Moves by governments across the United Kingdom to change the law on marriage to enable partnerships between people of the same sex to be called marriages and to be enacted in religious ceremonies have caused disquiet and division in the churches. Many are campaigning against the proposed change in the name of “traditional” or “Christian” marriage while others counter-campaign for it in the name of justice or inclusion.
If and when the legal changes are made the denominations will need to decide how to react. Will they approve or encourage their churches and ministers in conducting same-sex marriages? At this point those who feel strongly about this issue, one way or the other, may find themselves in ecclesial structures that have adopted positions that conflict with their consciences. Some may feel themselves compelled to part company with these structures.
As someone who has been thinking seriously about how to think about sex, sexual difference. ethics and religion for 25 years I find this deeply problematic. I think I understand some of why people feel so strongly and I don’t want to say that they are wrong to feel as they do (on either side of this argument). I do want to say, however, that anyone who thinks this is an issue on which to divide the Church IS wrong.
My reasoning is thus: there is an imperative to unity in the Christian gospel. When we hear Christ say “love one another” one implication of this is that we should worship and work together. This is not made impossible by being in different organisations but the bitterness and anger always occasioned by new divisions, with the inevitable arguments about who owns what and who can use what name, cannot fail to conflict with the command to love one another.
Divisions are sometimes justified, of course, where the essentials of the faith are compromised, where some body abandons something or adopts something that is simply irreconcilable with being a Christian. The question then becomes whether marriage could or should be such a crucial matter.
There are a number of places to start in explaining why I think the answer to this question is “no”. Here I want to begin with the proposition that “there is no such thing as Christian marriage”. In saying this I intend two things:
1) Marriage by and of Christians is not different in any important way from marriage by and of others. there is nothing specifically Christian about Christian marriage.
2) The specifically Christian message about marriage is, in fact, rather negative. Christianity (as I find it in our scriptures) tolerates but does not advocate marriage and announces its temporary nature, indicating that when God’s Kingdom is fully realised there will be no more marriage.
1) There would appear to have been no specifically Christian ceremony for marriage before sometime in the 9th or 10th century. I believe that the reason for this is that this ceremony evolved as a response to the collapse of the Imperial legal structures and consequent taking on by the Church of the role of regulating marriage as a legal relationship between people.
In the early Christian centuries, up to and after the conversion of the Empire to Christianity, marriage was a matter of Roman law, not of religious observance. The theologians of this period (the “Church fathers”) followed Paul in preferring celibacy . Marriage was better than fornication but worse than abstinence. It was a compromise position, acknowledging our weakness, and was not something sanctified by the Church.
The marriage thus acknowledged was not (except tentatively by, for example, Augustine) provided with a strong theological justification., nor was its definition noticeably different from that of the pagan Roman legal codes. Marriage was something shared between Christians and other fallen human beings.
The development from the Augustinian hints of a more complete theological celebration of the married state came later, I suggest, and owes much to the new infusion of Christianity with pagan philosophy in the high middle ages, represented by Aquinas, and in this, as in other, cases reflecting the rebuilding of the social order with the Church near its centre, in the creation of medieval Christendom.
“Christian” marriage is, I am saying, in large part the “baptism” of pre-existing marriage forms that makes little or no difference to their content.
2) A key Gospel text for me in this regard is Mark 12:25 (//Matt 22:30 //Luke 20:35) in which Jesus asserts that in the resurrection life there will be no marriage. The idea that our current sexual arrangements and relationships are inherently a feature of of current fallen condition is one that, for me, pervades the New Testament. Marriage is NOT, on this reading, a part or path to holiness. It is our best attempt (in whatever form that takes) to live gratefully into God’s redeeming love, as shown in Christ, while we await the fulfilment of the eschatological promise that all things will be made new.
The attempts (on both sides of our current arguments about sex and marriage) to make more of it than this strike me as a failure of nerve in face of God’s outrageous promise of the resurrection of the body and the redemption of all creation. Making the best of what we have can sometimes substitute for faithful expectation with the result that ethical matters of all kinds loom too large for us in comparison to our keeping faith with Christ.
It is not helpful either, in my view, to speculate too much about what that new life should be thought of as being like (this is one of my problems with Augustine’s approach to matters sexual). There will be no marriage, Jesus says, whether there will be sex and if so what it will be like does not seem to me to be a fruitful line of enquiry.
In the meantime we all have to respond to God promptings as best we can as we strive to live lives of discipleship and love.