The good old Church of England has hit the headlines today with dire warnings of the possible consequences of the Government's proposals to introduce "equal marriage" (known popularly as gay marriage). I had taken the trouble to send in a personal response to the consultation and so had spent some time reflecting on my views. I was quite surprised by my thoughts.
I found I was more worried by governmental redefinition of language than by homosexual fidelity. Promiscuity of all sorts is emphatically and fatally corrosive both of persons and of society. However couples of the same sex have long lived together and been accepted. When I was a boy, my parents took us to visit my father's cousin, Sheila who farmed in Kingsland, Herefordshire, with her friend, Mary Elliott, whom she'd met at a bull sale in 1944. They bred Royal Show champion Kerry Hill sheep, which I enjoyed photographing with my Kodak Brownie camera. It didn't occur to me that Sheila and Mary's domestic arrangement was odd, nor did it occur to my parents to comment on it. Sheila ends her book The Happy Farmers (Logaston Press, 1989) honestly and rather movingly: "Small children have called us 'The Happy Farmers'. I think that few farmers can be entirely happy in their life of incessant struggle with weather, markets and disease; while few in old age can be happy with the aches and pains, the ills and accidents, the diminishing powers and (for me) the haunting fear of the future. But we are happy in our home, our friends and our love, so maybe we have earned that touching title."
It is a shame, in my view, that same-sex friendship is now regarded as sexual (and so for some as vicious or intrinsically "immoral"). Friendship is actually admirable. Faithfulness is a virtue. Promises of commitment are meant to cement marriages. The same is true, I imagine, for civil partnerships.
There is a fundamental question about the purpose of marriage, and of sex, which lies beneath the debate. It used to be said that the first purpose of marriage was the procreation of children, then as a remedy against sin (i.e. an appropriate outlet for sex), and third for mutual society for each other. Now in the contemporary CofE marriage service the order's reversed, with companionship as number 1. Most "conservatives", I'd guess, object to gay marriage because they see it as a charter for "unnaturalness". There's an ironic conjunction between fundamentalists and Darwinians in the view that the sole purpose of sex is procreation and the preservation of the species. In that case there is no place for sex merely to provide pleasure, either heterosexually or homosexually. That logic leads either to celibacy within marriage or to procreation for as long as hormones or life allow. Somehow I can't see our consumerist society buying that. It is a pity that our society sets such a store on the sexual acts that close companionship has become such a bone of contention.
My comment to the consultation was sent in the aftermath of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. I was ruminating on the nature of the monarchy. What, I wondered, would we call an elected constitutional head of state? They might fulfil precisely the same roles as the present queen. However, without a doubt, they wouldn't be called Queen or King. Traditionally hereditary heads of state have been named kings and queens. We'd give a different name to an elected one, such as president. They have the same functions, but they're crucially different. Traditionally marriage has been between a man and a woman. We'd give a different name to a same-partnership - wouldn't we? They're the same, but they're crucially different.
Language in this country does not change by government dictat, but by usage and evolution. I can't work out whether the government is indulging in Brave New World social engineering, or whether it's merely become Humpty Dumpty:
"`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'
`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - that's all.' "
Humpty Dumptyish redefinition of language sits rather uncomfortably with a government set on teaching our children the traditional skills of times tables, learning poetry by heart and mugging up on the solar system. They'd better beware, as every child knows the fate of Humpty Dumpty (unless they go to the PC nursery which, I learned today, has him landing safely on a bungee rope...). If you asked me for an alternative generic word, the best I could come up with is "union".
In fact, I have long been attracted to the French wedding system, as I understand it, where everyone has a civil ceremony, and those who choose proceed to a church ceremony afterwards. However, I also have sympathy for the CofE's mistrust of the European courts. Although they have ruled to respect religious freedom, because of the established nature of the Church here it's reasonable to suspect that discrimination legislation might be deemed to trump religious independence. The Church is NOT independent from the State here. It might have to face the difficult decision to cut its ties.