Marriage Equality


I note that I have written about this topic previously, and it is interesting to see how my opinion has moved in that time. I also note that there has been some shift in public opinion as well in that time. Please note I don’t mind people who agree or disagree with me on the subject, however I think that the matter needs to have been thought about (and for christians that means) prayerfully.

A discussion starter

One of the current topics in the social agenda of the western world is referred to as Marriage Equality by which is meant a change in the marriage act so that the term ‘a man and a woman’ becomes ‘two persons’, so opening the act to allow for a man to marry a man or a woman, and for a woman to marry a woman or a man.

This matter has been simmering for some time in Australia and it would seem that it is not going away anytime soon. At the last federal election the matter was carried forward by the Greens into the public spotlight, and in the course of the current parliament there have been a number of matters that have brought it to the fore, including Penny Wong becoming a mother, and the Federal ALP making the issue part of the party platform, although the Prime Minister has expressed concern and a reluctance for the matter.

Legislation on the matter is being mooted in every state and territory of the Commonwealth, and will no doubt be an issue for a Federal Parliament in the near future. Similar legislation is in place, or being considered, in a number of jurisdictions around the world.

How should the Church respond?

Clearly there are some people in the Church who find this matter easy, and simply will be agin it, and take a stand based on  a Biblical or Traditional or Theological basis, and indeed there have been several campaigns and petitions asking to support the traditional understanding of marriage and resisting any change to the marriage act.

Clearly there are also people in the Church who will find this matter easy, and will be simply in favour of it and take a stand based on a Biblical, or Traditional or Theological basis. I suspect this group has been largely quiet, however I note at least one parish who used their Street Message Board to proclaim a favourable stance for change on the matter.

If the Church is going to support it, then we will need to make various adjustments to accommodate it. If the Church is not going to support it, then we will need to be very clear as to why, and what weight we will give to such marriages. It would seem that if we can’t acknowledge the legitimacy of marriages under the secular administration’s auspices we will need to wonder about continuing to exercise the secular administration’s authority in the marriages we do condict.

Will it Happen in Australia?

Pragmatically one must conclude that there is a very high probability that we will have legislation in some states within the next couple of years, if not sooner. Currently there are eleven nations where this kind of legislation is in place, and a further 14 where legislation is in some form of passage, either in sub areas, or bills waiting to be passed by a second house etc. As well as that we have a major political party, and a second political party, where the matter is part of policy. The conservative parties in Australia have numbers of members who are clearly prepared to consider the matter favourably, privately.

Current polling suggests that public support for the matter may be as high as 75%, and clearly much higher among younger people. It means that there would need to be a radical reversal of public opinion the change this, so one may conclude from a legislative standpoint the matter is a ‘when’ question rather than an ‘if’ question.

Regardless of where you stand in the issue, the Church will also need to understand it’s role and response to the issue, as we also act as officers of the state in terms of marriage.

Foundational Social Unit

One of the difficulties in having a sensible and orderly debate on the subject of marriage is that marriage is such an important part of our social fabric, where many of us find, meaning, purpose and identity. It is indeed very hard for us objective or detached from the discussion. and this often leads to a discussion without very much content but a lot of heat.

In the mind of the secular debate if we acknowledge the importance of marriage and the good things it brings it becomes hard to see why one group in our society should be excluded from marriage on the grounds of sexual preference. Logically one is left wondering if the marriage act isn’t in fact discriminatory in its current form. This represents a change in the view that was expressed a generation ago when the argument seemed to be that marriage was only a piece of paper and real relationships didn’t need it. Nonetheless, whilst public opinion has rarely been consistent, it is what it is.

Society has now publicly affirmed the validity of same sex (single gender) relationships at many levels and affirms it as a viable and valid choice for people in our society. In the Church we are perhaps less consistent, and many have trouble adopting that as a position. (This is perhaps more obvious amongst our older members). It would perhaps be true to say that single gender relationships do not get a ringing endorsement in many congregations.

What is Marriage?

