Over the last few days there has been a fair amount of heat and light coming out of the Tory party, generated by the discussion about equal marriage (or, as the tabloids like to describe it, “gay marriage”).
We’ve know for ages that David Cameron is in favour of it and that a lot of the Tory heartland isn’t. But at the end of last week Cameron said that he supported same-sex wedding ceremonies taking place in churches if (and that “if” is important here) the church is happy for them to take place. This hasn’t played well in the shires and various Tories have said a number of increasingly stupid things about it (for a particularly ridiculous example see Tim Fenton’s excellent piece on Nadine Dorries’ confusion over religious freedom and the ECHR).
The problem seems to be that all of the naysayers are illiterate. I said that the word “if” was important in what Cameron was proposes. To many of his critics it seems to be invisible. Where you and I are reading “churches may decide to hold same-sex wedding ceremonies if they want to”, Cameron’s critics are reading “churches will be forced against their will to hold same-sex wedding ceremonies”. They seem to be reading the story through some kind of middle-England auto-bigotry filter.
Some people on my side of the debate (in case that’s not clear, it’s the pro-equal-marriage side) have gone the other way – saying that churches should be forced to hold these ceremonies. I don’t want that at all. Here’s what I want.
I want churches to be stopped from marrying people.
Ok, that’s a deliberately attention-grabbing way of putting it. I should explain in more detail.
As I see it, there are two parts of a marriage. There’s the legal joining together of two people. And then, for some people, there’s a religious ceremony. What if those two parts were completely separated? What if churches lost the right to perform the legal part of the marriage ceremony?
This isn’t so strange. People do it all the time. If non-Christians want to get married, they have to do it in two stages. They go to the registry office to do the legal stuff and then they go to a mosque, temple or whatever to have a ceremony. What if all weddings worked like that?
So here’s what I propose:
- In order to be legally married, you need to go through some process at a local registry office. This would be a purely legal thing. Bride and groom (or whichever permutation is appropriate) and a couple of witnesses. After this you would be legally married.
- You then have the option to have some other kind of ceremony of any type you want. Many people would choose a church. Others would go to a mosque or a temple or whatever. You’d also have the option to do nothing else.
The advantage, as far as I see it, is that as the second part (the religious ceremony) now has no legal standing whatsoever, then the government would have no say at all about how it is run and whether or not churches or mosques or temples can run same-sex ceremonies. That decision would be unambiguously in the hands of the people running the organisation in question (but good luck getting a mosque to run a same-sex wedding!)
Of course, this is one of the areas where the religious playing field is uneven. Non-Christians are used to the set-up I describe above. The only reason that Christian churches get a special dispensation to carry out the legal part of a wedding is because they are the established church and therefore sometimes get to dabble in things that should completely off-limits to them.
All of which means that implementing my suggestion would be another step on the way to (or, at least, another very good argument for) disestablishment of the Church.
All in all, I can’t see the flaw in my suggestion. Can you?