On Thursday the 15th of March the government began a consultation into equal civil marriage in England and Wales. It intends to change the current law so that same sex civil marriage on non-religious premises will become legal from 2015. David Cameron beamed and announced, "I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative". Oh shut up. (But more on that later...)
Reaction in the media has been variously welcoming, critical and outraged. Religious organisations have lashed out. Equal rights campaigners are asking for more. But the wedding industry has been uncomfortably quiet on the subject. Political discussion doesn't seem to impact on our day-to-day conversation. Why?
The voice of our industry has always been print media: the monthly and bi-monthly wedding magazines. With the huge popularity of wedding blogs, we're no longer restricted by print lead times: we can discuss the politics affecting marriage as they tangle around us - and by having a conversation, we can make a difference.
It's time for the wedding industry to talk about equality
Wedding magazines have always run to print schedules: planned months in advance, editorial finalised with a handful of weeks to go; printing and then distribution over several weeks. It's made topical debate impossible - by the time the mags land on the high street the important discussions have been and gone.
Wedding blogs are instant. They have multiple times the readership of the print magazines. No lead times means no barriers to topical discussion: when something as big as the consultation on equal civil marriage hits the headlines wedding bloggers can join the debate.
The wedding bloggers are now the most influential and respected voices in the industry. If we talk about this, others will follow - and the generation for whom the debate on equal marriage is most important will listen.
So why all the uproar about gay marriage last week?
- The government plans to change the law so that same sex couples can legally have a civil marriage. This means gay couples can be married in any English or Welsh wedding venue which holds a license for civil ceremonies. The key difference is the terminology: marriage is an emotionally loaded word. Previously civil partnerships weren't enough for many who simply wanted to be legally recognised as a married couple.
- Same sex marriage on religious premises will still be illegal. Current law permits civil partnerships on religious premises but not same sex religious marriage. This won't change. Gay couples won't have the choice to be married in church; churches won't have the option of marrying gay couples on their premises. (And yet the Church of England and Roman Catholic churches have stormed into this debate like raging toddlers.)
- Heterosexual couples still won't be allowed civil partnerships. It seems like a lesser issue, but this only highlights the discrimination we're facing. One rule for everyone regardless of sexual orientation would be true equality, would it not? In the Netherlands straight couples can opt for a civil partnership and since the law there was changed, two thirds of couples do. This is all about choice - and our government aren't willing to yield to us the freedom to choose.
Why this proposal won't bring true equality
Marriage is about two people in love. "We're married!" speaks of deep love and commitment, of a wider celebration of a loving relationship within circles of friends and family, and of recognition within the wider community.
The proposals to legalise same sex marriage have been welcomed by equal rights campaigners - but the changes just don't go far enough. We'll still be in a situation where gay couples are allowed to do one thing and straight couples are allowed another. It's not fair, and it's pointlessly confusing as well.
Why not one law for all? Any couple should be allowed to choose between a civil marriage or a civil partnership. The government has complete power over this - the only barrier is the law.
By proclaiming his support of gay marriage David Cameron gives the impression he supports same sex religious marriage, but this is not true. The government is firmly set against religious marriage for gay couples. Perhaps it fails to see the discrimination or homophobia in this stance or perhaps it doesn't have the guts to make this change to the law.
Some religious organisations support gay marriage in church. The Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Judaism [source] would all welcome gay couples who wanted to get married in their churches - if our government would only change the law so this wasn't illegal. Within the major church organisations there are plenty who would support gay marriage in church - but their leaders say no.
If our government was really so forward-thinking and so welcoming to same sex marriage, then they'd have to change the discriminatory law against religious gay marriage.
Why same sex religious marriage isn't even being considered
In a country where religion is rapidly losing its grip on the populace it strikes me as strange that the government won't address the fact that same sex marriage in church is illegal. No one is suggesting the law should force priests to marry gay couples. But to deny churches and couples alike the option is shortsighted, old fashioned and homophobic.
