The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill completed its Commons stages on Tuesday with 366 MPs voting for and 161 voting against it.
The Bill now goes to the Lords where a similar result is predicted. Many, but not all, of the Christian MPs, including several Cabinet Ministers were in the ‘noes’ lobby and did their best to persuade the House not to redefine marriage but failed to answer the majority commitment to the principle of equality. Marriage was held up as a valuable social institution that gives stability to couple relationships and, it was argued, same-sex couples should not be excluded from its benefits.
Christians opposing the Bill have argued that it is contrary to biblical teaching but others understand the Bible differently and point not to the well-known texts in Leviticus and Romans but to the way Jesus reached out to social outcastes. The problem for political debate and legislation is that the UK is not a theocratic state and the groups opposing the Bill represent a minority of the population. Like it or not British society has moved from one in which religious belief was an unchallenged shaper of national culture to one in which religion is seen as one option among many that belongs in the private sphere.
Opponents of the Bill argued that marriage has always been between a man and a woman and Parliament has no business changing this. They were countered with examples of other traditions that have rightly been changed by legislation including slavery, racial discrimination and the oppression of women. Some contended that the primary function of marriage is procreation and same-sex couples do not have the biological complementarity essential to procreation. Their critics countered that the capacity to procreate is not an essential pre-condition for marriage and some heterosexual couples choose not to have children or marry after the child-bearing age.
The argument that legalising same-sex marriage could harm society was challenged on the grounds that heterosexual marriage is not as stable as its defendants believe. The average length of marriages is only 11.5 years and 42% of them end in divorce. If current trends continue 48% of British children born this week will see the breakdown of their parent’s relationship before they are 16.
But why do same-sex couples want to marry now that a civil partnership is possible? Civil partnerships offer the same benefits as marriage in terms of inheritance, pension provision, life assurance, child maintenance, immigration and next of kin rights but they are not universally recognised in the way marriage is.
The House of Lords might surprise us by but it looks as though the defenders of traditional marriage have lost the debate. How shall we respond? Do our marriages match the biblical teaching we advocate? Do our churches prepare couples for marriage and support them in times of crisis? How will we love our neighbours who are same-sex couples? Although for some Christians this may be perceived as losing the debate, it must not mean behaving in an un-Christlike manner or we will lose far more.