, its letting individuals have the freedom to choose what they want.

  • @ Jospeh Donnelly

    First, thank you (and others) for not reverting with the “you must be a homophobe” response.

    My point is that it is just not possible (while “marriage” has the meaning that evryone agrees on ie the union between a man and a woman via state contract or something else) for a two people of the same sex to be “married”, any more than it is possible for a black man to be a white man. Michael Jackson’s unhappy career probably proves the point. Government is not defining marriage: marriage is long since defined (over centuraries) by societies of their various different types. Thsi is not addressed by any of the resposnes (so far) to my original post, which I think specifically does answer the question “what is marriage?”.

    I am persuaded (of course) that people should be able to chose what they want, and I am coming to the view that what should be availbe is a construct open to all couples that offers a ” legal contract of marriage that protects [people] against unforeseen (or unavoidable) events and enables people to celebrate their union, Just don’t call it marriage if it isn’t marriage since that does violence to langauage and opens the proponents to ridicule.

  • “Just don’t call it marriage if it isn’t marriage since that does violence to langauage and opens the proponents to ridicule.”

    Actually, in the English language the word ‘marriage’ can refer to all kinds of unions between all kinds of things.

    Referring to a union between two men (or two women) as marriage does no more violence to the language than Shakespeare did when he referred to the marriage of true minds.

  • Joseph Donnelly 15th May '12 - 6:48pm

    I don’t think we should denigrate in any way the achievement of Same Sex Marriage Tom, although I agree with you, ideally we’d have free marriage but…I think thats a battle for another day.


    I think your argument is resting on the idea that marriage is clearly defined as between a man and a woman so its wrong for the state to force a change in the definition of that word because it wont change what the word really means?

    I think you are in danger of seeing marriage through the prism of Christianity, marriage has existed way before that and indeed consenual contracts between willing couples (or more ) have existed since way before that.

    The problem is that the state has already intervened. It has set up on a plinth marriage as the pinacle for couples to attain, so it is then unfair for the state to start to say which couples can and cant have access to that. The state has got to adhere to formal equality (treating all citizens completely equally in cases like this) and can’t start defining the word marraige how it wants.

    An important point to note is that a change in this law will not force Catholic Churches to provide marriages for two men, I know a few liberals will make a case that they should have to but personally as long as gay people can get the same status in the eyes of the state, I don’t mind what the Catholic church chooses to do.

    I guess we are taking a more liberal view of langauge then you are. The state has to be completley neutral and shouldnt discriminate but if catholics only want to call a man and a womans marraige a marriage then so be it, if Quakers are happy to allow two men to call their marriage a marriage then so be it and if atheists or agnostics choose not to have a religious ceremony but still refer to their relationship as a marriage then so be it.

    But the bottom line is that because the state has coercive power and there is no opt out for anyone who lives in this country, the state then has to treat all its citizens equally.

  • You have skirted a rather important issue: by allowing equal marriage rights, the government is forcing the Church of England to either celebrate gay marriages (as the established state church, all British nationals have the right to obtain services through it that the government says they are entitled to). or dis-establish itself. Politically/ legally, the rest of the arguments are side-shows.

  • @ Joseph Donnelly

    “I think your argument is resting on the idea that marriage is clearly defined as between a man and a woman so its wrong for the state to force a change in the definition of that word because it wont change what the word really means?”

    Yes, that’s exactly my argument.

    “marriage has existed way before that and indeed consenual contracts between willing couples (or more ) have existed since way before that.”

    I agree. In fact I said that in my second post (“marriage is long since defined (over centuraries) by societies of their various different types”) .

    ” it is then unfair for the state to start to say which couples can and cant have access to that”.

    I think this is where we part company. If marriage is only possible between a man and a woman, saying it’s unfair that same sex couples can’t have access to it changes nothing. It’s unfortunate, but life is unfair sometimes. It’s also “unfair” in this sense that a man can’t have children, or that a yellow man can’t be a black man. You could rename marriage so that it artifically includes same sex patnerships, or you could pass a law that says a man can have children, or a law that a yellow man is in fact a black man, but merely to say these things tells you what a nonsense they are. They are either a Humpty-Dumpty or Orwellian view of language (depending on your favourite author) . Meddling with language in this way is, in my view illiberal and dangerous, common among totalitarians. States should not do it. Again, see Orwell.

