Gay Marriage: A Philosophical Perspective

John MilbankGay marriage is an area of current controversy which I have avoided commenting on recently, so far. But I have been tempted out of silence by reading an interesting philosophical perspective on this issue by philosopher and theologian John Milbank: Gay Marriage and the Future of Human Sexuality. This was published in Australia, although Milbank is a professor at the University of Nottingham here in the UK. Thanks to Roger Mugs and Matthew R. Malcolm for the link.

This is an important article giving a profound criticism of the concept of same sex marriage. But it is one which is difficult to summarise. Milbank considers some difficult issues such as whether marriage is fundamentally a religious or a societal institution. He looks at “The logic of homosexuality” and at “Children, kinship and the grammar of society”. Here is how he finishes the latter section:

From this it follows that we should not re-define birth as essentially artificial and disconnected from the sexual act – which by no means implies that each and every sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation, only that the link in general should not be severed.

The price for this severance is surely the commodification of birth by the market, the quasi-eugenic control of reproduction by the state, and the corruption of the parent-child relation to one of a narcissistic self-projection.

Once the above practices have been rejected, then it follows that a gay relationship cannot qualify as a marriage in terms of its orientation to having children, because the link between an interpersonal and a natural act is entirely crucial to the definition and character of marriage.

The fact that this optimum condition cannot be fulfilled by many valid heterosexual marriages is entirely irrelevant, for they still fulfil through ideal intention this linkage, besides sustaining the union of sexual difference which is the other aspect of marriage’s inherently heterosexual character.

He continues by asking some significant questions:

the Church needs already to face the fact that it is quite likely to lose this debate, even if it should still try to win it. But if it does lose it, then how should it respond?

… it is surely worthwhile for Christians at least to tarry for a while with the more radical secular notion that really the state has no business regulating human sexual relations at all. …

I think that this radical position should be refused, on the grounds that it is desirable that the state give every possible legal and fiscal encouragement to marriage as a key institution of social bonding. And for the same reason Christians cannot remain satisfied with the argument that specifically heterosexual marriage remains possible for them through the agency of the Church.

However, it becomes a useful foil in the event of the universal advent of gay marriage. For then, instead of banging its head against a cognitive brick wall, the proper response of the Church should be to deem marriage under civil law a failed experiment and to resume its sacramental guardianship of marriage as a natural and social condition.

Here we face the question of whether, after the legalisation of gay marriage, the churches and other religious bodies can any longer be considered by the state as legal marriage brokers – as they are today in the UK but not in many other countries like France, where religious people must undergo both a religious and a civil registration.

Milbank seems to come close to an affirmative answer to the latter question, that the church should withdraw from the legal side of marriage. But he draws back from this conclusion, and ultimately offers nothing more than advice for the promotion of “a traditional Church wedding”. Well, one should not expect philosophers to propose public policy, or even church policy. But these are certainly important considerations for those whose task it is to decide and implement such policy.

It seems to me that the only coherent way ahead, in a world which does not fully accept Christian teaching on marriage, is to make a clean distinction between the societal and religious institutions. Indeed this is already the case in very many countries. But currently in English law, and I think in the law of the USA, there is no such legal distinction. It would be a long and difficult journey to disentangle the religious from the secular. But I see it as the direction in which we need to be heading.

A.P. HerbertFor this idea I should thank the late novelist, lawyer and law reformer A.P. Herbert. I remember the TV broadcast of one of his Misleading Cases, probably The Tax on Virtue which was first shown in 1968, based on a 1933 short story. In this story, a man finds that his wife has to pay more tax on her significant income than she would have done if she was unmarried. So to reduce their tax liability the couple get a divorce, then are publicly reconciled and remarried in the Church of England – but conveniently fail to sign the register, so that they are not legally married and can claim separate tax allowances. Herbert certainly knew his English marriage law. But would the church have considered this couple legally married? If so, perhaps there really is already a legal distinction between  religious and secular marriage.

10 thoughts on “Gay Marriage: A Philosophical Perspective

  1. The U.S. state that I live in is current debating a gay marriage law that has been passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, but will be up for referendum this November. As far as I know, no gay marriage referendum that has been put to voters in the U.S. has ever passed in affirmation of gay marriage so far. But I agree with the philosopher that the trend makes it seem inevitable. We in the church may as well start thinking about what to do next. I agree that it makes sense to separate the civil and religious functions of brokering marriage.

    What is truly sad is that people who advocate for gay marriage don’t know that this will not solve their problems or make everything happy. It’s tough to try and tell them otherwise without sounding like a complete boor.

  2. Thank you, Tyson. Here in England, where we already have civil partnerships, the government is trying to push through a change to allow full same sex marriage. If a referendum were held it would very likely not pass. But there seems a clear majority in favour among parliamentarians and opinion formers in general, and they are unlikely to put the matter to a referendum. It is not yet quite inevitable that the change will go through, but we have to consider seriously how to react if it does.

  3. I’ve been talking a lot about the state getting out of the marriage business all together. The lines are becoming so drawn that if the state continues to attempt to assert its jurisdiction here the Church, be forced to capitulate to whatever the State tells it and, as a final result, lead to the destruction of any true sense of religious liberty (oh yes, I’m American if that matters.)

