Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 3rd June 2013.

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Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 5:15 pm, 3rd June 2013

My Lords, I understand very well the unease that many of your Lordships feel about this Bill. I was brought up in a world where homosexuality was whispered about in dark corners and any hint of its expression resulted in expulsion. Our understanding of homosexuality is undoubtedly the biggest social change of my lifetime.

My own change and understanding came about when I realised—for example, through reading the biographies of gay people—that often, from a very early age, they had found themselves predominantly attracted to members of their own sex, not just physically but as whole persons. While some people are bisexual and there is a degree of fluidity in the sexuality of others, we know that for a significant minority their sexuality is not a matter of choice but as fundamental to their identity as being male or female. That is a fact that must bring about a decisive shift in our understanding.

The question arises as to how the church and society should respond to this. Both have an interest in helping people live stable lives in committed relationships. For this reason, many of us warmly welcome civil partnerships, not just because of the legal protections that they rightly afford to those who enter into them but because they offer the opportunity for people to commit themselves to one another publicly. Personally, I take a high view of civil partnerships. The idea of a lifelong partnership is a beautiful one. I deeply regret that the Church of England has not yet found a way of publicly affirming civil partnerships in a Christian context. I wish that it had warmly welcomed them from the first and provided a liturgical service in which the couple could commit themselves to one another before God and ask for God’s blessing upon their life together. If only the church had made it clear that although these relationships might be different in some respects from the union of a man and woman, they are equally valid in the eyes of the church and, more importantly, in the eyes of God.

Sadly, too many who now say that they accept civil partnerships have done so only slowly, reluctantly and through gritted teeth. Today we are not in a situation where civil partnerships are regarded as different but equal to marriage. Rightly or wrongly, the impression is inevitably created that one form of relationship is inferior to the other, and people believe that marriage is a profounder and richer form of relationship than a civil partnership.

Most importantly, many gay and lesbian people believe this and want to enter not just into a civil partnership but a marriage: a lifelong commitment of love and fidelity, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Marriage affords legal advantages that are denied to civil partnerships, such as their legal status in many countries, but that is not the main point. The point is that those who wish to enter into this most fundamental of human relationships should be able to do so legally. I am aware that this involves a significant change in our understanding of marriage, but marriage has never had a fixed character. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, eloquently pointed out that its legal meaning has changed over the years; and no less significantly, its social meaning has changed.

For most of history, among the upper classes, marriage was primarily a way of controlling titles and wealth. Among all classes, it involved the radical subservience of women. Often it went along with a very lax attitude—by males, not females—to relationships outside marriage. Contraception was forbidden and this resulted in many children, and as often as not the wife dying young. Only in the 18th century did we get a growth in emphasis on the quality of the relationship of the couple. Now, this mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have with the other, in prosperity and adversity, is rightly stressed. This is equally valued by all people, whatever their sexuality.

I really do not underestimate the linguistic dissonance set up by this Bill and the consequent unease felt by many but, for those reasons that I have briefly outlined, I warmly welcome it. I believe in marriage. I believe, with the Jewish rabbi of old, that in the love of a couple there dwells the shekinah—the divine presence; or, to put it in Christian terms, that which reflects the mutual love of Christ and his church. I believe in the institution of marriage and I want it to be available to same-sex couples as well as to males and females.