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