London, UK - June 17, 2006 In the light of current arguments within church and state over the definitions of marriage, civil partnerships and other live-in relationships, the Christian think-tank Ekklesia is suggesting that ‚Äúserious consideration‚Äù should be given to the abolition of legal 'marriage' and its replacement by a variety of civil partnerships through which couples could specify the type of legal commitment they wished to make to one another.
The radical idea comes as part of Ekklesia‚Äôs call for a "major re-think" about the meaning and practice of "getting married" on the part of both religious bodies and the government ‚Äì but based on a mutually beneficial separation of church and state.
The current situation is "hopelessly confused" by futile attempts to fuse Christian and civil concepts of marriage into a "one-size-fits-all" arrangement, says the think-tank - which observes that this suits neither the realities of the relationships people form in a plural society, nor a coherent theology of marriage and relationships within the churches.
Under existing law, if couples are married in a Church of England ceremony they are simultaneously legally and religiously ‚Äòmarried‚Äô, because of the status and function of the Established church.
However, if they are married by another denomination or faith group, a separate act of state- recognised registration is required. A civil ceremony by a registrar allows no religious content.
Ekklesia says that a fresh approach is required to address the anomalous status of the Church of England; to clarify the situation created by civil partnerships (which grant similar legal rights to ‚Äòmarriage‚Äô for lesbian and gay couples, but not comparable status); to address the confusion between religious and civil marriage; and to cater for the legal arrangements that different live-in couples require.
Under Ekklesia‚Äôs proposals for further debate, individuals who want to enter into marriage as a religious commitment within Christian and other contexts would be free to do so. But registering their partnership under law would be a separate process allowing different arrangements depending upon their intent ‚Äì and including provisions for the protection of children.
The think-tank says the framework it is suggesting would make it clear that religious marriage is something very different from that defined under law, would avoid people having to make vows they do not believe in, and would encourage couples to think more seriously about the kind of commitment they wanted to enter into.
It would also separate arguments within religious communities about gay marriage and cohabitation from the state‚Äôs provision of legal contracts for relationships, and would make space for both faith- based and secular understandings ‚Äì without privileging or constraining either.
‚ÄúLegal marriage clearly isn't working in its present form,‚Äù says Ekklesia's director Jonathan Bartley. ‚ÄúA divorce rate of around 40% in and of itself is surely evidence enough of this.‚Äù
He continues: ‚ÄúAt the moment there is only one form of marriage defined under law, which everyone has to take or leave. It does not reflect Christian ideas of marriage, which are based on a covenant before God, rather than a legal contract and agreement between individuals. And it does not properly acknowledge the reality of the existence of other, secular viewpoints, either.‚Äù
Rather than trying to promote one idea of marriage, Ekklesia argues that it would be more helpful for the law to focus on the intentions underlying legal arrangements. Such values as justice, compassion, protection, community, commitment and love could thereby receive acknowledgement within public policy debate.
The think-tank says that this approach is consonant with a principal strand of the Church of England‚Äôs last major report of families, Something to Celebrate, which affirmed the centrality of Christian marriage within the understanding of the church.
But it also said that other forms of relationship should be acknowledged, and that in wider society Christians should affirm different attempts to express faithfulness and love ‚Äìwithout necessarily according them the same status as Christian marriage.
‚ÄúThat last point raises the nub of the current problem,‚Äù says Ekklesia‚Äôs Jonathan Bartley. ‚ÄúReligious communities are entitled to have their own ideal of marriage which they offer to the wider society. But requiring others to accept this definition by law benefits no-one. It is confusing and counter- productive.‚Äù
The current legal case in the High Court where a lesbian couple married in Canada are seeking to have their marriage recognised as such under UK law is another demonstration that the situation needs to be addressed, says Ekklesia. Some faith groups opposed to the full recognition of gay people are resisting this shift in legal definition, and would thereby deny others their wishes.
Similarly, the Archbishop of Canterbury argues that the government Law Commission‚Äôs proposal about granting legal rights to live-in (cohabiting) couples would risk ‚Äúfurther undermining marriage‚Äù.
On this, Ekklesia says that trying to stop the civil authorities providing protection to established cohabitees is a bad way to promote the ideal of lasting love that marriage is meant to enshrine in a church context.
Says Bartley: ‚ÄúIf the church wants to argue that Christian marriage, rooted in the grace of God, is preferable to civil cohabitation, it is free to do so. But there must surely be something wrong when the church‚Äôs ‚Äòdefence‚Äô of holy matrimony apparently involves perpetuating what many will see as an unholy injustice against established live-in couples.‚Äù
Ekklesia says it is aware of the large implications for the tax and benefit system arising from the alternative marriage framework it is suggesting, and indeed for many other areas of public policy. But it suggests that a fresh approach that could make the system less complex in the long run.
Similarly, argues Jonathan Bartley, ‚Äúthe theological debate about relationships, sexuality and marriage could be re-opened in the churches in a much more positive and challenging way ‚Äì one that stops using the Bible and ecclesial authority as weapons, and which focuses instead on the hope-centred new community that Christ creates.‚Äù