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John Howell MP: Gay marriage's contribution to a tolerant society is something which all Conservatives should support

HOWELL JOHNJohn Howell OBE is the Member of Parliament for Henley.

My wife and I have just celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary this summer, so I don’t need convincing that marriage is a good thing. So, I am left perplexed as to why a change in civil marriage such as this which, important though it is, will directly affect only a few, will be noticed in their daily lives by even fewer and will have minimal, if any, direct impact on the general population, is causing so much disquiet, particularly when there are such wider benefits.

In 21st century Britain, we should not be willing to accept a legal system which effectively casts one group of people in the role of second class citizens on the grounds of their sexual orientation. It is true that gay people will benefit from this change through the greater social and emotional value it will bring them. But it should also benefit us all in helping us become a society more at ease with ourselves and more genuinely focused on equality of opportunity.

This is not some Liberal conspiracy nor is it a war waged on the majority by the minority. It is a thoroughly Conservative aspiration and was echoed on the steps of Downing Street in 1992 with John Major’s assertion that he believed “in a nation at ease with itself, the development of a truly classless society with opportunities for all.” Gay civil marriage fits in to that Conservative vision.

Before saying why I find arguments against same sex marriage deeply unconvincing, let me declare one further interest - as an active member of the Anglican Church.

Civil and religious marriage

Let us be clear that what is being proposed is gay civil marriage. Ministers have made it clear that this will not affect religious marriage and that individual churches will not be obliged to marry gay couples. Although civil and religious marriages have some similar end results, I regard them as separate acts. In practice, civil and religious marriages are already regarded as different in much of mainland Europe and they convey different rights. Indeed, more and more couples here are opting for a civil wedding followed by a church ceremony.  

There is, therefore, a distinct difference between civil and religious marriage and it is perfectly possible to allow gay civil marriage without any impact on religious marriage.


Some have laid great store on the fact that the proposed change will ‘redefine’ marriage. If this is a reference to a religious definition of marriage, I will deal with that later. If it refers to a civil definition or more loosely to a general cultural norm, it is difficult to see what force this line of argument has. Dictionaries are not divine works and nor do they present timeless interpretations in some quasi-legal or culturally deterministic way. Their definitions reflect custom and usage; they do not drive them. That is why they change from edition to edition as they have on this issue.  

As to the idea that there is a more general and widely accepted cultural tradition of marriage, since gay marriage has not been possible to date it is hardly surprising that tradition does not yet reflect it. 

However, we should not be defined by the social attitudes of the past or assume that society should conform to our expectations rather than evolving social norms. This whole issue is a reminder that values can change: until forty years ago homosexuality was a criminal offence; ten years ago the concept even of civil partnerships would not have been considered.

The social view

The idea of gay marriage can be seen to strengthen the wider institution of marriage by the emphasis it puts on faithfulness and stability and a public declaration of commitment. It does that at a time when marriage is at a low ebb. That is a message which needs to be heard across many areas of social policy.  However, some have tried to suggest that gay civil marriage will have an adverse effect on society. 

That has certainly not been the case in Spain which legalised gay civil marriage in 2005. As in many countries in mainland Europe, an official wedding certificate is only provided in Spain at a civil service.  When the conservative Partido Popular was elected in November 2011 there were fears that the law would be repealed. However, Spain’s new Justice Minister, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, has commented that he would prefer to leave Spain's gay civil marriage laws unchanged.

One factor which may be influencing opinion in addition to strong opinion polls in favour, is the fact that few will ever have seen gay marriage take place since it accounts for less than 2% of all marriages in the country. As to the effect of gay marriage on traditional marriage; there does not appear to have been any negative effect.

The religious view

As I have tried to point out, the Government’s proposals relate to gay civil marriage; not to religious marriage. In these circumstances, I do not accept that the Church ‘owns’ marriage as a whole or has a particular block on change. 

Indeed, I am not sure to which ‘Church’ those who have written to me are referring in seeking to oppose gay civil marriage on religious grounds. It is clear that Christianity has no universal view on the issue. The same differences on this issue are mirrored apparently in the Jewish faith between Orthodox and Reform Jews. I would point to a particularly well-balanced letter (not online) in The Times on 19 March from a Rabbi in favour of gay marriages.

Indeed, this issue has revealed just how wide the gulf is between individual Christian denominations. As a practising Anglican, I do not share the view that the concept of gay marriage is fundamentally unChristian or anti-Biblical and nor do I believe the Bible can be used in such a fundamentalist way. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said:

“We don't turn to the Pentateuch [which includes Leviticus] for a full definition of the law under which Christians must live, because the Pentateuch itself is part of the historical process of revelation, foreshadowing something greater.” 

The Bible does not justify us in concluding that it is the sole source of a comprehensive law that will regulate how we behave for all time. God’s purpose is discerned equally through reasoning and practice as through scripture and tradition alone. Many protestant and reformed Christian churches in Europe anyway do not view monogamous same sex relationships as sinful or immoral. There are a number of Christian Churches around the world which are also happy with the concept of gay marriage.

I was delighted to see the thoughtful comments of those like the Anglican Bishop of Salisbury who have tried to inject reason and perspective into the debate. The Bishop quite rightly points out that the traditional, religious concept of marriage (the religious ‘definition’) has itself been changing over the last half century and more.

The idea that the purpose of marriage is for the pro-creation of mankind, for example, needs to be seen in the context of the freedom given to married couples not to have children as a result of contraception. The arguments over whether divorced individuals can re-marry are also part of the same debate. 

The Anglican Church between 1908 and 1958 removed its objection to contraception and established that the number and frequency of children (including not having any at all) was something for the consciences of the potential parents. Even within the Catholic Church, evolution of the concept of marriage is taking place in practice. A 2008 Tablet study suggests that most practising Catholics are ignoring the Church's teachings on contraception and sex.

My own views and my own faith are the product of my own religious journey. That is why faith is ultimately so personal. However, many of those who have written to me about this issue have failed to extend to me the tolerance and freedom of religious belief I have extended to them. 

With only thinly disguised intolerance, I am chastised for my views on gay civil marriage for being a ‘liberal Anglican’ in the same way I imagine I would have been under the Inquisition. One constituent told me that being an Anglican was insufficient reason for calling myself a Christian anyway! The truth is that Churches do all too often ‘lock out’ people whether they are are gay or not and even when their behaviour reflects a celibate life. Indeed, the levels of discrimination in the church whether against gays or against women I find difficult to see as other than unChristian.

The political dimension

What motivates people to vote for a political party is of course a personal matter but I am sure many will acknowledge that voting solely on the basis of one issue is likely to put at risk the bigger picture of Government achievements.

But then the threats I receive not to vote Conservative again if this change goes ahead are not seeking to punish me for my political views on this topic. They are seeking to punish me for my religious views. For many who have written to me, the irony seems to have escaped them that the religious freedom which allows them a fundamentalist approach in the conviction that they alone are privy to God’s will is the very same religious freedom they seem to want to deny me and those of faith who take a more liberal Christian view.  I can think of nothing which is so quintessentially fundamentalist and denies the right of conscience.

Gay Civil Marriage and its contribution to a tolerant society at ease with itself is something which all Conservatives should support.


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