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Matthew Offord and same-sex marriage

This is a gust post by Matthew Harris

Concerned as I always am for the health of the local brewing industry (a major employer that contributes much in taxation), I paid another of my occasional visits to a public house on Saturday. These places (known for short as ‘pubs’) are amazing, serving as they do whole pints of beer and sometimes also food. I might start going more often.

Anyway, I was in a great pub on Saturday called the Gate, on Barnet’s genuinely pretty rural fringe, and I was with my friend and one-time election agent, a former Barnet councillor who is now under cover on a witness protection programme, having left local politics and moved to a safe house where the local Lib Dems cannot find him. He asked me if I had seen what Matthew Offord had said to a Labour blogger – Matthew Offord being the Conservative MP for Hendon, against whom I stood as a Liberal Democrat at the last General Election.

The conversation moved on before my friend could tell me what Mr Offord has gone and said now, so I just decided to have a quick look on Google. Up comes a load of stuff about gay marriage, of which more in a moment. More immediately, it turns out that Mr Offord has written with some rudeness in reply to Adam Langleblen, a Labour blogger of my acquaintance.

I am normally willing to defend Mr Offord from the highly personal attacks to which he is sometimes subjected, as I (seriously) don’t like personal attacks (one Barnet blogger recently referred disparagingly to a local Tory politician as being “tubby” – because, yes, let’s laugh at fat people for being fat, and then when that gets boring we can move on to laughing at alcoholics and people affected by depression), but really – what a stupid email for Mr Offord to have written.

Actually, I just read it again. As a spirited response to an email from a professional political operative (which Adam Langleblen is, and I mean that as a compliment), it is perhaps not too bad, especially as Mr Langleblen had himself surely been using this correspondence to score political points – just as I did when, as a Parliamentary candidate, I publicly emailed Boris Johnson about some transport issues.

But Mr Offord should not have risen to the bait and ought not to have been ‘rude’. He could have simply ignored Mr Langleblen as being a non-constituent, or he could have dismissed his points with icy disdain and still have been polite. Instead, he rose to the bait and looks the poorer for it, having given his opponents the opportunity to now pillory him for rudeness towards a constituent who is (a) not actually a constituent and (b) himself a politician, not some innocent, offended member of the general public. By the way, last time I ‘defended’ Matthew Offord, this happened, so can I say to Hendon Conservatives: “Please don’t do that again this time.”

Adam Langleblen’s blog also alerted me to a Facebook posting by a Hendon constituent called Nick Lansley; I assume (I hope correctly) that this is the same Nick Lansley who asked me about my views on gay adoption during the General Election campaign. Mr Lansley reports that his partner, Bernard, wrote to Mr Offord, his local MP, about the issue of same-sex marriage. The Facebook posting gives us Mr Offord’s reply, in which Mr Offord explains: “My own position is that I will not be voting for legislation that extends marriage for same-sex couples.”

Mr Offord is obviously entitled to his opinion, although I have to say that I strongly disagree with him. At the moment, men and women are entitled to marry each other in civil (secular) weddings in register offices and other non-religious places. This has been the case for ages, and my own parents did it in 1965. In fact my maternal grandparents did it in 1939. It has nothing to do with religion; it is for people who want to be married in the eyes of the law – that is civil law, the secular, legal rules of this country – without bringing religion into it.

This is a Christian country with a Christian history and a Christian-infused culture, and I respect that (being as I am an opponent of disestablishing the Church of England), but many of us are frankly not religious at all, and we (millions of us) therefore don’t feel the need to have a religious wedding. Incidentally, the supposedly Christian institution of marriage obviously existed before Christianity itself even existed – think about it. Christianity has its roots in Judaism, which had been marrying people for ages before the birth of Christianity. In the New Testament, the Christian story itself includes many Jewish, pre-Christian people who are married – major players in the creation of Christianity, married under Jewish (Biblical) law, before there was any such thing as Christianity. And in England, did the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons (who worshipped gods including Woden and Thor, from which we get the words ‘Wednesday’ and ‘Thursday’) not have marriage as an institution?

In other words, Christians do own Christian marriage – but they do not own all other marriage. They get to decide what constitutes a Christian marriage, but they do not get to decide what constitutes a Jewish marriage, a Hindu marriage, a Muslim marriage, a secular (civil) marriage, a Sikh marriage. We need to start using a hyphen to create new words. Marriage is one thing and Christian-marriage is another. Civil-marriage is another, and Orthodox-Jewish-marriage is another. These things are similar to each other, but they are not the same thing as each other.

By way of analogy: because my Mum is Jewish, I fit the Orthodox Jewish definition of who-is-a-Jew in religious terms. I could therefore get married in an Orthodox synagogue, if I was marrying a woman who was also Jewish in the eyes of the synagogue concerned. If, however, I wanted to marry any other woman, then I could not marry her in that same Orthodox synagogue. Assuming I then went and married her in a register office, then I would have had a civil-marriage, but not an Orthodox-Jewish-marriage – and Orthodox Jews would recognise that I was now married according to “the law of the state”, despite my not being married in religious terms.

