Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Speaking at the Oxford Union marriage debate


On Thursday (26 November 2015) I was invited to speak at the Oxford Union marriage debate. Of our group of six ‘paper speakers’, the big hitters were Germaine Greer and Peter Hitchens. I have been asked to write my thoughts about the evening.

Jayne Ozanne and Gareth Hughes at the Oxford Union, celebrating victory.

Bait & switch

I am no celebrity, but was drafted in at the last minute to fill a space in the debate card. I had spent most of the Wednesday away from Oxford at a family funeral, and returned to a find a rather exasperated Union returning officer waiting to collar me before I said Mass. I’m sure he explained things perfectly, but I’m afraid I only registered the snippets “Germaine Greer”, “state recognition of marriage” and “oppose the motion”. My response was, “Well, I don’t have anything planned tomorrow evening, and, if you’re desperate, I’ll do it”. By e-mail later that evening, I was informed that the title of the debate was ‘This House Believes the State should not Recognise Marriage’, and I was an opposition speaker. I had not until then understood the double negative: I had agreed to speak in favour of state recognition of marriage.

Instinctively, my heart is against state recognition of marriage. I know people in other countries who have had to convert to another religion in order to marry. I believe tax breaks for married couples is a peculiar kind of social engineering, bribing couples to marry and remain married for lower tax code. Although I am a supporter of same-sex marriage, I found the UK government’s rush to implement it strained our already confused and complex marriage law (at least English marriage law), creating qualitatively different marriages in law and allowing the established church to barricade itself within a narrow limitation of the law of the land to which it ties itself (other-sex marriage only).

I took heart in the maxim that one is strongest in debate when one debates against one’s own beliefs. It would have been easy to divide the debate into a liberal proposition opposed by conservatives, so, if I were to be on the opposition bench, I wanted my liberal and progressive credentials to shine through unmistakably. This was especially true because I felt it only right to wear clericals, and, as the invitation requested ‘black tie’, that meant dusting off my frockcoat — I would look the image of a 19th-century Anglican arch-conservative.

The first draft of my argument was drawn from the preface of the Common Worship Marriage Service: “it enriches society and strengthens community”. The Church of England’s theology of marriage is that it is a social good, that stable, loving human relationships are the building blocks for a good society. I can immediately see a problem with this: it can be up-ended to bash single parents, divorcees and single people as antisocial. I had some good advice on academic papers to support this view from old friend and Oxford anthropologist Dr Jon Lanman. However, the more I thought through marriage as a social good, the greater the number of philosophical holes I saw in it.

On the day of debate I had lunch with Hertford College’s irrepressible feminist political theorist Dr Dana Mills, who tore my social-good argument apart and reckoned Germaine Greer would have no trouble in doing the same. She had the view that human rights law was the way to proceed: how states legislate to protect our individual rights to family and private life. We happen to have a shared appreciation of Eleanor Marx, socialist activist and daughter of Karl, and I loved Dana’s suggestion that I quote Tussy’s 1886 The Woman Question on the floor of the Union.

That describes the ingredients of my paper: my sympathy for the proposition, showing myself to be, in spite of appearance, liberal and progressive, some elements of social good, human rights law, and Eleanor Marx.

Drinks & dinner

For those who don’t know, the Oxford Union is the student debating society of the University of Oxford, but its establishment and prominence is much greater than any other student society. In all my time at Oxford, I have never been a member or darkened its rather elegant portal. Of late, this self-proclaimed trumpet of free speech has seemed more enamoured of celebrity and controversy. I confess to being prejudiced against the Union, believing it to be one of the remaining residual habitats for Oxford’s ‘Brideshead factor’ and a place where pretentious boys go to play parliament in bowties and clipped vowels. I met some lovely people who do not fit this description, but there was no attempt to disabuse me of my prejudice.

The evening began with drinks, at which I had the great delight to meet with my debating opponent Prof. Dean Spade. Dean is an associate professor of law at Seattle University School of Law, and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project,  which provides free legal services to trans people.

At the following dinner, I was seated opposite my debating partner Jayne Ozanne and beside Germaine Greer. Jayne is a member of the Archbishops’ Council and director of Accepting Evangelicals, a network of evangelicals who accept the place of gay people in the church. I admit to being overawed by Germaine’s celebrity, telling her how an ex-girlfriend had given me The Female Eunuch to educate myself. I wanted to have a polite little dinner, too timid to bring up her recent statements on transwomen. The subject was brought up by others. Germaine’s response was that she had been continually, gratuitously misunderstood and misquoted, and that much of this can be traced back to a complex and difficult time at Newnham College.

