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Marriage: Changing the terms of debate

ResPublica's Managing Director Caroline Macfarland writes for Mothers' Unions - Faith & Policy Watch

The Government’s consultation on equal civil marriage earlier this year was the subject of much contention and controversy. But, aside from causing outcry from various sides of the debate, the narrow scope of the ‘consultation’ failed to even scratch the surface of what should have been a much more considered and profound inquiry.

The notably short questionnaire asked respondents to express agreement or disagreement with the idea of a civil marriage ceremony, but did not venture into deeper detail or analysis. In this sense it was symptomatic of the divisiveness around same sex marriage that has arisen largely from a misunderstanding of the views and concerns of ‘conflicting’ parties. There was very little which explored the various understandings of marriage - as an institution, a social construct, or a vehicle for values and virtue -  and the wider meaning and implications therein.

When David Cameron announced his support for gay marriage during his keynote speech at the 2011 Conservative Party conference, his endorsement stemmed from his conception of marriage as a means for commitment and social stability – “I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.” However, the consequent methods for developing these proposals have gravely risked devaluing the underlying meaning and purpose of marriage in modern society. Without a full appraisal of the institution of marriage and its role, the debate around recognition only serves to polarise positions around issues of rights and discrimination.

ResPublica’s formal response to the consultation highlighted the need to broaden the remit and to appreciate the diversity of views and their underlying principles. The meaning and purpose of marriage can differ between traditions, religious groups, cultures and across social and demographic divides. Our own work asks whether marriage is an evolving institution or whether it can embody unchanging and inherent principles. Both within and across different groups, marriage can be seen as having various meanings and purposes.

Much of the current debate on marriage stems from an agenda for social renewal. Beyond the commitment of two individuals, marriage as part of the social fabric is a vehicle for the promotion and inspiration of virtues and ideals. In relation to the family unit, community and wider society, we will be exploring the impact of marriage (and its decline or growth) in strengthening reciprocity, wider social stability and social justice.

There are also questions regarding the respective roles of the state, culture and religious institutions in defining, shaping and promoting marriage. Locating responsibility, evaluating effectiveness, and marking the wider impact on communities and wider society means assessing the various mechanisms which impact on personal perceptions and choices. There is an issue on equal rights for individuals here, and whether positioning the concept of marriage in a discourse of rights will promote or inhibit its meaning and purpose. Does ‘equal’ access encourage an institution to become more diverse or will it remove what is distinctive about marriage itself?

These are the issues which policy makers should be addressing for a truly consultative approach to marriage legislation. Perhaps then a reflective and un-inflammatory discussion can follow. 

This article was originally published in Mothers' Unions - Faith & Policy Watch.

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Detailed Summary

Date Published
20 December 2012

British Civic Life

About The Authors

Caroline Macfarland

Caroline was the Managing Director of  the ResPublica Trust from January 2012 until March 2013. She joined Re...