Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Scenes from a Very Modern Marriage

Not like that! It was, last Monday (the 15th of December) the day of our "conversion" from Civil Partnership to Marriage, under the new "Marriage (Same-sex Couples) Act 2013". Just paperwork, I had thought, no great fandango like last time, with guests, and dressing up, and two receptions, and a cake, and rings, and so on. Just the two of us, quietly signing the papers which change the law of the land.

But it was more than that. It was an anxious night before. Apart from the usual control queen butterflies about whether things will go according to MY plan, I was thinking about my role in the Church of England. They ordained me a deacon and a priest, in 1995 and 1996. I am still in Crockford's Clerical Directory - "the Book of Death", as my friend Elizabeth Christened it, when she was briefly an ordinand herself. But since February 2006 I have had no ministry, no stipend, no house, no pension contributions, no licence, no permission to officiate. In June 2005, I was being asked to look after the impending vacancy at the parish I was serving in - Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, Chelsea (London!) - as the rector, Bishop Michael, steeled himself for the awful prospect of retirement at the age of 70 the following April. Those are the rules. In July, the House of Bishops produced a bonkers mad statement about their clergy, saying they could only enter civil partnerships with permission from the pointy-hats, and if they promised there was no hanky-panky. It was pathetic drivel from a group of men who were once considered educated and intelligent. I wrote something furious for the Guardian about it, which was published the next day. Instantly my potentially golden future - managing the welfare of an interesting parish through its vacancy, and probably applying for the job itself - disappeared. Six months, then you go. In no bishop's eyes, but on our civil partnership and marriage certificates, and maybe to God, I remain a "Clerk in Holy Orders".

So, at 3 in the morning, I was sleepless, remembering something my training vicar in Romford had said, about how bishops expect to be asked their permission before a parson marries. This is in stark contravention of Article XXXII of the 39 Articles of the Church of England, which say that clergy are to be allowed to marry at our own discretion, but anyway, I thought I'd send the acting bishop (we have a vacancy here in this diocese; you might say we have had one for some time since before the last bishop retired) an e-mail at least telling him. He replied a couple of days later. He didn't congratulate us. Bishops, huh?

And so to the day, in town, on the bus, well over an hour early, and with Ricardo aching with hunger and yet refusing to eat, presumably so as to keep being angry. I don't think it's that he didn't want to finish the paperwork and get the certificate that would prove to any interested party (like our unfit-for-purpose Home Office) that ours is not a "sham marriage", but that compared to last time it felt too small and rushed. We had been waiting for appropriate ID for him. His passport had run out, and never one to do by telephone or e-mail what a trip to London can do better, he made not one, but two trips to London, and on the Friday the passport arrived. By lunchtime, the "conversion" was booked - for Monday.

We twidddled our thumbs, drank coffee and wine in the pub where we were to meet a few friends after, with him spitting tacks about the vulgarity of the clientele. It was actually chosen because one friend might have been able to come by wheelchair, and it had far the easiest access of any of the five local pubs - this is 2014 for heaven's sake! - but it helped that it was such a contrast to the splendour of last time, the real time, at Christ Church (my old college) straight after, and then in our friends' smart house and garden, in smart Divinity Road, one of the nicer parts of town.

And then it was time. We sat in the waiting room, seeing other people come and go. Mostly, I think, registering deaths, which I am gracious enough to say takes priority. A friend arrived, rather unexpectedly, but most welcome, who had been with us seven and a half years ago for the real thing, and within moments we were all ushered into the registrars' office - not the ceremonial room, just an office. We had thought we couldn't bring guests in, but they didn't challenge him, and nor did we, so off we all toddled. They sent out for a chair "Oh, don't bother, I can stand" he said "No, really, we haven't a clue what we're doing, this is going to take ages" they replied.

And so it did - two registrars, one number-crunching into the computer, the other consulting her crib-sheet of information from what I suspect was the sole training day anyone had had about how this would all happen. When I called in a few weeks before, one of their colleagues said "oh yes, it's all happening on the 10th. What is happening, we don't know. But it's happening on the 10th". They were hugely patient, with my melancholic humour, and Ricardo's slapstick, and Murray's sardonic asides, and gradually the form emerged. We read a declaration that we would be "husband" to each other. We weren't expecting that. There was a "wife" option, but I think that was for lesbians. And we signed, and the first draft was printed, and it wasn't quite right, as I pointed out, gently (I know a thing or two about marriage certificates). And then it was right, and it was done, and there were general congratulations, and history was made, and we were in it.

Looking up, I noticed an aerial photograph of the City of Oxford above the fireplace in the room. Well, it wasn't really Oxford, it was mainly Christ Church, and clearly visible was the Lee Building where we had our first reception, thanks to the kind offices of our friend Robert who is a lecturer at the college (as well as an august professor in Bristol), and its terrace, between which we ran, on that rainy-sunny day, back and forth, with considerable merriment. It joined some dots for us both, and for Murray, who was there for that too.

Hands shaken, registrars left behind swapping notes about what they got right and wrong behind us, we walked down the corridor to be met by two people who weren't there in 2007 - one bearing confetti (they had gone halves - how appropriate!) the other, a camera. Lina was in America then, and would be now, except her son was over in Oxford for interviews (thirty years after I did the same thing, with the rather less demanding journey from Sussex), and Liz we only met last year, when we first moved to Barton. They met on the steps, and knew they had arrived to see the same patients at the madhouse. Murray had to scurry back to work, but the four of us headed back to that dubious dive in Castle Street, and were met by Robert, and Hala, the latter the key orchestrator of the pomp last time, when I had intended that anyone who wanted to meet us, could jolly along to the nearest pub and wish us well afterwards, but this was deemed beneath Ricardo's dignity.

We swapped notes about how we'd all met - Ricardo and I through a gay website, Hala and I through an HIV charity for which we were both volunteers; Murray and I rooming at Hala's house and fighting (most politely) over a very small kitchen; Lina I met through drugs (a Home Office project in the West End), and Liz I met on a park bench in Barton - I was wearing a Panama hat, and being the daughter and grand-daughter of parsons, she instantly knew there was something wrong with me. Robert alone I met innocently as an undergraduate at Christ Church, untainted by grown-up-ness, or hats. And thinking over all our lives was interesting too. Unmarried, but with a child who grew up elsewhere; unmarried with a child who's very much part of daily life; two of them twice married, once unhappily and without children, second time round, happily and blessed by them; married once and divorced, but with married children, fixed maternally closer than ivy to a mansion's stonework. Is that a cross-section of Britain's Rainbow Nation?

Finally, two of our company had to leave, to care for children of varying sizes, and the three of us remaining left on the bus, back to Barton. Another day drawn to its close, but history made. The pieces of paper we held in a box bought for the purpose are for a backdated marriage. "When Married: 16th June 2007". The law hadn't changed then. It is changed retroactively. That is remarkable and rare in constitutional history.

And history it was. Holding in my hand that marriage certificate, identical in form to every certificate I have seen from my ancestors in 1839 (S. Mark's, Kennington, they eloped, scandal! -'twas ever thus) to my grandparents and my parents, certificates I had written for couples I had married as a parish priest and college chaplain, was moving more than I can say. This was history. My history. And I was now not only part of it, I belonged to it.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
December 2014


  1. Congratulations on being history.

  2. Congratulations. One more tiny nail in the coffin of bigotry.
    Have a Merry Married Christmas.

  3. A wonderful piece. I am certain it means a great deal to you to be a part of history. I rejoice for the pair of you.