Thursday, 7 February 2013

Letter to MP on Same-Sex Marriage Bill

Having chewed through the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill yesterday, I read through the Hansard transcript of Tuesday's Parliamentary debate. The following is the letter I have written to my MP this morning as a result :

I see that you abstained at the second reading of this Bill on Tuesday. Although I am a strong supporter of the idea that same-sex couples should be able to claim the same rights and privileges as married heterosexual couples, I think I might have been tempted to do the same.

I am writing to ask for your advice and help as the Bill enters its revising phase. I don't know whom I should be writing to at this point. Is the matter now out of your hands until it returns for its third reading, or are you able to have any input to committee considerations?

Hugh Robertson, in his brief summing up at the end of the debate, asserted that
This Bill simply allows people to get married who are currently excluded from doing so purely because they are of the same sex.
If that were true, I would have little difficulty with it, but it isn't true. Schedule 4 Part 3 includes a couple of key exemptions from existing marriage law — exemptions which, to my mind, have the effect of changing the whole understanding of what marriage is (at least, for same-sex couples). I find it hard to imagine why any same-sex couples would object if this small part of the bill were struck out. I can't understand why it has been inserted in the first place.

The exemptions concern grounds for annulment and divorce on the grounds of non-consummation and adultery respectively. By removing adultery as grounds for divorce (only for same-sex couples, not heterosexual couples) the Bill is effectively an Adulterer's Charter, and undermines same-sex marriage.

Eight MPs pointed to this mysterious deficiency, but Hugh Robertson had either not heard or chose to ignore the point : Stewart Jackson, Craig Whittaker, Jim Dobbin, Nadine Dorries, Helen Goodman, Fiona Bruce, David Burrowes and Geraint Davies. Stewart Jackson quoted the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey on this point, so we can be fairly sure Schedule 4 Part 3 will get a tough scrutiny in the House of Lords. Maria Miller's reply was quite obtuse, arguing that adultery would be considered 'unreasonable behaviour' and so effectively comes under that heading.

But why should adultery be automatically regarded as 'unreasonable behaviour' as she assumes? She seemed to be making the assumption that sexual relations outside the marriage would be unreasonable — but in that case, why not say so?

There is something going on here, and my view is that what is going on is the beginning of the removal of sexual relations from the concept of marriage altogether.

I do not subscribe to the view that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation (as a number of speakers argued). I do believe, however, that marriage law is one of the key ways in which we locate (what we might better call) 'one-to-one erotic relationships' within British society. The laws of marriage provide the model for the expression of erotic relationships, steering them towards long-term, committed, loving relationships. Even if this ideal is often observed in the breach, I reckon that the vast majority of people accept that marriage (one sexual partner for life, 'forsaking all others') is the goal. We Britons may more commonly practice serial monogamy; young people may (as young people always have) feel the need to practice erotic relationships without commitment before finding a life partner; many couples choose not to formalise their marriage legally; others, through human weakness, fail to live up to the ideal, but I see little evidence of interest in polygamy or 'open marriage'. Marriage, as a sexual relationship 'forsaking all others', is clearly the model, and it is not right that LGBT people should be excluded from it. I could add the importance of marriage as providing a secure and stable environment for the raising of children. Although at one time I was a little queasy about children being raised in a same-sex household, I have come to realise that this was an incoherent position to take, given that I did not see anything intrinsically wrong with same-sex relationships per se.

One possible reason for this peculiar attempt, in Schedule 4, to remove sex itself from marriage is that the drafters of the Bill failed to recognise the nature and importance of erotic love in human relationships. The debate seemed to veer between (on the one hand) sex as leading to childbirth and (one the other) loving and caring for your partner. But one-to-one erotic behaviour is enormously important to human beings. In order to avoid a lot of confusion, misunderstanding and hurt (in people's lives, but also in the divorce courts) it needs to be located in a widely-understood social and legal framework, and the vast majority would agree that marriage is that model framework — even if not all choose to formalise it for themselves, and even if not all agree that same-sex couples belong in that framework (as I do).

