. Equal marriage: challenging the ‘redefinition argument’ | Ceasefire Magazine

Equal marriage: challenging the ‘redefinition argument’ Analysis

Recent debate in the UK about equal, gay or same-sex marriage centred very significantly on what its legalisation would mean for religious communities’ rights to religious freedom. However, this very focus repeatedly re-entrenched their assumed right to define marriage. How was this curious near-monopoly perpetuated? asks A.L.Shaw.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, November 25, 2012 0:00 - 2 Comments


Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, speaks at a Coalition for Marriage fringe event at the Conservative party conference, October 8, 2012 in Birmingham, England. (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Despite the fact that the equal marriage consultation clearly states that it pertained to civil marriages only, and sought to make no changes to religious ones, the opinions of both the established Church of England and the non-established Roman Catholic Church were still given a great deal of public consideration. I believe one of the principal reasons for this was the way in which equal marriage was depicted by senior traditionalists in various churches as a redefinition of marriage.

The ‘redefinition argument’

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton, stated at the launch of the Coalition for Marriage that they were “disappointed that the government has taken upon itself to redefine the nature of marriage. […] The government has no mandate from the people to redefine marriage.” The present Archbishop of York (the second most senior cleric in the Church of England), The Most Revd and Rt Hon Dr John Sentamu, plainly stated: “Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples would benefit nobody”. Scotland’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, caused particular controversy: marriage “is uniquely the union of a man and a woman and it is wrong that governments, politicians or parliaments should seek to alter or destroy that reality.” And an open letter co-signed by the Roman Catholic Archbishops of Westminster (The Most Revd Vincent Nichols) and Southwark (The Most Revd Peter Smith) warned: “Changing the legal definition of marriage would be a profoundly radical step.” All these and many similar statements represent the ‘redefinition argument’.

It seems obviously true that equal marriage would amount to redefining religious marriage if this were to be imposed on the churches. However, it is just as obvious that this is not the same thing as saying that only religion can define what marriage is. Neither should the impression be allowed that the churches have not accepted redefinitions in the past: for example, arranged and sometimes forced marriages have existed for centuries – marrying for love is comparatively recent.

Nonetheless, this syntactical subtlety achieved something particular: it worked by silently presupposing both the automatic rightness of the respective churches’ definitions of marriage and their natural authority in so doing. They had the primary authority in defining marriage: their definition was the dominant view; a redefinition was an “ill thought out” interference that did not deserve equal consideration. This fundamental framing effect sought not simply to maintain the churches’ definition of marriage, but also to preserve their special status and institutional influence.This was not to be a balanced choice, but one between the established definition – as approved by the nation’s natural moral guardians – and the redefinition proposed by populist egalitarians who sought to tinker with tradition.

This is how the traditionalist Christians’ definition of marriage so pervasively dominated a debate essentially about introducing another kind of civil marriage (as already exists for divorced or avowedly non-religious couples). Demonstrating the framing effect of the redefinition argument may be done by examining how consistently the attempts of those in favour of the proposals were portrayed as attackers of tradition whose Orwellian efforts to subvert definitions must be mistrusted and resisted. This is what preserved the dominance of the religious over the civil.

Dr Sentamu invoked a comparison with “dictators”: “I don’t want to redefine very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time and then overnight the state believes it could go in a particular way.” Lord Carey’s warning also invoked political mutiny: equal marriage “threatens to fatally weaken what is still one of our country’s greatest strengths – the institution of marriage [… and] constitutes one of the greatest political power grabs in history”; elsewhere, he described it as “cultural vandalism”. Conservative commentators outside the churches also warned of invasion or attack.

Cristina Odone wrote: “Marriage may be a force for the good, but for some gay people, it has become a fortress they must storm. […] The ancient and much-loved edifice must be broken into – or simply broken.” Janice Atkinson-Small compared equal marriage campaigners with various extremists: “However, the extreme gay lobby will win the day on this one. As have the bullies in the animal rights and pro-life lobbies.” For Melanie Phillips, the move was indicative of a broader strategy to destroy social norms: “This is a truly terrifying totalitarian mindset from which the country cries out for deliverance.”

Once these binary pairings of defender/attacker and definer/redefiner are recognised, one can see how comparatively easy it is for the churches to maintain the status quo and to bolster their own elevated status in so doing. Definition is ontologically prior to redefinition; accordingly, the locus of trust may be assumed by those defending tradition rather than attacking it.

It fundamentally reduces the position of the latter from campaigners with their own independent arguments to attackers whose very identity is logically dependent on what they oppose. As dependence is traditionally inferior to independence, it follows that invoking this metaphysic automatically presupposes the superiority of tradition. Therefore, challenging this bias is essential if the case for equal marriage is to be recognised as an argument for equality rather than wilful desecration.

What is really at stake?