One of the things that the debate allows, and which to a large extent we will miss if we are not careful is the opportunity to consider that nature and purpose of marriage. For the purpose of discussion it is perhaps handy to consider the sacramental elements separately.

secular

  • Marriage is a contract between the parties to the marriage

  • The intent of marriage is a lifelong union

  • Marriage is an understanding between the community and the parties to the marriage

 

sacred

  • Marriage is a sign of the love God has for the Church

  • Marriage has an understanding of fidelity

Book of Common Prayer

The Service of Holy Matrimony in the book of Common Prayer is a remarkable document in many ways, and represented a very progressive stance by the Church at the time. It was very clear that the woman had to consent in her own right, and contracted the marriage as an equal partner.

The understanding and purposes of Marriage are laid out in the introduction:

  • A sign of the love that Christ has for the Church

  • A lifelong union

  • Between a man and a woman

  • For the Good Order of Society

  • That children might be brought to birth and nurtured

  • For the proper expression of natural desires

  • To provide mutual society help and comfort

The question of children has never been mandatory, and we happily celebrate marriage for couples without requiring fertility tests, and happily marry couples who are well past childbirth, short of an Abrahamic miracle. We have also managed (appropriately various considerations – such as converts in polygamous cultures who become baptised christians within the Anglican Communion (I would be certain without experience that other denominations have managed around this as well)

The Proclamation of the Marriage

For a long time before marriage could be celebrated it was essential that the bans be read to announce to the community that the marriage would take place.

And in announcing the marriage ‘ N & N have … I now proclaim them to be husband and wife. What God has joined together let no-one separate’

Of course this announcement, and indeed to custom of reading the bans publicly, is not made to the couple but to the community generally. It is a flawed argument to suggest that marriage affects no-one but the couple, It clearly affects the way that we as a community or society relate to the two people as a couple.

A sign of the love that Christ has for the Church

This is without doubt a very optimistic goal, however it is an indication of the intent and some signs may be be a bit faded, and some may have been blown slightly of course and be no longer pointing in exactly the right direction, however Christ loves the Church, wholly, completely and sacrificially. At its best the marriage of two people is intended in the Church to capture something of that all embracing selfless love.

A Lifelong Union

For a long time the Church did not countenance divorce, and indeed it was clear that society took a dim view of it as well. Frail human beings as we are, we can start out with the best intentions, and this whole new reality, which once gave us the freedom to grow and be ourselves, can become a prison which inhibits our growth. Sad though that is, the practice of condemning people to such a life seems foolish and contrary to the nature and purposes of God, and as a symbol of the love that Christ has for the Church clearly counter productive.

Accordingly of late the Church has recognised that some folk must separate and the Gospel so clear about forgiveness and new beginnings means that we have allowed divorced persons to remarry, without recrimination.

The Church has not embraced a notion that marriage is for a time, or a season, but clearly the intent of those entering into this holy estate is that intent for a lifelong union.

Between a Man and a Woman

This of course is the nub and sticking point for many in this debate. Clearly in the social context that gave rise to the Book of Common Prayer there was no other relationship conceived as acceptable in society.

Jesus it seems said nothing of single gender relationships, in fact we have no great teaching about marriage from Jesus either. Jesus attended a marriage in Cana of Galilee, which John sets as the scene of the first miracle.

There is in this the significant sticking point of the approach of the Bible to single gender relationships. There are some who will loud and long read quotations from Paul on the subject, however we have clearly indicated a capacity to understand much of the pauline material as being descriptive of the practice at the time, rather than prescriptive, as suggesting how it must be for all time.

Beyond this is the holiness code in Deuteronomy, which is perhaps not enough on it’s own.

There is no doubt that society has changed over time and the relationships of today are perhaps more complex, and perhaps more egalitarian than they once were.

Those who urge change must be prepared to understand the Book of Common Prayer as reflecting social custom, whilst those who argue to maintain the status quo must be prepared to see the stance of BCP as being an indication of the all time eternal truth. Whilst that may be a comfortable position it is questionable how hard you can argue that case (volume does not indicate the quality of the argument and may in fact be a contraindication).