I append a short paper about the blessings and dangers of one-to-one erotic behaviour, describing why it should be located within a social structure of committed loving relationships 'forsaking all others' (this being an edited-down version of yesterday's blog).

Despite the worthy sentiments from many speakers avowing their desire to affirm loving — and implicitly, sexual — same-sex relationships, that is precisely what the Bill doesn't do! I wish it did, so that it was affirming the erotic component of same-sex relationships and not pretending they're not there. It is simply done, by striking out Schedule 4 Part 3, and I can see no earthly reason why that should not be done during the revising phase. How can I best lobby for this to happen?

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

An Adulterer's Charter?

I've just (very belatedly) read through the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill to see what it does and doesn't say. I've had a bit of a surprise, and have come to the belated conclusion that it has one fundamental flaw : it is an adulterer's charter.

The heart of it, of course, is that it defines the legal contract of 'marriage' in existing legislation to include couples of the same sex. Most of it is then taken up with tidying up possible areas of confusion around pension entitlements, around arrangements for contracting same-sex marriages overseas (e.g. whilst on service with the armed forces or in British consulates). It sets down in which buildings, and under what conditions, same-sex marriages can be registered — it excludes the Church of England and does not impose a requirement that religious organisations should conduct such marriages against their wishes.

[What is different about the C of E is that it is a state church and therefore, unlike other churches, cannot refuse to marry any couple so long as one of them lives in the parish. Without this clause, the local vicar would be obliged to marry same-sex couples. It might have been possible to create legislation that got round this difficulty, but whilst the C of E is established, it would be difficult.]

It includes a useful and long-overdue section that tidies up a gap in existing law concerning married people who undergo an officially-recognised sex change. Under existing law, if they were to remain married to their partner they have to go through an annulment and then re-recognition (presumably as civil partners).

The law is — or at least was until this Bill — clear that marriage is an exclusive relationship in a sexual sense. It's fine for me, as a married person, to have a close relationship with someone other than my partner, but if I have sex with them I have crossed a line and opened myself up to breach of the marriage contract. Having sexual relations outside a marriage relationship is — or was until this Bill — grounds for divorce. But for some reason I don't understand, it would not be grounds for divorce in a same-sex marriage.

I'm sure that, back in the past, this prohibition of adultery was all connected with the importance of knowing whose children were whose — which children were entitled to maintenance by whom and whose estate they were entitled to inherit. You couldn't allow married people to go off and produce children outside the marriage without taking full responsibility for the consequences, and certainly not if it was done without the full consent — or even knowledge — of their partner. It would represent a massive breach of trust, and be a recipe for social chaos in which the most vulnerable — the children — stood to suffer most. The law is weighted such that if a married woman has a baby the legal presumption is that it is a child of the marriage, and the husband therefore has a duty of care towards it. In an era when men were seen as the 'breadwinners' I guess that makes sense for the protection of the child — but of course it creates a sense of the married woman being her husband's 'possession', to be jealously guarded.

In these days of easy contraception the risks of illegitimate children are much less, of course, and the State has let irresponsible parents (usually fathers) off the hook by providing some support for the upkeep of the child of an unmarried mother through the benefit system.

According to this Bill, if a partner in a same-sex marriage commits adultery with a member of the opposite sex it is still grounds for divorce, but not if they take up a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex. It seems odd to me for same-sex marriages to be given this exemption. Where's the equality here? Surely marriage, whether same-sex or not, is (in terms of erotic one-to-one behaviour) "to the exclusion of all others". Why should the taking of erotic pleasure in a one-to-one relationship with someone outside the married relationship without the knowledge or permission of the married partner not be considered an equal breach of trust, and grounds for legal complaint?

