Marriage, the Pope (and Caesar!)

Well, honestly! I have just been upstaged by the Pope.

Has the man no sense of timing? Here i am, putting the last minute touches to my new year’s address to the masses that throng outside my balcony – well, OK: the old lady with her dog, and the crew from the local hairdressers – when Il Papa has to start pontificating on subjects abuot which he clearly has no real experience whatsoever.

What’s a girl to do?

Alright. I was about to join the debate on marriage by suggesting, ever so politely, that i’m not actually in favour of gay marriage. On the other hand, i’m also against the Pope being against gay marriage. And if you ask nicely, i’d probably confess to being against marriage for a large chunk of the straight population too.

Its a little like the Tatchell position – which seems to be a shrug of the shoulders and a weary “if you must”. So i’d better explain. And i’ll also leave hanging that i’d very much like it if people could explain to me just what the various pro-gay marriage sorts are in favour of.

Lest it turn out i’m wrestling with straw men.

Too much state in the church

Let’s start with my difficulty with “gay marriage”. It strikes me that the demand is part born out of a misunderstanding of that dishonourable institution. part born from a rather pointless modern penchant for bullying religious folk.

The difficulty with marriage as concept is that it is one of those areas where religion and state collide: arguably, though, “marriage”, by which i mean the spiritual union of two folks with the blessing of their acknowledged deity, did belong originally to the church – while various schemes governing the form and obligations inherent in the union between two people belonged to the state.

Within the marriage ceremony, the only bit that counts, in UK law, for legal purposes is the registration bit at the end. All the rest, the dresses, the hymns and kitsch pop classics, the cake and the reception: they are so much froth.

And of course, you can “get married” without any of the religious trappings whatsoever. Its a bit like “baptism” and the “registration of a birth”: church and state, only here, the demarcation is absolutely clear.

Not so marriage, where a convergence of language has left the same word serving for spiritual and legal purposes. And that’s why i think some of the “being beastly to the church” is misplaced.

If you want to have a church marriage, what many overlook is that straight couples are required to undergo pre-nuptial religious counselling and the average priest (or vicar) reserves the right not to marry those who fail to abide by church doctrinal views.

OK. That’s more or less strict depending on priest and denomination. But its there, irrespective of the difficulty various folk may have with church doctrine. So short of a final takeover of all churches by the state, they are always going to be at variance, to some degree with what many would like them to be.

At least, spiritually, which is where the confusion sets in. Because when it comes to “marriage” the church is mostly (or should mostly be) talking about the spiritual side which it does, with some justification consider itself to have first dibs on.

Long story short? I don’t see the average gay couple any more capable of amending their views sufficiently to fit into the approved church view of marriage than the average, non-churchgoing non-gay couple. The simple solution? No (church) marriage for either.

And if we want to distingusih spiritual and non-spiritual, let the church call its “thing” marriage, and the state can call its arrangement “partnership”…with the latter available on equal terms for everyone, gay or straight.

(And besides, is there much difference on that front now? Is the argument mostly about the name of the thing, rather than the underpinning legal entitlements?)

Too much church in the state?

Meanwhile, the Pope leaps into the fray with a speech reported in the Mail as being an attack on gay marriage. Interesting, that: since reading the piece, i can see no direct reference to him condemning gay marriage at all. Only a suggestion that children and society do better if based on traditional marriage forms between a man and a woman.

Which doesn’t much endorse gay unions: but could as easily be taken as having a go at the unwed and single mums.

I don’t know. Having reported on Vatican stuff in the past – and read in full, in Italian, speeches that get exaggerated and misquoted in the UK press – i shall take this with a pinch of salt. I doubt the Pope said anything either as explicit or as inflammatory as the Mail gave hime credit for. That is mere wishful thinking on their part. Though i bet their subs were salivating as they came up with the headline: “Gay marriage is a threat to humanity, says Pope”.

Yeah, yeah. If he said that, where’s the actual quote?

However, i do take issue with the words he is alleged to use, which reference the “educational process” and “the development both of individuals and states” before going on to call for “policies which promote the family and aid social cohesion and dialogue”.

No, Pope, no! Render unto Caesar and all that…

You are a spiritual shepherd, supposedly. So while i’ll be quick to defend you against gay rights activists over-concerned with the inner workings of a church which the majority probably do not believe in…i don’t think it helpful, either, for the church to be over-bothered with state policy.