    So somehow the state needs to create a new construct with a new name that both same sex and different sex couples can particiate in on equal terms. Of course it will also be “unfair” that single people can’t participate in it . But by doing this the state is acknowldeging that a couple setting up a permanent relationship and committing to each other to the exclusion of others is a good thing, of moral worth. My own view is that it is, and it does not matter much whether the participants are hetero or homo.

    You are in danger of seeing marriage through the prism of Christianity, marriage has existed way before that and indeed consenual contracts between willing couples (or more ) have existed since way before that

  • Sorry, the last paragaraph in the last post shouldn’t b there.

  • Joseph Donnelly 15th May '12 - 7:33pm

    Good I’ve understood your then!

    The problem is its the state who intervened I’m the first place to create and sustain this definition of marriage. Without the state it’s unlikely to have taken hold so strongly, since we oppose the tat intervening like that there’s no need to respect the meaning of the word the intervention has created.

    At the end of the day for me it’s about freedom, ideally the state wouldn’t be involved but it is and I see the state here as restricting the freedom of one group, I see the state deciding who can and can’t do something, I don’t see an argument that letting the word marriage apply to same sex as well as hetero partnerships is restricting anyone’s freedom, I don’t think people in marriages now have a right to this particular definition of marriage.

  • How far do we separate “society” from “the state” ie government? Are they not different (though closely related) things? Clearly you propose that in 2012 government would be pasing legislation that marriage should include same sex couples. I doubt society generally would respect such a law. Society would continually create new works to describe what we now understand as “marriage” because, I think, society would view the distinction as one that ought to be made.

  • @TW. I think you’re wrong in thinking that society will not come to think of same-sex marriage as being the same as heterosexual marriage.

    Marriage is a purely historical social convention.
    Social conventions evolve: only 2 generations ago, a couple not married (certainly if they wanted to live together let alone have children) was severally frowned upon, Divorce carried a stigma, mixed-race unions were also regarded as odd or even unnatural. Now all of this is perfectly normal and accepted by the vast majority of the population (in this country anyway).
    at the time homosexuality was even illegal! I will bet that in 50 years nobody will find a married couple of the same sex odd.

  • Marriage is about love between 2 people who want to commit – sexual orientation is irrelevant. This notion of marriage being between a man and a woman was from the times when marriage was about 2 people getting together, settling down and having children, and so on. These days plenty of people marry and never have children, and plenty of people have children and never marry, The idea that people get married to eventually have children is an old-fashioned and totally out-dated concept. If we followed this idea, people who had no intention of having children should never be married, as the councillor says.

    I actually used to be against same-sex marriage mainly due to tradition and nothing more, but I’ve listened to the arguments, decided equality is more important and changed my views. A civil partnership is not good enough – it’s actually very insulting and demeaning. To me a civil partnership is simply something gay people have been given by the powers that be to pacify them, Some people still believe that gay relationships aren’t equal to straight ones and this is why gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry. So to me civil partnerships are like some kind of second-rate version of marriage for gay people who aren’t up to straight people’s standards, if that makes sense?

    In short, the opposition is a mixture of homophobia, devotion to tradition and ignorance. Allowing gay people to marry won’t make the world end and the majority back it, despite the biased and conveniently fixed polls conducted by Catholic groups

  • Opponents of gay marriage say the state shouldn’t be involved, yet most of them seem to back a tax cut for married couples. Is that not the state getting involved? Total hypocrisy!

  • @ SandraF

    Well, maybe but I ‘m not so sure!

    Nor am I sure marriage is merely a histoprical social convention”. Surely it is if all you are thinking about is the ceremonial form and the civil right sthat go with it, but the extraordinary biological cost of getting offspring to self-sufficiency seems to create an evolutionary drive towards the biological parents of children cooperating to maximise the chances of such self-sufficiency and investing (by way of a permanent relationhip) in their offsprings’ future.

