Hugo Rifkind

Get the church out of the state, and the state will stay out of the church

5 January 2013

So let us return, you and I, warily and wearily, to the topic of gay marriage. Gingerly, in fact, as though with a hangover after an ill-tempered, bickering party. And, in the cold and Nurofenned light of day, let us find our common ground, and think about where it leads.

I’m still for it and I’m still of the view that churches shouldn’t have to do it if they don’t want to. I’m for both of these things for the same reason, which is a belief that one person’s conviction, however firmly held, shouldn’t mess with another’s liberty and happiness unless it absolutely has to. In all honesty, though, I don’t consider them equal concerns. The right of gay people to marry, I reckon, is pretty fundamental and human. The right of people to keep practices they find icky out of their place of worship, meanwhile, has a morality I find more -slippery.

Indeed, I increasingly get the impression that religious opponents of gay marriage are actually secretly delighted at the notion that the Peter Tatchells of the world might seek to force gay marriages in churches, because it allows them to oppose something they would have opposed anyway out of sheer and shrill distaste, but to tell themselves their views are based on religious conscience.

Still, mine is not to make windows into men’s souls, as a lady once said. Faith is faith, and there’s something not quite right about assuming you can change it from parliament. Even though that lady’s father did just that.

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Which is the rub, really, and it’s got me thinking. Refuse to recognise the equivalence of same and different sex unions in the rituals of your own private ontology which other people reckon is all make-believe anyway? Fine. Who’d have a problem with that? Perhaps I’ll have my doubts about you as a human being, but what you choose to do behind closed temple doors with other consenting adults shouldn’t be any of my -business.

Unfortunately, it is my business. Because, when you marry in a church, mosque, synagogue or similar, you are not only married in the eyes of God. You are also married in the eyes of the law. Even for those outside your chosen Weltanschauung, is my point, your status has changed. Thus, you need to play by the wider world’s rules. This is why, I’m afraid to say, when the Tatchells eventually pick this fight they’re going to win.

In most of Europe, though, they wouldn’t. This is because in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and pretty much everywhere else, a religious marriage only marries you in the eyes of God. If you want to be married in the eyes of everybody else, you need to toddle off to the registry office and do it again. (Or before. Or, increasingly, instead.) For Britain, surely, this is the answer to our gay marriage problem. Our places of worship have a civil function because we have a state religion and we’re accustomed to that being how it works. Strip it, and banning gay marriage in your church becomes like banning football in a golf club.

Of course, many religionists might be uncomfortable with their place of worship becoming a mere place of hobbyism. When your priest, imam, vicar or rabbi has civic status, taking it away might feel like marginalisation. But, hey, it works everywhere else. Indeed, even if this sort of thing is taken to its logical conclusion, where’s the big downside? Antidisestablishmentarianism remains a Scrabble holy grail, but is fast losing its rationale as a concept. The Lords Spiritual are surely on the way out anyway. See also: women bishops. There, also, the C of E seems to be tearing itself apart because of an irreconcilable clash between mainstream British values and church ones. Sever the link.

Getting the church out of the state can wait, though. In the short term, just get the state out of churches. And mosques, and synagogues and everywhere else. While your vicar, priest or whatever functions as a civic registrar, it’s not surprising that a court — especially a horrid, godless European court — might tell them to act like one. But no court is going to legislate on something that is merely a conversation with the Almighty. Surely.

When you’re young, and you fancy a girl (or a boy; not relevant; new subject) often you fancy the idea of them more than the reality. You dream, you fantasise, you feel certain you know what is going to be. Then you get to know them and, often, they’re simply somebody else.

So it is with politics, with Ukip. I’m not going to get preachy about Ukip. In all honesty, I don’t really know enough about them to do so. But it strikes me, again and again, that nobody does. There’s Nigel Farage, sure. But below him? Maybe they aren’t ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ as David Cameron claimed. But who are they?

In recent years we’ve had independents, Respect, Veritas, the BNP, maybe others I’ve forgotten about. On the fringes of British politics, the same thing keeps happening. During the last election, it sort of happened with the Liberal Democrats, too. A new force rears up, briefly looking like it is going to change everything. Then, in the spotlight, it becomes a collection of actual people. Such is the nature of fringe politics — some of them are frankly odd. Maybe most of them. So it rears down again. At the next election, Ukip plans to field 650 candidates. Who the hell are they, then?

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • Gawain Towler

    Hugo, why not come and have a chat with us in @UKIP, if you want to find out?