Ebnough with the meddling. Both of you. Agnostics and atheists: please stop obsessing about stuff you clearly don’t believe in. And religious folk: stick to the spiritual.

You’ll both be so much less stressed, happier if you do.



13 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    One is pressed to wonder why a gay couple would actually want to be married, in the spiritual sense, by a church which hates gay people! I certainly wouldn’t. I think the conflict arises from two issues…
    Firstly, the fact that a large proportion of the great unwashed see civil ‘marriages/partnerships as second class unions. There’s no accounting for the stupid, eh. I do have to admit that I’m not quite clear as to whether or not both brands of union carry equal legal gravitas, inheritance for example?
    Secondly, the notion that these medieval and anachronistic cults seek the right to discriminate against minority groups to appease their delicate sensibilities. Fine, but many of these so called religions also seem to think they have the divine right to register their enterprises as charities and such. I believe that as a charity there should be NO right to discriminatory behaviour.

    On a personal note I do like those rather cool gothic churches. There’s got to be a good business there for someone who has the capital to buy a few and open them for civil unions!

    One question, and yes it’s frivolous I know. The pope is infallible being god’s agent down south. Does this infallibility only take effect from the point of his appointment as his popeyness. Being an ‘ex nazi’ and all. Bit odd as well to hear that dur Fuhrer, pardon me, Pope Benedict wishes to beatify Pius XII. You know, the one one the cover of the Killing Joke album giving the nazi salute. Now I do have a reasonable grip on historical fact and understand that Pius XII found himself caught in the jaws of a dilemma but the offensive little prick at the helm of the catholic church now looks a bit out of touch and rather less than infallible, yeh?

    • 2

      janefae said,

      thanks for “getting” this and cutting to the heart of it. As you say, i can’t quite see the point of a gay non-believing couple getting married in the church sense…without that turning into a demand that the entirety of the religion be upended simply to appease their sensibilities…at which point it is not the religion they set out to get married in in the first place.

      I am not sure about the differences between civil partnership and state marriage. Last time i looked, it seemed that there was the merest whicker of difference…but maybe someone can put me right on that?

      and buying up churches…that happens, actually. 🙂


      • 3

        It just doesn’t seem like rocket science to me. I accept that some brands of religion are trying to exercise an air of tolerance with regard to gay relationships but at the end of the day this is tolerance and not genuine acceptance. Personally, as you know, I am an atheist so see not any relevance to myself in the spiritual side and we don’t want a religious element to any ceremony. Neither am I interested in the ‘title’ given to any civil union as long as I am entitled to ALL the legal rights afforded to an opposite sex couple. I’ve tried to find out if a civil partnership would ascribe said rights to my partner and myself but would also appreciate if anyone out there could clarify the situation. I believe there may be a few fundamental differences, pensions for one.
        I can’t really think of anything much more bizarre and hypocritical than a heterosexual couple going through the motions of doing the counselling thing simply to get married under the auspice of a religion they don’t actually adhere to???? Pushing that line of logic, how can any gay couple feel such a compelling need to be ‘joined’ under a religion which specifically refers to their relationship as an abomination. Perhaps me stupid or is this just two immovable points of view doing their best to wind each other up? Life is probably a little too short for me to worry too much about such things and as I have been offered no conclusive proof of an afterlife I think I’ll just get on with looking after the wonderful relationship I have.
        One small and final point, I really do get a bit annoyed when ignorant and naive prats like the obnoxious Clair Lewis of CAAN, who incidentally lives with, among others, a weird cross dressing bloke who she is married to have no concept of the issues facing same
        sex/gender couples (see obscure blog entry somewhere in cyberspace which I simply can’t be arsed to find) but insist on arguing with people for whom it is a real issue. That said she, by her own admission, doesn’t get out much from her micro managed, Stalinist, polyamourous commune so her bizarre views and compulsive denial fit well with people like her friend at TMW. The lovely Clair doesn’t appreciate that some of us have moved on from her perpetual student lifestyle and the issues of inheritance and ‘matrimonial rights’ are actually important to real people.
        I digress, I would just like the whole rights issue clarified and leave the rather irrelevant spiritual/religious facet to those with infinite time to argue the toss.

    • 4

      janefae said,

      and btw…the Pope is rarely infallible: its a very specific doctrine (infallibility) in respect of a very very few pronouncements made over time by various Popes. Depending on point of view, Popes have, since the doctrine was introduced back in the late 19th century, made somewhere between one and three infallible declarations in total.

