Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 3rd June 2013.

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Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative 9:15 pm, 3rd June 2013

My Lords, it seems to me that one of the difficulties we have when faced with something that appears to be so new is that we cannot quite imagine what it must have been like when something like this happened in the past. However, there is a direct 19th century parallel to the debate we are having here. It was the argument about the right of a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister. That battle was horrendous. The Table of Kindred and Affinity, that schoolboy refuge from boring sermons, specifically forbids such a union. It is the same chapter of Leviticus that condemns gay sex, and it called marriage with your dead wife’s sister an abomination. On that basis, your Lordships’ House stopped reform from 1835 right up to 1907. Last week, I reread the arguments of those who scuppered the reform, and I fear that I have heard them all again today. Your Lordships then complained about rushed legislation. They said that it would be the end of marriage and that it would encourage incest. They hinted at polygamy. They said in particular that for 2,000 years such an outrageous thing had never been contemplated, and yet, once passed, that most controversial of Acts was wholly accepted. The Church of England revised the Table of Kindred and Affinity so that what was once an abomination is now holy matrimony.

It was the science that did it. Once we understood consanguinity, we distinguished between relationships that were genetically dangerous and those which were simply culturally arguable, and so it is with gay marriage. Once we understand scientifically that some people are solely attracted to their own sex, we realise that homosexual practice is not heterosexuals behaving badly, but gay people behaving naturally. That automatically means that the state can no longer exclude this minority. As a result, in my lifetime we have moved from criminalisation almost to equality. Today, we have the chance to complete that journey, to accept the science, and to allow civil marriage for all.

This is civil marriage. State marriage has diverged from church teaching for more than 150 years; some would even say since Henry VIII rigged the rules to his own advantage, but that would be an embarrassment to some Members of this noble House. As a convert Catholic, I have chosen to accept that Christian marriage is about procreation, that it is indissoluble, and that there is no such thing as divorce. Yet, as a parliamentarian, I cannot demand that non-Catholics should accept that definition. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, has reminded us on other occasions, marriage is owned neither by church nor state. Otherwise, I have to say to the noble and right reverend Lord that I am worried about the basis of his theology. It seems to be stuck in an earlier age. There are no echoes of René Girard, one of the greatest theologians of our time. There is no word from Dom Sebastian Moore, not a touch of James Alison. It remains a theology that has not come to terms with Freud. In that it is a precise parallel with the 19th-century bishops who spoke here in that debate and who like Samuel Wilberforce had a theology that could not admit of Darwin.

There are, of course, those who say, “Why can’t these homosexuals make do with civil partnerships?” That is entirely to miss the point. Civil partnership is a means of protecting legal rights. Marriage is a public affirmation of love. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, says that marriage is at the heart of love. He is saying that this House should say to homosexuals that they may not express their love in that way. Married for 37 years, I find that offensive. As a parliamentarian, I cannot say that to fellow citizens. I cannot accept a society that will not go that far.