January 3, 2020

I will admit it. I have a frosty relationship with the local Register Office. It’s not really their fault. But I just don’t trust them. The Home Office has turned them into snitches.

It all goes back to the Immigration Act 2014. Before then, if two of my parishioners wanted to get married in the church, I could carry out the ceremony without having to ask the state for its permission. The only legal preliminary required was that I call out their names on three Sundays before the wedding.

After 2014, if one of the couple is not an EU national, I have to go and inform the Register Office. And then they have to tell the Home Office. At least one of my parishioners was taken from his bed and spent several months in a detention centre — basically a prison — the other side of the country because he was exposed by the Register Office as having overstayed his visa. He is now happily married, thankfully. And all is well. But the couple did have to put their lives on hold for over a year to get there.

Where I am a priest in South London, the practical effect of this nasty law is that darker skinned people have to answer a whole load more questions about where they come from than generally white-skinned Europeans. Hopefully, this disgraceful bit of racism will bite the dust with Brexit.

So, yes. I have issues with the Register Office. I resent having to ask their permission to marry people. But, this isn’t really about the Register Office per se. It’s more a question of the relationship between the Church and the state. And when it comes to my ability as a priest to confer the sacrament of marriage, I recognise the authority of my Bishop, not the secular authority of the Government.

Which brings me to the arrival of mixed-sex civil partnerships, the first of whom were ‘hitched’ — probably not the right word — earlier this week. In many ways, the existence of civil partnerships is something I am not instinctively sympathetic to, because I really do not see very much difference between civil partnerships and civil marriage.

You can already get married at the Register Office in your jeans and without any sort of religious ceremony whatsoever. If you want to, you can make it have all the spiritual atmosphere of the taking out of a mortgage. And the legal differences are negligible. But the proponents of civil partnership are not satisfied with the resoundingly secular civil marriage. They believe the very term ‘marriage’ itself is so imbued with patriarchal assumptions that it is irredeemably sexist and fit only for the scrapheap of history. Indeed, what the more radical wing of what we might call the Civil Partnership Movement now proposes is that the state should get out of the marriage business completely.

See, for example, Against Marriage by Clare Chambers (OUP 2017). I came across this book on the Twitter feed of Rebecca Steinfeld, who, along with her new civil partner, Charles Keidan, was responsible for the successful legal action to make civil partnerships available to opposite sex couples.

The argument is well made and fascinating. Why should the state take a view about the private domestic arrangements between human beings? Why should it add its authority to an institution in which women are ‘given away’ like possessions? And for extreme liberals, the involvement of the state in marriage violates the principle of state neutrality. So marriage should be privatised — the state should be as involved with marriage about as much as it is involved with friendship. So goes the argument.

And here I find myself initially tempted into an unlikely alliance. I want the church to be free from the state; the marriage privatisation movement wants the state to be free from the patriarchy of marriage. It seems we agree.

Except, we really don’t agree. For when I press my irritation with the Register Office to its logical conclusion, I realise that I have been rather naïve. Because, even though many presume that marriage was originally a religious thing, the truth is that marriage has never been the sole preserve of the church – indeed, far from it.

Marriage wasn’t even considered a sacrament until the 12th century. The institution of marriage is in its very DNA a combination of church and state. And the disestablishment of marriage would threaten its very existence. Marriage privitisation is de facto marriage abolition. Marriage has always been a combination of the public and the private, that point at which love and law reach out to each other and form a mutually reinforcing pact. And society is much the richer for it.

Yes, there are parts of the world where this coming together of the public and the private does indeed feel oppressive. In Israel, for example, where my wife is from, secular Jews have to get on a plane to Cyprus in order to get married outside of the auspices of the Rabbinate. There is no state provision for them to be married within their own country. Moreover, in Hebrew, the word for “my husband” is “Baali”, which also means “my owner”. In 1953, David Ben Gurion attempted to rid “Baali” from official documentation, but didn’t succeed. In such circumstances, it is hard not to sympathise with those who want marriage to be distanced from such deeply embedded patriarchal assumptions.

But does the English concept of marriage contain the same resonance? Not any more. In over 25 years as a priest, I have not once used the old fashioned formula of “love, honour and obey” – and the only times I have been asked for it were because the couple wanted a kind of retro liturgy, thinking it more traditional and somehow more proper. And I talked them out of it. Likewise, the idea that the bride is “given away” by her father is now liturgically optional – and when it is used, it is never understood as a transfer of ownership. It is a shocker that Marriage Certificates require the name of the father and not the mother, but even this is now being changed.

Those who have campaigned for mixed-sex civil partnerships have rejected the civil marriage option, not because the two are different in terms of law, but because of the historical resonance of the term marriage. Here, the argument reminds me a little of the whole ‘Rhodes must fall’ debate: it is an argument with the past. And an attempt to rid the present of the influence of the past.

But you don’t get rid of the moral influence of the past by burying the evidence that it once existed. Racism is not eliminated by destroying the reminders that it was once embedded deep in our society. And, likewise, sexism is not eliminated by relegating to the private sphere a word that was once associated with the oppression of women.

In fact, the opposite may be true. Without reminders that we once got it so wrong, we will be all the more likely to repeat the same mistakes. Let’s not pretend that mixed-sex civil partnerships can escape the power imbalances of sexual politics simply because it has done away with the very concept of marriage. Sin, for want of a better word, is much stickier than that.