Nicholas Turner takes the conspiracy theorists’ perspective
The principal objection to the Civil Partnership Act 2004, as it now stands, is that it will undermine the institution of marriage. It would have been possible to introduce a simpler, more modest Act, to give legal protection and support to gay couples living together, but that option was rejected for this altogether grander and more influential piece of legislation (264 sections; 30 schedules). It is not enough to be nice to gays, it matters now to move resolutely into the world of marriage, while always claiming to be doing the exact opposite. It was the support of the Bishop of Chelmsford that proved so important in this regard during the often heated parliamentary debate, which was especially troubling, from our point of view, because the government was able to imply that he spoke for the CofE as a whole.
The formal language of any legislation will give few clues to the political intentions and social implications behind it, but this Act is more than usually opaque. It was made clear, however, in the debates that a civil partnership (CP) has nothing to do with sexual relations (the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are nowhere to be found in the 579 pages of the Act and its explanatory notes), has nothing to do with commitment or faithfulness (any such terms were defeated in an amendment) and has nothing to do with marriage (this was +Chelmsford’s unexpected triumph).
If one is not allowed to know what a thing is, (if this is the love that dares to but must not speak its name), one has to resort to considering what it is not. The provisions on nullity are an important indicator of the government’s intentions (it will come as no surprise that these sections, 49-51, were never debated).
What do we find? The strangest anomaly is that if you change sex, under the terms of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, you must tell your partner if together you wish to form a CP (you being now both of the same gender), but not if together you wish to get married (you being, at least in terms of parliamentary law if not entirely under the terms of biological laws, of opposite gender). This suggests that some work will have to be done on marriage law, fairly soon after the introduction of this Act at the end of this year, to remove the anomaly.
Rather worse is the conundrum I have written about before, when a CP is voidable if ‘the respondent was pregnant by some person other than the applicant’ and if and only if the applicant was unaware of the pregnancy at the time of the registration ceremony. Take it slowly: There are grounds for declaring a CP (which is not to be confused with marriage) null and void, if it shares a fundamental understanding of consent and procreation central to marriage. What is in effect being stated is that a CP is quite different to a marriage when the knot is being tied, and exactly like a marriage when it is being untied. Confused? You ought to be. See my article in ND July 2004 for the full, mind-bending complexity.
What is the purpose of this bizarre anomaly? It is to make a CP structurally akin to marriage, and to allow for further legislation, when the Marriage Act 1949 can be ‘updated’ by reference to the Civil Partnership Act 2004.
This becomes clearer when one studies the provisions for the more general theme of ‘dissolution’ (sections 37-48). If a CP is truly as contentless as the government claims, there is no reason on earth why Section 41 should insist as it does (contrary to other EU practice) that a ‘divorce’ is not permitted within the first year of the partnership. If it has nothing to do with permanence or even commitment (if it is ‘time-blind’ in the contemporary jargon) why is this limitation introduced?
And so on. It is strange and tiring work, but if you can read your way through all these ‘negative’ sections on property and financial arrangements, disputes over step-children and adoption, false statements, ‘family homes and domestic violence’, you can begin to realise just how much of the language of marriage and family life has been drawn in, as it were by the back door. A sense of solidity and worth has been applied to CPs only by the regulations on their dissolution. The involvement of the courts in a break-up of a partnership will become the public statement of their legal ‘weight’ and value.
What is going on here? This movement towards ‘gay marriage’ began in northern Europe: all Scandinavian countries have had them for a while, as do Belgium, Netherlands, now France, Germany and the UK, with Spain rushing to join the club. It is spreading fast and growing far beyond its simpler, liberal origins. Despite the emphatic rejection of more modest proposals in the US elections last November, the European social experiment is unlikely to stop, for it is about far more than being nice to gays.
No sex please
As churches, we need to study the details more thoroughly and especially the differences between the legislation of different countries. There seems to be a process of leap-frog, of surreptitious development by incremental changes. Why, one might ask, were CPs offered to homosexual couples, but not to heterosexual couples, as they have been by other European parliaments? If, as the government insists, CPs are not to do with sex and are not to be confused with marriage, what is it that prevents their modern, secular, legal provisions from being available to heterosexual couples, who do not (as so many do not) wish to marry?
Why? I do not know. But I think it is highly probable, almost to the point of certainty, that this is to enable the present government (duly re-elected) to extend the provisions to such couples in a later Civil Marriage Bill. This will enable it then to remove much of the content from the ancient institution of marriage (most obviously its relation to children).
And why would they want to do this? This is where I go completely paranoid, so do not follow me unless you wish. Marriage is the bedrock of the family. The family is the most powerful social institution that protects its members, against (among other things) the state. Above all it protects its children. The introduction of state-recognized, gender-blind, personal relationships (not based on existing family ties) as legal entities would give the state more direct access to each individual ID-card-carrying member, children included.
A bad thing? I think so.
Nicholas Turner is Canon Theologian of St Helena Cathedral