Marriage Mess

I’ve expressed concern that the Humanists UK campaign on “equal marriage” is misguided – addressing a real issue on secular freedoms, but proposing change that may have unintended consequences. Dropped my foot in it yesterday by questioning that in a conversation that @AndrewCopson was already having with @MoJGovUK on Twitter.

There are several religious and gender issues tangled-up in marriage law in the UK and in the separate English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislation. Make that religious, gender and nationalist tangles.

The UK Government advice is here. The Humanists UK position is here:

We have the basic anomaly that there are still legal differences: a “Civil Partnership” is not the same as a “Registry Wedding” irrespective of how the marriage is “celebrated” and for that reason (prohibited) hetero-sex civil partnerships cannot be the same in UK law as as same-sex partnerships. Hetero couples have less freedom than same sex! So far as I can see once the national differences are fixed, these can become synonymous. You have to ask how did we get into this mess?

Obviously we’re in this mess because historically the established CofE resisted changing the particular procreative purpose in weddings traditionally celebrated in the church, however much that has been relaxed between factions of the churches. But this has further consequences.

The underlying issue has been between the marriage recognised in law – in subsequent rights and responsibilities of the participants – and the nature of the wedding celebration. However few attend to support a wedding all marriages involve both elements, so that the witnessing of the oath is public. And whether the couple are biologically capable of conception or not, those rights and responsibilities extend to children, if any. Furthermore, that’s true whether or not one subscribes to the idea that the main purpose of a wedding is procreation, or simply the commitment between two (or more) individuals as a public entity.

The real problem is which “celebrants” carry the same legal status as registrars in accepting the oath legally, and therefore whether both need to be involved in the ceremony / celebration embodied in more than one person. That is the established church and other recognised churches have historically maintained and won that status for their celebrants. HUK seems to be petitioning for the same rights for our celebrants. That seems backwards to me, wanting the same recognition as a church celebrant in law.

There are of course several other anomalies in what can and can’t happen under the different wedding arrangements, but it seems to me that any wedding must meet the secular legal requirements, whether the institution performing the ceremony is a religious one or not. Basic secularism.

The advantage of this arrangement – keeping the legality and celebration separate – is that different institutions and different factions of different institutions(!) are still able to set their own rules for participation in their ceremony. A second advantage is that the default minimum civil ceremony, can itself evolve to include the most widely accepted set of civil values.

Tactically, I can understand an organisation like HUK fighting for the same privileges for its celebrants as an established church, but it’s not what we actually want to achieve is it? It’s not the first time HUK (BHA as was) has been criticised for behaving like a religious church, and that’s a separate argument.

So as I have said before, what am I missing beyond the tactical / strategic consistency?


Also published on Medium.

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