I have experienced again these last few days my unease and discomfort with the discussion of same sex marriage in and by the churches. These crystallised for me around the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby’s, speech in the House of Lords. This speech had much to commend it, in my view; it was clear that the discussion of what the civil authority does about the regulation of “marriage” (we’ll come back to my discomfort with that word) is not a faith matter, it recognised that it was right and proper for the law to give recognition and legitimacy to same-sex partnerships where the partners wished it to, it was clear that marriage as it has historically existed was primarily concerned with the getting and raising of children (although I suspect he and I might disagree about the details of that concern).
However, in what seems to me an astonishing non-sequitur, he concludes that it is vital that the recognition of same-sex relationships be called something other than marriage. I think I understand how he gets to this position but I think it requires a willful blindness to social and historical realities that the whole Church (on both sides of this debate) seems absolutely determined to ignore.
Above all we have to recognise, if this debate is to move on, that “legal/ecclesial marriage” is in a state of dissolution as a social institution. As recently as 50 years ago marriage was more-or-less compulsory for those who wanted to share a life as a couple. There were some parts of society where this was not so but it was the case for most people. If a man and woman wanted to live together, share a bed, have sex and produce children then getting married was if not essential then nearly so, Marriage functioned as a key regulatory mechanism in people’s actual social lives. This is no longer the case.
In contemporary society, for most purposes, whether you are married or not makes no difference at all. It has become an optional additional property of relationships that are not fundamentally changed by it. Furthermore it makes little real difference to the permanence or otherwise of those relationships. In real terms “marriage” as a legal status, has come close to ceasing to exist.
This does not mean that the historically persistent status of “marriage” as a social category has ceased to exist, but that the boundaries between it and “non-marriage” are now indistinct and porous. We have couples who are only casually and temporarily bonded at one end of a spectrum with couples who regard themselves as indissolubly joined at the other with all sorts of intermediate points, marked by formal and informal transitions.
These seem to me to be indisputable facts about the world in which we live. Many of the marriages conducted in churches are in fact transitions of these kinds. We marry couples who are already, in fact, married, sharing property and children, because they feel the time has come for another marker of their commitment to one another.
Until we start to talk about this deep social change in the meaning and form of marriage, in particular about the loosening of the grip of regulation, by law or Church, on the really existing social institution.
We don’t need to be greatly alarmed by this, in my view. It is a return to the less formal arrangements that existed before the consolidation of modernity in the eighteenth century. What we do need to do is to think about how to respond. At the moment we try to talk and act as if “marriage” belonged to us; it doesn’t and it never has.
One particularly unsatisfactory aspect of all this is the bizarre revival of a sacramental view of marriage among “liberal” proponents of same-sex marriage. This has little or no basis in the Bible or in the Protestant tradition (indeed it was one of the aspects of medieval Catholicism that the Reformation was most explicitly opposed to). It is deeply unhelpful and misleading, which is why I sympathise with the Anglican thinkers who are determined to argue for marriage as a social good while rejecting both their arguments and their conclusions. At least they’re starting from the right place even if they’re going in a less than ideal direction. The “new sacramentalists” are on the wrong road completely and are in danger of completely losing touch with reality.