And yet critics have suggested that the government is cowed by outspoken religious leaders - the likes of Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams and the leaders of the Church of England - whose discriminatory views on same sex religious marriage are embraced by the Daily Mail and peddled to the general public like 1p Butlins holiday offers. It's because of the perceived influence of religious leaders that our government doesn't dare change the law prohibiting same sex marriage in church. So let's look at the church's response over the last few days.
The church on civil marriage for same sex couples
The church shouldn't interfere in this consultation process. The government is proposing legal civil marriage for same sex couples. It doesn't even affect the church! Their 'moral' argument that marriage - whether religious or civil - should not be allowed for gay couples is homophobic. The church is shining its own very unpleasant light onto the discussion about gay marriage.
On Sunday the 11th of March two top bishops issued a letter to be read to congregations in all Catholic churches, telling parishioners that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and "intended for the procreation and education of children". They described the proposals for same sex civil marriage as "radical" - and they didn't even try to make it clear that the government's proposals only cover civil marriage.
In the Huffington Post equal rights campaigner Peter Tatchell explained,
"As a consequence, many Catholics left church last Sunday believing that the government was going to compel priests to marry lesbian and gay couples.”
“I know this because after Sunday Mass I interviewed people coming out of London’s premier Catholic church, Westminster Cathedral. Three quarters of the people I spoke to were under the impression that the archbishops were talking about same-sex marriages in churches. They thought the government was going to force unwilling religious institutions to marry same-sex couples.”
Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone has criticised church leaders’ reactions, saying,
“It adds nothing to the debate. It inflames. On these issues, we have a responsibility in leadership positions to make sure we don’t fan the flames of homophobia. I totally respect all of the religious views and understand they are strong and genuinely felt. But to use such inflammatory language does not help the debate and does not help their cause.”
When the Archbishop of York claimed the government couldn’t change the law on marriage without the approval of religious leaders her reply was simply, “My understanding is that Parliament can legislate to do what it wishes.”
I’m not alone in thinking the church should stop interfering so negatively in an issue which is none of their damn business.
The church on religious marriage for same sex couples
The government messed up by not addressing religious gay marriage in this proposal. Church leaders are shouting at us anyway. “Marriage is for a man and a woman!”… “We invented it, for God’s sake!” the priests cry. Well no, you didn’t. You don’t own the concept of marriage. If you want to start an argument, let’s discuss same sex marriage on your premises while we’re here, shall we? (Civil partnerships on religious premises are already legal, after all.)
Church leaders have loud voices — but are we really listening?
It’s no secret that the average age of both priests and congregations is heading skyward (no pun intended). Statistics predict the percentage of UK churchgoers will be below 5% by the year 2020. Churchgoers may listen to their priests’ views on gay marriage in church — most may agree. But they’re a shrinking minority. (Consider the ‘official estimate’ from this Whitehall source: 6% of the UK population are gay.)
The media listen to outspoken church leaders because controversy sells papers. Archbishops are no strangers to soundbites and they know how to court media attention. Daily Mail readers may not flinch as priests use words like “grotesque” in their retaliation against these proposals — but debate on the Independent, Telegraph and Guardian websites tells a far more enlightened story.
Perhaps it’s entertaining to see the men in funny hats cry out against equality in marriage. From a nation beguiled by bad X Factor auditions, the fact we’re giving blinkered bishops newspaper space doesn’t necessarily mean we agree with their point of view.
In much the same way as Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude pointed out the Conservative party would be “unelectable” if it stuck to “backwards-looking social attitudes”, I believe the Church should think carefully about alienating a younger congregation through bigotry and homophobia.
Writing for the Daily Telegraph, John Bingham said, “The Church of England hinted that the proposals could undermine its position as the established Church”. This is an important point which flips neatly around: in my opinion if the Church of England won’t let go of its antiquated prejudices then its position as far as our generation is concerned will become precarious indeed.
Whose fault is it that inequality in marriage is still rife?
The government is certainly at fault — it has taken steps towards equality with civil partnerships and now civil marriage narrowing the gap between the rights of hetero– and homosexual couples. But politicians are too scared of angering the major religious groups to lift the ban on same sex marriage in church.
