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UK/ Defending the Institution of Marriage

MATTHEW GROVES considers the definition of marriage and the Government's handling of the issue, the consequences for the religious organisations and the position of the Church of England

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To the political class redefining marriage to include same-sex unions is a straightforward matter of furthering the progressive-equality agenda - they are deaf to any contrary arguments. The issue is however worthy of debate, even if debate slows down the politicians’ goal of changing marriage. Indeed, many politicians (though not all) acknowledge the importance of marriage as a cornerstone of society.

The Government consultation presumed that same-sex marriage should be implemented and that the only acceptable discussion was how to go about delivering this, rather than whether this change should take place. Nonetheless, despite the Government’s attempt to restrict debate (leading to some Conservative backbenchers calling the consultation a ‘sham’), the Church of England’s response to the consultation helpfully sets out the case against redefining marriage.

Marriage is the institution through which society addresses the difference between the sexes and brings about the benefit of that complementarity. Referring to the Book of Common Prayer, which follows Scripture, three virtues can be identified that are promoted by marriage: mutuality, fidelity and complementarity. The third of these virtues holds the potential to lead to fruitfulness. The purpose of marriage is then to bring the two sexes into complementarity, with the high possibility of children being conceived and brought up in that stable framework.

Civil partnerships, recently introduced (and supported by the majority of Lords Spiritual), establish in other relationships mutuality and fidelity, but the key distinguishing feature is that civil partnerships are not there to address sexual difference. Only marriage does this and it is therefore a uniquely heterosexual institution. To change this defining aspect of marriage would undermine society’s way of singling out heterosexual commitment in a way that sustains a fundamental benefit to society – the biological family.

The Omni-shambles

The first sign of confusion came with the Prime Minister’s announcement that there would be an ‘opt-in’ for those faiths wishing to perform same sex marriages; contrary to the original commitment this would only apply to civil marriage.

In an attempt to push its agenda through and address the concerns of the established church, the Government’s official statement to Parliament has only muddied the waters further. The Minister announced that a ‘quadruple lock’ would protect the established church and others that wish to carry on solemnising marriages according to their own tradition and doctrine, free from threat of legal action.