Yesterday a historic vote took place in Parliament where MPs overwhelmingly approved legislation for same-sex marriage in England and Wales. The Commons voted in favour of The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, by 400 to 175, a majority of 225.
There was little doubt as to whether the vote would go through, the question was always by what majority. For David Cameron the vote was a victory, despite the fact it has divided the Tory party, with 136 Tory MPs voting against the legislation.
Many people have welcomed this vote, viewing it as a step forward for equality in the UK, including some within the church. But there is also a very significant minority, myself included, who are opposed to this legislation.
We must not underestimate what a major change yesterday's vote was, because it effectively redefine's our understanding of marriage, as being the union between one man and one women, which has been the bedrock of our society over centuries.
Those in support of this motion argue it is about equality, but does equality have to mean uniformity? George Pitcher, a clergyman in the Church of England, who identifies himself as a liberal, and who is in support of conducting blessing ceremonies for gay couples in church, wrote on Twitter yesterday "All in favour of equality, as you may know. This driven by uniformity and far from properly debated" and "I don't think gay couples should emulate straights. Think we should celebrate an equal but different union."
In terms of the law, Civil Partnerships give same sex couples ALL the same legal rights, benefits and protections as married couples, so in this sense there was no inequality between hetrosexual and gay couples.
The decision to allow gay people to get married is not just a simple one, it has far reaching consequences for our understanding of what marriage is.
For Christian believers, marriage is an institution which enshrines God's intention for a man and a woman, in an exclusive, faithful and mutually supportive relationship, to express their sexuality and to bear and nurture children. This is laid out in the introduction to the Marriage Service which is used in Church of England parishes:
Marriage is a gift of God in creation
through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.
It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.
The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together
in the delight and tenderness of sexual union
and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.
It is given as the foundation of family life
in which children are [born and] nurtured
and in which each member of the family,
in good times and in bad,
may find strength, companionship and comfort,
and grow to maturity in love.
Marriage is a way of life made holy by God,
and blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ
with those celebrating a wedding at Cana in Galilee.
Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty
which all should uphold and honour.
It enriches society and strengthens community.
No one should enter into it lightly or selfishly
but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God.
We find the centrality and importance of marriage being between a man and a woman at the very beginning of Scripture:
'The man said
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,'
for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2:23-24)
The motivation for redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships is so that these relationships can be treated as essentially 'the same as' hetrosexual relationships - hence the term equal marriage. But in essence they cannot be the same.
This is why I believe it is wrong to redefine our understanding of marriage.
The trouble is that in many of these debates, those who do hold this traditional view are often attacked as being homophobic or bigots (the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg got in trouble when he had to remove comments from a speech attacking opponents of same sex marriage as bigots - click HERE for more information). This is neither helpful nor constructive, and belittles peoples genuinely held beliefs.
My worry about yesterday's vote is that changing our understanding of what marriage is, has far reaching consequences, and is not as simple or straight forward as people imagine. As one church leader put it "I can't help feeling that today the UK Government is making some decisions which cannot easily be undone re. marriage."
This proposal was not in the Tory of Lib Dem manifesto or Queen's Speech, and yet seemed to have been rushed through Parliament.
Ann Widdecombe, former Shadow Home Secretary gave a speech on the 8th October 2012 at the Conservative Party Conference fringe event, hosted by the Coalition for Marriage, where she outlines what the potential consequences could be of allowing same sex marriage - it is worth listening to in its entirety.
For those who don't support same sex marriage, the Government has said that safe guards will be put into place. The Church of England for example will be forbidden by law from performing gay marriage ceremonies. However I believe once gay marriages become legal, this protection for churches, temples and mosques will be very quickly challenged. If same sex marriage is legal, it would be seen as discriminatory for churches, etc., not to allow same sex couples to get married in church. This puts people like myself, who conduct weddings into a very difficult position, and I see a time when clergy will be taken to court over their refusal to conduct same sex marriages.
Today in the Daily Telegraph there is an article which says that The Church of England may not be safe from court challenges forcing it to conduct gay marriage as there is "no unanimous" legal opinion on the issue - click HERE to read the article.
In Canada where same sex marriage was introduced in 2005, hundreds of Canadians have faced legal proceedings for opposing same-sex ‘marriage’ in the public sphere according to reports. An estimated two to three hundred cases have been brought against individuals, mostly Christians, who have opposed same-sex marriage in the public sphere. The proceedings have been brought at employment boards, courts, and human rights commissions (click HERE for more information).
We have already seen cases where Christians have been dismissed from their jobs, because of their views of marriage. In September the European Court of Human Rights heard the cases of four British people who claim they lost their jobs as a result of discrimination against their Christian beliefs. One of these people was Lillian Ladele, a registrar in Islington, who lost her job after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies on religious grounds, despite the fact that Islington Council had said she did not have to conduct civil partnership ceremonies, as other staff were available to do them. They changed their minds however after complaints that, by refusing to register civil partnerships, Lillian Ladele was acting contrary to the council's equality policies. And Gary McFarlane was dismissed from his work as a councillor for Relate after he expressed concerns about providing sex therapy for gay couples.
We have also seen Catholic Adoption Agencies forced to close or severe their links with the church, because they were not prepared to allow same sex couples to adopt children. Despite the fact that there are many other adoption agencies who happily allow same sex couples to adopt.
And in a landmark judgment last year, which could have a serious impact on the future of fostering and adoption in the UK, the High Court suggested that Christians with traditional views on sexual ethics are unsuitable as foster carers, and that homosexual ‘rights’ trump freedom of conscience in the UK.
Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury in April 2012 said that the outward expression of traditional conservative Christian values had in effect been banned under a new "secular conformity of belief and conduct". He argued that there is a "drive to remove Judeo-Christian values from the public square" and that UK courts had "consistently applied equality law to discriminate against Christians".
I fully support Civil Partnerships for same sex couples who want to express their love and commitment to one another, and welcome the fact that our understanding and acceptance of homosexuality has changed so much, but I also believe marriage is something which cannot be redefined.
Only time will tell what the consequences will be following yesterday's vote.