Despite the complex issues requiring this Government’s attention in respect to our struggling economy and NHS, our tumultuous relationship in Europe, Afghanistan, Argentina over the Falklands, and the clamour for Independence for Scotland, one matter has particularly exercised me recently. I speak of that ancient institution called marriage.
I thought I had a pretty shrewd concept as to what marriage is all about. Having sung as a chorister at countless weddings, the words of the religious ceremony are etched in perpetuity across my memory. I have even been known to have passed an audition and thus be appointed to one of the leading roles in such a ceremony; the sequel to which, I am pleased to say, is now in its seventeenth year and shows no sign of a diminishing plot. However, despite all of that, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, recently put before the House of Commons for its second reading, forced me to analyse my ingrained learning and preconceived ideas as to what marriage means in both legal and philosophical terms.
I already knew the Bible’s standpoint on marriage, so I therefore turned to the Oxford English Dictionary, where I was predictably informed that marriage is ‘the formal union of a man and a woman by which they become husband and wife’. The definitions of the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ were equally predictable and unhelpfully tautologous. A dictionary of law was slightly more helpful, stating that marriage is ‘a ceremony, civil or religious, that creates the legal status of husband and wife and the legal obligations arising from that status’. Nonetheless, many more questions spring from there; not least the problem of whether a man can be a ‘wife’ or a woman a ‘husband’ (the answer to the latter is ‘yes’ if you live in certain Sudanese tribes). The term ‘spouse’ makes life psychologically easier in this respect, being asexual in its implications.
Having got that far, I then considered the concept of marriage in respect to it being a ‘civil ceremony’. We have, of course, become accustomed to the concept of ‘civil unions’ or ‘civil partnerships’ for same-sex couples. So what, I asked myself, is the difference between a ‘civil union’ and a ‘marriage’ if we make the participants asexual by using the term ‘spouse’ to describe them? A Wikipedia article on marriage was particularly illuminating and I formed the opinion that there is little difference apart from certain legal rights; legal rights that should, in a 21st century society, be available to everyone making a life-time commitment to another person regardless of their sex.
Ultimately, a relationship is all about shared values; values such as love, honesty, fidelity, trust, friendship, support and caring. A marriage or civil union gives society’s official recognition to a couple’s pledge to each other in respect to such values. If the values are the same, then the legal rights attached to the relationship should be the same. Let us therefore hope that our parliamentarians continue to consider the issue in depth and with unbiased wisdom.
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday 14th February 2013)