The staff and food at the Union were very good. The dinner concluded with the pomposity of toasts, the last being the ‘loyal’ one. There are few places left that insist on this bizarre ritual (it is forbidden at my college), and I do not make the toast the monarch. My fellow republican beside me simply, wordlessly sipped at her drink.


The Union’s debating chamber was full. After some notices by various officers, we proceeded with the ‘paper speeches’ alternating between the proposition and the opposition. The proposition speakers were, in order, Tom Foxton, a student at St Peter’s College, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author of Kosher Sex, Germaine Greer, and Dean Spade. For the opposition we had Harrison Edmonds, a student at University College, me, Jayne Ozanne, and Peter Hitchens.

I followed Rabbi Shmuley’s speech, an energetic performance packed with humour. I felt the only way to go was to contrast some dry, English self-deprecatory wit after the Hollywood bombast. I was not particularly happy with my performance, beginning a little too slowly and rushing the end. I had not timed my text, but it would have been just right for the ten minutes if I had started more quickly.

As Germaine Greer was introduced the inevitable protest erupted in the chamber from supporters of trans rights. She stood and silently faced her accusers, resolute. The protesters mostly shouted across each other, making it impossible for their point to be heard. A silent walk out, the unfurling of a banner or some other act might have been more successful than simple disruption. It was a pity that no member of the protest group remained to deliver a ‘point of information’ during Germaine’s speech or to deliver their own floor speech. The protesters were removed by security, while the Union officers spoke in self-congratulatory terms of upholding free speech at their removal — the irony seemed completely lost on them; they will have glowing political careers. In terms of the speakers, three of us — Dean, Jayne and I — explicitly mentioned our support for trans rights (that’s 2:1 for the opposition!).

The most striking part of Germaine Greer’s speech was her angry emphasis on the number of women who are killed by their partners or ex-partners in the UK — a shocking two women every week. I don’t think it had much bearing on the debate at hand, but it was an important fact to underline, and I thank her for reminding us of it and challenging us to do something about it.

Jayne Ozanne’s speech was brought to us by the word ‘passion’, with a touching account of how she once proposed marriage (the full text of her speech is here, do read it). Speeches from the floor followed, with some very good speakers. Many of these focused on the legislation for same-sex marriage. After the floor speeches, Dean Spade brought us important insight from the historical demography of the United States. He spoke about how marriage and lack of state-recognised marriage has been used to control the lives of people of colour, and its effect continues to this day.

Lastly came Peter Hitchens with perhaps the most lacklustre of all the speeches. He told us how society, politicians and judges have conspired to undermine marriage, and that marriage is a contract and that anyone seeking divorce is a contract breaker. Of course, no lawyer would make such a wild claim. As the Danish lawyer I had dinner with the following night told me, contracts are time-limited, specific in the duties entailed and have clear mechanisms for their cancellation. If marriage be understood as a contract, it is a unique, unusual type of contract. In the same way that new students get sexual-consent workshops in college, telling them that consent must be enthusiastic and ongoing, the ‘I will’ (not the ‘I do’ of Hollywood) of marriage is not made once and forgotten, but remade each day (that’s the hard part). As Peter spoke, all I could do was imagine the woman in a loveless marriage or an abusive marriage being told to keep up her end of the contract, being delivered back ‘home’ by the police from the women’s refuge. The miserable absence of any compassion was telling. For a man who claims to uphold Christian morals, lacking such compassion undermines any claim to be speaking from the vicinity of Jesus.

As they do, they voted. We, the opposition, were narrowly victorious 117:102.

Text of my speech

The full text of my speech can be downloaded here.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join this house in holy matrimony.

I have been asked to stand and speak in support of marriage and of the state, yet I am unmarried and I once stole a book on anarchism (I did later go back and pay!). Yet here I stand not only to defend marriage, but also the state’s recognition of marriage. Perhaps it is far too easy to consider such state recognition as an interfering spectre dictating to us how and with whom we may conduct our sex live, loves and relationships. I stand before you to submit that state recognition of marriage, while in no way perfect, is a necessary good.

I am a Church of England priest, the chaplain of an Oxford college, and I come before you in the miserable dress of the established church. Yet, under all of this, beats a heart of faith that is radical. Last night, I celebrated Mass with the special intention for the Day of Elimination of Violence against Women, for I am a supporter of feminism. A week ago tomorrow, my chapel held a memorial vigil for Transgender Day of Remembrance, for I am a supporter of trans rights. Yet I stand on this side of the room.

