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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

Too close to call, neck-and-neck, down to the wire. Pick your cliché for a close-run thing, and that’s what the parties are saying about Copeland.

No governing party has won a seat in a by-election since 1982, and the seat has been Labour-held since 1935, but the circumstances could scarcely be more favourable to the Conservative Party. They are well ahead in the opinion polls and Labour’s electoral coalition is badly split over Brexit.

To add to the discomfort, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has a long history of opposing nuclear power, though he has sounded a more supportive note since becoming leader. Sellafield is the main employer there, so regardless of the national picture, that would be an added complication.

Given the competing pressures from the Liberal Democrats on one side and the Conservatives and Ukip on the other, Labour should expect significant erosion in the 42 per cent of the vote they got in 2015. To win, all the Conservatives have to do is tread water. And it's worth noting that so far in this parliament, the results in by-elections have been what you'd expect according to the current state of the parties in the polls - which would mean you'd back Labour to win Stoke but the Tories to win Coepland. 

That Theresa May has visited the seat attests to the closeness. Privately, neither party can be confident of winning. For the Conservatives, that makes it worth putting Theresa May, currently the most popular politician in Britain if the polls are to be believed, into the fray, because what have they got to lose? For the Labour leadership, there is nothing to "win" if they hold a seat in opposition, but there is something to lose if they cannot hold it and Corbyn has visited in the final week. 

What is keeping Labour competitive is the state of the health service in Cumbria. If West Cumberland, the hospital, is closed, then residents will face a two hour drive to the nearest hospital.

The local “success regime” is the cause of significant public opposition. "There are a lot of people who are angry about Jeremy, angry about Trident [the submarines are made nearby]," says one MP, "But they also understand that if they vote Labour they will not be bringing in a government that closes Sellafield but they can send a message about West Cumberland [the hospital that is under threat of closure]."

So Labour have reason to be more cheerful than the bookmakers are concerned. The outcome will come down to what the question that voters are asking when they vote is: if it is nuclear power, the Tories will win. If it is healthcare, Labour will triumph.

In that, May’s visit has probably helped Labour on balance. She could have decisively shifted the contest by making a commitment to keep West Cumberland open and to secure the future of the Moorside nuclear plant. But she did neither, and instead that meant that the local newspaper splashed on her refusal to confirm that the hospital was safe. Which, in a close election, may well be the difference as far as winning and losing are concerned. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.