For the Good Order of Society

Marriage has provided much for the good order of society over time. It has provided stable households to raise children to adulthood and take their place in society. It has put an end to endless adolescent promiscuity. Society has much to be grateful for to the numberless number of people who have worked hard in the the good times and the bad to make this unit work. It has also helped provide for the orderly transmission of property from one generation to another without the need for endless turmoil.

In short marriage is a social good. People have had a stable platform from which they have been able to operate and take their place and make a real contribution to the good of society.

That Children may be brought to birth and nurtured

One of the things we want to ensure is the safety of the young and an environment for them to grow up in order that they, in their turn, might take their place in the world. In the Post Industrial Revolution world this has largely been understood in terms of the nuclear family.

Non urbanised communities are perhaps better organised to share and distribute these responsibilities beyond the immediate family. Extended family and Tribe have a greater role to play in the care and nurture of children.

Contemporary society has produced many challenges to the family unit., Single gender couples have been allowed to adopt, without it would seem any real damage being done to the children, whilst often the children of traditional families in crisis have been very badly damaged.

Whilst it is clear that a single gender couple can not produce a child without some additional contribution from outside the primary relationship, once that challenge has been overcome there seems little core issues that prevent this fulfilling the primary goal of raising children to take a worthwhile place as adult members of the wider community.

For the proper expression of natural desires

This phrase in the glorious language of the seventeenth century is clear enough and we know that the best we could do today is ‘sex’. The last half of the twentieth century, for a number of reasons saw the rise of recreational sex. Contraception, and the contraceptive pill, and the recognition of female sexual identity, all played a significant role in this change.

The Christian position is often painted by outsiders as a kind of negative wowserism in relation to sex, whereas most thinking Christians would regard sex as a good thing. The question is about engaging in sex in a careless and uncommitted way, without regard for relationships and the other person. The problem that we have about it is that this kind of sex is selfish rather than loving, and ultimately has a price in terms of the way the value ourselves and others.

To provide mutual society help and comfort

Mutual society, help and comfort are perhaps the keys for long lasting and successful relationships. The notion of mutuality may seem like a very modern concept, yet here it is enshrined in the historic prayer book that has helped shape and form Anglicanism in the last 500 years.

In the marriage partnership we act as a community within the wider communities in which we live, and we are there for each other in the good times and the bad, to support, assure, reassure, and help each other, and yes it is a two way street and it works on many levels. This does not mean that there is no other input, no other relationship, however due to the depth and commitment required in this relationship there can be no other relationship of this scale and quality, as this would be outside human capacity.

The mutuality of this relationship lends itself pre-eminently to an egalitarian understanding of the relationship. Men do not own women, neither do women command men, but with a true sense of mutuality we work it out together.

The Church

For a large part of its history the Church has been at the forefront of the social change agenda. Education, health, and the abolition of slavery, to name a couple of examples. At some time between the Industrial Revolution and the present era the parts of the Church seem to have moved from a position at the forefront of social change to being a guardian of past traditions. The world was often irritated by us being at the front, yet laments us being in the rear and sees us as being out of touch.

There is little doubt that many in the west have been uncomfortable with the Liberation Theology Movements of South America and other places, and yet in many respects this is the Church playing one of its roles in society as an agent for social change for the benefit of the people with a bias towards the poor. Rather than seeing this as the Church being radical we should see this as the Church being authentic.

Family Matters

It may seem easy to deal with matters such as Marriage Equality with they are out there issues and we can deal with them in a vacuum. Society is changing and many of us are confronting these issues in terms of family members and friends. The manner in which we address this will tell these friends and family members about how the gospel informs our lives. Embracing, including, informing, accepting and challenging us to go forward and to step outside our comfort zone, or a strict set of rules that need to be followed or you are excluded. The question, in New Testament Terms,  I guess, is do we want to be more like Jesus or more like the Pharisees?

So In Conclusion

One of the dangers we face in our approach to the Marriage Equality issue is that we may fail to be the authentic church. We are called to be Christ’s ambassadors, it would be sad if we were ultimately found to have understood our role be God’s bouncers.

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