The battle for gay marriage is a civil war, not a religious one

The protests in France stem in part from a blurring of church and state

Share

Of all European countries, you might have thought that France would have taken gay marriage in its stride. Is France not where free-living Britons, gay and straight alike, traditionally found refuge from their own more censorious compatriots? Yet same-sex marriage has gained readier acceptance in the UK than across the Channel.

The day after President François Hollande signed France’s gay marriage bill into law, more than 150,000 people thronged the streets of Paris in a vociferous red, white and blue protest. The week before, a far-right historian, Dominique Venner, had shot himself at the altar of Notre Dame cathedral, after virulently condemning gay marriage on his blog.

None of this stopped the country’s first gay wedding. On Wednesday evening, 40-year-old Vincent Autin and 30 year-old Bruno Boileau were joined in matrimony by the socialist mayor of Montpellier. The ceremony was shown live on French television. The happy couple kissed; the champagne flowed, as did the tears (of joy). But the gendarmes were out to ensure security and many mayors say they will refuse to officiate at gay weddings.

The ferocity of the gay marriage controversy says something, perhaps unexpected, about today’s France. It says that France is a more conservative, more Catholic, country than is often realised. The temporal power of the church may have been destroyed by the revolution, along with its ancient monasteries and estates, but its spiritual power has endured. A glance back across the Channel might even suggest that the constitutional separation of church and state may have kept the church in France stronger than it would otherwise have been.

The church’s influence flies for the most part below the social radar. The bans on schoolgirls wearing the hijab and on women covering their faces in public, for instance, are commonly presented as measures to protect the secular state. Just behind that argument, though, lies a sense that Catholicism is a part of French national identity. Not everyone who says “No” to the hijab is saying “Yes” to Catholicism as a defining feature of being French, but many are – and it is a sentiment not restricted to the far-right National Front. God-fearing Catholics follow their upbringing and current Vatican teaching in regarding same-sex relationships as wrong. They make exceptions for friends and family, but when it comes to marriage, they share the belief that the institution unites a man and a woman.

Opposition to gay marriage in France, however, highlights a more general point. The way in which religion has become embroiled in the gay marriage debate – and gay marriage in the religion debate – has been profoundly unhelpful to both. A telling detail in some reports of the Autin-Boileau marriage was that they walked “down the aisle” together. That phrase seemed to betray an instinct, perhaps even a desire, to conflate this civil occasion with a religious one. But this was not a church wedding; it was a civil ceremony of the sort that takes place every day across France.

Here, as in the other dozen or so countries where gay marriage is legal – and in the legislation making its way through Parliament in Britain – it is civil law, not canonical law, in which gay marriage is enshrined. It is the state, not the church, that decrees that gay couples should have the possibility of the same legal rights as those enjoyed by married heterosexual couples. They include rights related to property, inheritance and tax, as well as social rights, such as the right to adopt children.

Much of the confusion doubtless stems from the association of marriage with church. Say “wedding” to most people in Britain and they will conjure up the cherished image of a country church or the royal nuptials at Westminster Abbey, not Windsor Guildhall, where Prince Charles and Camilla were married. In many countries, France included, couples must go through a civil ceremony in addition to the religious one in order to be legally married. But it is the religious rite that is remembered, and celebrated, as the “real” marriage.

That the words “wedding” and “marriage” are used equally for church and civil ceremonies only introduces further confusion. The right for gay people to marry seems to have lodged in the public consciousness less as the right to equality with straight couples before the law (which it is), than as the right to marry in church (which it is not). Unfortunately, it is far too late to change the terminology.

I entirely understand why many gay people, not only religious believers, insist that they will not enjoy full equality until they can marry in a religious ceremony on the same terms as straight couples. But their claim here cannot be against the state, which has done what all it can in its domain. The onus is on the churches, but here it is hard to be optimistic.

The Anglican Church tore itself apart for the best part of 30 years over women priests and is still not reconciled; it is going through similar spasms over female and gay bishops. Same-sex marriage is causing new ructions, with even the new Archbishop of Canterbury apparently unsure what he thinks. The Roman Catholic Church, like the Eastern Orthodox churches, has barely started down this liberalising route.

The problem is that, for many believers, gender is fundamental to their faith. And while many of the faithful have adapted their views to the times, many others regard certain tenets, such as the nature of the priesthood or of marriage, as immutable. The Anglican Church may have avoided schism in name, but a de facto schism exists – not just on gay marriage, but on the place of women and homosexuals generally – and the state cannot be expected to change this. In terms of secular rights, homosexuals have won the battle on both sides of the Channel. That is a huge advance, and one that the doctrinal agony of the churches should not be allowed to diminish.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently  

Shia LaBeouf to Luis Suárez: Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015