Supporters of same-sex marriage might feel that things are moving in the right direction, and they’re probably right. The polls are moving towards acceptance, and even public support, for same-sex marriage. In 2004, a Gallup poll found that 52 per cent agreed that the state should recognise “marriages between homosexuals”, and 65 per cent supported civil partnerships. In 2008, an ICM poll found the support for gay marriage had gone up to 55 per cent, and another in 2009 found it at 65 per cent. Two more polls found that more than three quarters supported either gay marriage or civil partnerships, with 43 per cent preferring marriage. Essentially, if “equal marriage rights”, as it’s being termed, isn’t an idea whose time has come, it is at least an idea whose time is close. It is easy to become flushed with victory. It must be tempting for some, reading reports of fears in the Anglican Church that the Coalition’s plans to introduce civil gay marriage here will lead to legal challenges which will force churches to marry gay couples, to say: so what?
But, for those of us who support gay marriage, there are two reasons to be cautious. One is practical, and one is moral.
First, the practical reason. Conservatives who are cautious about the idea of gay marriage, not out of homophobia or bigotry, but out of simple conservatism – a wariness of changing things that work reasonably well as they are – may be convinced that there are enough benefits to gay marriage to make the change worthwhile. I’ve got conservative friends who are quietly coming around to the idea, and who think that encouraging marriage and stability is a positive, conservative value. But if gay marriage legislation moves too quickly, or too far, that cautious support could be lost.
For example, the recent report that Danish churches will be required to offer marriage services has been hailed in some quarters as a victory, but I’m not convinced it is. Gay Danish Christians will be able to marry in a church, but that could have been achieved without making it mandatory for all churches. Now, the fears of conservative Christians in this country – that civil gay marriage is a Trojan horse for church weddings – will apparently be confirmed. Their moral beliefs are going to be trampled. It’ll harden their opposition to it, increase the fight required, and thus lose support from the cautious conservatives, by realising their own fears that a change to allow gay marriage will cause more upset than it avoids.
People who instinctively want gay and lesbian couples to be able to marry are still not in a majority in this country. We might be one day, but at the moment we need the support of precisely the sort of conservatively minded people who will be put off by the prospect of a fight between the Government and the established Church. Alienating the moderate conservatives will, at best, put the advent of gay marriage in this country back by a few years.
But the moral reason is more compelling. We shouldn’t force vicars to marry gay people in church because, all else being equal, it’s wrong to force people to do things against their will. These aren’t, in the main, vicious, bigoted monsters desperate to oppress gay people, and nor are their flocks: they’re ordinary people, moral people, whose ethical frameworks are different from mine. I’m not advocating moral relativity: I think they are wrong about gay marriage, and I am right. But in the same way that it is wrong of them to prevent gay people from getting married, it would be wrong of me to force Anglican clergy (or Catholic or Islamic or Jewish for that matter) to perform wedding services that their consciences tell them are immoral. It’s a form of oppression, and the fact that we find their views distasteful does not make it any less wrong.
What the Government needs to do, in response to Church of England fears about legal challenges and disestablishment, is show, carefully, that there can be no such threats. If individual churches want to perform same-sex services, they must be free to do so, but likewise they should be guaranteed that if they do not, they will not be forced. If that means that the only change to legislation is someone going through the civil partnerships bill and replacing all instances of the phrase “civil partnership” with “marriage”, then so be it.
Accepting that people who disagree with you are not stupid or evil is hard. As same-sex marriage draws closer in this country, which it surely does, the temptation is for supporters to ignore their opponents, or to label them bigots or homophobes or hate-mongers. But if we want gay marriage to happen in this country, and more importantly if we want to avoid practising what we preach against, then we need to let the Church and its followers act on their consciences. Even though we think their consciences have got it wrong.