The tip of the iceberg: Why gay marriage should end in divorce
Let me start off with stating my opinion. I am firmly in favour of gay marriage. This is because I believe everybody should be free to make their own decisions, as long as they don’t impact negatively on others. Thus, I believe that a gay couple in love should be able to get married, but I also respect the decision of some religious leaders to refuse to conduct a gay marriage ceremony as they cannot reconcile their beliefs about marriage with the idea of a same-sex marriage. The fact remains that there are religious ministers who are perfectly happy to conduct same-sex marriages. They shouldn’t face criticism for that, either. This to me seems reasonable; no one should be chastised for their beliefs or way of life, as long as it doesn’t impinge on the way of life of others. Simple. But that’s not what I want to discuss here. Because the issue of gay marriage has raised an issue which for me shadows over a question of whether everyone should have the right to be married (answer: yes). That is a question of a different marriage – the uneasy and disconcerting one between the Church of England and the State.
In the UK, the Church of England is authorised to conduct marriages which are legally binding, that is to say, the couple do not have to “give notice” of their marriage at a registry office (i.e. go through a civil procedure). Thus the Church of England is endowed with a power which no other Church or religious body has – that is to provide a marriage service which is both State recognised and religious. It is understandable, therefore, why they might fear that Church of England priests may be forced into conducting marriages which they see as being against their faith, for if we are saying that gay marriages are a civil ceremony, this is something which the Church of England provides.
In no way am I suggesting that this isn’t a problem which cannot be overcome, however, by cherry-picking the issue of gay marriage, the government has, to my mind, opened up a whole can of worms. In the 21st Century, can we really justify having an unelected body which holds beliefs which many members of the population would consider to be out-of-touch, superstitious or just plain wrong having so much influence on national politics? 26 members of the House of Lords are the “Lords Spiritual” – the 26 bishops of the Church of England. One of the monarch’s roles is as the “Defender of the Faith”, and they are the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. It is rare to find, in countries which we might compare ourselves to as ‘equal’, such a close relationship between Church and State. To take France as an example, it prides itself on its laïcité, where religion has no role whatsoever in public life. We may argue that the ‘burqa ban’ as the law from 2004 which banned “symbols or clothes through which students conspicuously display their religious affiliation” in schools has become known is extreme. Nevertheless, for the French it was symbolic of the complete separation of religion and State – no one Church or religious body has any influence whatsoever over the writing and passing of laws.
This is not to say that there is no place for religion. As Siobhain Woodhouse has written, religion can clearly be a force for good. Yet surely we must question why, as a country which prides itself on being a pioneer of democracy, we allow an unelected body to wield so much influence on the politics of the nation. This government has picked up on gay marriage as a vote-winner (or so the cynic in me says). They are shying away from the real issue, which isn’t one of marriage; it should be about divorce – the divorce between the Church and the State.