  • Wrath Rune

    “Such is the nature of fringe politics — some of them are frankly odd.”

    Well, UKIP people maybe ‘frankly odd’ in your gilded world old boy, but I’ll bet that normal UKIP people are closer to the general public that anything Labour or Tories will serve up…

    Exhibit A: Louise Mensch, pseudo-Tory, pro-Blair, pro-Mensch, anti-constituents. Bailed from party when she saw she was going nowhere. By any frame of reference, she is odd.

    Exhibit B: Chukka Umunna, pseudo-Downtrodden minority™, pro-Blair, pro Chukka, pro-money, anti-normal people keeping theirs. Seen as the ‘British Obama’ by some, seen as a sneering hypocrit by everyone else.

    What could be classed odder, is someone writing for a once respectable magazine who would remain unknown but from the fact he inherited the Y chromosome from his famous father, casting judgement on people he knows nothing of.

  • last_brit_standing

    Non-mainstream parties – especially right wing ones because they tend to push a common sense populist agenda – only have odd-looking people because they aren’t professional politicians, and therefore haven’t taken on the attributes thereof. As Wrath Rune points out, it’s the professional politicians are odd outside their natural habitat; most candidates, when they – gulp – come into contact with REAL people, look about as out of place as Rick Perry at a quiche-tasting seminar.

  • martinde

    Rifkind stiches together nine paragraphs about gay marriage and gets no comments on them. Three paragraphs about UKIP provoke three vehement supporters of the party, in the same sort of way that other journals, not least the online Daily Mail, is replete with UKIP activists. Are they organised to pile in at every opportunity? The odd thing is, below Farage, the party does remain a largely unknown entity (with the possibly exception of Godfrey Bloom, MEP, and his wisdom about a woman’s place). There’s little point in Wrath Rune referring to some of the ineffable figures in the main parties. as at the next election the great majority of voters are likely to be influenced mainly by the usual issues – the economy, health, education and, perhaps, ‘Europe’. But even on this last issue how many can be expected to vote for a party that appears to be a crew of middle-aged and disaffected Tory men? Perhaps just enough to damage Cameron fatally.

  • Jack

    Antidisestablishmentarianism is not a Scrabble holy grail. You can’t fit it in lengthways or widthways.

    • Hugo Rifkind

      I agree it would be a miracle. But so would be the cup which giveth eternal life. With faith, Jack, all is possible.

      • Kevin

        Then again, it stands to (atheistic) reason that thirteen extra spaces could come from nothing.

        • Balthasaar

          Or Godly reason, that God could come from nothing

  • Mark

    In a Kent by-election, just before Christmas, the UKIP candidate published a manifesto suggesting, among other things, that babies with Downs Syndrome and other disabilities should be compulsorily aborted. UKIP quickly distanced themselves from the candidate (it was too late for him to withdraw) but this illustrates theming of odd-balls the party attracts. Enough said.


      He didn’t say it should happen. He said it should be discussed.

      Are you aware that 92% of all babies with Down’s are presently aborted? How far off being compulsory is that? Not much.

      Do you really care about unborn children with Down’s? Are you appalled that almost all are already aborted? If you are not appalled then you are just trying to undermine UKIP and don’t actually have a moral leg to stand on.

      • James

        “Are you aware that 92% of all babies with Down’s are presently aborted? How far off being compulsory is that? Not much.”

        It could be 100%, it still wouldn’t be compulsory as long as the decision to abort was made by the person who was pregnant.

        • morpork

          Well, it is 100% compulsory as far as the Down’s baby is concerned.

  • Hugo has missed the point

    Dear Mr Rifkind, please listen up. The three main planks of opposition to gay ‘marriage’ are Natural Law, Religious Liberty, and the abuse of language itself.

    Natural law, because marriage is the union at the heart of those gene pools we call the family – those discret nuclei which consist of a mother, a father and their own progency, and give the fabric of society its core stability.

    Religious liberty because it would oppress the right of Christians, Muslims and Jews to express or practice their faith in a very wide range of employment situations, and many businesses would simply have to be shut down if they did not comply with Mr Cameron’s ideology.

    An abuse of language because marriage is a biological union between a man and a woman: is a union (and not a partnership) because it unites the most fundamental dichotomy in nature – male and female; it is biological in that it requires consummation (i.e. it is aimed at procreation). It was thus long before it was written into, and conferred protection under law. And the law has no jurisdiction over this most fundamental aspect of its character. It is what it is.

