Jim Hopkins: Sign of the times or time to redesign marriage

NZ Herald 31 Aug 2012
Fear not, Your Majesty. It’s taken a while – 842 years, to be precise – but they’ve done it for you. Got rid of themselves, it would seem, with nary a murmur of dissent.

“We don’t care who’s on top.” No hint of the turbulent Becket there, Your Majesty, no call to sustain the separation of church and state, no suggestion that some things only should be rendered unto Caesar. No, this is surrender, sir, meek and complete.

Moreover, it should come as no surprise. When you’ve got Bishops who can’t even be bothered to preserve their cathedrals, it’s little wonder their subordinates aren’t too fussed about what goes on inside them.

And if the church, as represented by St Matthew-in-the-City, will so readily redefine the character of its own creations, there’s really no need for anybody else to argue their case or protect their intellectual property – even though 40 MPs did on Wednesday night after the first reading debate on the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill.

With little in the way of prodding, mind, at least from the Church of New Zealand. Once again, the Anglicans have gone Awol, preferring the silence of the shepherds to that of the lambs.

Nothing meddlesome or likely to trouble a modern Henry there. Indeed, you’d have to say, on the basis of this performance, if the Devil’s 11 ever played the CoNZ in a match to decide who’d rule the world, Beelzebub’s bunch would win by default.

By way of comparison, it’s a bit like Apple telling Samsung, “We don’t care who’s on top. Heck, it’s only IP. Help yourself. What’s ours is yours and good luck to you, Samshine.”

Except Apple has protected their property, in a most meddlesome manner. As should the church. Because it too can properly claim a proprietary interest – in the software of marriage. It is, to a large extent, their intellectual and institutional property.

For the best part of 2000 years, the church has defined and refined what marriage is and can rightly point to changes it’s made over the centuries – like the introduction of public ceremonies – as an early step in the emancipation of women.

Granted, the state has, for some time, shared that IP. Marriage remains a sacrament of the church but is a civil ceremony too, with sanctioned secular status. Given this duality, you might think any change in the definition of marriage would be negotiated and agreed between the parties. Indeed, you might also think an agreement would be a constitutional prerequisite.

Since marriage is not an institution solely of the modern state’s making, it should not be an institution the state changes as it sees fit. What the state can do – and must do – is ensure that people in equivalent situations aren’t treated differently. People who make a joint public commitment should share privileges, responsibilities and entitlements. In fact and in law, but not necessarily in name. The state’s right to co-opt that is, at best, conditional.

Or would be, if it weren’t for the fact that the church, more mute than meddlesome, has ceded its right to protect its possession. And because it has, there’s been little debate about the state’s right to redefine an institution it doesn’t own. Instead, the argument’s focused on issues of equality.

“The state currently discriminates,” argued Louisa Wall on Wednesday. “That is not fair or just.” Maybe not, but it happens all the time. If equality was Parliament’s objective, there’d be no minimum drinking age, no ban on bigamy or specified drugs, no requirement to pass a test to get a driver’s licence and no Maori seats either.

It will be interesting to see if any member champions the removal of discriminations like racial preferment. They won’t, of course. Gay marriage is a bellwether issue, as Brendan O’Neill, editor of the online magazine Spiked, noted in a recent piece.

“The real value of the gay marriage issue is not in the improvements it will allegedly make to homosexual people’s lives, but rather in the opportunity for moral posturing and right-on preening it affords its backers. Gay marriage isn’t a real issue; it’s a cultural signifier, which you support in order to show that you are decent, enlightened and, most importantly, not like Them, the rabble. In an era when old-style morality is on the wane, if not dead, the elites are forever feeling around for new issues through which they can communicate their moral superiority.”

For “the chattering classes”, O’Neill argues, gay marriage has become “the issue through which they distinguish themselves from rednecks and the religious, from bogans and the backward”.

Well, at least we know where St Matthew-in-the-City stands – and the secular priesthood too. The world is a piece of playdough to be shaped as they see fit.

And there’s nothing meddlesome in that, Your Majesty.

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