England’s inevitable gay union
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.
That the approval has happened is seismic – not just because it extends rights to a large group of men and women who have suffered discrimination and worse for centuries but also because it signals yet again the primacy of values that are not just secular but are the fruit of the cultural struggles that began in the 1960s. At the time, those causes were viewed with horror by conservatives of every stripe. Today their acceptance is seen as a mark of civilized behavior.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller (who is also the minister for women and equality) made this clear in her introduction to the bill in Tuesday’s debate, arguing that “the depth of feeling, love and commitment between same-sex couples is no different from that depth of feeling between opposite-sex couples”. Later in the debate, a Labor MP, Gloria de Piero, read a letter from a constituent in which she had written, “Marriage is a matter of love, love is for all, not for a select few.” The Beatles first performed All You Need Is Love, with the refrain “Love is all there is,” in 1967. A little less than a half century later, a Conservative woman with three children endorsed that sentiment, and extended its rights and ceremonies to all.
The faiths don’t like it but they, too, are largely restrained. Archbishop Williams of Canterbury, who retired from the job at the beginning of this year, found himself conflicted on this, as with much in his term of office. – He felt bound to register the Church’s belief that marriage was for men and women only but was critical of his church’s prejudices and its fear of tackling them. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, an intellectual and liberal, has taken much the same view, gently citing customs sanctified through “time immemorial” as a justification for opposition. The Catholics and the Muslims are more robust: The most senior Catholic churchman in the UK, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, preached a Christmas sermon reaffirming that only a man and a woman could, in their union, share in “the creative love of God.” He later told the BBC that Cameron’s plan was “Orwellian.” Yet he, too, has a large constituency of liberal Catholics who reject his – and the Pope’s – teaching, and who see their faith, too, as more about love than scripture.
In Europe, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain already allow same-sex marriage. Britain will have a law on this by late spring; so, probably, will France. Germany has legal recognition of same-sex unions, and the Social Democrats there, buoyed by victories in some states’ elections, plan to introduce a same-sex marriage bill in the federal upper chamber, the Bundesrat.
The one major holdout is Italy, home to a Vatican that is viscerally as well as scripturally opposed to anything but sanctified heterosexual union. There, same-sex unions don’t have the same legal protections as heterosexual couples.
In the United States, President Barack Obama – more powerfully liberal in his second term – has expressed his support, and as of January, nine states and the District of Columbia have recognized gay marriage. To be sure, you can be (and scores have been) executed for homosexual acts in Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. But the executions increasingly attract the horror of the world.
Two hundred years ago exactly, the young English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote of marriage as “that sweet bondage which is freedom’s self/(which) rivets with sensation’s softest tie/the kindred sympathies of human souls.” Marriage is not always a sweet bondage, but its delights and despairs, its supports and sacrifices, can now be tested by millions, who are more fully enfranchised, more fully citizens, than they have been “since time immemorial.”
PHOTO: Warren Hartley (L) and Kieran Bohan sing during their Civil Partnership service at Ullet Unitarian Church, in the first service of its kind on religious premises, in Liverpool, northern England May 8, 2012. REUTERS/www.simplyperfection.co.uk/Handout