On Monday I wrote a post suggesting that a change in the law about marriage would lead to further changes in UK law dealing with sexuality and suggested three areas where further change might occur – polygamy, incest and the age of consent. During a spirited twitter exchange where I was accused of ‘scare-mongering’, being ‘uneducated’, ‘lacking in morals’ and ‘prejudiced.’ Glutton for punishment that I am, I thought I’d reflect further on our changing laws regarding human sexual ethics.
It seems clear that the 20th and the early part of 21st century will have seen the most far-reaching legislative changes in the area of human sexuality since whenever we first started passing laws on it. Divorce, orientation, gender, age of consent and a host of other issues have all changed in the last 50 years. It seems unlikely that once same-sex marriage is legal in the UK that the changes will end there. Why would they?
Christians can react in a number of unhelpful ways; we can talk as if these changes are the end of civilisation as we know it with the pink barbarians massed outside the city gates. Although the time span is still quite short it seems unlikely that this change will be the fatal undoing of civil society. Sweden has managed to function perfectly well since legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009, incest has been legal in France for 200 years and the age of consent in Spain is just 13 and as Mr Zuma has shown having lots of wives is just fine in South Africa. No one need be scared of living in Nice or Barcelona or Cape Town, at least not for these reasons.
Secondly, we can use the slippery slope analogy quite poorly. Changes in laws are rarely chain events, the process is far more muddy and uneven and law often lags behind behaviour in society rather than marching ahead of it. However change in one area does have consequences, it’s slightly bizarre to think otherwise and like most changes some consequences will be positive and others negative.
I think that the removal of Judaeo-Christian principles will result in a continued changes in a number of areas and this is not really very surprising nor actually very scary. Christians shouldn’t be surprised when secular governments govern with no regard to Christian ethics. It’s more surprising when they do.
There are several attitudes and ideas that will force change in the area of sexual ethics. Firstly, that what we do in the bedroom and who we do it with is an entirely private matter as long as it’s consenting. Secondly, that everyone’s preferences and identity is respected and tolerated. All should stand equal before the law, which is after all, only fair. Thirdly, in an increasingly secular, pluralistic societies it is increasingly difficult for governments to found laws on principles from just one group, instead all groups are seen as equal. We should tolerate all.
You can see these arguments played out very powerfully by the Out4Marriage campaign. Stephen Fry uses all these arguments in his gentle and very reasonable way, despite the red herring argument of homosexual behaviour in animals. Ed Milliband’s arguments are much the same. There is no logical reason why the very arguments used by those in favour of same-sex marriage couldn’t also be used in favour of other practices. That’s the connection, the success of the arguments in this case can also be successfully used in other cases. I would be surprised if they weren’t.
In a pluralistic society what sustainable objection is there to polygamous marriages? In a society where as long as it’s consensual it should be tolerated, what sustainable objection is there to incest? If in the EU, Spanish teenagers can have sex at 13 why not in the UK? There are more changes to come.
Personally I think the fight to keep hold of a law when the principles and ethics that lay behind it have long been forgotten by the vast majority is ultimately an exercise in frustration. If you’re happy knowing you’re going to lose but fighting anyway, good for you. I think the way forward lies in an altogether more radical redrawing and redefining of Christian marriage that would stand separate from state sanctioned unions. It is time for Christians to realise we stand no longer at the centre of society but at the periphery and our communities must sharpen their focus and engagement as a result.