Gay marriage is about reality, not revolution

THE Constitutional Convention’s recommendation in favour of a referendum on same-sex marriage is, while not unexpected, apparently revolutionary.

A long view of history shows that revolution was already well under way. Gay marriage is essentially a reaction to what society has become, and not a programme of revolution for how our culture should change.

Most ostensibly great events have a long lead-in. The closure of the monasteries has a major claim today on the history of the Reformation.

In fact, the unbolting of the convent doors was a more profound consequence. Conceived on a basis of biblical authority, it was the beginning of the long end for a biblically inspired patriarchy that had equally deep roots in classical antiquity.

The closure of convents, redundancy of the Virgin Mary and, for most, a remote theory of divorce in Protestant culture, was overlaid with a profound rethink of the nature of authority. The Reformation and the French Revolution enacted the end of both priesthood and kingship.

These dual God-anointed powers were replaced with the rights of man. If the rupture appeared as violent as the decapitation of the king, the French Revolution was intellectually at least the culmination of hundreds of years of mental conditioning, not a day of rioting at the Bastille.

In the century after the French Revolution a growing bourgeoisie saw increased female education, domestication and democratisation.

Power throughout the 19th century was slowly dispersed. By the beginning of 20th century that dispersal was finally extended to the point where the rights of man included women.

The revolutionary extension of the vote to women was recognition of a changed society that had already arrived, not the reason which caused it.

Over the past 100 years more astonishing change came. Race, religion, and sexual orientation were debarred as the basis for oppression.

Factors as diverse as television, the contraceptive pill, and globalisation have all been profoundly influential in changing mindsets.

Martin Luther King no less than Martin Luther was an instrument of epoch-making change because he arrived in a society conditioned to challenge an ostensible authority that collapsed when confronted. All great moments take generations to arrive at and generations to play out.

The time span from the decriminalisation of homosexuality to the potential recognition of same-sex marriage in a generation is swift indeed. To escape the chains of the criminal law for the chains, I mean to say, the bonds of lawful matrimony for the same cause in one life is history making. But this is many lifetimes in the making.

History is made long before law changes and changes in law make history. It is not just that religious belief is now overwhelmingly just a private matter. It is that its acceptance as a basis for public authority was repeatedly rejected over the past five centuries. That is Joseph Ratzinger’s view of Western civilisation and I agree.

Some think that by opposing gay marriage in civil law that they are upholding the soul of a sacramental institution. But that soul is long dead as a public principle, as distinct from private code. What they are fighting for is the husk of an institution that was long ago decanted of its gender controlling creed and sacramental purpose by a culture that whatever its private beliefs did not hold them strongly enough to continue them as a basis for public authority.

When marriage is no longer fit to control women and children; rejection of gay marriage is hardly compelling as a rationale to deny gay people a lifestyle they can largely enjoy in private, if not yet in public law. Gay marriage is the recognition of an already arrived reality, not a revolution.

Marriage was always about obligation, not freedom. In the past those obligations were overwhelmingly to husbands. Perhaps now they are more towards wives. Though under appreciated, gay marriage is as much about the conferral of contractual obligation, as any achievement of freedom.

Politics which is the expression of power, once exclusively male, used marriage to control women and criminalisation to control gays. Now power has shifted and politics reflects that. But the ultimate aim of all politics is ultimately the same.

It is not about arbitrating between left and right, liberal and conservative. It is about ensuring there is power and not anarchy. In removing the bind of criminal law to regulate gay people, it is logical that the bond of marriage is eventually employed for much the same purpose. The alternative to all regulation is none and that is the vacuum power abhors. If there is a much about gay marriage that is inevitable, there is little that is revolutionary.

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