A couple of nights ago, I went to a public lecture on the topic: Upholding the traditional idea of marriage whilst loving our gay neighbours: is it possible? The lecture was so embarrassingly bad that it might well take me several posts to deal with different aspects of it and get it out of my system, but for now, I’m going to confine myself to the question: What is marriage?
The lecturer on this occasion argued that marriage should be defined in philosophical terms, and proceeded to argue that traditionally, marriage has been defined as a comprehensive union between a man and a woman. He suggested that allowing same sex marriage would shift the definition to being an emotional bond between two persons. I would take issue with the narrowness of the “tradition” on which he draws, but beyond that, I take issue with attempting to define marriage in this way.
I would argue that marriage is not now, and has never been, first and foremost a philosophical (or indeed religious), matter. I suggest that it is primarily a legal matter. And the church has often found itself struggling with the interface between the public ministry of the church, and the reality of laws around marriage.
Some quick examples: In ancient Rome, a woman could not marry a man of lower class (say, a slave) without forfeiting her high social standing (since marriage had to do with laws around property, inheritance, wealth and social structure). So some Christian women entered into relationships with Christian slaves in their households which the church blessed, but which were not legal marriages. (Not, I might note, without debate about whether this was the church sanctioning adultery!)
Or, take the example of the dark ages/early middle ages, where the clergy (as some of the few educated and literate folks around) were often called on to witness marriage contracts, which were signed at home. Marriage was considered too secular and profane a matter for the church (and certainly wasn’t considered a sacrament), but the priest might be asked to bless the newlywed couple.
Or, take Archbishop Cranmer, who went to Germany and married a Lutheran woman despite English law forbidding him, as a priest, to marry. He had to wait for Henry VIII to die before his marriage could become legally recognised, and she could live openly with him in England.
Or, take the remarriage of divorced persons, now so commonplace that most people don’t blink, but once a major issue for the church and the source of many an excommunication.
I could go on. Anyway, my point is this: marriage has always been first and foremost a legal matter. It is the formal recognition of an agreement between two (or, let’s remember that in some societies it is more) people with regard to their legal union, which has legal implications for them and any children they might have. What the church has done is to say that marriage is good, we want to acknowledge and celebrate it, and we ask God to bless it. (That’s the only significant liturgical difference between a church and a civil wedding, by the way; the fact that the priest asks God to bless the couple and their marriage. The rest is just pretty buildings and frippery).
So the fact that (parts of) the church are uncomfortable now that same sex marriage seems to be on the horizon is nothing new, really. The church has had to deal with its discomfort over marriage laws in a variety of societies throughout its history. And here I get to my point; the church has never, in situations where it is separate from the state, defined or controlled marriage. It has only given or withheld its blessing. So it is disingenuous now for the church to suppose that it should control marriage in a secular society, either directly on theological grounds or by attempting to frame the discussion as a matter of philosophy (which is, in this case, simply I think a Trojan horse for theology anyway).
Same sex marriage is coming in Australia. Already many of our citizens have been married overseas, even though those marriages (like Archbishop Cranmer’s), are not yet legally recognised here. The church will have to deal with that fact and its discomfort around it, but not by attempting to control the process of legislation.
The lecturer two nights ago suggested a neater separation of church and state on this matter; that all legal unions should be civil unions, for everyone, and that after legalities are dealt with, marriage ceremonies which would have no legal standing could be performed by clergy or others, should the couple wish it. I think his proposed solution is close to the way forward, except that he has it the wrong way around. All marriages should be civil marriages, done at a registry office, for everyone; and then ceremonies of blessing or celebration or whatever else could be performed afterwards, which would have no legal standing.
In the church state divide, marriage does not belong to the church. It belongs properly to the state. And so on this matter I suggest that churches surrender their claim to define or control marriages, and recognise that in this, they need to give to the government, the things that are the government’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.