Day 9 – Who Owns Marriage: The Conversation (Sun 22nd March)

Who Owns Marriage square

On behalf of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, I am producing a book called “Who Owns Marriage?” Scheduled for release on Easter Monday, this book seeks to dig a bit deeper into the issues raised Ireland’s forthcoming Referendum on Same-Sex Marriage. EAI has already released a statement concerning the Referendum, available at

The book aims to encourage us to think through what we really believe about Evangelicalism, the Bible, our identity in Christ, civil society, how we hold religious values without trying to enforce them on unbelievers, and how biblical marriage relates to civil marriage.

We have invited a number of thinkers, theologians, leaders and public figures (including some non-Christians) to contribute to the book. This is your opportunity to join the conversation! For the last 9 days segments of the book have been posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays).

A small number of the best contributions (by that I mean the most thought-provoking, not necessarily those that agree with the premises of my points) will be published as part of the conversation section of the finished book. Obviously comments that are hateful to anyone, libellous, or trollish will be deleted. Anonymous comments, or those made under a pen-name, cannot be included in the book.

A Secular Society
In the past, Irish Evangelicals were a small minority in a predominantly Roman Catholic society. Now, although we are growing numerically, we are a small minority in a predominantly secular society.
Religious people sometimes speak against secularism as if it were the bogey man. Successive Popes and Archbishops of Canterbury have waxed eloquent on the dangers of secularism. However, secularism is not necessarily antagonistic to religious faith. Secularism can be understood as a society where there is complete separation between Church and State. Churches are afforded no special privileges in a secular society, but neither are they subjected to any special restrictions or discrimination. In other words, religious groups are given the same rights and powers as any other voluntary association or group of people.
Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, makes an important distinction between political (or institutional) secularism and doctrinal secularism. Doctrinal secularism, according to Bielefeldt, discriminates by trying to drive religion out of society. But political secularism grants religion the same rights and position, no more and no less, as any other voluntary association or NGO.
There is a considerable body of evidence internationally to suggest that Evangelical church groups actually thrive in secular societies. In a free market place of ideas, where no faith group or ideology is being artificially propped up with governmental support, the self-confident and zealous attitude of Evangelicals in promoting their message tends to result in quite spectacular growth.
However, our focus here is not on whether secularism is good for Evangelicalism or not – that is yet another debate for another day! Like it or not, Irish Evangelicals live and worship in a society that is transitioning rapidly from a religiously dominated past to a secular future. How can we practice and promote our ideal of what marriage should be, yet simultaneously avoid trying to use the law of the land as a blunt instrument to force those views on others? How can we protect our rights without appearing to scream for special privileges? How can we be faithful to our core values of relationship-based morality and faithfulness to Scripture, without descending into homophobia or losing compassion for a group of people (the LGBT community) whose experience as a minority in Irish society has been a lot harder than our own?

The Legitimate Role of Government
I have already suggested that, in our eagerness as Evangelicals to have our marriage ceremonies recognised like those of more established churches, we may have made a mistake in legally aligning ourselves with the State’s unbiblical concept of marriage. By registering our ministers as solemnisers, we have made ourselves the State’s agents. This smacks of a return to the Christendom mind set where Church and State operated hand in glove to the detriment of both fair government and of effective Christian witness.
In short, we thought the new marriage registration legislation was a step forward, giving us legitimacy. I would rather argue that it was a step backwards, in which we conceded to the State a power that it does not have the right to claim.
The responsibilities and areas of authority of governments are many and varied. Among other things governments should promote order, protect their citizens, provide public services and promote economic stability and growth. However, there are also limits to the authority that the State possesses. No government has the right or authority to interfere with religious freedom, to regulate religious doctrine or indeed to dictate how its inhabitants should observe seasonal celebrations, rites of passage or other community traditions.
Take a non-controversial example, such as the celebration of Christmas. The State can certainly decree which days are deemed to be public holidays, but it has no authority to dictate how you or I celebrate Christmas or whether we celebrate it at all. If you choose to eat your Christmas Dinner on December 24th, or if you choose to spend Christmas Day praying in a mosque to Allah, then that is your freedom. We all recognise that such activities are none of the State’s business (unless, of course we are breaking other laws by, for example, robbing banks to pay for our Christmas presents).
The same applies to religious matters which, after all, in a secular State should be treated in the exact same way as community and societal traditions. The State does not have the authority to prevent Christians from reading their Bibles, or gathering to worship and pray. They do have the right and authority to insist that we observe other laws, such as those pertaining to planning permission and fire safety, but if government tried to interfere with our religious freedoms we would, like our brothers and sisters in China, reject such action as the State overstepping its legitimate sphere of authority.
That is why the State does not pass legislation telling us whether, in our churches, we are to baptise by immersion or sprinkling, whether we are to drink communion wine from one common cup or lots of little plastic cups, or mandating which Scripture verses we are allowed to read out during a funeral service. In all these matters, and I say this with the utmost respect for the civil authorities, we recognise that what we do is none of the government’s business.
Once we understand these basic limitations as to governmental authority, one obvious question remains. What authority should a secular State have when it comes to who can and can’t get married, and to whom?