It’s our fault too: the wedding industry, the general public: we leave the equal rights campaigners and the politicians to it. This shouldn’t be a debate just for the gay community and the House of Commons — it should be a conversation we all contribute to.
Within the wedding industry we are blinkered. Despite seeing almost 43,000 civil partnerships in five years we really don’t talk about same sex marriage or civil partnerships, and we don’t tend to wade into political debate. Considering the audience demographic of wedding blogs — thousands of young couples who are interacting with churches, registrars and wedding suppliers — it’s time wedding bloggers at the very least joined the conversation.
While the government is making steps towards change in a positive way, and the wedding industry I’m sure will welcome gay civil marriage, this whole debate is being held back by religious organisations. Despite being on the fringes of all of this — while we only focus on civil marriage and the law — their vocal leaders are effectively preaching homophobia. The church is trying to stop progress, to discriminate and to overrule the rest of us in what could turn out to be a twisted popularity contest.
We really need to support equal marriage — now
The wedding industry needs to recognise and participate in important issues. Equality in marriage is something I’m confident we’ll support as an industry. Our wedding press, wedding blogs and wedding business blogs are a platform we should be using to promote equality and change.
Beginning a discussion within the wedding industry could drive significant support for the Equal Love Campaign, which is pressing the government to end the twin bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships, and to allow religious organisations that support same-sex marriages to conduct them.
This is a discussion being held between politicians, equal rights campaigners and the clergy. The impact of legal changes in 2015 will be felt by the very people we in the wedding industry can reach: millions of couples in their twenties and thirties. So let’s push for equality now, join the debate and let our voices be heard.
What can we do to help
- Sign the petition for Equal Love at http://equallove.org.uk/petition/
- Tell your friends (and followers) about Equal Love and ask for their support on facebook and twitter http://equallove.org.uk/petition/tell-your-friends/
- Like the Equal Love facebook group https://www.facebook.com/pages/Equal-Love/163531170333628
- Complete the quick online consultation form on the Home Office website http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/about-us/consultations/equal-civil-marriage/
- Watch for #equalcivilmarriage tweets to follow latest campaign news
Most of all I’d love to see everyone involved with marriage and weddings in England and Wales supporting the move towards true equality: keeping this conversation alive is important.
Further reading on equal marriage for same sex couples
- Gay marriage ‘gives no extra rights to homosexuals but confuses society’ — Telegraph
- Same-sex marriage proposals welcome but flawed | Peter Tatchell Foundation
- Peter Tatchell: Catholic Archbishops Have Mislead People on Gay Marriage
- Pastoral Letter on marriage — Archbishop Vincent Nichols | Archbishop | Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster
- Gay Marriage: Ben & Jerry’s Rename Ice Cream In Favour Of Government Plans
- Apple-y Ever After
- Blair takes on the Pope by backing gay marriage — World Politics — World — The Independent
- Gay Marriage: Telegraph Poll Suggests Most Tories Don’t Want It
- Church leaders ‘fan the flames of homophobia’, says Equalities Minister — Telegraph
- Lynne Featherstone: Church leaders are ‘fanning the flames of homophobia’ — Home News — UK — The Independent
- The case for gay marriage is fundamentally conservative — it will strengthen Britain’s social fabric — Telegraph
- Gay marriage: this is a battle the Churches will lose – and it will be a messy business – Telegraph Blogs
- consultation-document (pdf)
- Letter on Marriage for 1011 March 2012 (pdf)
- Equal Love | Peter Tatchell Foundation
- Top Tory blog editor backs gay marriage — PinkNews.co.uk
- A conservative case for gay marriage The Tory Diary
- Prominent Tory disowns ‘religious right’ and supports gay marriage — UK Politics — UK — The Independent
- The Independent View | Peter Tatchell writes… Lib Dems should stick to their principles and urge Lynne not to renege on equality pledge
Other related information sources
- BBC News — Census: How religious is the UK?
- Civil partnerships — 5 years on — YouTube
- Trends in UK Church attendance
- Demographics of sexual orientation — Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- 3.6m people in Britain are gay — official | UK news | The Observer