This article can be downloaded as a pdf MarriageEquality
One of the challenges facing our society today is the question now referred to as ‘marriage equality’. The legislation to enable this would effectively be the gender neutralisation of the language of the Marriage Act. Instead of the act saying ‘… a man and a woman’ will then read ‘… two persons’.
There appears to have been wide acceptance of this idea in society generally and judging by responses in polls the feeling is that most people are OK with this. The mood for change and acceptance of change is higher amongst younger people and lower amongst older people.
Some people are quite passionate in the support of this, and predictably people in single gender relationships are likely to be strongly in favour.
It is also true to say that many people who are opposed are strongly opposed and will use all manner of reasons to found their opposition. Some of these points of opposition come from the traditions of faith who look back to Abraham, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Writing with a background and awareness of the Anglican Tradition specifically, and the Christian Tradition more generally, may help me reach a conclusion. I take it that the other traditions hold similar values, though their conclusions may differ. Generally I respect that, however I am aware that as there is a lot at stake many will find it imperative that others come to the same conclusion as they have. Unfortunately, in my view, that puts undue heat into the debate, and does not always make for a good debate. As well as this background, I now have good friends in single gender relationships, and a member of my family is now also in a single gender relationship.
The Book of Common Prayer (1661-2) has the Service of Holy Matrimony which sets forth in the preface a number of statements on the matter of the purpose of marriage.
DEARLY beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee and is commended of St Paul to be honourable among all men; and therefore is not by any to be enterprized, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help. and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore if any man can show any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter forever hold his peace.
The purposes of Marriage within this context can be summarised as follows:
Marriage is seen in the Anglican tradition as being the environment where children should be brought to be and brought to adulthood in a secure and loving environment. The current model may sound good, however there are many examples of the system failing, where children have not been nurtured, and the environment of the family life is anything but loving. That of course does not say it is a bad institution, rather that it is an institution under significant stress in the modern era.
The Proper Expression of the Natural Instincts
This of course is the question of sex, written in the finest of Elizabethan English where the art was to say something – without really saying it. I am not sure the contemporary trend of expressing everything in plain speak is any more effective. There is no doubt that in the last 50 or so years there has been a major re-write in western society of the roll and place of sex, where it has moved from procreation to recreation. No doubt the advent of the oral contraceptive pill has had a major roll to play in that shift. None the less there mere fact that this is separated from the procreation question indicates that there was an awareness rather than a prudery about the subject.
Mutuality Society Help and Comfort
The primary relationship where we can engage, assist and take the other members side, and where we can rely on the other party to do the same. Where we commit to being friends for life. The concept of this being the relationship where the two parties so give themselves to each other is a very powerful metaphor, and whilst it might be understood sexually the notion is a lot broader than that. The Genesis Narrative of creation suggests that we have been created ‘male and female’ in the image and after the likeness of God. We need significant relationships to be completely who we are. This is in keeping with the general understanding of God in Trinity. As human beings we thrive when we have relationships of depth, mutuality and integrity. Marriage clearly is an expression of such a relationship. The quality of the relationship suggests that you can have too many of them.
The Good Order of Society
This aspect of marriage so often forgotten in these debates, however part of the notion of marriage is that there is a contract with the wider society that sees that these two persons may now be regarded as a single unit, and they are effectively off limits in terms of a range of things including sex. The idea that it is about the two people and does not affect anybody else seems quite simply to be wrong. It is also about the way which the rest of the community relates to the two people. Political leaders often speak about the strong family unit as being the fabric of society, and sometimes one suspects it is a ‘motherhood motion’ there is without doubt a strong sense in which this has been true in our experience of civilisation.
The orderly passage of possessions from one generation to another
This is an aspect of marriage that seems a long way removed from the notions of love that we like to associate with marriage, however it is undoubtedly true in experience, and any study of the marriages of the various houses of Europe and their concern to ensure succession and seemingly almost business arrangements that were part of the contract. Of course we now have a body of estate law that resolves most of this, however lineal descendants still have a right to contest a will.
There is no evidence of Jesus in his earthly ministry teaching specifically about marriage. John’s Gospel sees the wedding at Cana in Galilee as the setting of the first miracle, – water into wine – and whilst there are those who have been trying to turn in back, it is Kingdom of God Metaphor and tells us about Jesus, not about marriage. There is no especial suggestion that Jesus ever married, though there are those who suggest that the absence of anything calling him single in his society would imply that he was married.
One of the passages of Scripture most usually used to discuss marriage is the passage from Genesis 2 :24
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
The question will then be to decide if the passage is intended to be proscriptive, telling us how it is to be, or descriptive, telling us how it is at the time the passage was written. In it’s context the passage is specifically about the creation of woman from the man’s rib. It would be hard to argue that the passage does much more than to describe, or possibly explain, why things are the way the are. This is generally consistent with creation legends where they often include some reference that to explain the way things are.