    • cStory

      Jack, I understand what you are saying, and that you believe thatyou are saying. I hope you understand, that though your beliefs are supported from your POV by undisputed science in places, it is still your beliefs at work, and not at all undisputed, or science.

      But let’s allow that your beliefs are correct this side of excluding the beliefs of others. Why does giving same sex married couples the same rights as other married couples, threaten the world you believe in? You don’t really think this is the first step toward a world that will become 100% gay and mark our extinction as a race, do you? Or maybe this is just one more slash at the moral fiber, that threatens to come unwove compleatly, our grandchildren doomed to live amongst perverted, morally deficient, fags, and lesbians?

      Or is it just that you think they are living their life wrong, and for that reason should not get as much as the people who are living right? IDK, you seem way to smart to believe that giving same sex couples equal rights is really any threat to society, or our grandchildren. And you have to know that the whole male/female procreation argument is ridiculous, right?

      I am not gay, but I have seen the outstanding moral nature of gay people in general, and tell you, that it is my believe that a world populated with 100% gay people would be much more moral than any world that has yet to exist. But it is a silly notion.

      Understand, I am not blind to the troubles, and decay that happen around us more and more often. I understand these problems to be related to the break down of family, and community in many cases, but I don’t think homosexuality has anything to do with that, except where it becomes a barrier to love and understanding. And we are the ones placing those barriers. I have never heard a gay person suggest non-gay people be given less equality, rights, or privilege, than they have.

      Love thy neighbor! It is an unconditional beauty.

      • SPW

        The science of marriage?

      • Tom M

        Late to the debate as usual. Apologies in advance.
        How is it that only by being “married” can gay people achieve legal equality? If legal inconsistences exist then change the law (I am one hundred percent with the idea).
        What’s all this about “beliefs”? Marriage has existed from when time began as it is normally described and predates any beliefs.
        It has less to do with beliefs and more to do with “custom and practice”. You are seeking to change something that doesn’t need changing. The definition of marriage is quite clear and has been for a very long time. I strongly suggest you leave it well alone.

    • Iain Hill

      You should try for an O level, with all that knowledge!

  • cStory

    I’m sorry, just an ignorant yank, and know nothing of British politics, so comment that perhaps my ignorance be eroded a bit at the risk of making an uninformed, and therefore stupid comment. The abrupt change of direction taken near the end of the commentary no doubt would seem less erratic if I were not missing the relevant knowledge to see the course beyond the sharp bend, yet it is hard to imagine any information that would allow the closing two paragraphs to feel like they were traveling under the same itinerary as those preceding them?

    I whole heartedly agree with the sentiment of allowing religions belief systems to flourish to their fullest, where that does not adversely impact the lives of those who do not believe likewise. Also that the separation need be pure, and stripping civil authority from places of religious belief and those conducting them, is simply something that those stripped will have to deal with, if what is correct, is done. (Where the C of E in the case of marriage is the governing body? I think it is likely the US will come later than sooner in realizing church as having religious recognition their right, and with no civil authority. And of course we have 50 different possible outcomes at this point, which adds to the religious quagmire.)

    I Very much liked the connecting bit about puppy love, and the extinguishing nature of the inevitable dawn of reality. That said, for me, it did not work to seam the tails to the coat. In my ignorance I can’t help but feel the alteration was not so well conceived and what dropped to the ground was the fabric of personal & emotional burlap; rough & holding the sent of rotten potatoes. Which I understand to be only my view from a place of admitted limited vision.

    • Hugo Rifkind

      Thanks cStory. It’s actually two magazine items, run together on the website. Must ask them to sort that, one of these days.

      • Bill Cameron

        Also in fact quite relevant that they WERE run together, because a cursory study of the UKIP website reveals them to be deeply-opposed to same-sex marriage, so it is not illogical to link the two issues, although it would have been helpful, for the benefit of readers who didn’t know, to explain this; perhaps the editorial staff who chose to run the two articles together assumed a level of political awareness amongst the Spectator readership that it simply, and regrettably, does not have. I only discovered this myself because although I don’t support the ‘headline’ policy of UKIP (that the UK leave the EU), I have always found Farage an amusing and seemingly-knowledgeable speaker, so with the recent apparent rise in their popularity I thought it useful to inform myself a bit more about their wider policy agenda; until then I had thought my namesake’s (the PM) views on them were a little over the top, now I think they are ‘spot on’.

