Monday 3 September 2012

The Difficulty of Marriage Equality

A Post by Dr John Quinn

Photo Courtesy of Free-extras
One of the hot button issues in the current federal parliament is the issue of marriage equality, or the right of people of the same sex to enter into marriage relationships. Much of the debate and discussion on this issue has focused on the ‘traditional’ definition of marriage, and the extent to which that can be altered.  Proponents of marriage equality are adamant that marriage has a legal definition and as such can be changed on the say-so of the Parliament.  Others contend that marriage is a historical and traditional institution, with a meaning fixed-in-time and thereby unalterable.  In one of the more colourful contributions to the debate, Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce said on Meet the Press in August last year “it is like saying, ‘I have a four-wheel bicycle.’ It is fine if it has four wheels but it’s just not a bicycle”[i].

St Andrews Cathedral. 
Photo courtesy Weddings NSW
It goes without saying that marriage equality poses some difficulties for evangelical Christians, and it is heartening to see Christian leaders such as Archbishop Peter Jensen making serious and thoughtful contributions to the debate.[ii]  That said, the debate also raises deep questions about the nature of lawmaking and the reach of government power that, to a large extent, have not been scrutinized. A significant number of Parliamentarians and advocates for marriage equality are utterly convinced that it is within the remit of the government to examine the definition of marriage, and to re-write it.  Even some of those defending a traditional view of marriage are engaging in the debate in such a way that recognizes the parliament’s authority on the issue.  If we accept that the parliament has the power to define marriage, we might justifiably ask what its next intrusion into the social fabric might be.

Until the Marriage Act of 1753, there was no statutory requirement to register a marriage relationship and the government had little authority over the process of getting married.  That Act introduced a requirement for the marriage to be conducted before a priest of the Church of England, with exceptions for Jews and Quakers. So began the process of government intervention in questions of marriage that continues to this day. With the passage of time the statute has continued to evolve, introducing celebrants and various restrictions over who can and can’t marry. Common law marriage, which the statute effectively replaced, has been slowly disappearing from most jurisdictions.

Photo courtesy Wiki commons
Many of those arguing strenuously for marriage equality are also those who would argue that religious organizations or religious thought have no part in public life, in spite of the significant historical role that churches have played in the institution of marriage.  For these proponents, the “separation of church and state” has been become a useful catchphrase in sidelining Christian thought from public discussion.  On the other hand, the same proponents do not seem to hesitate at the prospect of the state legislating in areas of personal morality or personal religious conviction, even in area like marriage where the government’s role has been, in the greater scheme of things, a relatively recent addition. 

As Christian people we ought to recognize the authority of government and seek to live quietly in submission to ruling authorities: such is clear from Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17.  At the same time, the book of Revelation encourages a healthy concern about what over-reaching authorities might do, and the difficulties that might bring upon Christian people. As Christian people we ought to be attentive to the debate about marriage equality, not only because of the Christian view of that institution, but also because of what it says about the government’s perception of its own authority.

Dr John Quinn is Dean of Residents at the New College Village

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