CHRIS AUCHINVOLE (National) : In the first reading of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill I voted that it be sent to the Government Administration Committee to ensure a call for submissions and a platform for discussion, and I am very glad that I did that. Serving on the select committee as deputy chairman was instructive, illuminating, and educative, and it was a pleasure working with the Hon Ruth Dyson as chair.
I wish now to speak to the considerations of the select committee. The one aspect that was universal—common to all submitters—was that marriage is special, precious, and desirable. Everyone said so, no matter which part of the argument they were interested in. The issue is over who can or cannot participate in it. Submitters were very definite in expressing their particular views.
I found there were three main groupings, and I would like to talk about them now. One grouping has an eschatological view of the bill—in other words, to pass the bill will be the beginning of the end of society as we know it. This was a very firmly held view. It is perceived as a slippery slope, leading to our ultimate demise as a nation and as a civilisation.
I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of submitters who hold to this view. It was sincerity, though, that seemed to be entirely based on apprehension and fear and circular reasoning, rather than on a persuasive argument.
Although I cannot imagine, if the bill passes, that a particularly large percentage of the population will suddenly take the opportunity to engage in same-gender marriages, I also cannot imagine that any number would make one iota of difference to the 41 years of marriage that my wife and I have enjoyed, or to anybody else’s heterosexual marriage.
I cannot see it. I have thought deeply about this and cannot believe that the social impact of the bill would herald the demise and collapse of the wider societal values in New Zealand. I respect the right of those who wish to hold to that view, but I cannot give it currency in coming to a defined position on this bill.
Another grouping held a perception that this is counter to religious views and practices and represents State interference in religious practice, beliefs, and dogma. The select committee listened very carefully and sincerely to the concerns expressed. As someone who had 5 years as a lay minister for the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa / New Zealand and was a member of the council of assembly for the Presbyterian Church, I had a particular interest in this aspect of the discussion.
It became clear through listening that the overriding concern is that the clergy and those authorised by religious bodies to conduct marriages would be obliged—indeed, forced—to conduct ceremonies for same-gender couples should the bill be passed. We have already heard from the Hon Ruth Dyson about section 29 of the Marriage Act, which has always stipulated that it authorises but does not oblige any marriage celebrant to solemnise a marriage to which the licence relates.
The select committee has recommended a new clause that makes it abundantly clear that ministers of religion or celebrants from approved organisations are not obliged to solemnise a marriage if to do so would contravene the religious beliefs of the religious body or approved organisation.
I thoroughly enjoy theological discussion and have a huge appetite for it. I have been most grateful for the opportunity to sit with clergy from many different denominations and engage with them on this issue.
By providing and ensuring that this bill deals only with secular issues—I will say it again: it deals only with secular issues—it nevertheless leaves a dilemma for established religious groups that wish to differentiate their churches or holy matrimony from the new definition if the bill passes. It is not for the State to have a view on this. It is for the churches to resolve in their own way and time, and I look forward to engaging in that discussion in a personal capacity in my own time.
The third consideration—we have heard it spoken by my colleague and friend Tim Macindoe this evening—is that marriage is an institution: time honoured, never changing, and having the essential components of one man and one woman common to all countries and civilisations throughout the millennia until death do them part. It ain’t necessarily so.
I am privileged to have my wife in the gallery tonight. My wife and I married on 11 March, 41 years ago last Monday, and lived happily ever after. But the question that exercised the upper echelons of ecclesiastic minds in those days was whether or not the bride should take a vow of obedience to her husband. If you are marrying a red-headed West Coast girl from a West Coast aristocratic family, some hope!
During that same time, to have children born out of wedlock was a hamper to church marriage, as was a divorce, or, indeed, wanting to marry someone of a different religion. Bans of marriage were called from pulpits, advising that people were intending marriage, and others were invited to give reasons why that marriage should not proceed or to forever hold their peace. Marriage is not an unchanging institution, and although most of its institutional aspects have been laudable for men, they have often been less than favourable for women.
Some statistics to show this change to the institution are quite illuminating. Twenty-three percent of marriages are conducted in a registry office, 32 percent of marriages are conducted in a church, and 45 percent are conducted by independent marriage celebrants. The figures shout out change that we cannot close our ears to.
I found it personally significant that from the—wait for the figures—9,347 independent marriage celebrants, which is nearly 10,000 independent marriage celebrants, and 530 civil union celebrants, so that is 10,500 all together, the select committee received two—two—submissions.
The last two aspects I wish to touch on are the matters of conscience and the question of family coming first. In terms of conscience, I have given much, much thought to this. I am acquainted with guilt. Being a Presbyterian, one goes through life thinking that one has not worked hard enough, has not done enough, and has not reached the requirement that life’s opportunities offer, and you will always get other members who will tell you that, as one did this evening.
To assuage my conscience on this issue, I delved back in my life to the age of understanding, which I think those of Catholic persuasion tell me the Jesuits determine is at 7 years old, when I was a boy.
I looked at catechismic values when learning the catechism by rote in Glasgow: “Who made you?” “God made me.” “Why did God make you?” “God made me to know him and love him.” The third question: “What image did God make you in?”
The answer: “God made me in his own image.” Every 7-year-old boy and girl said the same and believed it was true. They did not have to add: “… as long as I conform to being heterosexual, and not to loving anyone of the same gender as myself.” My conscience is very clear on this issue.
Every person has the same spiritual claim as one another to being made in the image of God, and it will take a braver person than I am to deny that. I have addressed the question of eschatology in my mind, the question of ensuring religious freedom, and the assumption of benign institutionalisation. My conscience is not clouded or indeed involved in this issue.
As an older person, we do have baggage to carry of remembering when homosexuality was illegal—in fact, it was criminal—and it was, we were told, immoral. There were two definite groups of people who came and made submissions before us, and it was what I would call a generational divide.
So, in dealing with the legacy of discriminatory prejudice—and I would not want that to be a deciding feature—I prayerfully ask to be able to internalise and resolve this complicated situation in my head, in my heart, and in my soul.
What I learnt from listening to the submissions, colleagues, was that in fact each homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person appearing before us was not to be seen just as an individual, not to be identified just by gender preference, but in fact to be seen as a mother’s son or a daughter, and a father’s daughter or son, as siblings to their brothers and sisters, grandchildren to their grandparents, nephews and nieces to their uncles and aunts, and uncles and aunts to their nephews and nieces, and cousins to their cousins.
They are all family, along with their heterosexual friends and relations, and all are an integral part of the New Zealand family, and all are part—in my mind, in my heart, and in my conscience—of God’s family. I now realise that this bill seeks to put first something that critics have accused it of undermining, and that is the family.
We as parliamentarians should not simply look past the interests of the applicants for this bill. We should not simply look at their interests. We should, and we must, look after their interests. We should pass this bill.