        Apart from this, I think Hugo Rifkind write a very great deal of sense on the role of the ‘State Churches’ in our public affairs; of course I would say that (as Mandy Rice once said) because my view are very similar indeed.


    I object to the subversion of marriage not because I am a Christian but because I am English, and wish to preserve our society and culture undeformed by pandering to those who present vice as virtue. You are creating a straw man argument where it is only on religious grounds that religious people object to ‘gay marriage’. Far from it. It is on the grounds of what it is to be human and to construct human societies.

    Cameron and the rest of the political class are not in favour of undermining marriage because they love gays, although many of them do. But because they wish to undermine one of the pillars of normal, Western, Christian society.

    If the state stopped trying to model society in the image of the leftist paradise it imagines then we would all be better off.

    Who the hell are the 650 UKIP candidates? Well to be honest, who the hell are you?

    • rtj1211

      The crux of your argument is that those who are gay must control their ‘unnatural’ urges and those who are straight can act upon them.

      It’s a very strange God who has created a minority of ‘unworthies’ who must deny their sexuality, seeing as how God, if they exist, must have bestowed that sexuality in their omnipotence.

      Rather racist, your God, isn’t (s)he?

      Created a small minority whose human journey was irrevocably different in values to the majority.

      I must say that my concept of God doesn’t include that racism.

      It assumes that ‘there is that of God in every person’, which includes gays.

  • Kevin

    “The right of gay people to marry, I reckon, is pretty fundamental and human”

    What “reckoning” went into that sentence?

  • Glenn Ludlow

    You say that gay marriage is a right… Well no one says it isn’t. Gay people can already get married; no one asked me if I was gay or not when I got married. And two gays people can already marry each other as long as one is a man and one is a woman (else it wouldn’t be a marriage would it?)

    What you really meant was that people of the same sex should be able to marry each other. That is not the same as ‘gay marriage’ (or are you suggesting two non-gay people of the same sex not be able to ‘marry’)

  • Garry Otton

    Ukip are the Tories at prayer. If they get in power, take all the Church’s sordid privileges; then double it!

  • Steve D’Arcy

    Just a technicality Hugo. Whilst Anglican ministers play a civic role as well as a religious role in the marriage service, Catholic priests do not. When I got married (in 2003) we had to book a civil registrar to attend our nuptial mass in order to complete the civic function. I don’t know if this is the case for Jewish, Moslem or Non-conformist weddings, but it was the case for us. However, your solution to separate in space and time the civic ceremony and the religious one seems sensible as it allows the state to assert its definition of marriage as a contract between two consenting adults and the religious definition which emphasises complementarity, union and the foundation of family life.

    • Iain Hill

      So simple that you have to ask why the vibrant, modern Yookay has not done so, like many other European nations?

  • serguei_p

    Hugo Rifkind is wrong saying that it is about human rights of gay people. It is not.

    It is about redefining what marriage is. Currently the marriage is a union of a man and a woman. Gay people have exactly the same right to form such unions as straight people except that they choose not to as they don’t fancy been in a union with a person of a different genders.
    Only if the meaning of marriage is redefined, the gay people can claim human rights as a reason for gaining the right to marry.

    • Iain Hill

      Who made up this current definition? Surely it changes as society moves on. It is alarming to see so much pseudo-philosophical rubbish deployed to disguise simple bigotry.

  • Carson

    The basis for the appropriateness of this proposed adjudication of boundaries on issues in which the state and religions disagree on what is moral is itself a moral judgement. Mr. Rifkind’s casual confidence, not to say insouciant sense of superior judgement, in his own basis, is great for a jaunty write-up, a bit lacking in its actual connection with the challenge. “Hey, it works everywhere else.” It works is another judgement of Mr. Rifkind’s, as is “everywhere else.” Pragmatism has many strengths — is “the final arbiter” one of them? Rifkind think so. The majority supports a view — that makes it “human?” Rifkind has shown himself to disagree with this standard more often than not. What is most distinctive about this flippant foray into cultural fine-tuning is Rifkind’s high confidence in the rightness, the “humaness,” the justice of his proposal without once giving a foundation for that position beyond the school yard “it works” (other places, of course) and it’s supported by the local majority and it makes sense (to me). This is Karl Popper’s “policy as the crow flies,” perfect for a tea party, troublesome for an actual country.

  • True Blue

    To Hugo Rifkind, it is not personal, but strictly business, and you should know that!

