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Kent comment: Same-Sexed Marriage: A victory today will be a victory for the institution of love
Professor Jeremy Carrette from the University of Kents Department of Religious Studies argues that ideas of marriage have always been open to change and if there is a vote for equality today it will be a victory for romantic love over ideas of marriage as reproduction.
The vote in the House of Commons on same-sexed marriage produces a wide array of responses, but changing attitudes to the status of marriage is nothing new. From the Roman civil marriage to Christian notions of Holy Union and from polygamy to monogamy, marriage has always been changing in the face of public attitudes and social orders. Whether Pope Gregory 1st in the sixth-century, preventing marriage to close relatives, or Henry 8th in the sixteenth-century, changing legislation and authorities to sanction divorce and remarriage, there has always been attempts to renegotiate and rethink marriage.
The rethinking of marriage is therefore nothing new in terms of Western history and people are wrong to say that we cannot redefine marriage, because the terms of marriage have always been open to redefinition.
The challenge of same-sex marriage is to think of marriage outside of reproduction; a reality for those heterosexual couples who cannot have children as well as same-sexed couples (though adoption and medical intervention allow diverse possibilities for both these groups).
The pace of social change means that marriage has shifted from reproduction rights and economic possession of women, to economic rights of capitalist free choice and individual free-will, irrespective of sexual orientation. It is individual human rights for equality and market-choice that have now brought the social world and the right to sanction relationships outside of reproduction into a new public imagination of personal union.
Marriage from the 17th century has been shaped by the ideals of love and personal commitment rather than procreation and possession, but it is still economics that shapes large parts of marriage. The capitalistic world puts much emphasis on inheritance and household management and same-sexed marriage is an inevitable part of such developments. The economics of civil partnership pave the way for rethinking marriage and make a mockery of the difference between these two forms of social union. However, aside from the economic facts, same-sexed marriage is a victory for the public imagination of love and commitment.
In a world that is questioning the validity and moral worth of many of its most cherished institutions, the fact that the institution of marriage – even with the high rates of divorce – is as popular as ever is a sign that romantic love is an important ethical ideal for the late modern Western world.
The 14th February, Valentines Day, will show that love, romance and the market are continuing to reshape the world in ever new ways, but it will be religious groups like the Quakers, Unitarians and liberal Jews, rather than the Anglican Church (who are exempt), who will lead the way in embracing the ideals of love and commitment beyond sexual orientation.
The reality is that the speed of social change will mean greater choice and greater plurality in terms of beliefs about love and marriage. The question is how tradition and social change co-exist and which religious groups will move with the times. In the present world, dynamic government and public opinion on gender and sexual orientation are challenging the Anglican Church and making the new Archbishop's task even more complex.
Story published at 3:38pm 5 February 2013
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