The Church of England’s current marriage liturgy is gender neutral and gender equal. It upholds mutual consent — both must say ‘I will’ — and it positions marriage not in some romantic isolation, but in the context of friends, family and wider society. Against the atomization and individualism, which I believe is present in this motion, the service emphasizes loving human relationships as the building blocks of society. I do believe that most of the members of this Union are the product of human relationships. If the state be in any way democratic, the nurture and protection of such loving relationships for the betterment of society is both natural and necessary.

At the heart of the marriage liturgy are the vows. Rather than being a hackneyed romanticism, they are, I believe, profoundly radical propositions. To vow

“for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health”

is a commitment to support each other through the bad times, the money worries and failing health. I visited an older couple; she had Alzheimer’s and had also become incontinent. Her loving husband told me that he had never understood ‘in sickness and in health’ quite as clearly as he does now: the challenge to love, and not to give up on the other. If this is how powerfully marriage can support us when we are most in need, and if marriage is the building blocks of society, then it should be obvious why the state support it.

Article sixteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has some straightforward, good things to say about our right to marry.

  1. “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion [and we might want now to add to that list of non-impediments], have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

This declaration is not some utopian dream. It has been enacted as legislation in many countries of the world. In those countries that have not ratified the declaration or enacted its articles, we find child marriage, forced marriage, and the inability of women and men to flee abusive relationships. In these things, the work of many states to legislate for our protection as individuals in our relationships is an overwhelmingly Good Thing.

Eleanor Marx, the socialist activist and daughter of Karl, had a particularly troubled relationship with her partner. Two years after meeting him, they co-authored a pamphlet, The Woman Question. In it, she wrote that in marriage a man’s fulfilment is “incomplete” and a woman’s “incomplete to the most lamentable extent, and when, as a rule, neither of them comes into real, thorough, habitual, free contact, mind to mind, with the other”. As her father had envisioned a better, more equal society built on socialist principles, Eleanor Marx applied the theory to marriage. We do not know what marriage is like when not based on commercialism, on the capitalist system of property and ownership. Marriage is a part of our current system, and has evolved within it.

In the same way that one might foresee a wonderful future without crime, one does not work towards such an ideal by deregulating the police — we can quickly see where that would lead. And even though we might know of abuses of police power, we also know that they are of necessity. Likewise, removing state protection of marriage in our current system would lead to abuses.

It is the worst kind of privatisation, for our identity as rights bearers is upheld by the state in marriage law, ensuring that there be mutual consent, age of consent, and economic protection going into marriage, during it and, if necessary, at its dissolution. Without such legal protection, we know that it would be women who would suffer the most. Whether we like it or not, in a capitalist society we need marriage law to protect us from the abuse of our personal and economic freedoms, which would be prevalent if the kind of privatisation of our liberty as proposed in this motion were to be undertaken.

Eleanor Marx saw beyond the sorry state we’re in, and our need of the state. She foresaw a future when we in our loving human relationships

“will be able to do that which but few can do now — look clear through one another’s eyes into one another’s hearts. For ourselves, we believe that [in this] cleaving … these will find each in the heart of the other, that which is in the eyes, their own image”.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

5 thoughts on “Speaking at the Oxford Union marriage debate

  1. Is it your extremely uncharitable interpretation of Peter Hitchens’s comments not also telling? Surely he didn’t mean to suggest that marriage could be never be broken. He was simply upholding the fact that it is an extremely important institution, for individuals and for society, and should be treated as something that should last. That you, as an Anglican Priest, a chaplain of an Oxford College no less, need to be reminded of this seems an apt statement on the current state of the Church of England. Perhaps you have been too preoccupied with trendy leftist theories and the championing of causes contrary to the Scriptures, Fathers, and Christian tradition?

    • Jeremy, you fail to make an argument. Hitchens’s speech was dismal and depressing for the reasons I outlined. I don’t know whether it being uncharitable or not is either here nor there? He did say that those who seek to break a marriage through divorce should be prosecuted. That is high handed and wholly lacking in compassion. My speech underlined the importance of marriage in society using texts from the marriage liturgy. Hitchens and I were on the same side of the debate.

      I don’t know you, but you pretend to know me with your ad hominem remarks. I’m not offended by your comment, as I realise that attacking the person is what people do when they have nothing to say. I believe in women’s equal rights. You may call that a trendy leftist theory, but that’s more a reflection on you.

