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
Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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