Same-sex marriage is a test of Australian maturity that we may not pass

Robert Forsyth

12 September 2017 | ABC

same sex marriage equality 3It’s time not just to focus on who will win the marriage war, but how we are going to live with the peace. For good or ill, the legislation of same-sex marriage in Australia became inevitable once Labor made it party policy. Irrespective of what happens with the postal plebiscite, Labor will achieve government at some stage.

There will be no peace until same-sex marriage is enacted in a way that can’t be undone. It will be on the day after the change — or rather, in the decades and centuries after — that Australia will face an important test of its maturity as a civil and civilised society. If overseas experience is any guide, even if a large a majority would be happy with marriage as redefined, a significant minority will remain recalcitrantly unconvinced.

They will be not just individuals but also institutions like, for example, the Catholic Church and sections of the Anglican Church. What is to happen with them? Will they be excluded — or exclude themselves — from civil society, or will they be able to play their part?

In the unlikely event the decision was taken to never make the change, will those with a deep commitment to the ‘Yes’ case consider themselves excluded from being fully a part of Australian society?

This issue has such divisive potential because it is freighted with considerable significance by both sides of the present debate, even if many other Australians are not so concerned about it.

For some of those opposed, it is a matter as fundamental as what God wants. Others genuinely believe it concerns the real welfare of children. For some supporting the change, same-sex marriage involves nothing less than providing a basic human right. Others, like Relationships Australia for example, are convinced that such reform is “important for to the physical and mental wellbeing of same-sex attracted people, their children and extended families.” Some, like Senator Katy Gallagher, go so far as to assert that “There are no reasonable or rational arguments to oppose marriage equality.”

Deeply held but opposing points of view are not new to Australian society. However, the trouble with deeply divergent beliefs on the constitution of marriage is that they cannot remain just matters of private opinion. Marriage is a crucial social institution. Something of this is lost at the moment with the debate so often being reduced to a discussion of weddings, and then weddings simply as ‘celebrations of love’ rather than as a couple entering into a new life by making lifelong promises to each other. And as a crucial social institution, it involves questions of family, parentage, inheritance, gender, and — because religious institutions are deeply involved in this area — religious teaching and freedom as well.

The deep differences are not able to be quarantined, but will have to be negotiated in some way. No doubt this will involve difficult compromises in families in which there is not consensus. Invitation lists for weddings may not be as straightforward as they once were — if they ever were. Nor will classic religious teaching on sexual morality and living a ‘good’ life.

For example, in my own Anglican tradition, simply reading the prayer book preface to the service of matrimony will become a politically controversial act. Here, for example, is the opening of the second order for marriage in An Australian Prayer Book:

We have come together in the presence of God for the joining in marriage of this man N and this woman N.

Our Lord Jesus Christ said of marriage that ‘From the beginning of creation God made them male and female. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’

The preface concludes with the warning:

For be assured that those who marry otherwise than God’s word allows are not joined together by God, neither is their marriage lawful in his sight.

This of course will no longer reflect the law of Australia, nor the settled opinion of a great many Australians. But will it be regarded as denying basic human rights or as deeply hurtful to the vulnerable? Can it be tolerated?

While we can’t expect those who have deep convictions on either side to change, it will be important to avoid a ‘winner takes all’ outcome that risks permanently sidelining whole sections of our society. We are still going to have to live together as best we can for a very long time.

This is why care needs to be taken, before the matter is resolved, to prepare for the aftermath. Long-term thinking is needed. It is a pity that genuine concerns about religious freedom are not gaining bipartisan support. And, for example, the more offensive activism on both sides — like singer Tim Minchin’s diatribe and the anonymous anti-gay posters in Melbourne — is making things worse. We can do better.

The big question is whether there can be a measure of mutual respect from both sides in the face of wide-ranging and irrevocable disagreement. Same-sex marriage may well be inevitable in this country. But Australia continuing as a civil and civilised society is still up for grabs.

Robert Forsyth is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and the former Anglican Bishop of South Sydney

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