    What is interesting in all of this is that while the state has been the regulator of morality vis a vis control of marriage the Church has been the unusual benefactor of that regulation. However with so many nations capiluating to near universal recognition of homosexual marriage the next, though not final, piece to fall will (at least here in America) be the opposition to polygamy. I still don’t know how anyone who advocates for homosexual marriage can argue against polygamy…its inevitable. Of course with the influx of pluralistic cultures and their various religious views (Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism etc) this is the next discussion.

    Yet I do have problems with the state denying certain end of life rights to patients whose life partners (and really this often means life) are excluded because of a law yet have been caring and connected for so many years. It seems the gracious thing to do to provide truly equal access here. Again I think the state is in the way and no one is the beneficiary of that legal wrangling.

    Finally, if we, as believers, properly understand marriage it is the greatest symbol given to us by God to show us the coming mystery of the eschatological fulfillment of Christ’s union with the Church. Marriage is a distinctively Christian act. (Ephesians 5) Thus we shouldn’t want anyone desecrating it like happens in so much of our society. I don’t want to see another starlet wannabe make millions off her excessive wedding just to jilt the institution (and her husband) days later. Likewise, I also tire of seeing constant destructive practices where people abuse the legal institution to get advantages that should be available to all people.

    For the Church to, ultimately, regain its reputation and credibility on the marriage issue (which is one of the most divinely connected elements of its existence) it seems it must wrangle marriage back from the control of the state. As a pastor I have said “no” to couples desiring to get married who seem to be doing to to gain some advantage and also have said “whoa” to some who rush in. Marriage is too sacred to let the secular state devastate it. Maybe its time to wrest back our sacred duty to preserve it and, ultimately, us.

  4. Robert, I entirely sympathize with you. I would see the ideal as marriage being something defined and celebrated by churches, and other religious groups, with the place of the state simply being to register formal partnerships. The latter could be same sex or other sex, sexual or non-sexual, even between siblings (who might be the carers who deserve end of life rights), as far as people please, and would convey whatever benefits the state chooses. The first step on this path, in England, would be to abolish civil marriages and just have civil partnerships, which could be same sex or other sex without distinction (as against our currently same sex only civil partnerships). But this doesn’t seem to be the direction in which our government wants to go.

    As for celebrity weddings followed by divorces, I’m not sure how anyone could stop them. But perhaps the state should introduce a punitive tax on large divorce settlements!

  5. Peter, do you know anything about WHEN we started to see the muddling between civil and religious marriage? I mean, was this an issue 500 years ago in much of the Western world? 1,000 years ago? It’s my understanding that it’s currently separated in France…you have to have a civil service before you are allowed to then have a church ceremony.

    Personally, I hope to see the legalisation of same-sex marriage throughout the US soon…as a woman with a wife, I’d like my government to officially recognise my relationship (in terms of taxes, health benefits, next of kin, etc). The fact that a majority of the US population might not want this doesn’t bother me; I simply don’t believe that civil rights are something that we should vote on in the US. In 1967 the United States Supreme Court over-turned state laws that prohibited inter-racial marriage. If that had been left to a vote by citizens, inter-racial marriage wouldn’t have been legal until the early 1990s.

  6. Rhea, I can only speak for England, but I understand that here marriage was a purely religious institution until the 18th century. See this recent BBC history of marriage, which states:

    The Clandestine Marriage Act of 1753, popularly known as Lord Hardwicke’s Act, marked the beginning of state involvement in marriage, says sociologist Carol Smart of the University of Manchester. …

    The act required couples to get married in a church or chapel by a minister, otherwise the union was void. Couples also had to issue a formal marriage announcement, called banns, or obtain a licence.

    I would suppose that that Act also applied in the American colonies and forms the basis of US marriage law.

    Civil marriages were introduced in England only in 1836.

    I would suspect that in France marriage was taken out of church hands during the anti-clerical period after the Revolution, and the same rules were spread around Europe as part of the Code Napoléon. But I am no expert on these matters.

    See also this Wikipedia article.

  7. Thank you, Cradle Anglican. But, to be devil’s advocate for a moment, Cranmer’s words (even more appropriate today as we remember his martyrdom) could be taken as supporting gay marriage. Of course his first of “the causes for which Matrimony was ordained”, procreation, does not apply, but then it doesn’t in heterosexual marriage of older couples. But the other two causes, avoidance of fornication and mutual society, could be understood as supporting gay marriage as at least preferable to gay people living separately.

  8. I doubt whether it ever crossed Thomas Cramer’s mind that his words might be applied to uphold what God, through his disciples, called an abomination.
    As you have correctly pointed out, marriages could only be performed in a church up to 1837. There was rarely any doubt that marriage was something that God ordained. (we know however that marriage was in civilisation from the beginning of time). The issue for me is, is a heterosexual marriage the same as a gay marriage? I don’t think it is. We know that homosexuality was around in ancient history but it never made its mark as being respectable or recognised in law. So why now? Why so suddenly in the context of time is this an issue?
    It has nothing to do with equality as they claim but everything to do with destroying the very foundations of society. A very few well connected individuals are manipulating this agenda for their own ends against the rest of society and politicians are pandering to them so that they do not appear homophobic.

  9. Mr Integrity, I agree with you in most ways. But I don’t think anyone is deliberately destroying the foundations of society. I would say it is more a matter of ignorance and lack of care about society.

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