I’ve noticed a bit of confusion among some of my foreign friends about the recent changes in UK law allowing gay people to marry. And when I say confusion I don’t mean in the sense of being conflicted (although that too), I mean that some people are actually quite confused. How can two people of the same sex get married? Do they have religious ceremonies? What do the vows say?
This comes from a friend of mine, a very thoughtful chap from Nigeria who I know would not seek to hurt people’s feelings. Who actually spends his life in the service of others:
First Gay Marriage took place in the United Kingdom taking advantage of the new law allowing same sex marriage as legal. During the wedding, the officiator said ” I now declare you husband and wife”. My question is, who is the husband and who is the wife? Cant they find appropriate terms to qualify themselves? signs of the end of time? Oh God have mercy!
So in the spirit of friendship and in an effort to bring some clarity to the discussions, I thought I’d do some digging about to see what the legal changes will actually mean for us. To lay my own cards on the table – I’m a very strong campaigner for gay people to be accorded the same rights, respects and privileges as every other person. That’s my commitment as a peacebuilder and a human rights advocate. To me it’s straightforward – love between two people is special, and God-given. It’s not for any of the rest of us to stand in the way of that.
And yet, I have also visited enough places and broken bread with enough people to know that not everybody thinks the same. In some countries the prevailing social attitudes are very different. In fact, in some countries the climate for even discussing the ‘gay issue’ is so hostile, and the debate so polarised and loaded, that to even acknowledge any kind of nuance can put a person in a lot of bother. To become accepting of homosexuality in these places is to first undo a lifetime’s worth of assumptions and fears about the deviations of gay sex, to unlearn much of what has been taught about ‘proper’ relations between men and women, and to set oneself apart from the crowd. Not everyone is able to do that. Not everyone wants to.
So I appreciate that, from the outside looking in, what’s happening in the UK right now might seem strange and unsettling. It might look like a step backward rather than a step forward. And I can see why it might be confusing, in a literal sense, because norms that are rigorously enforced in other places are being completely inverted here.
To a certain extent my foreign friends are right – we are re-writing the rules of marriage. That’s because we realise that the old rules were horribly, horribly unfair. We’ve known this for a long while and we’ve gradually been introducing reform. We introduced ‘civil partnerships’ in 2004 – these allowed gay people to obtain the same rights and responsibilities as marriage but by another name. With the recent law change these couples in civil partnerships can convert their union into a marriage, and other gay couples can now marry on the same terms are their non-gay counterparts.
Personally I see this as a sign of hope and a positive reinforcement of the institution of marriage. If we didn’t care about the sanctity of marriage in the UK, if we didn’t believe that it’s the bedrock of our society, then we wouldn’t be fighting so hard to make sure that all of ours sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, have the same right to enter into it.
Here’s a few facts about gay marriage in the UK:
- The law does not force religious institutions to perform gay marriages. In fact, the Church of England and the Church in Wales are actually banned from doing so. Other religious institutions can ‘opt-in’ if they choose to.
- This means that gay marriages will take place in a non-religious setting. They will be civil marriages, which are conducted by a registrar and often take place in town halls or hotels. Many people in the UK get married in this way.
- For all marriages in the UK, the partners have to exchange some kind of formal wording. However we are quite flexible about this, and people can make their own vows that reflect the promises they want to make to each other. So, there’s no need to worry about adapting traditional wedding vows – everyone can simply use the words right for them.
- Religious groups gave a mixed reaction to the changes. The Catholic and Muslim communities urged the government not to proceed. Within the Jewish community, the Liberal and Reform synagogues welcomed the changes while the Orthodox synagogues opposed them. Sikhs have expressed concern. The Anglican church was against the changes and was very concerned about how they might redefine the relationship with the state (the Anglican church is formally linked to the state here). The Quakers, meanwhile, have been welcoming.
So that’s where we are right now in the UK. Maybe this answers some people’s questions about the recent changes to the law and can help to address some of the confusion. Ultimately we’re trying to build a society where everyone is able to to live freely, with the same rights, dignities and responsibilities as the next person. If you have any other questions then please do write them below and I will do my best to find out the answer. That’s the joy of being a researcher!