The issues surrounding the merits or otherwise of civil partnerships in comparison to marriage have been generating quite a head of steam recently. Today the BBC News website has published a story about a heterosexual couple applying to become civil partners rather than a married couple. This, as the article notes, is not a novel request, but it does serve to establish the last jigsaw piece creating a kind of symmetry of all the disputes crystallising around this contentious territory.
On the one hand there are arguments over whether the institutions of marriage and civil partnership stand in some relationship of superiority and inferiority: the focus being on the nature of the institutions themselves. On the other there are arguments over the differential access to these institutions between gay and straight couples. Stonewall’s refusal thus far to throw its weight behind the campaign for gay couples to get married has been causing an incendiary rift within the gay community in Britain. I suspect that most gay couples believe that they should be able to get married, and see civil partnerships as some kind of second best. The wish of some heterosexual couples, as in the BBC article already cited, to eschew marriage in favour of civil partnership, based on a rejection of marriage’s traditional association with sexist power and property relationships between men and women, is equally frustrated. There is some irony here, of course. It would be easy to dismiss both sides as simply being an example of the strange desire of human beings to want most fervently only those things that they are not allowed. Are gay couples wanting marriage, and straight couples wanting civil partnerships, merely joined in being equally petulant, foot-stamping toddlers?
I don’t think so. But I do think that there are some plain facts that need stating clearly in order to dispel some of the mists of confusion and double-think that are obscuring things here. First, that business about marriage somehow harking back to mediaeval notions of women as property to be disposed of at male whim and fancy. The laws of marriage have changed, and it is simply a fact that women are not property in the context of marriage today. Civil partnerships, and marriage, are about property though, and indeed that’s really all they are about. No matter what excesses of sentimentality and tastelessness the act of getting married, or becoming civil partners, may frequently entail, that is all flim-flam to distract attention from the more sordid reality. Civil partnerships were created for just this reason: to end the outrageous discrimination between straight and gay couples when it came to property rights – and I’m using property here in a broad sense, to include things like the right to act as someone’s next of kin, or to give medical permission, or to inherit, and all the other practicalities of life together.
So why do we need two institutions at all? That is a very good question. Because we don’t. We’ve got moral and religious commitment mixed up with legal commitment. The key reason why civil partnerships are not marriages has nothing to do with the law, and everything to do with religious objections from those who see marriage as a God-given estate. I happen to believe that to be true, although I don’t happen to believe that God has only given that estate to straight couples. In pursuing such an argument, I need have no dispute with the state or the law, but only with my fellow Christians, the majority of whom I believe to be wrong on this issue.
What we need to do is to separate out the legal issues from the rest. It is no longer tenable for one particular religious perspective to hold sway over the whole of society. Freedom of belief demands that the Christian church (and other faiths that have doctrines on partnership) should be able to determine whatever religious restrictions they believe proper in religious marriage, and I totally reject the idea that the law should be able to impose, for example, same sex marriages on the church. As I’ve already said, I want my church to move to that position, but until it does I must just keep fighting. I do not look to secular society to do that job for me. But the quid pro quo is clear: the church must give up its traditional claim to define what marriage is for all of society. If we had a single estate of legal partnership that applied to all regardless of sexuality, and which dealt with the wide issues of property relationships between couples, religious and other groups would then be free bolt-on their own particular perspectives in their own way.
The church has its own word for marriage (albeit shared with Indian religions): matrimony. It’s ironic that the root of this seemingly patriarchal system is mother, but let that pass. Let marriage be the one word that all couples use, gay or straight, but let it also be limited to describing the civil contract between couples. And let religious folk determine what matrimony means to them, without civil interference. If humanists, atheists or anybody else also want to design their own additional ceremonies and meanings, let them do that too.