I hesitate to handle this hot potato. The best I can do so far is to toss it from hand to hand because it is so hot, and I’m not sure at the end of it how much I want to eat. But it seems to me that there’s a lot of muddled thinking going on, not least my own – and this is partly because the discussion/argument is at different levels and layers, but people get them mixed up.
Here’s the question I am asking: is marriage a category or is it a definition? Is it a category, like ‘sport’? Football, cricket, swimming etc – although very different from each other – can be put into the category of ‘sport’. Using this as an analogy, and if marriage is a category, then different kinds of relationship can be put into it. Polygamous marriage, for example, is relatively common amongst Muslims and allowed by Muhammad: up to 4 wives, and provided each is treated equally. So I could say that marriage is already a category, because it already contains different understandings of marriage.
On this argument, gay marriage is acceptable. It is a different kind of marriage, but it can be included in the general category of ‘marriage’.
What are the criteria for belonging to this category? The most often-repeated explanation is that if two people love each other, and are committed to one another with the intention of life-long faithfulness, then this is the basis for marriage.
By this reckoning, our government has just affirmed that marriage is a category, and not a definition. The next logical step is for other sorts of loving relationship to be included in this category. We had an example in the summer, with a 15-year-old schoolgirl running away with her teacher. Paedophilia was the term used, but they didn’t see it that way. They loved each other and wanted to be together. What are the arguments for this kind of relationship not eventually being recognised as a form of marriage?
Likewise, with the multifarious relationships that people now inhabit, with children of one mother having different fathers in many cases, the chances are that at some stage the step-brothers and -sisters are going to fall in love with each other and want to be together. This is still called incest, but what are the arguments for this also not eventually being recognised as a form of marriage?
People say that gay relationships used to be taboo, but now we know that they are for some people normal and natural, so they should not be taboo any more. But is this the only reason for recognising gay marriage – that it is high time we took a more humane view and broke the taboo?
What are the reasons for breaking the taboo? We surely need to have some, otherwise we’re in danger of saying that we should break the taboo only because it is taboo. The logical next step in this argument is to start saying that other so-far taboo relationships should also be allowed.
I’m not making the argument against gay marriage here. But I am raising the questions that occur to me as I listen to the arguments in favour.
If however marriage is a definition, then that is a different ball-game. In sport, cricket is cricket and can’t be football, because it is different by its nature, and plays to different rules. If you take a bat and start hitting a large ball into a net, that doesn’t make cricket football. And vice-versa. Applying this to marriage, if the definition of marriage is a man and a woman in a loving committed and faithful relationship, usually in the hope of having children, then this is what it is. No amount of saying that it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, is going to make any difference.
So where does this get me? I’m still not sure. I think I’ll try another approach.
Many of the arguments seem to be about whether marriage is a God-given ordinance, natural law, both or neither or something else. It seems to me that marriage is a social construct. Ever since humans started to multiply on the planet, they have always had relationships of various kinds and sexualities. Not all have been called marriage, but the idea of a man and a woman or women living together for procreation is common to every culture.
Where does the Christian church come into all this? We surely can’t make rules for people who are not of our persuasion. But the church has followed Judaism, our spiritual forebear, in bringing human relationships into our understanding of who God is. Interestingly, the Old Testament allows for polygamy which was practised by such patriarchs and kings as Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon. I think this had largely died out by New Testament times (I need to check), and then came the very strong teaching, especially by Paul, on the church as the bride of Christ, and how this is the pattern for Christian marriage.
It seems to me that the church’s part in all this is to decide where it stands, and stick to it. That of course is much easier said than done in my Anglican denomination. The vast majority of Christendom worldwide, the Orthodox and Catholic denominations, already stand firm on this definition of marriage and are not going to change their minds. Sometimes it feels as if we Anglicans are in a small boat heading for the straits with the Scylla of secular society on one side, demanding to know what the fuss is about; and the Charybdis of our fellow Christians demanding that we stand with them on the ground of our historic faith.
Being Anglicans, some people are leaping into Scylla’s arms saying we should reflect the views of secular society more: and some into those of Charybdis, saying they are fed up with our shilly-shallying and are going to denominations with more certainty and more security.
That leaves the rest of us tied to the mast (yes, I know, that was for the sirens!) hoping that the ship will make it through – but not being quite sure where – or how – we will come out. This doesn’t bother me too much, as the church has always had upheavals, but it does bother others, very much indeed.
And then I wonder if this isn’t too dramatic an image? Sometimes it seems much more like a Mad Hatter’s tea-party, with the Red Queen of the traditionalists shouting ‘off with their head’ to everyone who disagrees: the Mad Hatter asking questions nobody has the answer to: the dormouse of indifference: and myself as Alice, trying to follow it all, and wondering all the time what God thinks.