      None of them around gay marriage!


  2. 5

    Adam said,

    Nope, you haven’t convinced me.

    1. “Marriage” = “the spiritual union of two folks with the blessing of their acknowledged deity”. And “when it comes to “marriage the church is mostly (or should mostly be) talking about the spiritual side which it does, with some justification consider itself to have first dibs on.”

    Not sure how you can cling to this sense of marriage when in 2007 there were 156,198 civil marriages (if we’re allowed to call those marriages) vs. 79,169 religious ceremonies. Regardless of the Christian history of marriage as a concept, its cultural resonance is no longer intimately connected to a particular religious doctrine. The church doesn’t have any reasonable claim to continuing ownership of the institution.

    Hence the problem with the idea that we should “let the church call its “thing” marriage, and the state can call its arrangement “partnership”…” You are effectively imposing a Christian view of what marriage means on other people for whom the notion of “being married” does matter, but not for reasons outside its Christian history. That goes for straight couples and gay couples.

    2. “Long story short? I don’t see the average gay couple any more capable of amending their views sufficiently to fit into the approved church view of marriage than the average, non-churchgoing non-gay couple. The simple solution? No (church) marriage for either.”

    Which church? Some religious groups do believe that gay church marriage is compatible with their doctrine. (Indeed, perhaps they agree with you that marriage should be “the spiritual union of two folks with the blessing of their acknowledged deity”).

    3. You overlook the extent to which Church opposition to gay marriage (let’s assume non-church unions) is based on that idea that a vision of matrimony in which two men can marry is dirty, that this cheapens straight unions, religious or otherwise.


    • 6

      janefae said,

      Hmmm…i don’t think the church has ownership of the institution of marriage…but possibly does have good cause to claim ownership of it as spiritual concept.

      Thereby hangs a problem leading to some quite serious intolerance on both sides of the divide.

      I’m not going to re-rehearse church intolerance here, since i don’t deny its there and, if you look at the second half of what i wrote, i hope you’ll understand that i DON’T buy in to the Pope intervening in the way he is alleged to have intervened.

      One of the thoughts underpinning this – and other similar – posts – is just how much minority groups set store by other folk “getting them right”. Mis-use “gay” or “trans” as a noun – and instantly your some sort of lgbt-phobe. Fail to appreciate the finest of fine distinctions between different trans species and again, instantly, you’re some sort of bigot.

      Yet the anti-religious and the irreligious happily prattle against the mainstream churches with scarcely any idea whatsoever as to what church doctrine actually is. There is also a very large degree of anti-church intolerance in the air where, often, common positions COULD be found with some degree of mutual goodwill.

      I’m quite happy to accept that we have moved on…that the church’s worldview – and its claims to “own” the marriage concept are now well dated. Still, if all people are going to do is throw bricks and shout anti-gay, without recognising the subtleties in argument…as well as the massive emotional attachment that many church folk genuinely have to marriage…then they are as bigoted as…well, as bigoted as they reckon that many churchgoers are.

      Render unto Caesar: there is a reason i chose that refernce in titling this post. Its about acknowledging difference and acknowledging different spheres of interst and allowing one another one’s particular sphere…as opposed to having to win every argument, every battle.


  3. 7

    caroline said,

    I’m with Sophie…

    Sadly the civil partnership has become seen as a second class thing compared to marriage while marriage itself has long lost it’s religious significance to most who partake, why else would so many use registry offices for the ceremony. No religion involved but still claim the cachet of marriage.

    Legal partnerships are necessary for couples to be able to have inheritance benefits by law. I have seen unmarried hetero couples lives devastated by one dying and the surviving member loosing everything they had ever contributed to the partnership by the partners families grabbing what the law dishes out. The same survivor was not allowed to be informed of their partners condition after they hed been injured in a car crash, nor could they have visiting rights without the permission of the partners family…

    These problems magnify when same sex couples are involved.

    When civil partnerships receive “exactly” the same benefits in law as marriage in the eyes of the law and government we shall have achieved something…

    • 8

      janefae said,

      i am certainly in favour of your last par. In practice, i’d say that my personal position is straightforward: let EVERY union be a civil partnership…and let those who want them to be religious marriages or blessed unions or whatever go to church and get the relevant incantation or laying on of hands.



  4. 9

    Hells Bells said,

    The issue seems to come down to the role of the Church of England in the UK, something that I think is unique, certainly within Europe.

