Marriage equality for same sex couples is a hot topic in the States and many other parts of Christendom right now. As the pendulum of liberal public opinion swings towards reform, the religious reactionaries advance ever more bizarre notions for opposing the right of consenting adults to choose whom they wish to marry. It’s in the Land of the Free where the debate (if debate is the word) is at its most venal. An unholy axis is scaring the horses and the old folk with talk of a disintegrating society and the fall of America. The do as I say and not as I do Catholic Church is wielding its considerable power and marshalling its congregation; right-wing American politicians seeking the highest office in the land talk of paganism and a vomiting God; and crazy pastors across the Bible belt warn of Old Testament fire and brimstone and the End of Days. These strange bedfellows all agree that it’s the thin end of the satanic wedge. What next? Pet-wedding perverts? Marriage is between one man and one woman, they say, sanctified by God for the purposes of procreation. How do they know? Because it says so in the Bible, stupid. Actually, the Bible says a lot about marriage – about forced wedlock, polygamy and concubines. It supports all of them. Bible-bashers have selective memories.
Rather than take a trip on the merry-go-round of fables and myths, it might be more illuminating to take a look at history and absorb some hard facts. Until relatively recently, marriage was primarily a property contract. In most societies, girls were the chattels of their fathers; wedlock simply transferred ownership from father to husband. There’s a clue in the word ‘lock’. Often, the contract was transacted within the extended family in order to consolidate assets or preserve clan cohesion. It was generally best to keep it within the family. At the top of the social heap, marriage was a political device to forge alliances, strengthen authority and maintain dynastic power. The rich would oil the marital wheels with generous dowries and the poor might secure a slave bride through war. Women were booty. Like goats. The consent of the unfortunate (and often underage) girl was not required. The wife could get a raw deal; the goats might be treated better. If a woman failed in her primary role to provide male progeny, she could be replaced, supplemented or worse. None of this sounds particularly honourable or pious to me. Nor has this depressing state of marital affairs been consigned to the history books. It’s alive and thriving in many primitive corners of the modern world.
The spawning argument hardly holds water either. It’s an obvious biological fact that marriage is not required to have children. People don’t suddenly become fertile because they’ve been blessed by the shaman. Breeding is like falling off a log and we’ve been at it like proverbial rabbits since our distant ancestors crawled out of the primordial soup at the dawn of time. When Fred Flintstone first clubbed Wilma over the head and dragged her by the hair into his cave to make Pebbles, he didn’t need a holier-than-thou clergyman to stick his oar in.
Just recently, on my side of the pond, a top dog collar in the Church of England jumped on the wedding bandwagon. The Archbishop of York claims that the democratically elected Parliament of Britain has no right to change the definition of marriage. I think His Grace will find that the British Parliament has the right to do as it pleases. England got rid of meddling priests when they pissed off Henry the Eighth. Hell hath no fury like a tyrant scorned. Despite what the Archbishop may think, the meaning and interpretation of abstract concepts often evolve over time through intellectual inquisition and discourse. There was a time when the Church taught us with absolute God-given certainty that the Earth was flat and sat at the centre of the Universe. Woe betide anyone who disagreed. Stoke the bonfire and burn the heretics, they used to say. Fortunately, we now know differently. We discover and we evolve. Our religious establishments would do better to concentrate their energies on addressing the problem of empty pews and unheard sermons. Ironically, the Church of England would find it far more difficult to operate without the growing number of gay vicars in its ranks.
For an unreconstructed liberal and an unabashed secularist like me, this is a fundamental equalities issue. It’s also a love thing; and love, above all other things, is at the core of the Christian message, is it not? As far as I’m aware, no religious organisation will be forced to conduct religious ceremonies for same sex couples if they object. So, let’s just calm down and grow up.
Read all about Jack and Liam‘s life in a Muslim country