Marriage, union or contract? The flawed ResPublica case against equality

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
5 Feb 2013

In the run-up to a parliamentary debate on 5 February 2013, the thinktank ResPublica has published a paper opposing equal marriage. The authors, Roger Scruton and Phillip Blond, both well-known in Conservative circles, appear to argue that allowing same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples to marry undermines Western civilisation. They make some interesting points, but their case is ultimately flawed and unreliable.

Marriage: Union for the future or contract for the present attacks the UK government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which would permit partners of the same gender in England and Wales to marry in registry offices, or places of worship if faith groups choose to offer this opportunity.

Many have made the case that this would be just and compassionate, benefiting lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people and wider communities. But, claim Blond and Scruton, this fails to take account of basic differences between heterosexual marriage and homosexual partnership, and so is unfair to both, indeed (extraordinarily) ‘homophobic’. They argue for “religious recognition and celebration of homosexual union”, but believe this is radically different from true marriage. Indeed “heterosexual marriage will not survive an extension to homosexuals”.

‘Conjugal marriage’ versus ‘partnership’, and ‘the West’ versus ‘the rest’?

The authors divide formal relationships involving sex into two neat categories, where blurring the boundaries, they believe, is disastrous. Apparently “The steady erosion of marriage over the last few decades is a grave social and economic ill”, as this has shifted “from a conjugal to a ‘partnership’ model”.

They explain that “Whereas conjugal marriage connects the bond between men and women to a future beyond themselves, both in respect of children and the needs of wider society, the partnership model is primarily about the people themselves. The conjugal and the partnership model represent two competing ideas of marriage. The first, the traditional and conjugal, extends beyond the individuals who marry to the children they hope to create and the society they wish to shape. The second is more contractual and restricted to the two individuals involved. We believe that the latter view represents a much weaker and narrower understanding of marriage.”

But, in reality, couples can want children for selfish reasons, and partners can support each other in doing good -- and in other forms of creativity and life-giving -- even if they do not, or are not able to, conceive babies together. This has been the case from ancient times (the ‘Holy Family’ in Christian tradition, for instance), and is equally evident in today’s society. It may include foster and adoptive parents, aunts and uncles, couples who are carers, health professionals and teachers in deprived neighbourhoods. Indeed striving for peace, human dignity, community and environmental preservation may be seen as crucial creative fruits of true union, too.

The ResPublica paper presents an idealised version of ‘traditional’ Western marriage, which channels otherwise unruly heterosexual desire into a “sexual union of husband and wife who promised each other sexual fidelity, mutual caretaking, and the joint parenting of any children they may have.” It is “fundamentally child-centred and female advancing”, “a unique form of social and economic co-operation, with a mutually supportive division of roles”.

Many remember the days when domestic violence and marital rape went unpunished and sexual double standards were openly accepted, and are thankful that marriage is today more equal. Indeed as recently as the late nineteenth century in England, married women’s property and earnings belonged to their husbands. Yet these inconvenient facts (and very many others) are airbrushed from history, as the authors present a picture of non-dynastic marital harmony dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, in contrast to other, non-Western cultures.

The paper warns that “We are entering a period in which we are in direct confrontation with cultures that treat women as chattels, which regard marriage as a form of male domination, and which permit one man to have up to four wives – in some cases more. We have, in our midst, sub-cultures that endorse the genital mutilation of girls, which condemn girls to marry whoever has been chosen for them by others, and which do not baulk at ‘honour killings’ when a girl has followed the inclination of her heart. All those things we regard, and rightly, with abhorrence, and we do so because of that long history of the matrimonial ideal, which we inherited from Greece and Rome via ‘Holy Matrimony’”.

Some, including many Conservatives, may feel uncomfortable at this apparent attempt to play on cultural and ethnic divisions, recognising instead that valuing and devaluing women takes place across all communities and faith traditions. Readers may also find the apparent attack on laws against discrimination distasteful, to say the least. A certain kind of underlying ethnocentric prejudice may be being laid bare here, some may feel.

