Steve Gilbert MP writes… Church opposition to gay marriage is “intolerant, out of touch, and wrong”

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.

* Stephen Gilbert is Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay and chairs the Regional Aviation All Party Parliamentary Group

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  • There is no married tax relied unless you were born before 1935: this is not an issue.
    Churches already have the right not to preside over any particular marriage if they so choose.
    As an Anglican I think that the church’s position is a tragic misunderstanding of Christ’s Gospel.

  • George Potter 12th Mar '12 - 10:22am


    The legislation is only to allow religious gay marriage for religious sects that recognise it – no religion or church will be forced to perform gay marriages if they don’t want to.

  • George: It’s actually stricter than that. At present, there does not appear to be any plan to allow any faith group to formally solemnise same-sex partnerships. That’s something that really needs pushing for in the consultation.

  • There is the problem with the Church of England. How can you have an established Church not recognising a state-sanctioned marriage, when it, itself, is established by the State? I think the CofE and society as whole, would benefit from disestablishing the Church, allowing them to practice their faith without interference from the State, and the State without interference from the Church.

  • I’m not sure the polling has moved the way Stephen Gilbert suggests. A February YouGov on the issue showed 43% support for gay marriage, 32% supporting civil partnerships and 15% wanting civil partnerships repealed. (details at Also that 57% of Lib Dem supporters favour gay marriage, the highest of the three parties, but far lower than most activists would expect.

    As one of the 32% (and 43%) I am concerned our party’s near-evangelical drive at the moment on this risks not only alienating supporters who do not agree on this issue, but the language we are using to describe opponents does us little credit, and causes us to appear just as intolerant as those on the other side. For those of us who don’t believe the Government has any remit to redefine marriage, there is plenty of common ground in seeking to iron out the differences in civil partnerships (such as reasons for annullment, allowing religious elements in ceremonies etc) and incautious words only undermine this.

  • Can anyone point out for me where in our manifesto we promised to introduce gay marriage by 2015?

    This is a fairly major change – shouldn’t it be one on which the population has a say, rather than relying on contested polling (which show anything between 70% against to 70% for depending who is asked and what the question wording is)? This, much more than the EU, is an issue deserving of a referendum. But even without a referendum, none of our MPs were elected on a manifesto supporting gay marriage.

    So whatever you think of the issue itself, we are on shaky ground to be so determined to push it through before the voters get any say on it at all. You might think it is a liberal change, but it’s hard to claim it is a democratic one until a vote has happened in which this issue is at least mentioned.

  • Sara Bedford 12th Mar '12 - 2:28pm

    @mpg The Church of England not perform marriages where one or both of the partners are divorced and their former spose is still alive.

  • Ben: Can you point to the liberal justification for giving people who would never have a same-sex marriage a “democratic” veto over another couple’s wedding? It will objectively benefit many and harm none – the strongest mandate any proposal can have.

  • Daniel Henry 12th Mar '12 - 3:31pm

    Good article. I appreciate the nicely researched history lesson.

    My Catholic parents were saying that the government should say that they’re “re-defining” marriage. There’s some good arguments here to show that’s not true.

  • David Pollard 12th Mar '12 - 9:59pm

    According to Chris Bryant, MP, for a marriage to be valid in law it has to be consumated. How will consumation be defined when the marriage is between two people of the same sex and will the definition be different depending on whether it is two men or two women?

  • Adam Bernard 12th Mar '12 - 10:59pm

    David Pollard: There are various definitions already in law of sex that might be applied, and I don’t think it’s particularly important which one is. Personally, I’d be happy to see no consummation requirements for either same or opposite sex marriages, furthering the principle that it’s not the government’s business what consenting adults do or don’t do in their bedrooms.

    Steve Gilbert: Thanks for this post. As people have pointed out elsewhere, important to remember that there are religious groups who are keen to be able to perform religious marriages between people of the same sex.

  • Malcolm Todd 12th Mar '12 - 11:14pm

    David Pollard: Did Chris Bryant really say that? If so, I’m pretty sure he’s just wrong.

  • John Carlisle 13th Mar '12 - 10:20am

    It is beyond me, when we have the NHS issue, high unemployment, a police force being emasculated, pension problems for the public sector, major security issues, immigration at sixes and sevens, that we are spending ANY TIME AT ALL on what is a minor issue for the country, for the majority of people and for many gays themselves.
    I do not give a toss that there will be gay marriage before the end of 2015. I do give a toss that public servants have the security of a good pension, that a bunch of youngsters have a job and that the UK feels good about itself by then. So, stop sweating the small stuff and begin leading the country.

  • @Emma – you can call it a ‘democratic veto’ but it seems odd to prioritise so high something which has never been subject to the vote, either directly or in a manifesto. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important, but it does mean we are using power to achieve an objective without trying to persuade people that it is a good idea. Of course, you imply that this is a personal issue for couples and no-one else should interfere. Well, if this was a genuinely liberal proposal to remove the definition of marriage from the competence of the state then I would agree with you wholeheartedly. Live and let live. But that is not what is proposed.

    I quite agree with all the comments saying that religions should be able to define what marriage is to them. That means the state *should not offer marriages to anyone* but should instead make civil partnerships open to all, homosexual and heterosexual, if people want the legal protections. They can then – in their own communities – decide what to call themselves, whether that’s married or whatever else. In this case, it would be absolutely justified to tell religious groups to get stuffed because a marriage is between two people and their community.

    This proposal is to redefine civil marriage to include homosexual couples, rather than remove marriage from the state’s grip. It is not the liberal response of taking the state out of the picture, but using the state to give a certain name to a certain kind of relationship. The definition of civil marriage in Britain (which is not, whether we like it or not, a genuinely secular country) is inextricably wrapped up with Christianity so of course churches and Christians will have views on it.

    So for anyone wishing religious figures would just shut up – support a genuinely liberal proposal to take marriage out of the hands of the state, and you might be onto something. But as long as you are trying to use the state to redefine what marriage is, then everyone in the state – not least the still established church – will have every right to have a say. This is, after all, an issue of state and civil marriage, not devolving something to individuals. It is absolutely right that the whole population therefore get a say, and a vote. Call it a “democratic veto” if you like, but we exercise “democratic vetoes” over all kinds of areas of life where the state is active. You can only get rid of that if you get rid of the state’s involvement. Supporting gay marriage in these proposals does *not* do that.

  • philip wren 14th Mar '12 - 9:14am

    @ Sara Bedford. Sorry, you are wrong.

    The CofE does allow the clergy to marry divorcees under certain circumstances, a position that the Methodist Church has led for years. However, when Methodism agreed to allow divorcees to be remarried in church they granted individual ministers the right to opt out of performing such services. In practice many refer then to a sympathetic colleague. It was held that no minister should be forced to conduct a marriage against their conscience, surely a very liberal view.

    Spain may be Catholic but church attendance is low. A Spanish Catholic said to me yesterday, we feel guilty about not going to church but we don’t go. The church may appear to be powerful but in reality it is not; that is true in this country as well. The young Spanish people I met in Spain are much more open minded than the leaders of their church and in time the church will move it’s position on this.

    I believe the Quakers already want the right to be able to marry same sex couples, as does one element of the reformed Jewish faith.

    I personally would have no problem in conducting a same sex marriage but on a matter of liberalism we need to find a way forward that respects people’s consciences and does not railroad them. I want to be able to perform the marriages but nor do I want colleagues to be forced to go against their conscience.

    Perhaps in the short term the law should allow for an “opt in” system and allow the faith groups to come to their own mind in their own time.

  • philip wren 14th Mar '12 - 9:20am

    Of course we could simply remove the right of registered faith groups to conduct the legal part of the marriage service so that everyone has the legalities of marriage undertaken in the Registry Office and the faith service in their own place of worship.

    In the case of the Church of England that would require a change to the law as we would be removing the ordained priests right to legally marry a couple.

    The other faith groups that perform the legal part of the service do so under the same law that applies at the Registry Office and we have a priviledge, not a right, to do this.

    It would also eradicate the problem of vicars conducting sham marriages and other sorts of issues that I know of but are off topic.

  • While I share Stephen’s Guilbert’s concern at the language used by the Archbishop, I find Stephen’s reaction just as abhorrent. It is of no value for both sides of this argument to join in a slanging match. There are deeply held feelings on both sides. There are logical arguments that can be presented on both sides, which will be more useful than the use of emotional language.

  • OK, it’s a bit late for this as the article will have disappeared to the archive area, it’s a nuts and bolts (aka nerdie) question as opposed to a right/wrong one.

    At present Article 12 of the ECHR does not cover this as the Court feels that due to the historical significance of the meaning of marriage states must be given leeway. They also say that Article 14 (discrimination) can’t be used as it must be in harmony with Article 12.

    However, if the nation changes the meaning to include same sex marriage what happens under article 14? Can some one claim discrimination on not being allowed to marry in a church? (after all, they would be facing discrimination as such a claim would be in harmony with how the nation have decided to interpret marriage under Article 12). I only ask because if they can then people are making promises that they can’t possibly keep.

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