Sanctioning marriage a moral act

I was 19, my husband 22, when we got married. Looking back, I can see why our parents looked a little panicky when we announced our plans a year earlier. It's very much to their credit that they were as supportive as they were. I suppose they must have thought we knew what we were about. I'm not at all sure that we did.

Bishop Peter Sutton married us in the Bishopdale Chapel, our vows witnessed by family and friends in that lovely gem of a building. The photographs reveal our youth and optimism: Steve in his formal suit and me in a cream crepe satin version of my favourite university ball dress, a wreath of tiny artificial flowers holding my long veil.

It was a sunny November day. A frisky wind blew the spring growth about near the chapel. My second to youngest brother, Andrew, then 8, is wiping tears from his eyes in one photo (older brother Robert 10, had punched him in the ribs for wriggling during the ceremony), but everyone else is all smiles, lined up for the obligatory family photos outside the church.

This year Steve and I will have been married for 38 years. We've lived in six houses, three of which we've owned, in three cities and one small town. We've raised three children, created four gardens, neglected half a dozen cars and three lawn mowers, and eight cats have deigned to be fed by us.

We've had our ups and downs, but we've been fortunate that the downs have not been intolerable and the ups have predominated. The institution of marriage has helped us keep it all together. There's something indefinable but very powerful about that public commitment to another made in a solemn venue in front of the people who matter most to you and your husband.

Listening to the current debate about Labour MP Louisa Wall's "marriage equality" bill, I wonder who could conceive of denying the benefits and strengths of the institution of marriage to committed same-sex couples. Society has already sanctioned their partnerships through civic union and it seems to me that it is quite illogical, and arguably cruel, to withhold full legal equality.

It's true that most definitions of marriage state that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Therefore, some would say a marriage cannot be contracted between a couple of the same sex.

This is a matter of semantics. Words reflect society and its mores, they do not dictate them. There is no logical reason why our definition of marriage should not change to reflect changes in society and include same-sex couples.

It is also quite wrong to believe that children will only thrive in a family unit that includes a father and a mother. The evidence is quite clear that children do best when they have consistent parenting from committed adults who stay together and stay involved in their children's lives as they grow and develop.

The "marriage equality" bill will mean that legal barriers to same-sex couples adopting children will be removed. Same- sex couples who are successfully parenting children right now will have the same protections and rights under the law as heterosexual parents.

Some will argue that same-sex couples will be less stable, have more problems and dysfunction. And this is probably a fair point in the current social climate, where prejudice and discrimination, although somewhat diminished in the last 20 years, remain a fact of life for many gay and lesbian couples.

But surely normalisation of same-sex relationships would help reduce instability by providing increased acceptance for gays and lesbians as full members of society?

One aspect of this debate that has always puzzled me is that opponents of same sex-marriage seem to be reluctant to encourage good and moral behaviour. How can they justify denying people who wish to make a serious commitment the opportunity to behave with moral probity?

Of course, behind the carefully phrased arguments of the nay-sayers is prejudice and fear. Same-sex relationships are still seen in some quarters as unnatural and sinful.

I wouldn't want to attack anybody's beliefs, which they are perfectly entitled to have and put into practice in their own lives. Under Louisa Wall's bill, churches and marriage celebrants will be able to choose whether or not they will solemnise same sex marriages. But I would ask those against such marriages to consider this: isn't how we behave towards other people the most important measure of morality?

To put it politely, the mechanics of what we do with our bodies is irrelevant - heterosexual couples certainly don't hold a monopoly on good behaviour by virtue of their sexual orientation.

I believe that the institution of marriage can support and strengthen all of us in our commitment to our partners and children and it would be wrong to deny its full benefits to any group of New Zealanders.