In the UK United Reformed Church we are in the midst of a discussion about whether to pass an enabling resolution that would allow those of our churches that wish to register for same sex marriages to do so. The agreement of the denomination is required under the legislation in order for any church to proceed in this way. The Baptist Union has already expressed such agreement on the grounds that their understanding of church polity is such that this is exclusively a matter for decision by the local church. The URC has taken the view (almost certainly correctly) that our ordering by our manual means that a positive decision by the denomination that we are prepared to allow local churches the decision is required.
In brief I am uncomfortable with what we in the Church may seem to be saying about sexual difference and gender by accepting same sex marriage although I am quite comfortable with our affirming and blessing same sex relationships. This is chiefly because of the very bad arguments being presented by many of those in favour of this development. I thus find myself in favour of something while rejecting almost of the reasons put forward for it, indeed of finding those reasons harmfully misleading and thus in the difficult position of being able neither wholeheartedly to support nor to reject the suggestion that we enable same sex marriage in churches.
The core of my unease revolves around two problems that I have:
1) I think the arguments of those who reject same-sex marriage about the historical and traditional character of marriage are much closer to the truth than those of the people in favour. I further believe that the interpretation given of the relevant sections of the Bible offered by these opponents are more credible as statements of what those passages mean;
2) I think the arguments of those who favour same-sex marriage lead us in the direction of a way of thinking about the significance of sexual difference as dangerously misleading as that of their “complementarian” conservative opponents.
It is my considered opinion, after much reflection on this matter, that marriage has its origins in the ordering of the bearing and raising of children and in particular of making definitive patriarchal lines of descent. These origins are both historical and theological. In fact I would suggest that any attempt to distinguish sharply between history and theology is a profound mistake in the context of Christian faith. Our faith is in a God who is the creator and agent of history and whose decisive presence within Creation is one localisable in time and space and thus itself historical. To understand what marriage is, has been and will be we do indeed need to take the word of God in the Bible, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as our highest authority, but it cannot be interpreted outside of and against history.
One of the things this means is that we need to take seriously the variety of forms and expressions of marriage in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, and their treatment there seriously as guide to our reflection on the best contemporary accounts of the nature, development and variety of marriage through history and in the contemporary world. One thing that is clear from this is that forms of marriage dissociated from the legitimation of children and the making arrangements for their care and socialisation, from the transfer of property and other rights and the setting of their status are highly exceptional and unusual. Such forms may have existed in the past but rarely and in situations far removed from the historical experiences that have shaped the legal arrangements of the United Kingdom.
It is also clear that over the last 50 years there has been a very rapid development in the UK in the direction of this dissociation. The distinction between children legitimated by marriage between their mothers and their fathers and children not so legitimated was clear as recently as the 1960s and is now almost gone. If it is true that the core functions of marriage were, in the period before the 1960s, this legitimation and the enforcement of paternal responsibility for their support, and I believe this to be the case, then this collapse of the link between paternity and marriage is a matter of great import. Indeed I would suggest that it leaves marriage as a legal status with almost no real function, from the point of view of the state and of society. This is reflected in the ease with which marriage can now be dissolved. Where once the state acted as if it mattered that marriages endured and social pressures were brought to bear to reinforce this endurance divorce is now routine and without great stigma.
We can identify a great many contributing factors to this development but I can’t see how anyone could doubt that the achievement of a much higher degree of legal and economic autonomy by women is the key one. Women no longer necessarily need the support of a man to support and protect them. The Biblical texts. where they discuss the relationship between the sexes, assume the dependency of women on men, which has been a key feature of almost all known societies (again there are exception but exceptions are what they are) until very recently.
This is a change that we need to take into account when we read the Bible, even where we regard it as authoritative. One response, that of the “complementarians” is to reject these developments as inimical to the will of God. That the Bible assumes the dominance of men and dependency of women is taken as making this feature of past societies as being ordained by God. I will not take time here to argue against this view. I regard it as deeply and appallingly wrong.
Alternatively we have to develop an understanding of the authority of the Bible that can allow us to read and interpret it in ways that acknowledge that history did not end with the closing of the canon of scripture and that the texts we have are themselves historical documents through which God is revealed but which do not stand outside of time and cannot be taken directly to reveal eternal truth. The revelation is itself inside history and cannot be detached from it.
This means (to bring me to the second focus of my unease) we need, urgently, to understand how sexual difference is being transformed and what this means theologically and historically to the Christian church. The arguments of those in favour of the recognition of same sex marriages tend strongly towards accepting the default liberal position that individuals should be regarded as the abstract bearers of rights, understood essentially in terms of property rights. On this basis marriage is a private matter between two abstract individuals with all concrete characteristics of these individuals being irrelevant. Its significance is not a matter about which society or the state need have any view, since their primary interest has always been in children and this interest is now dealt with elsewhere (in the complex web of legislation and other forms of regulation of child support and care which no longer takes much interest in marital status).
Here there has been a strong tendency for those in the Church favouring same sex marriage to play a leading role in the generation of a new ideology of marriage in which an emotional-psychological celebration of a form of bonding between two individuals is celebrated as a wonderful gift from God and put at the centre of human life. This ideological work is not in itself hugely harmful. There is something true in it and it is anyway only a theological gloss on the common sense of our time (as any acquaintance with popular culture will make clear). What does cause me difficulty is that it distracts us from some, what seem to me, urgent tasks for theological reflection.
1) What is now the significance for us of sexual difference? A choice between a reactionary attempt to return to a patriarchal order or a liberal denial that there is any significance in this difference is dismaying. The sexes remain different and the relationships between them remain problematic. This is not to deny the reality and importance of those people who transgress this difference. In fact it is to suggest that we (all of us) need to engage properly with this transgressive experience to understand the boundaries being transgressed.
2) How should we respond to the radically new forms of family structure that are emerging? We all know that family is now actually something very different from what it was 50 years ago. This should be a matter of primary importance as we discuss marriage but if one did not already know it it would often be impossible to gather it from our conversations and debates. Our retreat from reality in this regard is a profound failure. We need either to embrace or resist these changes, at any rate we have to have something coherent to say about them. To affirm the permanently voluntary psychologised and privatised “marriage” that is emerging as if it were the same historical institution with a few welcome improvements simply won’t do.