The contrast could hardly have been more jarring.
In a televised White House interview on Wednesday, May 9, President Barack Obama claimed that, having gone through an evolution on the issue, he had concluded, “it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
That same day, an ocean away in England, Queen Elizabeth II opened the current session of Parliament, for the 60th time in her reign sitting in her House of Lords throne to proclaim her government’s legislative program for that year. Wearing her Imperial State Crown and parliamentary robe, she spoke for eight minutes, and on the issue of same-sex marriage, said absolutely nothing.
Cameron’s cynical campaign
The Home Office claims the government never intended to include same-sex marriage in this year’s legislative program, but it is beginning to look as if Prime Minister David Cameron’s wish to redefine marriage in English law is set to end, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Cameron’s campaign had always looked like a cynical vanity project, given how the 2004 Civil Partnerships Act enables same-sex couples to make a public declaration of their commitment and avail themselves of the same legal rights as married couples. When then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government introduced that legislation, it insisted that although the new scheme gave same-sex couples equal rights and privileges to married ones, civil partnerships and marriages were not the same thing.
Stonewall, Britain’s leading gay lobby group, was so content with this arrangement that in September 2010, its chief executive Ben Summerskill publicly opposed the newly-declared wish of the Liberal Democrats—the junior partner in Britain’s Conservative-led coalition government—to redefine marriage and civil partnerships so that same-sex and opposite-sex couples could choose which arrangement they wished to enter. Claiming this could cost as much as £5 billion and noting that a cosmetic marital reform was hardly a priority for the gay movement, Summerskill pointed out that many lesbian, gay, and bisexual people were opposed to same-sex couples participating in “something that is either the same as or synonymous with marriage.”
Even without Stonewall’s opposition, the Liberal Democrats’ original proposal to redefine marriage looked purely aspirational without a popular mandate; the introduction of same-sex marriage had been conspicuously absent from the manifestos of Britain’s three main parties in the general election that had been held just months earlier.
On September 17, 2011 the Liberal Democrat equalities minister Lynne Featherstone announced at her party’s annual conference that the government would begin a formal consultation this March on how to introduce same-sex marriage into UK law by the end of this parliament. “This is a Liberal Democrat policy,” she said. “But now it is a policy being put into action.”
This time Stonewall approved, and scarcely two weeks later, David Cameron proclaimed at the Conservatives’ conference, “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”
While in some ways the Conservatives’ adoption of their junior partners’ policy was a simple case of coalition politics, it should also be understood as another stage in the progressive detoxification of the Conservative brand that has been the work of Conservative modernizers for about a decade.
At the 2002 Conservative conference, then-party chairman Theresa May admitted that many people see the Conservatives as Britain’s “nasty party”; her successor Francis Maude echoed her in 2005. Claiming that if marriage is about commitment, then same-sex marriage should be embraced as a deeply conservative idea, Maude has become one of the leading Conservative champions of same-sex marriage. His thinking pervaded David Cameron’s 2006 conference declaration: “There’s something special about marriage… It’s about commitment… it means something whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and another man.”
Public support lacking, opposition grows
The problem with this new political narrative is that it is rooted in an impoverished understanding of marriage, says Austen Ivereigh, founder and co-ordinator of Catholic Voices, a bureau of Catholic speakers of which this author is a member. “The government’s own speeches and documents make the case against same-sex marriage better than any opponent can,” says Ivereigh. “Children are simply never mentioned in them. In the government’s weighty consultation document, children are entirely absent. Yet the whole reason that marriage is a public policy matter is that it is a unique institution—far more than just a relationship—which provides for children being raised by their natural parents. That’s what makes marriage a natural, social institution which should be protected by the state, not drastically redefined.”
It seems Britain’s voters agree. In March 2012 a Catholic Voices-commissioned survey found that 70 percent of British people believe that marriage should continue to be recognized as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman, with 84 percent believing children have the best chance in life if raised by their own mother and father in a stable and committed relationship.
Subsequent surveys offered the government little comfort. A Sunday Times poll found that fewer people supported the introduction of same-sex marriage than opposed it; most of those polled believed David Cameron was acting out of expediency rather than principle. A Telegraph poll suggested the highest levels of support for same-sex marriage, but even then 78 percent of people polled felt this wasn’t a government priority.
The UK’s normal legislative process involves several stages: a green paper exploring the possibility of changing the law, a white paper putting forward government policy and inviting further comment, and finally—perhaps—legislation. So last autumn’s announcements that the government would be engaging in a consultation on how same-sex marriage could be introduced was met with incredulity. It seemed the government planned to railroad through parliament a policy for which it had no democratic mandate.
The umbrella organization calling itself the Coalition for Marriage was established in response to this. Don Horrocks, one of the coalition’s directors, explains that various groups had realized over a number of years of working with each other in parliamentary situations that one voice would be more effective than many, so they agreed to coordinate their efforts.
Many of the coalition’s founding members are Evangelical Christians, but Horrocks rejects claims that the organization is religiously-driven, pointing out that one of his fellow directors is not religious at all. Rather, he says, the coalition is a public campaign, but one in which religious groups have been at the forefront. He points out that there is a level at which this is inevitable, given the paucity of national marriage concern groups that are not religious in background, and says that in this debate religious groups are acting as “a voice for the silent majority.”