  • Helen Dudden 15th May '12 - 9:32pm

    There was also a time when a violent situation in a marriage, was called a domestic. The problem is that we are human, we all think about a situation differently, for the Government to get involved, is not what I should consider one of the most important things to be doing at this time. A relationship is the term I should use. This then can apply to anyone what ever the choices in their lives. If anyone wished to marry, and of course not all marriages will be happy ever after, a fact of life. By the way, it was not classed as a serious issue, a domestic. But things do change.

  • Rahul – nope – the CofE is not required to preside at wedding of divorced couples, despite it being the established church and such marriages legal and called marriages.

    I wish it would preside at weddings of gay couples, myself.

  • Please can someone correct me if I’m wrong – but do not civil marriage and civil partnership offer exactly the same legal arrangements?

  • Equality legislation is often a mixture of chicken and egg. For instance racial equality legislation has not abolished racism, but it has moved public opinion towards regarding racism as wrong. Similarly same-sex marriage would be a move towards society recognising same-sex unions as deserving of equal value and honour as opposite-sex unions. This is the most important reason for the proposed change. (Incidentally, the consultation proposals also tidy up some very unsatisfactory aspects of the current law affecting transgender persons.)

  • Helen Dudden 17th May '12 - 10:43pm

    How can you change something that is in place at present, a total waste of time. I think that a healthy relationship is just that, who ever it is. I write on the subject of relationships. I like this bit, for the Government to get involved.

    Of course any legal type of marriage is just that, a marriage, in a Church or any other form it is legal. It should be left as it is. I have no problem with gay marriage, if it works then who am I to judge.

  • Helen Dudden 19th May '12 - 11:04am

    David , you are correct about the legal aspects, there is other things that should be done, I write on the subject of Mediation and International Law, I am training in law. We need a much better system, things do fail, like with the need of the Abortion Act, brought in by David Steele. If the term domestics were still in use, we would not have the protection of the police for either of the couple involved. It happens to men too. I believe in a just society, where caring is the most important factor, just because you can, it does not mean that it the correct, and just thing to do.

    You can’t throw money at something, and think that it repairs broken relationships, people will move on, with help and understanding, I am tired of this continued debate on marriage to same sex couples. It is up those concerned, to make the decision, if the law allows it, then of course it must be considered. I have no problem with this concept.

  • David Pollard asks ‘what’s in a name’ – dunno mate, better ask the Sun and Mail that when they refer to ‘husbands’ of celebs in cps just like that, in quotation marks. There may not be much in a name, but there’s a lot in those little marks…

  • An interesting and quite coherent response, Tom, if you were arguing for marriage to be abolished and for civil partnerships to be extended to anyone who wants them. The reason same sex marriage is so controversial because instead of being a step towards only contractural unions by the state, it does seek to change the legal understanding of what marriage is. We live under a messy compromise constitution, not a neat secular republic. The definition of marriage is based on the CoE’s definition, which has largely gone unchanged or unchallenged for many years. Now there may well be compelling liberal reasons for challenging that definition (which a few campaigners are making, though largely within communities rather than against communities), but that is quite different to trying to present this as a small step towards a system of secular civil unions.

  • The argument that marriage has some universal long agreed definition is laughable:

    Clearly Romans engaged in same sex marriage, as a prohibition on it appeared under law codes around the time of Constantine. Indeed at least two emperors had same sex marriages.

    Christian “marriage” was a wholly separate thing from Roman civil marriage for much the same reasons as gay mariage was outlawed here: most were (second class – i.e. non-) citizens so could not contract a marriage. So Christians invested their own little ceremony (ringing any bells here?) until they became the state religion whereupon the state stopped recognising any other sorts of marriage.

    Indeed, with a strict interpretation of the New Testament, you’re only encouraged to get married for one purpose – to avoid concupiscence. Certainly nothing about children (because they thought the second coming imminent and children would confuse the issue of who was saved and who not).

    Christian marriage was not even regarded as a sacrament until the 10th/11th century.

    Most people in the lower classes didn’t get married until the 19th/20th centuries. They would have a handfasting type thing, which was a private contractual celebration, then went along to the parish church to register their partnership in the *civil* registers held, as it happens, by the parish churches as a sort of a local authority network. Whilst the upper classes mostly got married not out of love but for dynastic or inheritance reasons.

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