The lack of historical grounding also means that the actual experience of countries such as Spain, Canada and South Africa, where equal marriage has not led to social collapse, are overlooked. In contrast, a 2012 paper by another conservative think-tank, Policy Exchange, What’s In A Name? Is there a case for equal marriage? by David Skelton and Robert Flint (edited by Blair Gibbs), is far more solidly-based.

Other approaches to marriage

Marriage is traditionally a rite of passage with implications for society, the paper states, and so has often been regarded as having religious significance. Yet the insights offered by religion are rather more varied.

While biological parenting is indeed important to many married couples, since ancient times marriage has had other purposes, and this is reflected in some faith traditions. Genesis 2, for instance, portrays marriage as a bond based on the recognition that it is not good for a person to be alone, arising from God’s sensitivity to human need and choices. The importance of interpersonal relationships is a key theme in the New Testament too, where human and divine love are closely linked.

This is not to say that intimacy with one person or biological network alone is meant to be adequate – a wider vision of ‘family’ is offered. St Paul, tellingly, uses the language of 'adoption' to communicate the creation of human community within the Body of Christ in a way that does not depend upon ethnic, biological or blood-ties. Yet life-companionship with a particular person or handful of persons can be immensely important, emotionally and spiritually.

A number of thoughtful and faithful theologians have reflected on marriage in ways that draw on tradition while addressing the actual experience of couples now, as well as in the past. For instance Eugene Rogers has argued that “Both the monastic and the married give themselves over to be transformed by the perceptions of others; both seek to learn, over time, by the discipline of living with others something about how God perceives human beings”, “two ways of embodying features of the triune life in which God initiates, responds to and celebrates love”.

In his view, since “no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained.”

It is indeed important not to embrace equal marriage for the sole or primary reason that it is in line with social trends, which may contain both good and bad features. For Christians and others it has a deeper value, as many have come to see by reflecting on past as well as present-day experience, and by seeking to connect with the transcendent as well as dealing with the practical. "There is a holiness to the heart's affections," Keats reminds us.

Marriage: Union for the future or contract for the present is also unconvincing in its arguments against changing the law. In much of the UK, and across the world, the case for marriage equality is winning widespread support, with good reason. Those who think that marriage should only be between a man and a woman can continue to hold this view and, if they are religious, need only celebrate such marriages. But the rationale for blocking other people’s chances of being lawfully married is less than persuasive.

FURTHER READING

* Marriage: Union for the Future or Contract for the Present, ResPublica, can be viewed and downloaded (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document) at: http://respublica.org.uk/documents/thr_Marriage-%20Union%20for%20the%20f....

* What’s In A Name? Is there a case for equal marriage? can be viewed and downloaded (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document) at: http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/images/publications/whats%20in%20a%20na...

From Ekklesia:

* 'Should equal marriage be rejected or celebrated by Christians?', a research essay by Savitri Hensman - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17245

* What Future For Marriage? (Ekklesia report) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/article_abolishmarriage.shtml

* 'Fruitful love: beyond the civil and legal in partnerships' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15884

* 'Wedding blessings: friendship across boundaries' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16399

* 'Marriage: commitment, creativity and celebration', by Simon Barrow (a sermon) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15473

* Journey towards acceptance: theologians and same-sex love, a research essay by Savitri Hensman - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17246

* 'Thinking theologically: Bible, tradition, reason and experience': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13404

* 'Sex, orientation and theological debate: an evangelical response': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11195

* 'Using and misusing St Paul: wisdom, gender and sexuality': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17247

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© Savitri Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator and researcher on public, political and religious/theological issues – writing in the Guardian newspaper, among other places. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate. Her regular blog is here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/blog/13 Her column can be found at: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/news/columns/hensman. She has contributed several chapters to Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Ekklesia / Shoving Leopard, 2008).

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