By Adam Blick (Queen's College, 2008)
The world has witnessed history with the introduction of gay marriage in the UK in 2013 and in recent months, most notably in Ireland and the USA. In the western world, which claims to espouse freedom of speech and equal rights, one may wonder what took so long.
Moreover, until 2004 in England, gay couples did not have the same rights as heterosexual couples. They were not recognised in law and so did not benefit from the legal rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples; same-sex couples had very limited financial claims on separation, even at the end of a relationship that lasted for, say, thirty years and on intestacy. The Civil Partnership Act in 2004, whilst causing a significant stir, entitled same-sex couples to enjoy similar rights as heterosexual ones. However, although in essence a mirror image, civil partnerships were not defined as marriage but were governed by their own legislation.
Following this, the right of same-sex couples to marry was then introduced, which has caused yet another stir for numerous reasons — broadly speaking religious, cultural and, therefore, political. Given how far we’ve come as a society, some would say that there is irony found in such opposition, particularly with regard to Christianity.
As a classicist and solicitor, I have had the benefit of reading all sorts of texts and of drawing parallels between the ancient (western) world and the one we live in today. In essence, what I see as ‘history repeating itself’. I see a rather ironic parallel between the introduction of Christianity in ancient Rome and the introduction of gay marriage today. Both have had to contend with religious, social and political connotations. Yet, although both have struggled for recognition on similar grounds, Christianity has greatly resisted gay marriage.
Ancient Rome was driven by three main policies: consolidating frontiers, respecting differences between provinces and formulating alliances. An overall policy, therefore, of tolerance was applied. That is not to say, however, that they were consistently practised!
In ancient Rome, Christianity ‘stood out as the only persecuted religion in an otherwise tolerant Roman Empire’ (J Wacher, The Roman World, vol. 2 (London, 1990) 800). It faced severe and brutal hostility as an exitiabilis superstitio, ‘a fatal superstition’. This was largely for failing to conform to Roman law and customs. Consequently, Christianity became a scapegoat during an economic downturn which enabled Romans to ‘reassert a sense of their own cohesion by fighting off enemies who are often quite imaginary’ (Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons (Chicago, 1975) 216). Yet, such resistance led to sympathy. Pliny the Younger, in his letters to Emperor Trajan, is among the first to express his sympathy, marking the beginning of the climb to acceptance and eventual integration of the Christians in Rome.
Society in Britain, like Rome, has evolved using policies of tolerance, particularly with regard to religion, immigration and sexuality. Nonetheless, there are those that, in spite of these ‘tolerant’ values, have strongly opposed gay marriage and indeed even civil partnerships. They likewise rely, as the Romans did, on tradition and religion to justify their opposition. Thus, it is ironic that Christianity has often been invoked to oppose gay rights.
Christians have vehemently opposed gay marriage and some states in America are appealing against the recent ruling on religious grounds. As the Romans did against Christians, Christians now oppose gay unions for a lack of conformity with their own laws and customs. However, as the Romans did with the Christians, resistance has eventually led to a better understanding and more sympathetic ear, resulting in the integration of gay marriage with the law and the rest of society. Resistance and campaigning has led to awareness. This awareness has led to a better understanding of the core issues — a familiarity which has revealed the phenomenon of gay marriage as less threatening and intimidating than it had previously been perceived.
In an ever-developing world, it is important to facilitate the changing needs and priorities of society. Indeed, Christians have themselves evolved to do so — the introduction of female priests being a prime example. In a similar way, therefore, it has been hard to sympathise with opposing beliefs on the topic of gay marriage, and instead the sympathy has fallen on the side of the gay community. The natural progression on the topic of gay marriage has led to its inevitable acceptance, implementation and a more evolved society.
Adam Blick is an alumnus of Queen's College and read Ancient Greek and Latin at MSt level in the year 2008-2009.
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