    Basically (I think) anybody ( – it might be anybody who has been baptised into the CofE) can request to be married in their parish CofE church, and CofE vicars are “de facto” registrars to enable the civic bit of the ceremony to be legally binding – otherwise you’d have to have registrars doing that bit. CofE vicars can start to impose other conditions but only if one of the parties comes from outside the parish.

    There is no legal distinction between a “civil marriage” and a “religious marriage” – as previously mentioned, anyone contracting a marriage can ask for a religious ceremony in a church. Whereas one of (admittedly only a few) distinctions between marriage and civil partnership is that a CP must be created by a registrar and cannot be done on religious premises – something that the Government wants to change next year for those groups that want to opt in.

    if we were to create a distinction between a civil marriage and a religious marriage (which does seem an eminently sensible idea) and get the CofE to be treated in the same way as any other religious group (where the minister can apply to be a registrar but isn’t automatically “ordained” to be one) then, effectively, it seems we would have to disestablish the CofE. And there’s the nub of the problem that our friends in government are currently wrestling with. While it seems quite a simple and straightforward solution to me, there are far-reaching constitutional implications, reaching as far as the role of the monarch herself.

    Now, disestablishment may be rather extreme, but the certification of births, marriages and deaths and the creation of registrars to do the same came some time after the existence of the CofE (roughly 300 years), and it appears to be one of these things which is law by practice. It doesn’t appear to be as simple as saying a religious ceremony comes on top of the civil one – they are one and the same, albeit contracted in slightly different manners.

    The more interesting question is where in the law does it say that a marriage can only be between a man and a woman?

    As someone from the GEO said to me just today, if you were designing the perfect system to cope with today’s sensibilities, you wouldn’t start from here.

    Also, there are gay friendly vicars and gay friendly churches, and many gay people have a faith which is important to them – and it is those people who want to have a marriage ceremony in a church, and who cannot currently do so.

    And finally the same-sex marriage issue has important ramifications for those trans people who cannot have their gender legally recognised under the Gender Recognition Act because they do not want to end their marriages. The thinking within government appears to be that, by enabling same-sex marriages, the concept of interim GRCs becomes redundant, at least in the way they are currently applied. I think there are more fundamental problems with the GRA than that – although I don’t hold out any hope of such a fundamental review of the GRA for many years to come.

    • 10

      janefae said,

      ah. interesting. I wasn’t thinking of the CofE, specifically, but this all makes sense.

      Bottom line for me, in writing this post, is that i do see church and state as essentially separate. However, church keeps meddling in state: and actually, though a lot of other activists would claim not, there’s a good deal of couner-meddling – or maybe unnecessary shouting – from those who simply don’t believe in the religious stuff.

      For the most part, i’d just like to see both sides being more polite to one another and sticking to their knitting.


  5. 11

    Carka said,

    I’m an atheist; I want to live my life free from religious interference. If this means being rude to religious nuts when they start lying about the effects of gay marriage then so be it.

  6. 12

    Paula TransPanther said,

    The more interesting question is where in the law does it say that a marriage can only be between a man and a woman?

    Marriage act 1948.. A man entered knowingly into marriage with a transgendered individual. When the marriage broke up instead of getting a divorce and splitting his estate he sought legal redress to get the marriage annuled. The opinion of ONE JUDGE set the ruling that “marriage can only be between one man and one woman”.. The current stupidity comes about through the failure of the goverment to simply change the marriage act to say “any two consenting adults” instead making a complete dogs dinner with a new “law” creating civil partnerships which ARE second class “marriage” by any definition. They are still open to challenge on the death of one or other party on the grounds “but they weren’t married”…. Just the name difference is discriminatory to begin with. IF in law it is exactly the same as “marriage” then for (insert fictional dieties name here) sake lets just call it marriage and have done with the nonsense.!!

  7. 13

    Paula TransPanther said,

    p.s.. I would prefer a “gay” marriage to a miserable one 🙂 *giggles*

    I really really object to the use of that term.. it’s offensive because I’m straight but until recently would have been forced to have a “gay” marriage!! I don’t care what the LGB want to call things among themselves, but they do so in the face of the seperatists like myself who object to being thrown by default into that grouping.

    Now I’m off making plans for my REAL marriage to my husband later this year, and then very likely (because we quite fancy sticking 2 fingers up at the church) a reaffirmation of our vows in Penrith Cathederal for the kids mostly. No civil partnership bullshit for us.

    Paula xxxx

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