Same-Sex Marriage: A Matter of Social Status

Cameron this week has again voiced his intentions to allow same-sex marriage. Predictably, there has been a rather vocal backlash from religious groups and cultural conservatives. Equally, there have been responses made to them from LGBTQ, cultural liberals, and equal rights groups.

The theological and social issues of same-sex marriage, as well as critiques of either side, are easily available elsewhere. This post will offer a possible, yet radical, solution to the problem, a solution that could appeases all sides, to some degree.

The main issue, as I see it, is of the authority over marriage: Who is authorised to define it, and who is authorised to extend or deny it to people.

The word marriage does carry a rather weighty meaning and status, and does not simply declare a legal standing. This is highlighted in the current system. Same-sex couples are restricted to civil partnerships. Conversely different-sex couples[1] are restricted to civil-marriages/ religious marriages. There are people in both groups who would rather not have the status of marriage enforced upon them, or forcibly denied them. different-sex couples may not want to enter the institution of marriage, due to historical-traditional expectations, but instead be legally partnered; same-sex couples, equally, may not want to be restricted to a simply legal status, but instead enter into a fuller marriage relationship and all of its associated symbolism and religiosity.

The issue is two-tiered, then; a distinction which needs to be considered in the debate. There is the desire to define and defend the equality and legal status of partnership, and a desire to define and defend the social status of marriage.

The solution, I propose, would be to separate the concepts.

First, the state would offer a legal status to relationships: different-sex and same-sex pairings would be able to apply for a civil partnership status for legal benefits. The  institution of marriage, its status, and its interpretation, would not be  forced onto anyone.

That is the easy part.

Second, and more difficult, religious (or cultural) groups would then be free to bestow, or decline, the status of marriage through ceremony or ritual, as they do currently. In this way the religious groups could define the qualities they see as contributing to the institution of marriage (the main thrust of the current debate). This system would then be similar to the current authority of faith groups to decide who can and cannot do certain tasks (e.g. men or women), how to symbolise initiation (e.g. circumcision or baptism), or details of ceremonies themselves (Christian/Jewish/Islamic/Hindu/druid/New Age/Mormon).

The debate is complex. The last part highlighting this. If some Christians and social conservatives are wanting to define marriage, what is stopping other groups doing the same?

To move forward as Christians and theologians we must accept the differing notions and desirability of civil and religious status, partnership and marriage. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the social acceptance of what currently constitutes relationships, be that different-sex or same-sex.

The greater focus, maybe, should not be how marriage is legally defined, but how they are defined by the people in the relationship itself. What qualities and ideals are they ascribing to, what maintains them, and how does their relationship influence and affect the wider community they are a part of? There may be more power and influence in a life lived well for others, than winning the battle for a legal definition.

[1] I use the term ‘different-sex marriage’, firstly, as it is the more correct term than ‘heterosexual marriage’, and secondly, it encapsulates the range of couplings to whom the option of marriage and civil partnerships are extended, which are based on legal sex, not on sexuality or gender. e.g. two men may only enter into a civil partnership; if one were to undertake gender-reassignment surgically and live as a woman, civil partnership would still be their only option; if the reassigned gender were legally acknowledged, a marriage would be the only option available to them.


If you are concerned about the legal changes to marriage and civil-partnerships, there are numerous news articles and websites of groups with differing opinions on the subject. Equally, there are petitions you can sign:

Coalition for Equal Marriage: Support definition to include same-sex relationships.
Coalition for Marriage: Legal definition to stay as one man and one woman.

This entry was posted in Christianity, Civil Partnership, Marriage, Same-Sex Marriage, Sexuality, theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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