The fact that two people of the same sex cannot between them conceive a child is not deemed to prevent them being married. I agree with that, and support same-sex marriage, because the purpose of erotic behaviour is not only for conceiving children. So why should an adulterous same-sex relationship (that equally cannot produce children) not be considered a breach of that marriage contract?

If a same-sex marriage is not exclusive in terms of sexual behaviour, in what sense is it a marriage? There is an inconsistency here. In this sense, the Bill does represent a 'watering-down' of marriage, even an undermining of it, because it is saying that a supposedly equal same-sex marriage is not required to 'exclude all others' in a sexual sense. If it denies a wronged partner redress in the courts, it's a legalisation of adultery, surely?

My argument is not from tradition, custom or culture. It is rooted in an understanding of the place of erotic love in human nature and human society, particularly from a Christian perspective. One of my primary reasons for supporting same-sex marriage — indeed, for believing that it is long overdue — is that I believe 'one-to-one erotic behaviour' is best expressed, and for the sake of a healthy society should be confined to, married relationships 'to the exclusion of all others'. Even if many people choose to form exclusive one-to-one sexual relationships without making a formal legal commitment, and if many people fail to live up to the ideal, the legal definition of marriage as being 'to the exclusion of all others' is still generally understood as the model. And since it clearly doesn't mean 'not having any relationships of any sort with anyone else', it clearly means 'exclusive sexual relationship'. In Britain we may go in for serial monogamy, but we generally frown on polygamy. I agree that marriage is not intrinsically heterosexual and that it is not exclusively about procreation, and I imagined that it is because they resented being excluded from this committed, sexually exclusive partnership model — marriage — that many gay and lesbian couples want to see this Bill succeed.

But I do believe that sexual relations are at the heart of the marriage model. They're being short-changed -- we all are. Marriage (whether homo- or hetereosexual) is the best model because of the nature of erotic love.

The purest form of love — what the Christians call 'agape' love — is totally selfless. Its only concern is the welfare of the other. At its extreme, it is 'love your enemies'. If it is done for selfish reasons it ceases to be 'pure love' in this sense.

Erotic love, however, is a different sort of love — although it does not exclude agape love (as some suggest). In fact, the two go very well together. Unlike 'agape' love, the giving of erotic pleasure typically involves the receiving of it, too. One-to-one erotic behaviour can therefore be a very powerful way of strengthening the bond between two people. In Christian terms I would argue that this, rather than the making of babies, is its primary purpose. The fact that erotic behaviour produces a personal erotic 'reward' is one of its great blessings, because it gives people who might otherwise (in the busyness of life) drift apart a motive to get 'up front and personal' and renew their relationship erotically. The sex drive can drive us together — it is a bonding drive.

The Bill, however, doesn't afford it any value or relevance -- it strikes out 'non-consummation' as grounds for annulment. This, and the exemption for same-sex adultery cuts directly across this purpose of marriage (see Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill -- Schedule 4 Part 3, 'Divorce').

By constraining erotic urges within an exclusive committed relationship, the marriage model of relationship 'channels' sexual energy to hold couples together. By saying officially that the expression of that bonding drive outside the partnership need be no impediment to the relationship, the Bill is effectively saying that marriage has nothing to do with sexual relations at all. To be consistent, the Marriage Act needs to be amended to remove adultery or non-consummation as grounds for divorce/annulment in heterosexual marriages too, thereby separating legal partnerships from sexual behaviour altogether. Only then will it be 'Equal Love' — but will it be 'love' of the sort most people think this debate is about? Will it be 'marriage' as most people — including those (like me) who support same-sex marriage — understand it?

The fact that one-to-one erotic behaviour produces a personal erotic 'reward' is also its danger, of course. It can so easily become a selfish act. In its most distorted form it becomes the using of another person for sexual purposes. If one of the purposes of marriage is to channel people's sexual urges into forging enduring partnerships that can form strong building blocks for society, then the complementary purpose is that of protecting society from the dangers of abusive (that is, purely selfish and exploitative) sexual behaviour. I would say that indulging in sexual behaviour outside of a committed relationship (without the partner's knowledge or agreement) is at the least selfish behaviour, in breach of trust. To exempt partners in a same-sex marriage from this constraint is effectively to say 'it was never a marriage in the first place'.

