How far can we trust the government of David Cameron when it claims that its proposed legislation purporting to establish “gay marriage” will not apply to marriages in church — as though that was our main concern? It isn’t, of course: marriage is marriage: what we are objecting to among much else is the sheer impertinence of a local legislature, at one particular point in history, claiming to have the authority to change what through the ages has been universally accepted: that marriage (civil or religious) is between one man and one woman. What Cameron now intends to do is to make a distinction between religious and civil marriage of a kind that nobody has previously accepted: marriage is marriage. A civil marriage is accepted by the Church as being as valid as a religious one. Now that will change.
Cameron has so far claimed that his legislation will establish clearly that gay marriage in church will not be permitted: the fact that that is supposed to mollify us is one demonstration among many that he is blundering around in an area of the national life he really doesn’t begin to understand. But at least we have been able to suppose that he actually does believe what he says, that at least he isn’t just being a hypocrite. But even that may not, it seems, be the case. According to the traditionalist Anglican blogger Cranmer
it is highly likely that ministers of the established Church of England will eventually be obliged by statute to officiate at homosexual unions, and where they demur, the local bishop will be obliged to provide a replacement. His Grace has heard from more than one source that the Prime Minister is telling his constituents in Witney that “religious marriage” will inevitably be affected by his proposed legislation. It is interesting, is it not, that by enforcing gender blindness at the altar with the objective of making minorities equal, the Prime Minister is content to cause division in the Church and strife for the majority. It is appalling politics.
Cranmer is basing his view that the Established church only will be forced to conduct such marriages on the precedent of the established Lutheran church in Denmark, the Danish parliament having voted to compel the Evangelical Lutheran Church, to which about 80 per cent of Danes profess to belong (rather as many English people claim to belong to the C of E). “Other churches,” adds Cranmer, “may also offer same-sex marriage services, but only in accordance with their own rules: none is being forced to conduct anything which is contrary to their historical traditions and theological orthodoxy.”
But it’s not the Danes the Prime Minister is thinking of when he tells Witney constituents that his legislation is bound to affect “religious marriage”: it’s our old friend the European Court of Human Rights. I have written about this before, but I see I didn’t actually refer to the most suggestive precedent, the March 2012 ruling from the ECHR, in a suit by a French lesbian couple, Valérie Gas and Nathalie Dubois, that although there is no human rights obligation for any country to legislate for gay marriage, once a state has passed a gay marriage law it must be applied to all citizens equally including those seeking religious marriage.
In the words of the judges in Strasbourg, “The European Convention on Human Rights does not require member states’ governments to grant same-sex couples access to marriage.” However, “where national legislation recognises registered partnerships between same sex, member states should aim to ensure that their legal status and their rights and obligations are equivalent to those of heterosexual couples in a similar situation.” According to Neil Addison, a specialist in discrimination law, that means that “Once same-sex marriage has been legalised then the partners to such a marriage are entitled to exactly the same rights as partners in a heterosexual marriage… if same-sex marriage is legalised in the UK it will be illegal for the Government to prevent such marriages happening in religious premises.”
And that doesn’t just mean that the C of E, being the state church, will have to do it: they’re going to attempt to coerce us too. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We won’t do it, of course, and we will have to take the consequences. But that gives us the opportunity to get ourselves into condition for all the other great battles ahead. What with one thing and another, what the Pope has called the tyranny of relativism — one might call it the enforced toleration of the intolerable — can only encourage us to see more clearly what we often attempt to avoid: that in the oft-repeated words of the late Holy Father, John Paul II, we are called on to be signs of contradiction: for, once we start settling down comfortably in a culture which is so manifestly built on everything we reject, our message is lost, and so are we.
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