Geoffrey Kirk explains the fundamental differences between marriage and civil partnership and how recent developments have further emphasized these differences
I am no enthusiast of Dr Cranmer’s liturgical anthology, but it does have its uses. In particular, it is quite specific about marriage. You will recall it, referring to the ‘holy estate of matrimony’ in all its magisterial sonority:
First, it was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord and to praise his holy Name.
Secondly it was ordained for a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of conti-nency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
Thirdly it was ordained for the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have to the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
Those words retain their cogency and relevance. Societies in many cultures have protected and promoted marriage over other relationships primarily on the grounds of that first reason – the procreation of children. Tax concessions have been granted and legal sanctions invoked to secure its permanence and so to protect the environment in which children are born and nurtured. Marriage and the family have been thought to be inseparable: a functioning microcosm of the whole of society.
This, it appears, is no longer true of the post-enlightenment West. Here, to state the case briefly, Cranmer’s third reason for matrimony has become the first. The heart of the matter is now not function (children being socialized by their upbringing ‘in the fear and nurture of the Lord’) but sentiment (‘mutual society, help and comfort’). It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of this change.
If this truth were not obvious from the way in which nuptials are now conducted – in private ceremonies with ‘vows’ written by the participants themselves – it appeared in blinding clarity in the discussions leading up to the introduction of civil partnerships.
What is a civil partnership? We can find out by eliminating those things which it is not. It is, for example, a relationship between two people of the same sex; so it is not ‘for the procreation of children’. It is not merely for ‘mutual society, help and comfort’, because whole classes of people are excluded from it. Maiden sisters who have lived lives of mutual devo-
tion and service cannot avail themselves of it. It is not ‘a remedy against sin – for few people in today’s world would see ‘continency’ as a gift.
But it does imply, if not explicitly require, sex. There is in it an assumption, coyly unspoken, of sexual activity. And, of course, it is about money and legal privilege: for its purpose is to extend to a same-sex couple the rights and concessions made with regard to heterosexual couples. In a doctrinaire quest for equality it seeks to grant to one kind of partnership the privileged status already granted to another.
This, of course, is perverse and illogical. The ‘privileging’ of marriage exists only in respect of childbearing and rearing – precisely what a same-sex relationship excludes. Only if it were possible to register all same-sex relationships in the same way, regardless of romantic sentiment, would the cause of equality be served. In the absence of such a possibility, the new status merely ‘privileges’ genital activity over loyalty and affection. And that, surely, is a shameful course for any society to take.
Two recent and very public civil partnerships have helped clarify the nature of the bond. One is the ‘wedding’ of Gene Robinson to Mark Andrews; the other the ‘re-marriage’ of Jan Morris to Elizabeth Tuckniss.
Let us take the last, first. James/Jan Morris is the author of two books on sex-change, the most famous of which, Conundrum, was a bestseller in its time, and did much to alter public opinion about such operations. Since becoming Jan, Morris has continued as a successful popular historian and travel writer. During nearly all that time she has lived together with Elizabeth, whom, as James, she divorced in 1972. Recently they entered into a civil partnership. When they die, says Morris, they will share the same grave, inscribed in both English and Welsh: ‘Here are two friends, at the end of one life.’
The facts, so baldly stated, are moving but puzzling. Why ‘re-marry’ when the commitment expressed in the first marriage has clearly persisted and when the children of the marriage are living testimonies to it? What possible benefit can two such adult and devoted people gain, beyond what they already have, from the signing of a piece of paper in a provincial register office?
Two things, I think. They gain public recognition and a certain advantage in the laws of inheritance.
The case of Gene Robinson and his partner Mark is rather different. Where Morris says of her ‘re-marriage’: T made my marriage vows 59 years ago and still have them,’ Robinson divorced his wife for another, with whom he has shared the last twenty or so years. He says of his civil partnership: ‘I’m not willing to travel to Lambeth and put my life in danger without putting protection in place for my partner. If something were to happen to me, my partner would otherwise be treated as a complete stranger by the authorities. He would have no say over medical issues and if a body has to be claimed, he would have no right to do that.’ Again, the elements which seem to make up or require the civil partnership are public recognition and legal advantage.
In neither case, it seems to me, is what is being undertaken in any way like marriage, as Dr Cranmer defines it. Everything that a civil partnership is and expresses is attainable, or has been obtained, by other means. Marriage, on the contrary, is a mystery at the heart of human life, expressing the profoundest human obligations in the face of the sub-limest of divine gifts, the gift of life itself.
There is now general acceptance of cohabitation in our society, whether heterosexual or not. The legal rights conferred in a civil partnership could easily be made available to any couple who sought them, in much the same way as pension benefits are assigned to another party. What reason then is there for privileging one sentimental attachment above and beyond another? And why is a parallel being drawn – however much some may deny it – between two things strictly and fundamentally incomparable? |jyp|