Unfortunately, interventions in the debate by Britain’s most prominent Christians in the weeks leading up to the launch of the consultation sometimes had a tone that obscured their ability to speak for that silent majority. George Carey, former Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, signaled his support for the Coalition for Marriage by saying that the legalization of same-sex marriage would be “an act of cultural and theological vandalism,” while Keith O’Brien, cardinal archbishop of Edinburgh, described the government’s proposals as “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.”
Reacting to such comments, and the inevitable counter-accusations of bigotry, Lynne Featherstone called on people not to polarize the debate, saying “this is not a battle between gay rights and religious beliefs.” The Catholic bishops of England and Wales agreed: the debate was about the nature and value of marriage.
On the weekend of March 11, a letter from Archbishops Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Peter Smith of Southwark was read to Mass-goers throughout England and Wales, reminding them of the Catholic vision of marriage and the importance of marriage for society in general. Describing marriage as reflecting the pattern of complementarity and fertility written into our nature, the bishops noted that marriage is a natural institution at the foundation of our society, recognized and valued accordingly. We have a duty, they said, “to do all we can to ensure that the true meaning of marriage is not lost for future generations.”
John Sentamu, the Ugandan-born Anglican archbishop of York, supported the bishops’ letter and also pointed out that the legal definition of marriage could prove very difficult to change. One of the most important of the 3,000 references to marriage in current English law lies in the official Anglican prayer book, licensed by parliament since the 17th century. Recognizing marriage as the union of a man and a woman, primarily for the procreation and education of children, the Anglican marriage liturgy states that any couples joined together other than in accord with God’s word cannot be deemed legally married.
In other words, marriage cannot be changed in English law without the Anglican prayer book also being changed or its license being revoked; in principle parliament could do either, but doing so would be an unprecedented intervention in the running of the Church of England, once known as “the Conservative party at prayer.”
The continued push to redefine marriage
The government launched its consultation on March 15, insisting that the legalization of same-sex marriage would not affect “religious marriages.” Proposing that marriage should henceforth be defined as the union of any two consenting adults, the consultation makes no mention of children, dismisses public vows as no longer absolutely necessary to marriage, and effectively abolishes the need for consummation. In practice it proposes the abolition of marriage as currently and historically understood, with civil partnership to be opened to all and renamed “civil marriage.”
Intriguingly, the consultation asks not merely how same-sex marriage should be introduced into England and Wales, but whether this should happen. The purpose of this question is unclear, given the government’s proclaimed determination that same-sex marriage be legalized, but Horrocks regards the inclusion of such a question as an achievement: “What’s now happened is that the consultation has become a kind of poll and the question which our pressure got inserted into the consultation was, ‘Do you agree this should happen or not?’”
Popular opinion, at least among those most willing to express a view, seems to be against the government’s plans. More than 500,000 people have signed the Coalition for Marriage’s petition that marriage not be redefined, whereas a rival poll, advocating that the law be changed, has received only one-tenth as many signatures. Horrocks describes those signing the petitions as “engaging in a democratic process where there’s an absence of one.” A recent poll of MPs has found that only one in 25 MPs believes that same-sex marriage is a priority for their constituents; most say opposition to the government’s plans is widespread. As Ivereigh points out, people often think “gay marriage” is some kind of special legal provision to accommodate a minority, but “once they realize that it involves a total overthrow of the essential meaning of marriage, they are against it.”
Complicating further the government’s position is a recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights, reiterating the court’s 2010 rulings that while countries are not legally obliged to recognize same-sex marriage, any country that does so must do so in exactly the same way that it recognizes other marriages. This, says Catholic barrister Neil Addison, director of the Thomas More Legal Centre, makes a mockery of government assurances that the proposed legislation will not affect religious marriage.
“In English law,” he says, “there is no difference between civil and religious marriage. Therefore following the Schalk and Gas cases if the government legalizes same-sex marriage it must do so on exactly the same basis that it legalizes heterosexual marriage. The government will be obliged to permit same-sex marriage on religious premises just as it permits heterosexual marriage on religious premises. Catholic Churches may well have to give up legally registering marriages and only provide the religious ceremony.”
It may have been a growing realization of the scale and complexity of the political and legislative challenge facing him that has led David Cameron to hint that the government’s commitment to introducing same-sex marriage hardly justifies Lynne Featherstone’s “cast-iron guarantee” that it would be law by 2015. Speaking at a Holy Week reception for Christian leaders, Cameron said of the proposed legalizsation of same-sex marriage: “If this doesn’t go ahead, to those of us who’d like it to go ahead, there will still be civil partnerships, so gay people will be able to form a partnership that gives them many of the advantages of marriage.”
Officially the government remains committed to redefining marriage, but since the Prime Minister admitted that his plan might not succeed, four government ministers—including the minister for children and young families—have expressed opposition to the proposals, and the Conservative Chief Whip, Patrick McLoughlin, has reportedly assured backbench MPs that the Government’s proposals will not come to a vote.
The consultation closes on June 14, and while those who believe marriage should be supported as the sole public institution that exists to promote the idea that every child should grow up with the love of a mother and a father clearly have no grounds for complacency, it’s starting to look as if their cause may not be hopeless.