A couple of years ago, I attended a forum on equal marriage at which the principal speaker was the Right Reverend Gregor Duncan, the Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway. If commitment to a political ideology were a thing that needed to be proven, voluntarily getting lost in Inverclyde on a Saturday afternoon in the coldest January in my living memory must surely qualify. A couple of days after that, I convened a forum on equal marriage at the LGBT Group at St Mary’s Cathedral at which our invited guest was the Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway. I tell you those things so that you understand that when he asked, with as much exasperation as Bishop Gregor ever asks anything, which isn’t much, why I was obsessed with being able to use the word “marriage”, he had in all fairness by that point spent a significant portion of his weekend being harassed by me.
It had been a little bit about microphones and thuribles — somewhere in the middle of it all, Evensong happened — but it was mostly about this.
I offered him the glib answer: “If it’s only a word, why are you obsessed with stopping me?”
And then I gave him a more serious one, but, honestly, just because that one’s glib doesn’t mean it’s not true.
It is an argument that I’ve heard a lot of in the nearly six years since I got involved with the equal marriage campaign. From friends. From family. From politicians. From newspapers. From the Internet. From my Church. You can have a civil partnership. It gives you (mostly) the same rights and responsibilities and protections as marriage. Why do you need to call it marriage? It’s just a word. And it’s an argument that I would consider a perfectly reasonable one if it weren’t that the people who ask that are the same ones who have said in the breath before it that the definition of marriage can’t be changed.
You can say that words mean stuff. You can say that words don’t. You cannot do both.
Me, I think that words mean stuff.
I think that marriage means mutual love and mutual respect. I think it means equality. I think it means in sickness and in health and with my body I thee honour. I think it means commitment, commitment to celebrate together in times of joy and comfort one another in times of tragedy. I think that “marriage”, as a word, means social legitimacy in a way that “partnership” doesn’t, not quite. I think that my definition of marriage probably isn’t the same as the Biblical definition of marriage, not because I don’t define it as between a man and a woman but because I can’t find any marriages in the Bible that are worth emulating. I think it means imperfection. I’d like it to mean to the exclusion of all others and until death parts us, but I know that it doesn’t always and that straight people get divorced too.
This week is an important week for Scotland. The Scottish Parliament votes on Wednesday on its equal marriage bill. It will not be the end of the story. If it passes, there will be time to debate and add and vote on amendments to the Bill and a statutory waiting period before Royal Assent. If that all happens, we can expect this to be an Act of Parliament sometime early in the New Year, and then there are those of us for whom that means more battles to be fought within our own communities. Whatever happens on Wednesday, it is not the end of the story, but I feel as if this is going to be the most significant moment of this extraordinary campaign.
When the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was being debated in Westminster earlier this year, David Lammy said this. He said, “Separate but equal is a fraud. Separate but equal is the language that tried to push Rosa Parks to the back of the bus. […] Separate is not equal, so let us be rid of it.”
Why do I want to call it marriage?
Because it is marriage.
Because the same sex couples I know who represent to me the best of what I believe marriage to be are already married. I look at them, and I see the mutual love and respect and the commitment and the humanity that I talked about. There is no meaningful difference between their relationship and the relationships of the opposite-sex and legally married couples I know and love and admire. The law is not the thing that will change the definition of marriage. The people have already done that. And so if words really do mean stuff, it’s time to call it what it is.