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William Oddie FAITH Magazine May – June 2012

End of a Sleepwalk

I'm not sure that I expected to read this kind of thing in The Daily Telegraph:

"Should two people who care deeply for each other, who love each other and who want to spend the rest of their lives together be allowed to marry? .... My answer is that marriage should be for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation. Society is stronger when people enter into a stable relationship; when they commit to each other; when they make binding vows to love, honour and cherish one another."

When I saw who had written that, my hopes for an intelligent, or at least receptive, government response to the campaign against gay "marriage" then getting under way died within me: those words were written by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, and they appeared on the very morning she launched a "consultation" on the government's proposals to enforce a change in the legal definition of this ancient institution. She was, with all due deliberation, indicating clearly that whatever the government was consulting us about it wasn't about whether but about how they should do it.

I have to admit that I had got this one badly wrong: I had supposed it was just Nick Clegg who wanted it, but that Cameron, who was after all still a Tory, couldn't, not really. Big mistake. He really did mean it when he said he supported gay marriage. And his government made it absolutely clear that we could say anything we liked, but that they were going to do it, so we might just as well give up and accept it. Among Theresa May's tactics for sounding reasonable was to pretend to think that what we were really worried about was whether or not we would have to "marry" homosexual couples in Church:

"That's why I want to emphasise that this has nothing to do with telling the Church - or any religious group -what to do. I want to be absolutely clear that we do not propose to touch religious marriage in any way. We are talking about civil marriage ceremonies - the sort currently conducted in register offices, country houses and hotels....People of faith have nothing to fear [sic] from our proposals. But the State clearly does have a role in defining what is and isn't a legally recognised marriage."

But that is, of course, precisely what is at issue here: does the state, can the State, at any particular time and in any particular place, define an institution which has existed in nearly all cultures for millennia? Dr Sentamu argued very clearly that it could not - and was called an extremist for his pains.

This is what he actually said, off the cuff but absolutely on the button: "Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. I don't think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can't just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are. We've seen dictators do it in different contexts and I don't want to redefine very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time and then overnight the state believes it could go in a particular way." Why is that "absurd", as The Times newspaper said it was? How is that any different from what The Times more suavely accepted, that "it is not a frivolous criticism that the legitimacy of marriage and the social cohesion that it provides might bedamaged if the law is rewritten without regard for how most people understand an historic institution"?

Cardinal O'Brien made exactly the same point, and it's worth considering why he argued that gay marriage would be "a grotesque subversion of a universal human right"; note exactly where the language of human rights comes from here:

"Can we simply redefine terms at a whim? Can a word whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history suddenly be changed to mean something else?

"If same-sex marriage is enacted into law what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that marriage can only mean - and has only ever meant - the union of a man and a woman?

"Will that teacher's right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed? Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance - heretics whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?

"In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women. But when our politicians suggest jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning they aren't derided.

"Instead, their attempt to redefine reality is given a polite hearing, their madness is indulged. Their proposal represents a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right."

"Tradition", said Chesterton, "is the democracy of the dead." Every generation has supposed itself to be wiser than all its predecessors; and succeeding generations have then rejected their immediate predecessors and as often as not either returned to what they swept aside or at least bitterly regretted that it was impossible to do so, since not every mistake can be reversed.

It is one of those questions, like abortion, which delineate starkly the profundity of the gulf that exists between the Catholic understanding of reality and the secular. Catholics see clearly that "gay marriage" is quite simply against the grain of human history and human nature. Cardinal O'Brien has been traduced for the strength of his feelings on this matter: but what kind of man would he be, what kind of Christian leader, having seen so clearly what a disaster the proposed legislation would (almost certainly will) visit on our society, if his feelings had been more "moderate", or his language less passionate?

Well, one more like an English archbishop, that's what. The predictably less colourful pastoral letter of the Archbishops of Westminster and Southwarkwas, admittedly, probably better calculated to be taken seriously by the liberal press: they could hardly have called it extreme or obscurantist. The archbishops kept well away from any suggestion that homosexual activity might be intrinsically disordered. As William Rees-Mogg amusingly put it in The Times, "The [English] Catholic archbishops are far from being a set of authoritarian reactionaries. The majority have not been extreme ecclesiastical conservatives since the Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII". Quite.

Where does all this leave us? The fact is that the coalition's plans will ineluctably be enacted unless, somehow, the parliamentary process can frustrate it. It was made absolutely clear that the "consultation" in which the Government has engaged is a sham: whatever we think, it will do what it likes. If the Government really wants it, it will happen. Cameron has a strong will: witness his determination to get his unpopular and incomprehensible health bill through. Even if the Lords do give it a rough time, it will still get through. As for Christian and other religious opinion, we have been told, virtually, that civil marriage is none of our business, and that if we don't like it, too bad. It's pretty clear the Government doesn't care about secular public opinion either. There isabsolutely no public pressure for this bill (anymore than there was for the alternative vote, or Lords reform, or any of the other Lib Dem enthusiasms that have to be pandered to if the coalition is to survive).

The Telegraph at one point ran an online poll, which found that 33.76 per cent were in favour of gay marriage and 55 per cent were against. The press is divided. The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Mirror support it. The Daily Mail opposes it for as many of the right reasons as it is now possible for a secular paper to admit to: "This legislation," it said, "which not even Stonewall, the most persistent gay rights group, was agitating for, is not just about allowing homosexual couples to have a wedding rather than a civil partnership. It is about redefining an ancient and precious institution and recalibrating the entire way we speak about it." Precisely. The Daily Telegraph, too, got the point:

"What is being proposed here is not a minor social tweak, but a fundamental redefinition of an ancient institution, partly in order to signify the 'modern' values of David Cameron's Tories. In pursuing this reform, the Government has created a neat, but disingenuous, conceit: namely that if you believe the estate of marriage is a benign and stabilising influence then you must also favour marriage between two men or two women. They go further: Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister, said opposition to gay marriage was fanning the flames of 'dark ages' homophobia. This is unfortunate rhetoric. If anything, it is the Government's attempt to change the law that risks reigniting anti-homosexual bigotry."

But there is a question to be asked. The fact is that we have the substance of "gay marriage" already, in the civil unions enacted by the last government, to which the opposition of the English Catholic Church has been confused and fitful to say the least. We have, it might be argued, already lost this particular battle. Does this argument over the meaning of a word actually matter? I would argue that it does, very much. Words matter. Change the definition of a word like "marriage" and the consequences ripple out in all directions. Consider this, for instance. As a result of the proposed legislation, the words "husband" and "wife" will be forbidden on all official forms: does that not send a chill to the heart? Can it really be said this legislation will make no difference?

There is, of course, something else to be said, which does seem powerfully to bear out the defeatist conclusion that we have already lost the battle for traditional marriage. Peter Hitchens, in The Spectator, argued that those who oppose gay marriage are simply fighting the wrong battle. It is, he says, "a stupid distraction from the main war". We need rather to address the fact that

"the real zone of battle, a vast 5,000-mile front along which the forces of righteousness have retreated without counter-attacking for nearly 50 years, involves the hundreds of thousands of marriages undermined by ridiculously easy divorce, the millions of children hurt by those divorces and the increasing multitudes of homes where parents, single or in couples, have never been married at all and never will be."

All true, of course. But the battle over how the word "marriage" is defined surely isn't a "distraction", as Hitchens argues. A crucial battle over a small area - Agincourt, Poitiers, Crecy - can ultimately determine the control of an entire territory: Normandy, Anjou, Aquitaine. And this battle is indeed crucial. We have probably left it too late - but we must at least go down fighting.


Faith Magazine

May - June 2012