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

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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Account Manager

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SEO Account Manager is requi...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

£35-45K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer / Web ...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Manager - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Commercial Manager is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Hollywood: Stop trying to make Superman cool. The world needs a boy scout in blue

Matthew Daly
A man enjoys the  

If you really want to legalise cannabis, then why on earth would you go and get high in a park?

Peter Reynolds
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders