Bernard Jenkin is the Member of Parliament for Harwich and
North Essex and Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee. Follow Bernard on Twitter.
David Cameron’s initiative to create a new institution of “civil marriage” for same sex couples has stirred a heated and angry debate, particularly between government ministers and the churches, and within the Conservative Party. A lot of MPs (and this includes a lot of Labour MPs, whom the media permit to suffer in the anonymity of opposition) are fed up to find themselves confronted by this question. It hardly seemed urgent or pressing before David Cameron put it on the political agenda. I certainly would not have encouraged him to do so. Many regard this as “the final straw” on the top of many other mid-term frustrations. I can honestly say that no other measure this parliament seems to have made so many colleagues feel so unhappy. Nevertheless, after some intense consideration, I decided to support the principle of same sex marriage some months ago. Despite the political unhappiness of it, I remain ever firmer in this view and I will vote for the Bill.
The two extremes of this debate both repel, and we should do our best to ignore them. The more ardent supporters do not build consensus and confidence in their judgement by branding every opponent as “bigot” or “homophobe”. They are a turn-off. Equally, even the most passionate opponents of gay marriage should recognise that same sex relationships can embody passion, love and care, and are not solely about the sex or possibly not even remotely about sex (with which some opponents can appear over-preoccupied). The vast majority of representations I have received, and conversations with colleagues, have been on an altogether higher plane of debate, and I pay tribute to their moderation and sincerity on both sides.
We all agree that marriage is an important institution that should be cherished and promoted. It is vital for the wellbeing of society, particularly for the bringing up of children. It may have been at one time an institution solely associated with that, but society, and indeed the Churches have long recognised that getting married without the intention of having children is no sin. They recognise when two people love each other and are willing to make public vows to a lifelong relationship, the lives of everyone whose lives they touch are enriched and strengthened. The same should apply regardless of their sexuality.
I voted for civil partnerships as an important step forward in giving legal recognition to same sex couples, but I confess I took a while to understand that a civil partnership is not marriage, which expresses that particular and universally understood commitment. How can it be right to deny marriage to anyone who wishes to make that same commitment? This Bill should be supported as a matter of principle.
Much of the debate is around fears that the Bill, if enacted, will lead to compulsion upon religious bodies to provide for same sex marriage against their will. It is understandable that the Human Rights Act has undermined faith in the assurances of transient ministers, whose laws are subsequently re-interpreted by over-activist judges. In this case, religious freedom must be protected. The time to test these assurances in debate is when the Bill is in committee. Already, some of the most enthusiastic QC champions of judicial activism have gone on the record to reassure that “it is simply inconceivable that the [ECHR] would require a faith group to conduct same sex marriages in breach of its own doctrines.”
So the Bill respects those who feel that same-sex marriage does represent an attack on their view of marriage. This includes many who are not against same-sex relationships. Given that nobody is going to be forced to take part in a same-sex marriage who does not wish to do so, I very much hope that in turn they will respect those who feel that the present inequality of marriage is an attack their identity and freedom as individuals. It is for this reason that a majority of the public support equal marriage. This includes many people of faith, as 15 former Bishops, Deans and others testified earlier this year.
I am a practising member of the Church of England. I am certain that the Christ whom I feel I know in my heart would not be laying down the law to exclude any particular group of people from the institution of marriage, though I do accept that our society today is so different from Roman Palestine two thousand years ago, it can be difficult to know what he might actually have said or done today.
> Also on ConHome today, David Burrowes MP makes the case for retaining the existing marriage laws.