As I have said, the actual erotic preferences of the couples involved are completely irrelevant to this. Society's laws only need to reach into that private domain where the protection of individuals (other partner or children) from abuse by one of the partners has become an issue.

So the Bill is effectively an adulterer's charter for some, and if it were consistent it would be an adulterer's charter for all. It effectively 'desexualises' marriage. It deals with the same-sex issue by running away from it. I didn't realise this, and I'm sure most people don't. Far from affirming the sexual nature of same-sex relationships, it denies the significance of erotic behaviour in human relationships altogether as irrelevant. That is a recipe for a lot of confusion, misunderstanding and hurt. It would be quite simple to correct this fundamental flaw : just remove the same-sex adultery exemption (Schedule 4, Part 3, 'Divorce'). Then we might have 'Equal Love'.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Richard III & living DNA

a reflection (for our little Lunch Club communion service) on last night's TV documentary about the excavation of the remains of English King Richard 3rd.

The scene : a light table in a forensic laboratory. A reconstructed skeleton, recently excavated from an archæological dig in a car park, is laid out on the table. Various archæology and medical experts are grouped around the table, their faces lit from below by the light from the light table.

Also at the table is a TV presenter and a woman who's devoted a lot of her adult life to the cause of restoring the reputation of the English king, Richard 3rd. She really, really wants this to be the skeleton of the king — the last English king to die in battle, the last of the Plantagenets. In fact, in her heart she's already decided it is. Intuitively, she's known it is from the moment she first saw it in the dig, and insisted on the bones being moved from the site wrapped in King Richard's flag. To her, this is not just a collection of bones, but a person. But believing in her heart that this is Richard 3rd doesn't make it so.

One thing that disturbs her is that the skeleton very clearly has a severe spinal deformity. Richard 3rd was famously, according to historical legend, a hunchback — but she's spent years arguing that this was malicious propaganda put about by the Tudors . . . history is written by the victors of wars, and unless Henry Tudor could blacken Richard's reputation his own claim to the throne was dodgy. Shakespeare famously recycled the idea, yet what a coincidence that a skeleton with a spinal deformity should be found right in the place where Richard's body might be found.

Bit by bit, the story is pieced together with the evidence. The forensic pathologists are able to describe in great detail not only how the owner of this skeleton died in battle — but also how his body was dragged from the battlefield afterwards. And it all matches the historical accounts. There's a carbon dating match, then a DNA match with a known living descendant. Eventually, an expert reconstruction of the man's face is produced, and we're looking at him. The woman's intuition and rather desperate faith is vindicated, and she is overjoyed. But she has to come to terms with the fact that King Richard did in fact have a spinal deformity. So it wasn't all lies.

"Dead men tell no tales", says Long John Silver in Treasure Island. No longer true, quite.

Reflecting on the programme, I thought of us today, gathered around a table. Not a light table in a forensic laboratory with a TV crew, but an ordinary table here. And on the table, reminders of a man's death. Not his skeleton, of course. Our intuition tells us that there is something special here. Expectation is high. We very much want to believe that this is the body and blood of Jesus, and to feel that we are in his real presence. But the forensic evidence isn't promising. If we were to examine what we have here, what we would find is bread and non-alcoholic wine, not human DNA.

Except that there's something here that ties us to Jesus much more than the skeleton bones tie us to the real Richard 3rd. After all, the bones don't answer most of the questions that really matter. They don't tell us much more about the man.

