In the introduction to his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis warns against “spiritualising and refining” the word “Christian” so that it ends up as just a general word of praise for describing someone as a “good person”. Lewis compares this with what happened to “another, and very much less important, word”:
The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A.
But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?”
They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing.
A similar point can, I think, be made about marriage. It seems to me that at the heart of the case for same-sex marriage is the (sadly rather belated) recognition in society that same-sex relationships can indeed be loving, faithful and committed – as much so as any marriage, and indeed in many cases rather more so than many marriages.
Given the legally-sanctioned odium that has been heaped on same-sex couples in the past, and the continuing prejudice and discrimination that exist today, it’s understandable that people would say “Surely the important thing about a marriage is not the genders of the participants, but their love, faithfulness and commitment to one another? And surely to exclude same-sex couples from marriage is to cast a continuing slur on their love, faithfulness and commitment?”
To which the answer may well be: to be loving, faithful and committed is of course a far better thing than to be merely a man and woman in possession of a marriage certificate. But is being two adults in a loving, faithful and committed relationship the same thing as marriage?
A classic expression of the purposes of marriage can be found in the Book of Common Prayer’s form of solemnization of matrimony. This sets out three reasons why marriage was “ordained”:
- the procreation of children;
- sexual fidelity; and
- for “the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity” (the BCP’s language here is too lovely to paraphrase!).
I’ve always liked the way the Westminster Confession of Faith (contrary to the Puritans’ gloomy reputation) put “the mutual help of husband and wife” at the top of the list. But however you order it, this reflects an understanding of marriage as having three main components: “mutual society”, consummation, and procreation (or at least the possibility, expectation and hope of procreation). And note that there is nothing specifically “Christian” about this: this is a “natural law”, “common good” definition of marriage.
The government’s proposals for “equal civil marriage” seem to take it for granted that only the first of these components is really essential to marriage. To introduce same-sex marriage is ipso facto to say that procreation is only incidental to marriage rather than essential to it; and the guidance ducks the question of what “consummation” (and, for that matter, “adultery”) would mean in the context of a same-sex marriage, which rather suggests it doesn’t see that as particularly essential to marriage, either.
So under these proposals, marriage will become a social institution in which two adults of any gender express their love, faithfulness and commitment to one another, but without any inherent connection with sex or procreation. It’s hard to see what substantive difference there will then be between marriage and civil partnership.
Maybe, though, conservative opponents of same-sex marriage are hoist with their own petard here – since they have done as much as anyone to make “marriage” not only a descriptive, factual term for a particular type of relationship, but also a term of approbation: “this is the type of relationship we approve of”. So that to say “you cannot be married” cannot be heard at this time in any other way than “we don’t really approve of you”; just as it is difficult for any advocacy of marriage as the principal social structure for the “creation and upbringing of children” not to be experienced as an insult by unmarried couples or single parents.
Which is why the extension of the word (and many of the legal structures of) “marriage” to same-sex couples was almost certainly an inevitable development, to recognise the genuine ability of same-sex relationships to provide the mutual support for which marriage is intended, and the interest of the state in promoting stable relationships. If a way could have been found to achieve this without redefining marriage per se, then I could have supported that; and a more thorough and sincere process of consultation could have considered whether that was feasible. But that’s not what’s on offer.