Wednesday, May 22, 2013
I spent Monday at home and yesterday in parliament, listening to the Same Sex Marriage debate. It was at times infuriating, moving and challenging. There is no doubt that this is an issue that divides opinion, often, but not always, along religious lines. To be honest it highlights, maybe like no other issue, the need to disestablish the church.
My view is that the most sensible way to have resolved the differences of opinion would have been to accept the amendments proposed by Greg Mulholland and Simon Hughes making the distinction between religious and civil marriage clear. It would have then been far easier to have made the case to faith groups that what they choose to do with regard to recognising same sex marriage, or second marriages or whatever else, is their business and what the state does is the state’s business. To quote my dear pal Colin Ross (who was also quoted by Greg in his speech):
“I am a gay man and not religious. If I wanted to spend my life in a loving relationship recognised by the state I want to be able to do that – without any religion having their opinion on it – but what is more I want to have the same rights as everyone else. The current Marriage (same sex couples) Bill does not offer equality, the legislation is flawed it still doesn’t provide equality especially in respect of pension rights when one partner dies and issues affecting the Trans community, likewise the Civil Partnership legislation was not about equality – as it neither gave equality to marriage and also did not allow opposite-sex partners to have Civil Partnership as well. Mr Mulholland’s proposals would for the first time deliver equality for everyone who wanted to spend their life in a loving relationship recognised by the state and enjoy the rights that come with that.”
As someone who was christened a Catholic, baptised in a Pentecostal church, and at times a member of the Church of England, Baptists and Free churches – I spent much of my life in the same bubble that many Christians find themselves in now. The teaching on marriage was clear and until recently remained unchallenged. Through having the privilege of having many gay friends some with a strong faith, some without, I have been on my own journey in squaring the circle of church orthodoxy and my own experience.
One of the biggest influences on my thinking has been Desmond Tutu whose position is beautifully summed up here. More recently the brave decision of Steve Chalke, a leading evangelical, to speak up in favour of same sex marriage has pushed the debate on in the church. But as the past couple of days demonstrate, and contrast Gerald Howarth’s outrageous “aggressive homosexuals” comment with the moving speech by Katherine McKinnell on Monday, it is clear that no uniform Christian understanding of the nature of marriage exists any longer. Let’s be clear, marriage is an institution that predates the church, the mosque and the temple. And clearly is defined differently in countries where polygamy is permitted. So the idea that there is one, universally agreed definition, is ridiculous.
But, having said that, I would expect my fellow Liberal Democrats to have more appreciation of just how difficult it is for those who have grown up with the church’s understanding of marriage to square their own circles. Simon Hughes is a good friend of mine and I know just how much he has wrestled with this. My advice to him throughout has been that he had to do what he believed was right, and because he couldn’t please both sides he had to make his priority hanging on to his own integrity. However hard many fellow Lib Dems may have found his decision yesterday, I would hope we could respect that, for him and others, their faith came first.
Much has been made of the fact that we have party policy on equal marriage. Yes we do, we also have lots of party policy that has been ignored while we have been in coalition. Yesterday was a free vote because it was seen that this was a conscience issue. To be honest I actually think issues like the bedroom tax, attacks on welfare benefits and legal aid are conscience issues too (!), but there was not the same furore about the fact that our MPs were whipped against party policy in those and other cases.
So as the dust settles, credit must go to Adrian Trett and Lynne Featherstone for all they have done to get us to this point. This is a reason to celebrate. But we must also respect the reality that for some people of faith balancing their religious and political values is often an excruciatingly painful process.