The idea that “the law of the state is the law” goes back many, many centuries in Jewish terms. It was the only way that a religious community could work out how to live in countries in which most people lived outside the faith. If I was an Orthodox Jew, I would believe that my faith forbids me to eat pork, but I would accept that eating pork is not illegal under English law – it would simply not matter to me that it is legal to eat pork and that other people choose to eat it, as I would choose not to eat it. So, if I was an Orthodox Jew, I would believe that my faith forbids me to marry anyone other than a Jewish woman, but I would accept that marrying other people (of either gender) is not illegal under English law (once the law has changed to allow same-sex marriage), and that would have nothing to do with my definition of Orthodox-Jewish-marriage.

It may be true that most English people still describe themselves as being Church of England. But if it is also perhaps true that only ten percent of British people go to church most weeks, then it is not meant disrespectfully if I say that Christians are, in a sense, a minority in our secular, agnostic country. Any minority needs to accommodate its rights within the context of the majority among whom it lives. The Government is proposing no change to Christian-marriage, but only to civil-marriage.

My question to Christians is: do you accept that my parents are married? Given that my agnostic father (whose parents were Christians) married my Jewish mother in a civil ceremony at an English register office in 1965, do you accept that they are married? They were obviously not married “before God” in any Christian (or Jewish) sense, but do you accept that they are married according to the laws of this country? If you do, then you are allowing for the possibility of civil marriage (not ‘civil partnership’, but actual civil marriage) – you are allowing for the possibility of marriages that you recognise as being lawful, but which are not marriages in any Christian sense – marriages that are nothing to do with your church. If you can allow that for heterosexual couples, then why not for same-sex couples? And if you cannot allow it for heterosexual couples, and if you therefore do not accept that my parents are married, then you presumably wish to abolish all civil marriage, including for heterosexuals? So all those men and women getting married at the town hall, a register office, a country hotel with a licence to perform weddings – no, that’s now to be forbidden, as it’s church weddings or nothing. That is the logical extension of any argument that civil weddings don’t count.

Nobody is seeking to alter the Christian definition of who can marry in church, who is married before God, who is and isn’t a different type of Christian – all of that will still be decided by the different Christian denominations. If Christians believe that homosexuality is sinful, then that is no concern of mine; they can go on believing that homosexuality is sinful and can go on not-marrying same-sex couples in their churches. Just as Orthodox Jews can go on believing that nobody apart from Jews of opposite genders is allowed to get married in their synagogues. Just as Roman Catholics can go on believing that only men can be priests. Just as many Muslims believe that Muslims should not drink alcohol, and Hindus believe that Hindus should not eat beef.

So long as nobody is breaking the laws of this country (including our laws against incitement to hatred), then different faith groups can believe what they will about what their members are entitled to do, and about who is allowed to get married under the auspices of that faith and on that faith’s religious premises. That is the business of each faith group. If Liberal and Reform rabbis wish to conduct commitment ceremonies for same-sex married couples after the law has changed, then that is up to them, and it has nothing to do with me, as I am not a member of Reform or Liberal Judaism – it is simply none of my business. It is a matter to be determined by each religious movement itself, be that movement Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or anything else. I don’t care if some Anglican ministers do or do not choose to conduct such ceremonies, as I am not an Anglican – the Church of England can decide this for itself and its members.

I and millions of not-religious British people like me do not think that homosexuality is sinful, whatever may be said in the Bible, as we do not lead our lives in accordance with Biblical teachings. We respect the many British people who do lead their lives in accordance with Biblical teaching, but we do not do it ourselves. We think that it is a normal part of life for many people to be gay, and we do not think that this is in any way a bad thing. We see marriage as being first and foremost about two adults committing to spend the rest of their lives together – it’s not first and foremost about having children, as many people get married when they are basically too old to have children, and not all married couples even want to have children. We don’t see marriage as being about religion, except for those people who choose to be religious, who we respect entirely.

We therefore believe that same-sex couples should have an equal right to get married in a civil ceremony in a register office, etc. This has nothing to do with the religious marriage ceremonies of the different faith groups, and nothing to do with Christians’ definition of what constitutes a Christian marriage (a category that already excludes my parents’ marriage, Jewish marriages, Hindu marriages, etc). So we support what the Government calls its “proposals to enable same-sex couples to have a civil marriage”. If you look at the Government’s consultation on how these proposals are to be implemented, you will see that the Government is explicitly proposing “no changes to religious marriages”.

So this is what we believe. Opinion polls apparently suggest that we represent majority opinion on this. We might, of course, be wrong, and others (including Matthew Offord) are obviously entitled to disagree with us, but this is what we think. Just as Christians are entitled to define Christian-marriage and Jews are entitled to define Jewish-marriage, so, thank you very much, civil society is entitled to define civil-marriage. And most of civil society wants gay people to enjoy the same right to civil-marriage as is enjoyed by myself and all other straight people, so the Government is proposing to change the law, and I support this.