Ron Hay: Momentous shift a loss for us all

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Ron Hay says the proposed law change redefining 'marriage' will have deep implications for society.

Under the proposed legislation marriage will become a gender-blind institution, which will be a serious injustice to married heterosexual couples. Photo / Supplied
Under the proposed legislation marriage will become a gender-blind institution, which will be a serious injustice to married heterosexual couples. Photo / Supplied

The proposed redefinition of marriage now before Parliament seems to have produced two major responses.

Supporters of the change insist this is all about equality and extending equal rights under the law to same-sex couples.

While there have been voices of concern or protest raised, much of the rest of the community seems to think this is really an inconsequential issue, simply a matter of words and semantics.

Even heterosexual couples who may not particularly like the change appear to be resigned to it going through, taking the attitude, "We're okay; this won't really affect us and our marriage."

There is, then, the impression that this is no big deal. For some, it's seen as an obvious step to complete the campaign for equal rights for gay people. Having taken all the other steps, why wouldn't you take this one? For others, it's seen as only about labels, not about substance, so why bother protesting?

The proposed legislative change, however, is no light thing. To change the meaning of the primary relationship in adult life and the foundation stone of all human societies is momentous.

For more than two millennia Western society has defined marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman. While some societies took longer than others to move from polygamy to monogamy, the complementarity of the two sexes has been seen as of the essence of marriage in every age and culture.

Even societies notably tolerant or even encouraging of homosexual relations, such as ancient Greece, never contemplated equating such relationships with marriage.

Redefining marriage to include same-sex unions is to turn our back as a nation not only on our own cultural heritage, but also on the legacy of wisdom from every age and from every society as to what makes for human wellbeing.

Proponents of the change say there is no intention in this legislation to down-value heterosexual marriage and its linkage to the nurture of children. The good of marriage is simply being extended to homosexual couples as well. And therein lies the major problem. Marriage is not just being stretched, it is being redefined, and with that comes major loss.

What is happening is not the creation of a new all-inclusive term to embrace both heterosexual and same-sex unions.

Instead, the two types of relationship, which we currently distinguish, are to be conflated under the term "marriage" which till now has applied to only one.

So how will currently married couples feel when they no longer have a term which describes what is distinctive about their relationship?

As British commentator Andrew Goddard points out, the force of this is at present hidden from us because we still distinguish these two relationships with qualifiers such as "same-sex", "opposite sex" and "homosexual/heterosexual". But the proposed legislation won't create a new category with a new name - "same-sex marriage" as distinct from "opposite-sex marriage". Instead, it will do away with the old category and give its name to a quite different new category - "marriage" as a new gender-blind institution. Are there good grounds for such a momentous change? The whole case for change rests on the call for equal treatment for homosexual couples. But equality under the law has already been granted with the legislation for civil unions. As this legislation was being introduced only a few years ago, a number of politicians including then Prime Minister Helen Clark assured us there was no need (or intention) to change the nature of marriage.

Tim Barnett, the mover of the bill, said "The Civil Union Bill is an acceptable alternative; marriage can remain untouched."

This issue is not about equality, but it is about justice, and a serious injustice will be done to married heterosexual couples who will no longer have a distinct term to describe their relationship.

Even more significant, the meaning of this most intimate of unions will be diluted. Complementarity will be lost. Men and women differ in more than biology; there are differences in outlook, giftings, strengths and propensities. It's for this reason that we've recognised the need for women in what were once male preserves such as politics, business and academia. Sexual complementarity is critical to the wellbeing of human societies and it is essential to the meaning of marriage. Marriage will have been reduced to a sexually intimate relationship of two people who love each other regardless of gender.

There is a major shrinkage here. Marriage reduced to the purely personal and relational ("you and me") without the recognition that it is a deeply rooted social (and, some would want to add, divinely ordained) entity upon which the good of every community depends. The question arises, too, by what right does the state presume to change the meaning of a human and social reality which predates the existence of the state itself? How is it, then, that we are largely passive in face of a major deconstruction of something as significant as marriage? Where are the voices of public leaders speaking out on this issue?

In Britain the Anglican Church has come out with a strong, clear, well-reasoned statement of opposition.

This is particularly striking coming from a church which is divided on the morality of homosexuality.

It says, "Our concern is for the way the meaning of marriage will change for everyone, gay or straight, if the proposals are enacted. Because we believe that the inherited understanding of marriage contributes a vast amount to the common good, our defence of that understanding is motivated by a concern for the good of all society." Can we be unconcerned about the loss of that "common good" here too?

Ron Hay is an Anglican minister now writing fulltime.

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