Church & State: Wedded To Convention

As I write this, Ireland is about to vote on whether to allow same-sex marriage.  Much of the debate on the matter has seemed confused to me.  I regret that it has been necessary for this vote to take place at all.

Civil marriage was introduced to England and Wales by the 1836 Marriage Act.  Between 1753 and 1836, to be officially recognised in that jurisdiction a marriage had to have been the product of a religious ceremony of a permitted type.  Although much has changed since 1836, throughout the UK we still retain the practice whereby the legal requirements for the enactment of a valid marriage can be satisfied completely by means of a church or other religious service.

Contrast this with the position in much of Continental Europe, where the civil marriage and the religious one are two completely unconnected affairs.  You can arrange them at different times and places altogether.  You can have one without having the other, as you choose.  (There’s more on this in the comments below.)

We now have same-sex marriages in most parts of the UK.[1] One difference between this new form of union and the traditional one is that religious organisations have the right to decline to offer marriage to a same-sex couple. I’m in favour of having that exemption, not because I stand with the gay-haters, but because it does move us a step closer towards a separation of Church and State. (See my earlier post on this subject.)

The position on divorce is different and leads to various anomalies.  A marriage valid in law may be created by a church service, but it cannot be ended by one, divorce being a purely civil matter.  On the other hand, the severing of the civil contract may not be enough to end the marriage in the eyes of the religious body concerned.

The divorced Catholic who is regarded as still married by the Church is well known.   What may not be widely appreciated is that it is possible to obtain an annulment of a Catholic marriage without also going through a legal divorce.  How to remarry while still married …

I would like to see an end to all of that nonsense.  A far better model is the European one.  Separate the religious and the civil completely.   A faith would then be free to impose its own rules regarding such matters as eligibility for marriage (or remarriage) and on the ending of a union.  Equally, no religious body would have any say over anyone’s right to enact a civil marriage or to end one.

I despair when I hear the objection that allowing same-sex marriage will make a mockery of an institution given to us by God.  Since the Council of Trent in 1566, the only form of marriage recognised by the Catholic Church has been one conducted according to its rite, before a priest and two witnesses.  That means that all civil marriages are invalid by that measure, irrespective of the make-up of the couple concerned.  Yet, I don’t hear of any Archbishop urging his flock to demand a vote on banning all non-religious weddings.

This seems to me to be the key to judging the debates over the recent past on same-sex marriage.  Viewed in that light, almost all of the huffing and puffing about the issue can be relegated to the status of red herring and/or non sequitur.

This piece started with my regret that the vote in Ireland was happening at all. I did not mean that as an oblique way of saying that I hope that the proposal isn’t carried.

What troubles me is the way the debate has characterised the issue as a wider one than the question actually being posed: you should vote Yes to show approval of gay lifestyles and No to show disapproval.  This leaves no room for those who, whilst accepting that gay people are to be treated as equal citizens under the law, nonetheless cannot go as far as approval.

You cannot reasonably expect someone to ignore their deeply held religious convictions.  If they believe that marriage can validly only be between a man and a woman and that moreover homosexual acts are intrinsically sinful, then that is what they believe.  You can of course try to persuade them otherwise, but no-one’s future should depend on your chances of success.

The trick here is separation of Church and State, making personal belief distinct from the regulation of public institutions.  When someone has views based on religious conviction, those should be respected.[2]  What has to follow likewise is that no individual’s particular religious conviction should be permitted to dictate to others when it comes to standards of personal behaviour.

You can vote Yes for same-sex marriage without also having to endorse it.  In any case, the rights of gay people should not have to depend on anyone else’s approval.





1. The exception is Northern Ireland, ironically enough in this context.

2. No, I don’t mean in the style of the Louisiana Marriage and Conscience Act.

2 thoughts on “Church & State: Wedded To Convention

  1. As far as I know the Catholic Church will not proceed with a case for Annulment unless a civil divorce has already taken place. And on Continental Europe only the civil ceremony is stand alone, the religious ceremony cannot take place without an accompanying civil one.

  2. Jim,

    Thanks for contributing.

    What you say about annulment may well be the practice in some places, but it’s not mandatory. At least in theory, it’s possible to annul without divorce.

    I haven’t checked extensively, but it seems you’re right about European marriage law. (I’ve added a note above to reflect that.) Regardless, the main point stands: there is separation of civil and religious.

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