A dissenting view of the debate on civil partnerships and the URC

The URC GA decided this weekend to pass a resolution allowing local churches that wished so to do to register to conduct civil partnerships. I wasn’t there but the social media have had the predictable mix of celebration from some and lamentation from others. I share neither of these emotions. I would shown in favour of the resolution but I’m not really in favour of the practice.

I can’t make any theological sense of churches acting as registrars of civil partnerships. This is a legal contract between two people overseen by the state. What’s it got to do with the Church? What is the theological basis for this? It seems to amount, from what I’ve heard to saying that if we don’t some gay people will feel hurt. That just isn’t a theological argument nor, for me, sufficient reason to do something I think there are quite strong theological arguments against.

These arguments, for me, aren’t primarily about the nature of the relationship but about the relationship between church and state. Here we have the Church demanding to be annexed to the state as its agent. Why would we do that? Why would we be so keen to carry out this function on its behalf?

The answer seems to be, at root, a sacramental understanding of marriage. The suggestion seems to be that we conduct weddings, that this must mean that there’s a definite religious content to marriage, that this content can be generalised to same-sex relationships, we should so generalise it. I think every step of this chain of reasoning is false other than the first. We do indeed conduct weddings.

I dispute whether there is really any definite religious content to marriage. When we conduct weddings we are enacting “civil religion” rather than Christianity, although we have lost the ability to distinguish the two things. Our wedding ceremonies don’t have their roots in the Christian tradition but in the various historic codes of civil law. The Church took over the regulation of marriage only in the middle ages with the collapse of civil law. There are no ancient wedding liturgies.

The long negotiation and contestation of the relationship between the Church and the emergent state formations of modernity played itself out in marriage law among other places. The Church sacramentalised marriage as part of this process. I would suggest that this was a radical departure from a New Testament witness that is, on the whole, deeply ambivalent about marriage. Celibacy is the preferred state for most of the NT writers with marriage a poor second.

This fused with the social promotion of marriage to create a two-sided “religious” programme around marriage. On the one hand it drew on some remarks of Paul’s about an analogy between marriage and Christ’s relationship with the Church and the Genesis account of the origins of the sexes to create a sacramental view of marriage and on the other it worked with the civil authority to promote marriage as a social good.

Neither of these work well in a free church tradition derived from the reformation. We (officially) reject the idea of marriage as a sacrament and assert our absolute independence from the civil authority. However for whatever reason both parts of this programme clearly live on on our denomination, as in the wider Church. This deeply conservative and backward looking ideology of marriage informs the “progressive” programme around gay marriage.

There are deep difficulties with this, though. The historic institution of marriage is entirely predicated on sexual difference and procreation. Its origins lie in the control of the legitimation of children and of the property of the married people, rights to which varied with the sex of the spouse. The contemporary advocates of the extension of marriage to same sex couple want to abstract from this and redefine marriage as about “love” between two people whose sex, like all their other particularities, is a matter of indifference. This is possible, of course, and is in fact happening, but this represents a major break with the past.

Such a break may be a good thing but what’s left isn’t really recognisable as marriage as it was defined through its capture by the medieval Church. Indeed with the separation from it of procreation and its rendering implicitly temporary by the acceptance of divorce it has already been fundamentally changed.

My point isn’t really that this is a disaster, I’m really not at all sure it is. Rather it is that the Church would do better to return to the NT position, as I discern it, and conclude that marriage is primarily a matter for the civil authority. We should stop trying to perpetuate the power grab of the 11th Century church and be glad to hand marriage back to the authority from which the Church took it.

This would give us the opportunity to re-think our sexual ethics on the basis of the eschatological vision of the New Testament rather than the conservatism of the later Church. We should see all our sexual arrangement as marked by our fallen state and seek to open ourselves properly to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in them.

My feeling is that a programme of theological reflection on how heterosexual relations are currently structured in the light of the promises of the Kingdom and on what the changes and developments in contemporary sexual and reproductive life mean for us is a more urgent matter by far than the attempt to corral homosexual relationships into a deeply flawed structure that is anyway in a process of decomposition.

  1. Mary Thewlis said:

    I feel I mainly agree with David on this. I have been in a heterosexual marriage for most of my life and I am now single and realistically I’m probably “past it”. The separation of the legal contract from the religious blessing makes sense to me, and in both cases I would wish to see them extended to same sex couples. I do accept that “one man one woman” is necessary for the purpose of producing babies to swell the ranks of the denomination, but surely it’s only a minority of people who enter a relationship with that thought now.

  2. Elliot Vernon said:

    I totally agree with you that (heterosexual) marriage would best be taken away from the Church and given to the state – that would put marriage on a par with civil partnerships and equalise for everyone what, at their deep root, are property contracts between two parties and their children (and lets not forget that homosexual people have children too). As someone who has dealt with the fall out of (unmarried) cohabitation for years (an exercise that, it seems to me, to ultimately end up being for the benefit of lawyers only) I firmly believe that if people are willing to make a commitment they should be able to whether gay or straight.

    The trouble is – many people want a marriage, in a church and with morning suits, white dresses and a thrown bouquet. It would take a genuinely brave decision for a church to say no to what has become a cultural expectation. Indeed, there is precedent for taking away marriage from the Church – but it is from the puritan ‘no fun’ era of the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell – http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=56495

    • Yes, Elliot, I think the weight of cultural expectation is probably overwhelming and in the spirit of not being a stumbling block between people and Christ I fully expect to conduct marriages (and civil partnerships if either or both of the churches I am to serve so decides). I don’t think that should prevent us from saying what we really believe though, which in my case is that in so doing I’m acting as an agent of the state in a form of civil religion. I don’t think this is necessarily completely wrong but it is deeply corrosive of the Gospel if it is (as it usually is) unacknowledged or disguised through a marriage sacramentalism.

  3. S said:

    I dispute whether there is really any definite religious content to marriage

    Hm. Didn’t Jesus seem to think there was some religious component to marriage, when he identifies it as beginning in the liturgical parts of Genesis? Seems hard to read that as marriage being primarily, or even at all, a function of the state. Indeed, in those passages Jesus is specifically critiquing the law of marriage by comparing it to the ‘true’ version of marriage, as revealed in creation. To Jesus, the religious understanding of marriage takes precedence over the civil: it’s marriage as God intended it that is ‘real’ marriage, and the marriage as enacted in the law is a debased version given because the people’s hearts were hard.

    And if we take the Old Testament, we have a theocratic state where there’s no real distinction between church and civil authority; that only comes in when the place is occupied by the pagan empire of Rome.

    So could it not be argued that, rather than a ‘land grab’ by the church, taking back the performance of weddings was a restoration of marriage to its proper, holy (but not sacramental) context, as recognised by Jesus, and from which it had been displaced by the pagan empire?

    • Matthew 19:10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
      11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

      Jesus was indeed opposed to divorce but he was also, it appears, opposed to marriage itself. The way I read the NT this is a predominant strand in its teaching (cf. 1 Cor. 7, Mark 12:25), although other more positive strands are also present.

      There is no evidence for a Christian wedding ceremony in the patristic church. The earliest creation of one almost certainly took place early in the middle ages.

  4. canoewolf said:

    Nick, great to see some different thinking – it is good to explore history, learn from history but not necissarily stay in it!

    • Thanks, I have to say I’ve slightly modified my position since I wrote this post. I still think that marriage is essentially about a non-Christian civil religion but I’m inclined now to say that it isn’t wholly a bad thing to do it (so long as one is clear in one’s own mind, at least, of the difference and eschews sacramentalism)

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