      My credentials working in Aramaic and Syriac are clear. In terms of Scripture, church fathers and tradition, I think I have a good understanding. It is good enough to know that you cannot make such a vague, sweeping condemnation of me for not championing Christian causes. Have some respect!

      • I am sorry, but I have trouble having respect because it is those like you who caused me to leave the Church of England and march back to Constantinople. You clearly seem to enjoy the company of those like Greer and other irreligious leftists and radicals more than someone like Hitchens. You spend much of your time talking about various unchristian movements or causes or figures, like homosexual marriage (contrary to Scripture, natural law, the Fathers and great divines of the universal Church, and the verdict of human civilisation) and Eleanor Marx. You seem far more keen to affirm transsexual rights – despite the fact no one really knows what transsexuality is and it is far from settled such people are what they claim (that such people are suffering from a pathology is still one of the leading theories to explain their conditions) – than defending marriage. And I see you are also for women bishops, thus breaking the universal teaching of the Christian tradition and breaking apostolic succession – presumably you will upbraid our lord one day for no taking female disciples.

        You indicated that you would have wished to take the other side in the debate, so I didn’t read too much into your arguments for marriage.

        My main point, obviously, is that you are being uncharitable to Mr. Hitchens and that you are so in such a way that is strange for a Christian priest. He clearly believes in the importance of marriage, as does the Christian tradition. He has never indicated he would ban divorce entirely. However, the Roman Church doe snot accept divorce, and it has a reasonable argument for not doing so based upon the very words of our Lord. There is a difference between not being able to divorce and not being able to separate. But, anyway, what is so strange is you take the exceptional cases, like abuse, and seem to be far more interested in these, and attacking Hitchens for not explicitly discussing them, than defending marriage and recognising that he is right about its sanctity and importance, even does not express himself perfectly. You views here lack a proper proportion – and they are just as trendy left-liberal argue.

        Like so many liberal Christians, you forget that our compassion and love should not lack justice and truth. You fall into sentimentalism. We must love whilst holding fast to what is right. Compassion should never be an excuse to vice. If Hitchens errs in being a little uncharitable to those stuck in terrible marriages, at least he can sometimes give this impression, you err more in allowing compassion for a minority of cases to cloud your clear and unequivocal support to long lasting marriage.

        By the way, gender is a grammatical. Humans have sexes, words have genders.

      • Yet you show me no charity in the slightest. I appraised Hitchens on what he said, while you have taken to sniping at me in the most unchristian manner. You are clearly a social conservative and believe that Christianity can only be seen through a certain political lens. You also seem to be believe that the debate was about marriage, while it was about state recognition of marriage. In my speech, I talk about the marriages I have taken, about the the text of the liturgy and the vows a couple make. I am an upholder of marriage as life-long and life-giving. We cannot will the world perfect, and marriages do fail. This fact has always been recognised by churches.

        When I advocate compassion, I do so as a Christian and Christlike virtue, not to ‘excuse vice’. I minister to trans people, and hear their struggles. It is not right to dismiss a person of hand because of things you have read about their ‘type’. Following Christ requires us to see the image of God in each of his children.

        Saint Paul spoke of this great freedom we have in Christ, a freedom not to sin but to be free of sin. I am a pastor, and my flock is diverse. I consign no one to damnation — the priest is commanded to absolve — so I forgive, absolve in the name of the church, and charge each to sin no more. None but Christ is without sin, we are all in need of forgiveness. The work of a priest changes both the people and the priest’s self. If we minister absolution, we learn how to be compassionate. We learn that to absolve is not to be drawn into the abstract moralism of condoning or condemning, but the bringing of healing into the heart of human frailty. The Pharisees condemned Jesus for not forgiving rather than condemning.

        If Christ affirmed the Magdalene as Apostle to the Apostles and Isapostolos, a woman can be a bishop. The argument from tradition, assuming something is true because it is how things have always been, is a logical fallacy. True tradition is what has been handed down, and it is a pretence to imagine that with each generation the tradition has been altered to fit the needs of those seeking to live faithfully in their present age.

        I am a faithful Christian priest, pastor of my flock, I celebrate and uphold marriage, but I have views that diverge with yours. I can accept that people like you and Peter Hitchens live faithful Christian lives, and disagree with you on details. The history of the church has always been thus. So, I shall pray for you, not in some angry way, but for your journey of faith and the blessing of Christ’s presence in word and sacrament. For I am a priest, I absolve, bless and see Christ in all. You could say that I am showing you compassion, charity even.

  2. Pingback: Oxford Union Votes Rhodes Must Fall » News101

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