This analysis may be extrapolated to demonstrate what is at stake for the various churches involved. If the civil marriage proposals were not to affect what churches currently practice, it may be hard to understand why the churches should seek to inveigh upon a national debate that, in the strictest sense, is technically beyond their jurisdiction. The answer, I believe, lies in the dwindling status of Christianity (in its many forms) in the UK: equal marriage presents another challenge to its social moral authority. Of course it is true that the Church of England lacks direct legislative authority; at best, its 26 bishops (the Lords Spiritual) enjoy a cosy nest within the House of Lords, which is mostly a revising chamber with very limited law-making powers: the Lords Spiritual helped oppose the £26,000-per-year benefit cap in the Welfare Reform Bill (though this opposition was criticised by Lord Carey), but such mutiny by the bishops is rare.

However, the Lords Spiritual do guarantee the Church of England – and, by extension, other Christian denominations – remarkable institutional influence in shaping national debates deemed to have a particularly moral nature, and frequently encounter pressure from within to do so too. The Church of England came under internal pressure not to support the repeal (achieved in 2003) of section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, warned against further relaxation of Sunday trading laws, and publicly debates issues like pornography and lowering the age of homosexual consent in 1998. The Roman Catholic Church, which lacks this institutional representation, regularly reiterates its unflinching opposition to, for example, gay adoption, abortion and contraception (despite the majority of British Catholics being in favour).

What these and many other examples show are the role of Britain’s churches in defining moral matters. Influence remains their fundamental stake in society. Any attempts by the state or other religious leaders to do so pose a challenge to this function and, therefore, their continued role in society. The most recent section on religion of the British Social Attitudes survey revealed that only 14 per cent of those interviewed attended religious services weekly, with the Church of England suffering the largest decline in affiliation from 40 per cent in 1983 to 20 per cent in 2010. Accordingly, the simplest inference may be that a decline in attendance has resulted in the greater need for the Church of England to increase its public presence. Even so, the Daily Telegraph recently reported Ipsos Mori research that showed that 74 per cent of 1,136 Christian interviewees did not believe religion should influence public policy anyway.


The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has promised to legalise equal marriage by 2015. However, he has faced repeated calls from within his party to abandon the pledge, clearly suggesting legislative support for the move is very far from guaranteed. The above analysis shows what the churches are likely to argue when it is debated in Parliament. Moreover, the Church of England’s own continuing schism on homosexuality is also most unlikely to result in any kind of support when it is presented to the Lords Spiritual and the other Lords for debate.

For progressives and egalitarians, the principal focus must be to prepare a counteracting argument that avoids the definer/redefiner and defender/attacker dualisms examined above. Two main concluding points may be made on this:

First: as for the redefinition argument itself, insist on a distinction between civil marriage (which is under discussion) and religious marriage (which is not), thereby demarcating the churches’ jurisdiction. The argument itself is essentially a sleight of hand achieved by eliding this distinction, so it is technically invalid for these particular proposals. As this article has argued, what it really reflects are the churches’ concerns with reinforcing their established role in defining and defending – therein lies their influence.

Second: other doctrines, such as original sin and the endorsement of capital punishment, have been since quietly dropped by the Church of England while strictly speaking remaining unrescinded in The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. If considered a precedent, even religious marriage simply may not need to be redefined for it to be permitted; it may be left as a matter of individual conscience, as an ‘opt-in’ system would allow. Given the sheer furore over equal marriage, this may seem unfeasibly utopian, but this is no reason to overlook its potential.

Perhaps the greatest irony in this debate is that the ‘redefining’, ‘attacking’ progressives may have already furnished religious leaders themselves with their own face-saving exit. Given the potential choice between disestablishment (in favour of which Iain McLean has argued) and permanent schism, accepting the civil/religious distinction may allow the Church of England to avoid both: the former because the legislation in its current form poses no change to current religious practice anyway; and the latter by recognising that no formal position need be reached at all because it is not a religious matter – it may be left entirely as a matter of individual conscience.

Neither need this rebuttal be confined to the UK: it applies wherever religious authorities seek to overtly or – as in the redefinition argument – covertly impose their definitions beyond their jurisdiction; whether separation of powers occurs or not; whether a written constitution exists or not. All it requires is the common acceptance of the distinction between the civil and the religious. If the Church of England in particular recognised this, it may be to its own advantage – not only in equal marriage, but possibly for future debates too.

A. L. Shaw is a pseudonym. The author read politics at the University of Exeter and political philosophy at the University of York, where he held a Morrell scholarship. He is now a freelance writer based in London, and is previously published by openDemocracy and the New Left Project.


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Michael Turner
Feb 8, 2013 10:45

In the UK the campaign for re-defining marriage will only begin when and if this devisive bill comes to law.
Millions of those in regular marriages will seek to differentiate their union from homosexual marriage.

Yvonne Aburrow (@vogelbeere)
Feb 11, 2013 14:16

The Bill and the consultation also included proposals for religious organisations who wished to do so to offer same-sex marriage. And quite right too. (Sadly this did not include Pagans, who can’t legally marry any couples in England and Wales, unlike in Scotland.)

Marriage has been redefined many times already, so if offering same-sex marriage does redefine it, that is irrelevant. Personally I do not think it does redefine it. Legally, marriage is a contractual arrangement for two people who love each other to ensure that if one dies, their benefits accrue to the other, and if they have children (either through birth or adoption), both parties to the contract are recognised as parents. Spiritually, marriage is the joining of two people who love each other. Extending that to two people of the same sex does not redefine it.

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