Earlier this week the British Parliament housed a restrained, sometimes mawkish and at times moving debate on gay marriage – and the bill passed the House of Commons, 400 to 175. The story was not that it passed, which had been expected. Instead, it was the split in the major governing party, the Conservatives, more of whose 303 MPs voted against the bill than for it. (Conservatives voted 136 in favor of the bill, with 127 voting no, five abstentions and 35 not registering a vote.) Prime Minister David Cameron, still intent on ensuring that his party is liberal as well as conservative, was emollient and understanding of those against the measure but presented his support in the context of a “strong belief in marriage. … It’s about equality but also about making our society stronger.”
His remarks signal that while there is division on the right over gay marriage – at least in Europe –and that while prejudice and bigotry still exist, the serious debate is between contending notions of conservatism. For liberals like Cameron and many in his party, gay marriage extends the benediction of an ancient rite upon modern couples, drawing them into the rituals of homebuilding and long-term affection that have so far been claimed as a heterosexual monopoly. For opponents, marriage must be just such a monopoly, since it is a union of one man and one woman for the purpose (if not always the practice) of procreation, of continuing society’s values in particular and the human race in general.
On values, Britain – in this case, England – is an anomaly: The Church of England is established, the Queen is its head, bishops sit in Parliament’s second chamber, the House of Lords, and the country’s canon law is part of the law of the land. Yet the country is largely irreligious as far as observance goes – the churches are mostly empty – priests and bishops are largely unattended and polls show a sizable majority in support of gay unions of any kind. Indeed, it is only if religion is put in a subaltern position to secular values like equality, fairness, inclusion and the right to pursue happiness that gay marriage could be approved.