Thursday, 29 March 2012

Marriage is not just about two people

The report of the European Court of Human Rights ruling regarding the recently decided civil partnership adoption rights case is by itself more fascinating than any of the headline grabbing journalism about it. Please see the English summary. It supported the refusal of French authorities to authorise an adoption that would transfer parental rights from a child’s biological mother, Ms. Dubois to her civil partner, Ms. Gas.

We might be tempted to think that an adoptive transfer of parental responsibility to Ms Dubois's civil partner would be the best way of securing the primacy of Ms. Gas's parental rights over all other family claims, especially should Ms Dubois die prematurely. The French authorities rightly saw that this was not in the best interest of the child, given that should their partnership be dissolved, it could inadvertently challenge her own access to her biological child. Marriage, given the body of case law, is the only exception in which the parental responsibility is shared between the biological parent and the adoptive husband, or wife.

But surely, this is discriminatory? Well, no. Had there been a French prohibition on forming opposite-sex civil partnerships (as there is in the UK), the Strasbourg court would most certainly have viewed the adoption ban as discriminatory. In fact, opposite-sex civil partners in France equally fall foul of this limitation on the transfer of parental rights. So, in this case, the adoption refusal was *not* about sexual orientation, however loud others might scream to the contrary.

In a sense, the limit on the right to marry is the final counter-argument. Surely, it was the lack of access to marriage that scuppered the couple's bid to share parental rights over Ms. Dubois' child. The blunt answer is that EU governments are under no obligation to extend marriage to same-sex couples. The legal implications for the church can only be applied, once same-sex marriage has been granted, not before.

The approach of the French authorities is vastly preferable to the 'blue skies' thinking that permeates the current UK government proposals for re-defining marriage and that leaves off defining a gender-free common standard for annulment through non-consummation and even adultery as issues for judges to unravel under case law.

This case does highlight the very real problems in extending the rights of marriage beyond its historic definition and without discerning the full implications. Marriage is clearly NOT just about two people who love each other. It can naturally trigger legal consequences far beyond those two people; consequences that matrimonial case law has thoroughly considered. Marriage also carries a gravitas (derived from human history and supported by case law) and an essential framework of commonly held mutual obligations that can be relied upon in law. It is this gravitas, when compared to the relative informal ease in ending civil partnerships, which led the French authorities to restrict the sharing of parental rights via adoption to married partners.

While it is a painful outcome for the couple, we return to Lord Penzance's 1866 statement in Hyde vs. Hyde: 'It may be, and probably is, the case that the women there pass by some word or name which corresponds to our word “wife.” But there is no magic in a name; and, if the relation there existing between men and women is not the relation which in Christendom we recognise and intend by the words “husband” or “wife,” but another and altogether different relation, the use of a common term to express these two separate relations will not make them one and the same, though it may tend to confuse them to a superficial observer'

Saturday, 10 March 2012

An open letter to my vicar

Hi Rachel,

I hope that your retreat was a time of spiritual growth and insight. There's a lot of good that your pastoral oversight imparts, so I'm glad you're back.

At the same time, the recent report cataloguing the culture of connivance at Chichester exposes a terrible history of episcopal errors. In spite of the damning evidence, the Bishop of Lewes, Wallace Benn, remains in office until retirement later this year. He'll collect his pension with not so much as a censure on his record of public service. A skilled communicator, he even appeared as a bit of church PR on Top Gear some time ago.

The 'apology' extended to the child victims who are now adults (the perpetrator went after choirboys, once he was dismissed on similar grounds from the Scout movement) merely cites systemic failures that we should now presume to be fixed, rather than holding specific clergy to account for their lack of protective oversight:

Yet, we wonder why so many have abandoned the Anglican church. Even if you discount the comparative ignorance of the '60's, we are now in an era in which CRB checks are routinely mandated. Yet, the 'good' bishop was happy to endorse a 1999 Permission to Officiate for a previously convicted paedophile.

This case needed a clear and inspiring show of root-and-branch disciplinary rigour. Instead, victims got a set of ecclesiastical sound-bites aimed at avoiding organisational incrimination. Perhaps, we need a Christian equivalent of the Nazi-hunter to root out these convicted perverts before they occupy a role of trust. There must be a range of XXXL granite dog-collars on reserve for them in hell.

It's not the quality of theology, preaching and social initiatives that undermine the Anglican church, nor the rise of secularism. It is the reasonable public fear that at a certain level, we are a church run by those who can dismiss the damning evidence that would prevent interlopers ('wolves in sheep's clothing') from exploiting public trust with impunity.

There is an abiding recognition that many of our leaders are far too interested in publicised political debate, civic prominence and the advocacy of single-issue social causes to worry about a nurturing relationship with each individual parishioner, as a true shepherd would nurture sheep. Yet, the gospel not about driving through grand policies, but the transmission of divine grace through nurturing change, mentoring guidance and committed personal interaction. You can easily identify those who don't engage at those levels.

You can't overcome those obstacles from the pulpit alone. You can only establish important ideals. People will respond to someone who is alongside, rather than above them. That's why I'm signing up for the mentoring course that I mentioned last year. My extended two-cents worth here might just add up.