Thursday, December 13, 2012

How to make a mess of marriage law

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! Too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
From The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear
There's no such thing as traditional marriage, as some traditionalists would have us believe. Marriage law has changed over the centuries, as the BBC explained in its 'Ten key moments in the history of marriage' - a simplified history. Until recently, women were disadvantaged by marriage. It was only relatively recently, with the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, that women became entitled to full legal control of all the property that they'd owned before marriage or which they acquired after marriage either by inheritance or by their own earnings; until then, their husband acquired not just a wife, a mother for his children and a housekeeper, but everything she owned too. And it was only relatively recently that marriage came to be seen as being about romantic love; it was previously a contractual relationship that formed alliances between families with means or simply a sharing of skills and assets between the less well off. Two of the main purposes of legal marriage have been to provide a convenient economic unit for governance and a method of ensuring the paternity of children, when inheritance has mattered - hence "legitimate" and "illegitimate" children.

So when conservative Christians go on about marriage being "redefined", meaning same sex marriage, they are ignoring the fact that it has never been about biology and the way that male and female parts have evolved to fit together in the act of procreation - they are obsessed with sex, other people's sex. Legal marriage has mostly been about patriarchal values and the control of women, sanctioned by an imaginary male god.

Nowadays, most couples in the UK and other European countries like to think that marriage is, or should be, a partnership of equals. Over the last couple of decades the marriage rate has declined, after a peak in the post-war years. During and immediately after the war the illegitimacy rate shot up, as the prospect of an early death prompted many to throw caution to the winds without a condom. In the '60s there was plenty of extra-marital or pre-marital sex but also more contraception. In the '70s the divorce rate went up, mainly initiated by women who were less inclined to put up with the loveless marriages that their mothers might have endured, and since attitudes to "living in sin" and illegitimacy have changed, an increasing number of heterosexual couples have ignored marriage altogether, referring to each other as their "partner". It's never appealed to me. So, in a way, I find it amusing that so many gay couples want to get legally married. It will mean legal protection for each partner in the event of a divorce or bereavement, though I'm not sure how that will be different to the terms of a civil partnership, and it will make other financial arrangements easier, I suppose, but otherwise I can't see what all the fuss is about.

From recent surveys, it seems that homophobia is in decline and most people are in favour of same-sex marriage. Most people live their own lives and are content to let others do the same. It's mainly the Church's mouth-frothing tendency, the ones who are obsessed with sex, who think otherwise. Their hysterical shrieks have been resounding around the Anglican Synod and echoing around the Houses of Parliament, which ought not to take the blindest bit of notice of them, proclaiming that gay marriage is unnatural and they won't have it. As Ben Summerskill of Stonewall says, if you don't like the idea of same sex marriage, don't marry someone of the same sex. The right-wing press claims that (a) the Church will tear itself apart over this and (b) the Conservative Party will tear itself apart over this - both seem like positive outcomes to me. So, to appease the Church's homophobes and satisfy the gay marriage lobby, Cameron & Co have come up with a dog's breakfast of a compromise, which has enraged the liberal wing of the Church (still angry about the women bishops issue) and will legitimise discrimination by making same sex marriage in an Anglican church illegal, while other religious ministers may conduct gay weddings if their governing body says they can. Seems to me that this is the worst sort of law for the worst sort of reasons.

If I were in charge (I'm waiting to be asked), this would be my solution to the whole sorry mess. Remove the right of anyone other than a registrar to conduct a marriage ceremony in the UK, but make same-sex marriage equal to opposite sex marriage. If you want any other form of marriage - religious, humanist, Jedi Knight - you can have a ceremony however and wherever you want, but it would have no legal validity. This would be like the systems that they have in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, where only civil wedding ceremonies are recognised. But that would be too simple and sensible, wouldn't it?


Claire said...

I have to say, I rather like your idea of only allowing civil marriages, and remove the right of certain religious organisations to conduct marriages. They can still perform their own wedding ceremonies, but it really would be just ceremonial. I like that. And, of course, it solves the problem of political interference into religious conscience entirely.

Incidentally, one of the aspect of the marriage bill that seems to be overlooked entirely (we're rather used to it by now ;) ) is how the marriage bill will affect the trans* community.As it currently stands, if someone is trans but wants to legally change their gender (which in itself is a long and arduous process), they must first get divorced, whether they want to or not, This bill will change that. That's part of the sanctity of marriage the religious like to rail against - forcing people to divorce. Not that the conservative religious groups think much of us as it is ;)

Margaret Nelson said...

In view of the hoo-ha over same-sex weddings, maybe Cameron & Co are hoping that if they keep quiet about some of the other details, no one will notice.

Margaret Nelson said...

Seems I'm not alone in thinking that only civil marriage should be allowed. The NSS posted this from Norman Bonney: Is it time to separate church and state in marriage?

Mark Aaron said...

Margaret, I completely agree with your clear thinking on this. Any way of offering alternatives to marriage as a nod to how others might choose to lead their lives (as we currently have with Civil Partnerships), is a less than equal solution.

Margaret Nelson said...

Thanks Mark.