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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

One Unitarian View of Marriage

10th January 2013

Derek McAuley discusses how Unitarian principles relate to equal marriage

One of the beneficial effects of the current debate on equal marriage has been to stimulate thinking about the role and significance of marriage more generally. In recent years there has been talk of fundamental reform of the Marriage Act – however, Governments have kept clear of the issue.

The nature or marriage in current society must be framed within the context of changing patterns of family life, most recently revealed by the publication of census data along, of course, with continuously evolving societal values. The growing numbers of cohabitees must surely prompt serious questions about perceptions of what marriage means.

What values and principles should underpin our approach to marriage? I would highlight a few that Unitarians have emphasised which can contribute to this wider debate’

The importance of relationship to personal identity

“The individual is a fact of existence insofar as he steps into a living relation with other individuals” wrote the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Commenting upon this Unitarian minister Philip Hewitt has written “To put the same idea more simply, but not necessarily more comprehensively, to live is to love. The person who is not loving is to that extent not living.” Having carried out same sex blessings for some forty years it has been our experience that the intentions of same sex couples in seeking public recognition of their relationship are the same as an opposite sex couple. Unitarians have come to understand that to imply that lesbian and gay relationships are somehow lesser than heterosexual, or in the notorious language of Clause 28 a “pretended family relationship”, is just plain wrong.

A recognition of progress

Unitarians have been associated with a belief in progress “onwards and upward, forever”. Unitarians thinkers and activists were at the forefront of political and social reform in the nineteenth and, to a lesser extent, the twentieth centuries. In rejecting the Biblical certainties of much mainstream Christianity, which was often used to justify privilege and injustice, not least the evil of slavery and support for a patriarchal and a socially hierarchical society, they were freed to imagine and build something different. They were driven by their experience of, and demand for, community where divisions would be broken down and right relationships established. They did not have a nostalgic view of family relationships in the past, whether the 1850s or indeed the 1950s.

A rejection of an authoritarian church and state; both being threats to a free society

The state should facilitate right relationships not impose burdens and restrictions that restrict liberties. Unitarians were forbidden from marrying in their own churches until the change in the marriage law in 1836, which they promoted, and which also brought in civil registration and marriage. In remembering our own history of injustice and discrimination we rightly seek to address injustices done to others.

These contribute toward a Unitarian approach to the issue of marriage. In 1973 a series of lectures were held at Manchester College Oxford, at the behest of the Unitarian General Assembly, entitled, “Love, Marriage and the Family: Changing roles today”. To some extent it arose out of “much worry and even anxiety” about a changing society. One of the lecturers Rev G.L. Pruce looked forward to the day that society would be asked to give what he called the “homosexual lifestyle” legal and social sanction, like heterosexual marriage. He said “If we value stability in human relationships over impermanence or promiscuity, then it is difficult to see why such relationships should not be socially accepted and recognised”. What a radical thought for the time being only seven years after the legalisation of male homosexuality!

I look forward to Unitarians and Free Christians being able to celebrate same sex marriage in our communities. We were the first to register a religious building to host civil partnerships registrations and to actually conduct a ceremony. To the couples involved these are weddings, although not marriage in the legal sense. Hopefully by the end of 2013 the law will reflect this reality.

Another of the lecturers, Rev J. Unsworth stressed the importance of relationships “without the formality of marriage…Both are to be regarded with an equality of acceptance as valid human relationships”. Again radical thinking for the time. Cohabitation agreements can address some but not all of the legal issues of unmarried couples living together. Opening civil partnerships to opposite sex couples would meet the needs of many who do not wish to “sign-up” to the wider societal perceptions of marriage and the Unitarian General Assembly has supported this step. Unfortunately this has not been accepted by the Government which will lead to the anomalous situation that, after equal marriage is passed, that gay and lesbian couples will have more options in law to govern their relationships than straight couples which I do not believe to be sustainable.

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