We’re talking about marriage, or more particularly marriage between people of the same sex, again. The URC General Assembly met on the weekend just past and unsurprisingly found it was unable to agree by unanimous consent that permission to register for same sex marriage be given to those churches that wish so to do. As a result a process of consultation has begun to decide whether the denomination should take this step at some (as yet not fully defined) future date. Has I been at Assembly, and I’m by no means sorry I was not, I would have favoured the passing of the resolution, but I would have done so somewhat reluctantly. This is for reasons similar to the ones that would have made me unwilling to commend the reports of the Faith and Order committee.
I have no objection at all to churches conducting same sex marriages. If the churches in which I serve wished me to conduct such weddings I would do so. My reluctance arises from my strong feelings of unease about the arguments offered in favour of this step by those promoting it. That is to say that I agree with their conclusions but find their reasons deeply unsatisfying and even misleading. even more so than the arguments of their opponents. So I would have to support their resolutions while feeling that in doing so I was appearing to give support to a set of propositions with which I not only don’t fully agree but positively disagree.
For the purposes of clarifying my own mind and in hope of being able to enter into conversation with others who can enlighten and guide me to a clearer sense of what I believe on this matter I offer the following these:
- Marriage is a thoroughly historical and social institution and it makes no sense to try to construct from its history a single ahistorical essence, although study of the history will point one to certain transhistorical continuities that are useful in understanding it
- The Bible reflects this historical development, with a wide range of marital forms being described within it, from the polygamy and concubinage of the Genesis stories, through the patriarchal marriage forms of the historical books, to the harem arrangements of the kings of both Israel and other nations
- The New Testament assumes and accepts the (slightly different but in many ways similar) arrangements of the societies (Jewish, Greek and Roman) of its time as normative for most purposes (especially in the pastoral epistles)
- All of the forms of marriage described or assumed in the Old and New Testament rest on the subordination of women to men and focus strongly on provisions for the legitimacy of children, the inheritance of property rights and the cementing of kinship relationships which almost all historians of marriage agree have been its primary social functions through most of social-historical time
- For the early Church (up to the middle ages) marriage was primarily a legal arrangement defined by the civil power and recognised by the Church. Until the time of Constantine this recognition was of a legal relationship which was not defined first and foremost by the Church (hence the apparent lack of any wedding liturgies until the 4th Century
- The New Testament witness, while accepting the legitimacy and acceptability of marriage is suspicious and sometimes hostile to it, presenting celibacy as a real alternative, and I believe, mostly seeing celibacy as preferable but not possible for all
- The last 50 years have seen an unprecedented crisis of marriage as an institution, through which it is being redefined in a fundamental way. Legal marriage is now an optional part of a menu of quasi-marital elements including cohabitation, joint ownership of property and shared parenthood. The choice of whether to add the legal partnership to some combination of these elements is a matter of choice and in most social contexts makes little real difference. There are few remaining social sanctions against the legally unmarried who share some or all of the other elements of marriage, and all elements are known by all participants to be permanently voluntary and thus inherently temporary.
- This means that marriage is either a largely irrelevant appendix to the concrete social reality of sexual partnership (if one reserves “marriage” to mean the legal status) or else its legal aspect has become just one (relatively unimportant) part of it.
- It is this that makes same sex marriage possible for the state. All the other elements of marriage (cohabitation, shared property, common parenthood) are now possible and generally accepted for same sex couples (despite residual resistance in some quarters, especially in the case of parenthood) so that extending the legal status makes little or no difference to anything
- Some churches have a huge problem with this process since they hold marriage to be a sacrament (or in some cases an ordinance) eternally set (at some point) and unalterable, which means that the churches’ definition of marriage now has an increasingly tenuous connection to the actually existing social institution. This is something new, since previously the churches’ understanding of marriage largely aligned to that of society, indeed I would suggest it was largely based on that social understanding
My problem is that both sides of the current debate argue for ahistorical definitions of marriage, one that generalises that which existed before the crisis inaugurated in the 1960s, the other that generalises the idealised self-image of contemporary voluntary and thoroughly liberal arrangements. Neither, in my view, has a real claim to theological integrity, since neither is faithful to the Biblical witness that marriage as such is a passing institution that belongs to the current age and not to the Kingdom.