After the comments by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, the issue of gay marriage is on the lips of newsreaders, commentators and ordinary people up and down the country. Cardinal O’Brien has done his country a great service by bringing this issue to the fore and he was very right to do so. He is also right to say that laws introducing marriage equality would fundamentally change a concept that is so ingrained into our culture and consciousness. On every other count, including his use choice of words and ludicrously hyperbolic comparisons to the legalisation of slavery, he is wholly and fundamentally wrong. That is not a surprise, however. After all, Cardinal O’Brien comes from an institution whose politics, and I mean politics and not faith, lead it to stand against the right to use contraception, even to prevent the spread of HIV, and the right to divorce, even in cases of violence and abuse. It’s hardly a great shock, then, that he is not waving the rainbow flag and calling for universal LGBT rights.
But what the Catholic Church, and indeed the Church of England, thinks is their business and the state has no right to dictate to them. They are at liberty to afford the rites religious marriage to whomsoever they see fit. What they are not at liberty to do, however, is dictate to an elected Parliament how it should legislate on civil marriage. Speaking as a secularist Christian, thankfully the days in which religion holds such powerful sway over our national politics took their final breath along with the last millennium. Whilst the Cardinal and his ilk can and should state their opinion, what they think is really an irrelevance.
What actually matters is that this country, for probably the first time, has a Prime Minister, a Deputy Prime Minister and a Leader of the Opposition who not only support marriage equality but have the political will and the courage of their convictions to make it a reality. This could mark an historic change in this country, one that half a century ago seemed impossible. People are making the argument that this would mark a fundamental change in the way this country defines one of its oldest institutions. To them I say ‘Of course it will, that is why we must seize this chance’. The evolutionary progress of British politics is usually slow and I am a great advocate of the idea that it is our national small ‘c’ conservatism that has held our country together and prevented great crises for centuries. We come to points, however, on occasion where we must face the fundamental redefinition of an idea, a concept or an institution to something which, in the past, may have seemed unthinkable. We arrive at the point where things come to a head. We arrive at a position where we have to go against our conservative grain to do what is right. The ending of absolute monarchy, the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, rights for women, the National Health Service and the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the abolition of the death penalty all seemed to go against everything that was engrained in national ideas at the time but now are integral parts of what makes us proud of our country. Marriage equality is the next one of these once-in-a-generation steps.
There are those who argue that civil partnerships have given homosexual couples equal legal rights so we don’t need to afford them the right to fully define themselves as married. I say that this is precisely the reason we do need to afford them this right. There are now no legal barriers to overcome, the legislation is there and civil partnerships have not destroyed society like some of the doom-mongers claimed would happen. The practical step we have to take is actually a very small one but it’s one of immense significance. It would mean that homosexual couples not only have the right not to be discriminated against legally but also culturally. It would mean that homosexual love and commitment, now widely accepted across society, would be given that same sanctity that heterosexual love and commitment has. It’s not ‘gay marriage’ I believe in, it’s marriage. It’s the idea that two people could commit their lives to one another before the law, before friends and family and before the national emblem of our country regardless of their sexual orientation.As the Leader in today’s Times says, ‘Reforming the law to allow same-sex couples to marry would enrich an historic institution and expand the sum of human happiness’.
As a country we should be proud of the fact we have a Prime Minister who supports marriage equality and not surprised that it has Catholic priests who don’t. I profoundly hope that my generation’s children will not know what ‘gay marriage’ is, they’ll simply value the idea and the institution of marriage, whoever might be making the vows.