The point of the consultation is to find out how best to legislate for same-sex couples to marry. All Christians should be asking their MP by letter, email or in their advice surgery to take a step back and answer why it is necessary to redefine marriage.
I come to the debate more in sorrow than anger. I am sorry that the Government’s consultation in March on the subject will seek to change the shape of marriage and therefore its purpose. I am sorry that MPs may be distracted from significant social, economic and international issues which are clamouring for our attention. I am also sorry that reasoned debate may be drowned out by prejudice, hostility — and anger.
Certainly, if the last month is anything to go by, we are dealing with an issue not so much of equality but liberty. Since I publicly expressed in a national newspaper my support for the present legal definition of marriage, a barrage of hostile hate-filled tweets, emails and letters accusing me of bigotry and homophobia has made me appreciate the importance of the issue. It is important that all Christians who value God’s institution of marriage get involved in the forthcoming consultation. It is important that Christians show God’s character not only in affirming marriage but also in the manner of debate.
The real point
Let’s be clear what the debate is not about. It is not about homosexual rights which are now enshrined in the Civil Partnerships Act and effectively mirror marriage rights. MPs have little time for anyone who denounces homosexuality or rallies against the idea of civil partnerships. It also should not be about a division between so called ‘civil marriage’ and ‘religious marriage’. Marriage as defined by a union of a man and woman should not be a religious club activity confined to the protected privacy of a church ceremony. It is historically defined by the state and informed by an established church because this country recognises marriage as a public benefit for all society. It is not simply an issue of equal rights for couples who love one another. Finally, it is not about party politics — it is a deeper issue of conscience and if there is legislation there will be a ‘free vote’.
So what is the debate about? It is about affirming the value of the institution of marriage as a union of a man and a woman. Like any institution if you take away its structure — in this case a man and woman — you change and undermine it. I know of a number of loving and committed homosexual couples, but their relationship is different to marriage. Civil partnerships have provided equal rights but we should be careful about confusing a search for equality with uniformity.
The reality is that when the only requisite for sexual unions is commitment and fidelity rather than the merging of two sexual halves to become a complementary whole, the fundamental concept of marriage is changed. We need to challenge the assumption that love and commitment trumps all formal requirements for a sexual union. We need to point to men and women being designed to complement each other in a sexual bond which is evidenced by the inherent capacity to produce children. This inherent complementarity and commitment to the other also has value beyond children to the extended family and wider society.
When sexual unions are once and for all severed in society’s perception from a commitment to have and raise children, when society then rejects the established evidence that a mother and father are both needed for the optimal development of children, the public will cease to value marriage. Same-sex marriage will move society away from the idea of marriage as a God-created coupling of a man and women to a choice model where marriage is seen as human invention, free to be changed, redefined or even discarded. Imagine society granting marriage licences to any union that met the conditions of a committed friendship and ask how long marriage can survive as an institution.
Fears for the future
As a politician I have fairly broad shoulders when it comes to personal opposition, but I fear for the school teacher who has to apply a law which goes against her conscience when teaching about marriage, or the church group in a village hall wanting to do a marriage preparation course for heterosexual couples only. The debate is primarily about the redefinition of a word — marriage. It is also about freedom of expression. Let us Christians express ourselves with loving clarity. We can do no better than follow the example of Jesus who not only made clear the marriage standard of a man and woman being joined together, but also showed his selfless perfect love to his Bride, the Church.
David Burrowes is MP for Enfield Southgate and a member of Enfield Evangelical Free Church.