Another passage of note is the ten commandments, which although generally apodictic law, would generally be seen as proscriptive rather that descriptive. Exodus 20:14
You shall not commit adultery.
Adultery refers to sexual intimacy where one or both of the persons involved is married to someone else. By the standards of the day it was argued that a man adulterated the woman’s marriage and the woman adulterated her own marriage. When Jesus was confronted by the woman caught in the very act of adultery (then man not being so caught) his response was ‘neither do I condemn you, go and do not sin again.’. Whilst the commandment underlines the importance of marriage, it certainly does not of itself specifically rule out same sex unions in itself.
The Elephant in the Room
There is of course in this debate, an elephant in the room. The Elephant in the room is the matter of homosexuality. Te general tenor of the Biblical material suggests that it is a sin, however most scholars are less committed to using the Biblical arguments.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah which raises the issue clearly identifies the lack of hospitality as he great offence.
The Gospel records have no reference to the subject, Jesus it seems is profoundly silent on the subject.
For the New Testament this leaves the remarks of Paul in the Epistles, and perhaps the most direct is in Romans 1:26. The difficulty this passage faces is that it is reasonably in isolation, and other things written by Paul do not carry the same weight, including the subjection of women to men, the requirement for women to cover the hair, and the general support of the practice of slavery. One is left to ask a question about the authority of the statements, when they may in fact be socially informative and descriptive, rather than proscriptive.
The Old Testament speaks of homosexuality as an abomination in Leviticus 18 & 20 – the holiness code, and is possibly the stand-out passage for those who want to rule it out.
The relationship between David and Jonathan leaves a lot unsaid, however certainly leaves the question open for those who want to argue it that way. The New Testament suggests that John and Jesus had a strong relationship however to read more into it would clearly be not be exegesis so much as reading into the text.
Those who argue that only scripture can inform may find that there is not a great body of material. On balance those in favour have little to encourage them, and those against have to wok hard to make it say much.
This of course if often the problem, when we come to scripture to back up our opinions rather than coming to scripture to be informed. None the less that has always been easier in theory than in practice.
The Relation between Secular and Sacred Marriage.
Ordained Ministers in Australia are registered as Marriage Celebrants and in conducting a Marriage Service, they act both as instruments of the Church and officers of the State.
A couple are not able to be married if either party is already married. Recognition of a marriage includes the recognition of marriages that have been registered in another jurisdiction. If there has been a previous marriage, evidence of the dissolution of that marriage must be in evidence (ie. decree absolute or death certificate).
The situation in Australia is comfortable whilst the general understandings of the relationship have much in common. Thee state has also allowed a freedom to the Church’s here. For a long time the Anglican Church would not marry a divorced person, unless the other partner in the first marriage was dead. The Churches position on this has moved over time and recognises that to imprison people in unworkable relationships for life was quite unchristian.
On the one hand the State can not require the Church to conduct single gender marriages, however at the same time the Church will need to recognise the legitimacy in some form of the single gender state registered marriage.
This question seems to have slipped under the radar. There are, I think, 11 countries where same sex marriage is sanctioned, and as Great Brittan is one of them it will only be a matter of time before the question arises in Australia.
There is none the less an argument from tradition however the argument from the tradition is not an argument against change, rather than the argument to understand that which is good and noble, and abiding, so for example in significant parts of the Anglican Church there has been a move to welcome women into the ranks of the clergy. For some people this represented a breach with the tradition, whilst for others it was the embracing of the abiding tradition and ensuring that we could embrace the contemporary environment.
The preface to the 1661/2 Book of Common Prayer service, quoted earlier, is a clear expression of the tradition – however this may be a question of relating to the society in which it was finding expression, rather than the core matter of the faith that the tradition seeks to embody.
When I was working in Papua New Guinea, one of the issues that the Church had to deal with was what to do with a Polygamist who comes to faith. The Church concluded that the convert was required to maintain his wives, however should one of the wives die, he was not free to take another wife while he still had one or more. It is not the matter of defending that position, however the matters have to find a way of embracing the culture in which we find ourselves.
The Moving Platform
This is perhaps the point, the Church needs to express the faith in the culture in which we find ourselves. However culture is not static, and indeed probably changes changes faster these days that at any time in our history. The change in language in the last 50 years has been quite significant, and is indicative of the major changes that have happened in virtually every area of human life.
The relation between religion and culture is very significant. Thee period of the inception of the Church marked a period where the body of believers expressed their faith within the culture, and endeavoured to have a positive influence on that culture. Following the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the position and status of the Church grew and the Church was able to have a significant influence on expressing, if not defining, the culture.
The rise of irreligious life in contemporary society, and the struggle of the Church to adjust to its diminished position and influence, are part of the moving platform. The temptation to keep it all the same and to resist all change so that something may stay stable is strong, however this may simply exacerbate the problem in increasingly marginalise the Church.
Justice and Equity
For many in our community the notion of the ‘fair go’ is the final analysis what ultimately matters about this issue. If two people love each other, should the gender issue have any bearing on the quality or legal status of their relationship, they ask? For many, that which a generation ago was unthinkable, is today the issue that many believe unthinkable to oppose.