    We see fear everyday, where? In Politicians eyes, their mandate is to sort out this country economic demise, we see this nation in terminal decline, and only blinded fools would deny this true reality, and who are better placed fools than politicians to preach differently. As for you lost soul, you are wise in your conceit, as for your right, which you have already under the current legislation, but it is your nature, to strive for more, more and more, there is no end for your vice and fantasy, this is the outcome of your rebellious nature, and that is no where more apparent than in your kind, and the arrogant politicians, the sons of disobedience always wanting more, the next time you ask us to hand you over our kids, for your own amusement, then ask us to walk naked on street. I have some more for you Mr. Less than 1%, as for your right, is to override our right, and the Right of us the majority for your fantasies. Mr. Sinner, I have no hatred against you, as too I am equally sinner if not great one? But your thoughts and way of life you have chosen are yours, and are relative to you only, therefore you can not and have no right to impose them on us or anyone else. Mr. Lost, I shall be a little bit polite to you, because, I know you are not in listening mode, and why should I please or appease you, as I know the truth will always prevail, it will come to pass, and find yourself in the wrong side of history, therefore I absolutely do not accept your concept of life nor compromise with you nor with The Word of God, that says you are NOT! If you still are not happy with this, my opinion, then Try To Over – Rule The Creator, you a little feeble creature, submerged in nothingness by the “Self” “Narcissism” & “Pride” Call me a biggot if you like? or whatever you wish, but I do not really care of whatever you think, for I know you are devious, and your mandate is Evil, it is your nature and of the world you belong to. As for the current government, I have no respect for them, nor they have credentials to even run a zoo, where all of you should belong to.

  • John Moss

    Cameron’s mistake was not to do this from the outset.

  • Utar Efson

    The notion of separation of church and state, as currently practised is utterly wrong.

    Conceptually, the phrase implies an amicable agreement to remain apart and not set foot out of of their respective domains. In practice this is not the case. If anything it is a one way occupation by the state in the domain of the Christian church. This is wrong.

    In fact the correct configuration should be the opposite. The Church should be free to influence the state but the state should be constrained from matters ecclesiastical. ‘Why?’, one may ask. Because of what the Church is. Not the oft-nebulous denominational aggregate, but the members of each denomination. For the definition of church is the assembly of people, and those people will have democratic rights and those democratic rights permit them to engage, campaign, protest and change the state.

    The modern state should be compelled to implement the UN DHR, not some weasel hamstrung version, and the Church will be free and a full participant in the democratic process.


  • Rockin Ron

    “The right of gay people to marry, I reckon, is pretty fundamental and human.”

    Why? Have you stopped to examine why you hold this view? If so, it would be interesting to hear your reasoning.

  • Ed Hart

    This is a non-issue. Set it up and move on. The whole thing is riven with hypocrisy. Marriage, everywhere in the western world, is conspicuous by its failure. Indeed, as many fail as succeed. So, what’s the big deal? Let gay people succeed or fail – in law – with the rest of ’em. As for the bible etc. Forget ’em. They are human constructs. They are attempts (by man) to make sense of society and reality. Anything supernatural about them concerns humankind’s dilemma to reconcile attributes which are conspicuous by their absence in nature: a feeling of otherness, consciousness, transcendentalism and spiritualism. Interestingly and intriguingly enough, in an increasing mechanistic/material world, some people take exception to things that people ‘do’ naturally. If you are a homosexual, it is natural to be so. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be. It is rather like saying to somebody with a nut allergy, “You must like nuts – everyone likes nuts!”

    I agree with you on the church and state. There is no place in a largely secular society for an ‘official’ church. Official for what? Similarly, having a hereditary monarch – with bugger all knowledge of theology at its head – seems a bit remiss. It’s like having a car mechanic who doesn’t know the boot from a bonnet.

    The alarming thing about all religions and even atheism, is the tendency for human agency to play second fiddle to a faith-based system which seems to justify those behaviours and qualities which are antithetical to the overall thesis i.e. truth begets lies; charity begets cruelty; violence usurps peace; grace begets the gross and shite tries to dodge the universal shovel.

    It’s time to stop all this nonsense and let people be.

  • Iain Hill

    Brilliant. Welcome to 1908!!

  • Bob Hutton

    I attend a Baptist church and it has been a principle of Baptist history that the church and state should be seperate. The true church is not made up of the state-patronised denomination but all those who have accepted Christ as their personal Saviour.

    In my view the day Constantine declared the Christian faith to be the state religion was a bad day because it led to many people saying they were Christians, not because they were truly converted, but because they wanted to be part of the state.

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