By contrast, when we gather around this table we perform a ritual and say words that Jesus himself, on the night in which he was betrayed, asked us to do and say as a way of remembering how he was to die, and the meaning of his death, and as a way of describing everything that he was about. Not 548 years ago, but nearly 2,000 years ago. This breaking of bread and drinking of wine is an echo of the ancient Jewish ritual of the Passover and speaks volumes about how Jesus understood his mission. The more we understand the significance of this little ritual the closer we are to Jesus. We really are in his presence — it's as if he were speaking to us. "Do this". If anything, we're even more in his presence than if what we had here were his skeletal remains.

"Dead men tell no tales"? This one does. This dead man was raised from the dead and still speaks — through this ritual, and through the scriptures that teach us what this ritual means. If we want to know more about Jesus, we don't need carbon dating and DNA tests on his bones; we need to immerse ourselves in the Old Testament which was his Bible, in the New Testament passages that record his actions and teachings, and in the New Testament passages that reflect on those, and help us to understand what he is saying to us now.

Those people gathered around the light table in the forensic laboratory made good TV, and it was quite exciting wondering whether what they had on the table was the remains of a long-dead king. But actually, what we're doing here ought to feel more exciting still, as we find ourselves in the presence of a living king who still speaks a word to each of us : a word of challenge, a word of comfort, a word of hope. And as we take those to heart, and walk in his way, we share his living DNA. We become the Body of Christ.

Friday, 1 February 2013

'A Casual Vacancy' (J.K.Rowling)

I read only about two novels a year - mainly because I have to read them in one stretch. I can't put a novel down until it's finished, so have to go for it when I've got a gap in the schedule. I decided some time ago that J.K.Rowling's first 'post-Potter' book would be one of them. Partly out of curiosity : I've never read any of the Potter books or seen any of the films, and was curious to know how good a writer she really is. She's sounded interesting when interviewed, and has had some tough life experience before hitting the jackpot with Harry Potter. And it's about local politics - a world I've become much involved in in recent years.

I think it's the best novel I've read in many years. It's certainly up there with the Ian McEwans I've read, of which 'Atonement' was the most powerful. Well-written and very well observed. It struck me how much better writing can be than film. To read an account of a dinner party here, with all the underlying tensions, character flaws and intrigues going on between the participants -- even with truly great actors, you couldn't get a quarter of it into a film.

The 'canvas' is that of a complacent, pretty, rural small town whose parish council contains within its borders a sink estate of the neighbouring large town. An opportunity has arisen for a boundary change - one important issue over which the parish council might actually have some power - and battle lines have been drawn up between those who want to lose the sink estate and/or close its drug rehab clinic, and those who feel a real responsibility to those who live on that estate. A key advocate for that estate (who grew up on it, then 'made good') - dies suddenly, giving rise to a casual vacancy of more-than-usual significance. In fact, he is pretty much irreplaceable. On this contextual stage, a fascinating range of actors play out their parts. Families with hidden dysfunctions - domestic abuse, mental illness, addiction, 'forbidden loves' and in some cases sheer grinding poverty. It has to be said (and I dare say this reflects J.K.Rowling's own experience) - all the men in the book come out as pretty dreadful creatures with the exception of the late-lamented cause of the 'casual vacancy'. Not that the women are presented as angels. The teenagers, who play a key role in the story, are particularly well-observed.

It's a very down-to-earth story to say the least. Rowling pulls no punches. As the story unfolds, it unfolds the reader's prejudice and (without giving too much away) leads to the recognition of some unlikely (albeit flawed) heroes. Hollywood it is not. Unlike a typical Hollywood story, this one is actually credible. A week later, I find myself remembering bits of it and realising their significance -- it's a thought-provoking book. There is a little spiritual message secreted within it which pops its head up a couple of times in passing. It's expressed in a quote from a Sikh guru, but it could equally be expressed as the Quaker challenge to "look for the light of God in every person". Ultimately, I think this is what J.K.Rowling wants us to do. The book could be read as a cynical observation on human nature, but actually it's a challenge to 'look deeper'.