Something of the order of two thirds of Australians, if polls mean anything, would support a change in the legislation. The ALP now holds this as part of the party platform, though a brokered deal will mean that it is a conscience vote in the current parliament. None the less Australians do have a a sense of a ‘Fair Go’, it runs deep in the national psyche and the mood for change as such is likely to increase.
There is a problem in legislating love. The assumption is that when two people get married that they care for each other in a deep and meaningful way. If a man loves a woman, they can get married to the person he loves, however if a man loves a man, he can still get married, but not to the man he loves only to a woman – who hopefully he at least likes, however the sense that he can not get married to the person that he loves is the sense of the problem.
OK. OK he and his partner can live together, and they may in some cases even be able to register the relationship, however they can not get married. One line of opposition suggests that there is no legal or social barrier to the relationship, however it is just not a marriage. The argument then is that there is no difference between marriage and the registered relationship except what we call it. If that is the case then the argument is purely a semantic argument in which case no-one should care.
Gay Couples Can Not Have Children
This argument is often used to point out the difference, and it is true that at present a gay couple cannot have children without the intervention of a third person in some way, either as surrogate or or an ovum, sperm or zygote donor, or of course by adoption. This seems to be a very comfortable argument, however if you follow it through it becomes a cruel and unusual argument. A heterosexual couple in their 70’s may well also be unable to have children, as would a couple where one party as infertile for whatever reason including vasectomy.
The point is that we are more than happy for couples to get married who tick some of the boxes, you do not need to tick all the boxes. The Book of Common Prayer certainly suggested that procreation, and the care and nurture of children was within the purposes of marriage, however the capacity to do so was not envisaged as a test, the couple were not asked if that was part of their plan.
The argument put by some following this, is that children can not be brought up in a balanced way by two men or two women. Men and Women look at the world differently, and these differences are part of a balanced upbringing. Whilst I think that is true to a point, I also believe that all of us look at the world in our own way. Each child being brought up is exposed to a whole range of input and people, and no longer are we exposed to the people in the village, we are exposed to a global community, day by day, on line and in the street. I suspect that being brought up by a same sex couple may have some differences, however being brought up by any couple will have some differences, and that does not make it wrong, only different. I would be more concerned about children being brought up in households where people do not love each other.
What would Jesus Do?
I have a nephew who is a keen Christian in another tradition and one of his great tests for everything is this simple question ‘What would Jesus Do’. As Christians we are called to be Christ-like and to walk in the way of our crucified redeemer.
I find it hard to answer this question empirically as the Gospel records do not specifically address the matter. I am also aware that if they did, it would be in the context of 1st century Palestine. None the less the record of his encounter with the woman caught in ‘the very act of adultery’ may give us some inkling of an idea of the messiah who preferred people to legislation. The self righteous adherents of the law had wanted her stoned, and the words of Jesus ‘neither do I condemn you’ suggest a messiah looking for a more inclusive and less legislative approach.
Given that marriage is such a people issue, I suspect that Jesus would take an inclusive approach, that would have challenged us to be better married, rather that to be so concerned about who we exclude from marriage.
It Is Going to Happen Anyway?
The argument that it is going to happen anyway seems a little weak to me, as there ought be more involved than just rolling with a tide of public opinion, which is not always correct, and perhaps even led astray by the media. It is however hard to imagine that with 2/3rds of the voting population favouring it as a course of action, and it now being part of the official platform of at least two of our major political parties, that it will not at some stage in the near future become part of the Australian experience.
For the Church part of the question will be found the understanding of the Church as inclusive or exclusive? That is likely to mean that there will be different answers in different parts of the Church, at least for a while. Sometimes we celebrate our unity, and at other times all we can do is celebrate our diversity.
At the same time there will be the question of how does the Church respond to the nation have legislated in the secular environment? Certainly some parts of the Church are making loud statements that will prove interesting if/when the parliament and enacts the changes to the legislation. The Church does run the risk of being increasingly marginalised if we continue to be the bulwark or tradition, because for much of the life of the Church it has been the instrument of change, in areas such as the end of the slave trade, education, health, and that list goes on.
Change of course is not always good, and neither is it always bad. One of the challenges of contemporary life is that there is a lot of it about. We clearly see more change in a decade than generations before us saw in a lifetime. We are being called to adapt to things far more quickly than we once were.
At the present moment I believe that a move to allow same gender couple to be married is an appropriate response for government to make it terms of meeting the needs of people. I find it hard to see any other response from government being sensible, consistent or appropriate.
At the present moment I believe that the Church should be looking to resolve how it will respond to this change in the world it serves in a constructive and inclusive way.
I don’t think that the Church is ready to alter its own traditions at the moment, however that agenda will be there and there will be a time when the Church will probably need to move on this issue.
This may seem challenging for the Church, however the Church’s challenge has always been to be relevant to people and faithful to the gospel.