Marriage as a Religious and Community Event
For the greatest part of human history, the State had no role to play in the regulation of marriage. This can be best illustrated by Henry VIII’s famous attempts to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The one unspoken assumption that underpinned Henry’s divorce and remarriage was that it was the Church, and not the State, that regulated marriage. Even though Henry was the King, and therefore head of State, he knew that he did not have the authority to dissolve a marriage. Yes, he was prepared to go to the lengths of cutting his ties with Rome and establishing the Church of England, but he was never so arrogant as to abrogate the Church’s primacy over the State in this regard.
Even the Church’s claim to regulate marriage in a society is of fairly recent origin. For most of western history, it was left to couples to declare that they had made marriage vows. Marriage was viewed as a private contract and the Catholic Church would accept a couple’s declaration and treat them as validly married, even where there was no church ceremony, no priest, and even no witnesses. So long as a couple said they were married, and there were no objections from their community to dispute that assertion, then the Church accepted the fact. It was not until the Council of Trent in the Sixteenth Century that the Catholic Church began to insist on the presence of a priest and witnesses at weddings.
As the Church extended its control over people’s lives, it also began to regulate and control marriage. The State began to pass laws supporting the Church’s role. For example, in England and Wales a law was passed in 1215 requiring the reading of marriage banns in a church, giving three weeks’ notice for anyone to object to the validity of an intended marriage. Marriage was still viewed as primarily an ecclesiastical act, and any exceptions to the normal procedures ultimately fell under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury rather than the civil authorities. Indeed, right up until 1837, marriages in England and Wales could only be conducted in consecrated church buildings.
The Marriage Act of 1836 was the point at which the State in Britain first claimed the power to dictate who could marry whom, and what constituted a valid marriage. Similar arrangements were introduced in Ireland in 1845. Most other western countries can point to the mid-Nineteenth Century as the period in which their governments decided to get into the business of marriage.
This brings us back to the question about who owns marriage. We have already noted that, in a pluralistic society that includes those of many religions and those of none, it would be arrogant for the Church to claim that we own marriage and can therefore force our definition on everyone else. However, the State has even less right than the Church to claim ownership of marriage. Even Henry VIII’s famous ego did not extend to the overweening arrogance of pretending he had the authority to tell people who they were allowed to marry.
If marriage is truly a religious or community event, then it should be left to religious and community groups to conduct marriages as and when they see fit. No one group should receive official favour or recognition in this respect. Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims, LGBT groups, Atheist Ireland, humanist groups – they are all capable of renting a hotel function room or a community hall and holding their own wedding services. True, some groups won’t recognise the validity of each other’s ceremonies and traditions, but that happens in all walks of life. I know of Roman Catholics who insist that baptism is not ‘real’ if it’s conducted in a Pentecostal Church, and equally there are Evangelicals who deny that a Catholic mass is a valid expression of the Lord’s Supper. We all learn to live with such differences of opinion, but we would be outraged if any government was foolish or heavy-handed enough to start taking sides and pontificating on what constitutes valid baptism or communion. It’s none of the government’s business – and neither, I would argue, is marriage.

Current Ambiguity
As things stand now there is already confusion as to what actually constitutes marriage. We hear the term ‘common law marriage’ being used to describe couples that cohabit but are not legally married.
Certain minority religions practice polygamy where a man lives with more than one wife, their friends and co-religionists recognising these plural marriages. Such arrangements, while obviously falling far short of the Christian ideal of marriage, are generally not illegal in Ireland. Laws against bigamy can only prevent people from entering into multiple legal contracts of marriage concurrently. They cannot prevent people choosing to live with whoever they want, addressing each other as ‘husband’ or ‘wife,’ being recognised as such by their surrounding community, or marking those ‘marriages’ with ceremonies in their religious organisations.
Many couples from African backgrounds celebrate three ‘marriages’ – a traditional ceremony with their families, a religious ceremony at church or mosque, and then the legal contract. It is not unusual to talk to a ‘married couple’ only to discover that their marriage was of the traditional or religious variety but was never legally recognised.
It is inevitable, as Ireland becomes more pluralistic and multicultural, that such confusion will become more acute. Marriages between parties of different nationalities are on the increase, and there is a growing disconnect between what the State officially recognises as ‘marriages’ and what society in general means by the term.

Genuine Civil Partnerships
Of course, even if the government got out of the marriage business, there would still be other laws that need to be complied with. For example, laws concerned with the age of consent or rape apply equally whether a marriage is involved or not.
It should also be noted that the main reasons why governments got involved in the regulation of marriage in the first place were because of issues of inheritance, property and adoption rather than through any desire to protect morality or to promote the family. However, with the introduction of the Civil Partnership Act in 2010 there already exists a perfectly adequate legal framework under Irish law to deal with all such issues without there being any necessity for the State to involve itself in the regulation of marriage.
Indeed, I would suggest that the Civil Partnership Act be broadened considerably so as to make it possible for any two adults to enter into a civil partnership for legal matters such as taxation, property and inheritance. There need not be any connection with sexual intimacy or romantic love at all. For example, two elderly women who choose to share a home and live in a platonic relationship should be entitled to form a civil partnership and legally share their financial assets in exactly the same way as a couple that are involved in a long-term sexual relationship.

True Marriage Equality Rather Than State-Enforced Marriage Redefinition
My argument, then, is that the State exceeds its proper sphere of authority by presuming to regulate marriage. Neither does the State have the authority to take a word with a long history of usage by religions and communities and arbitrarily ascribe a new meaning to it. The State never had the rightful authority to declare that marriage could only be between a man and a woman, nor does it have the authority to declare that marriage can be contracted by two parties of the same gender.
The State has the authority to regulate civil partnerships, because they pertain to issues such as property, taxation and inheritance which fall under the rightful responsibilities of civil government. Marriage, however, has to do with issues such as faith in God, voluntary participation in community groups, love and romance – and these lie beyond the civil government’s sphere of responsibility.
If the State were to get out of the marriage business then that would allow each faith group and community group to practice their ideals of marriage without hindrance. It would also allow a much wider and more embracing concept of marriage equality that is in keeping with the freedom and fairness that we expect of a modern secular democracy.


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