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Partnerships could save marriage

02 November 2006

The values of civil partnerships could help to reinvigorate marriage

Civil partnerships are a rare thing: a genuine social innovation. Not since the medieval period will our society have endorsed an institution of personal commitment that is not marriage. So it is a tragedy that the Church's contribution will be seen as almost wholly negative when the first civil partners sign the registers on 21 December.

Some will say that this is as it should be: civil partnerships sanction immoral sex. But this is to deny what civil partnerships are actually about, namely the depth of two people's emotional commitment. The new institution is one of love, the thing that prurient enquiries into people's chasteness cannot acknowledge. They will have to do so now.

But this raises another question. What is the appropriate model for civil partnerships? Commonly it is assumed to be marriage. I think this is not quite right. The legal rights that come with civil partnerships should certainly be the same as those of marriage. But people sign up to institutions not just to gain rights: they look to institutions to support and inform their relationships. In this case, that tends more towards a model of friendship.

Marriage is marked by a certain possessiveness. Traditionally, the father literally gave away the bride, a notion that lives on, if in less objectionable ways. For example, when people get married, close friends of the new husband or wife will be conscious of having to renegotiate their friendship so as not to offend the way the new couple now belong to one another.

Alternatively, think of the way that a "night out with the boys" (or girls) still carries overtones of naughtiness (because you should be at home with your "other half"). This sense is mostly absent in gay relationships, because they do not carry the social mores that lie behind it.

In addition to this, historians have uncovered ancient rites for celebrating same-sex friendships, modelled on Aelred of Rievaulx's theology of friendship. Such sworn brotherhoods and sisterhoods were formal relationships that usually existed alongside those of husband and wife. The commitment was made in church, with the exchange of the Peace and the joint reception of communion.

The friendship was celebrated because the friends' love was seen as a foretaste of the love everyone could enjoy in heaven. They gained a public standing because the commitment was a religious vow, similar to but different from marriage; records show that they carried as much social weight.

So when it comes to fleshing out the very bare bones of the new institution of civil partnership, these social factors and older traditions come together to suggest that friendship is the basic model. The past cannot simply be pasted on to the present, of course. But, with effort, it does expand the possibilities for relationships today.

This effort is something of a necessity. The body putting the most visible effort into determining how civil partnerships will look at the moment is the wedding industry. The tradition it draws on is that of the chocolate box. To be fair, the Association of Registrars and Celebratory Services is also working hard at what ceremonies will be like in practice, but only at the basic level of the dos and don'ts in civic buildings.

The tragedy is that the Church's confusion over homosexuality is preventing it from contributing from its rich resources to this important social moment. The positive sentiments that the House of Bishops expresses in one breath are denied by the negative fiats it issues with the next.

This not only makes the Church irrelevant at best to the commitments people want to make, but also is tantamount to an abnegation of responsibility. It makes a mockery of the "positive value of committed friendships in the Christian tradition", as the Bishops' pastoral statement on civil partnerships puts it.

Moreover, I suspect that the failure of the Church will affect not just homosexuals. At first, the new institution will be appreciated mostly by gay men and women. But it will increasingly come to inform the way people think about marriage.

The reason for this is that friendship routinely tops the polls as the relationship people most want - ideally in the form of a "soulmate" partner. This in part could explain the dramatic decline of marriage: friendship is not explicitly mentioned in the wedding service, a reflection of the ambivalence in the link between marriage and friendship. I suspect that the gap between this absence and people's hopes for their relationships is part of the problem.

Civil partnerships will show that friendship is worthy of public commitment; by a process of osmosis, they could therefore contribute to a revivification of marriage. In other words, the Church's resistance to civil partnerships, often in the name of protecting marriage, could actually be a resistance to one of the best hopes marriage has to reinvent itself.

Mark Vernon is the author of The Philosophy of Friendship (Palgrave Macmillan, £20; 1-4039-4874-7; www.philosophyoffriendship.com).

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