Defining marriage

On the purpose of this voluntary union, the Book of Common Prayer is correct on one of three counts.

Who "owns" marriage? The Archbishop of York thinks that he does, or at least that the church, rather than the government, is its custodian. "It is set in tradition and history and you can't just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are," he warned ministers in an interview with the Telegraph last month. Lynne Featherstone, the equality minister, hit back at the weekend with a piece of her own in the Telegraph. Marriage, she asserted, is owned by "the people"; and that therefore the government, whose job is "to reflect society and to shape the future", has a perfect right to extend the scope of legally-recognised marriage to gay couples.

It's significant that traditionalists are now making what looks like a last stand on the word "marriage" itself, having largely accepted the existence of civil partnership, a phrase invented partly to convince traditionalists that the new status was not the same as marriage. In fact, the distinction is largely a semantic one. There are, perhaps, genuine fears that if the word "marriage" was used, clergy would find themselves faced with legal action if they refused to officiate at gay weddings. But that doesn't seem to have been what Sentamu had at the forefront of his mind when he accused reformers of "trying to change the English language".

Appealing to the "naturalness" or "universality" of exclusively heterosexual marriage, as Dr Sentamu did, is a clever rhetorical strategy, once used by defenders of slavery or racial discrimination. But in truth, the mainstream modern concept of marriage as the romantic union of one man and one woman is neither natural nor universal. It's a fairly modern construct, dating back not much further than the middle of the last century. Rather than being immutable and God-ordained, it is an artefact of developed capitalist societies.

Of course, all known societies have had something that anthropologists recognise as marriage, and in almost all known cases it is a heterosexual institution. The religious conservatives are right about that at least. There are a few exceptions that prove the rule. In some parts of Africa, for example, a woman may take on the attributes of a man, including a wife. She becomes a "female husband" and the legal father of any children born to her wife. But such arrangements are mechanisms to preserve family property (typically when there is no male heir) rather than romantic unions; both partners are expected and indeed encouraged to take heterosexual lovers to satisfy their physical needs.

This points to the reason why legally-defined marriage has, until very recently, been an exclusively heterosexual business. What distingugishes marriage, anthopologically speaking, from other forms of attachment both heterosexual and homosexual is not the relationship of the couple (assuming that they are "a couple") but securing the legitimacy of children.

In most societies, marriage also has an important secondary function of creating bonds between wider kinship groups. In an agricultural society, where land forms the basis of the economy and there is relatively little mobility, either social or geographical, marriage has been the bedrock of society for entirely practical reasons. And these practicalities have produced forms of marriage that romantic modern Westerners, brought up on the myth of the couple, tend to look upon with suspicion or horror: polygamy, arranged marriages, child marriage, levirate (the automatic marriage of a widow to her late husband's brother), dowry systems and so on.

How we got from there to here is a long and complex process. Christianity certainly played a part in it, so it's worth looking briefly at how the church traditionally defined marriage.

According to the Book of Common Prayer there are three purposes for marriage. They are, in order (presumably) of importance: children, sex and companionship. Marriage provides a legitimate and secure setting to raise the next generation, "to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord" as the marriage service has it. This has always been conservatives' favourite argument for preserving the special status of marriage. Nevertheless, a high proportion of children are now born to cohabiting couples and the social stigma on births outside wedlock has largely gone. As for the second reason, ("a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication") I would only observe that the number of people who insist on marriage as the only proper setting for sex is now fairly small, and the number who rigorously practice such an ideal is considerably smaller still.

Instead, the stress now falls heavily on the third of the traditional marriage service's stated aims, companionship, what the Prayer Book rather beautifully describes as "the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity." Marriage is now less about creating a family than about celebrating and cementing the relationship of the couple. It is about love and commitment; and it is about two people (or, in an increasing number of cases, about the two people and the children they already have).

Marriage is now an essentially voluntary union that expresses the couple's commitment to one another, to sexual fidelity (usually), to children (optionally), to their religious traditions (sometimes) and to social expectation (decreasingly). To conservatives, marriage serves as a source of stability. The individual commitments of couples still form, they would argue, the basis for a stronger society as a whole. But that is not because the couples are heterosexual; it is because they are couples. And the past few decades have revealed, to the surprise of many, that gay couples can be as traditionally-minded and conventional as straight ones. Why else would they want to get married?

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.