In light of the current discussion in the Australian Parliament about marriage equality I thought I would post some ‘chunks’ of quotes from a very thoughtful article by Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley from Ekklesia on the future of marriage in society from a Christian perspective.
I really appreciate their post- Christendom tone and their positive, inclusive articulation of the contribution of ‘Christian marriage’ to the common good .
The link to the full article is below but I thought I would post some of my favourite bits as much to talk through with Christian and non-Christian couples and what we agree to in my role as a celebrant…
…Meanwhile, the Gospels are often downright hostile. A search for Jesus’ sayings about ‘the family’ suggests that, while he cherished covenental values, had married companions and abhorred the practice whereby men could summararily divorce and disinherit women at will, he saw blood ties or contracted family bonds as less significant than the creation of a new kind of community.
That community was rooted in those who were often despised and ‘impure’ within the established political order. But it reflected the levelling, forgiveness-generating, favour-free, all-embracing, demanding love of God’s coming kingdom. And for that, Jesus said, one should be prepared to abandon all if necessary – even family as we have understood it thus far.
Marriage and the Christendom settlement
How, we might ask, did the church proceed from this rather unsettling, subversive message to its subsequent comfortable embrace of worldly power? How did it become the cement of the existing society, rather than the progenitor of a new one? And how did it come to be the upholder of an institution which tries to hold together (some might say with increasing difficulty) the covenant-based approach to relationships enshrined in the Christian message and a contract-based civil-legal arrangement based on very different principles?
These are good, tough, radical and not at all comfortable questions. And the answer lies, in good measure, in the history of what we have come to call Christendom, the arrangement by which the church finds protection and privilege from the king and the state by offering its blessing and support in return.
Specifically, it incorporated into its reading and practice of its own traditions understandings derived and adapted over time from the Roman courts. Marriage in these terms meant securing the succession of the (male) hierarchy. And by the time of medieval scholasticism the married state was often thought of in functional terms as asserting the regulative perogative of the church and controlling the fornicating disorder of the masses, albeit in a way inferior to the ideal of clerical celibacy.
There were radical shifts in understanding during and following the Reformation, but even in places like Victorian England marriage was chiefly for the more wealthy and educated, while ‘common law marriage’ (cohabitation) was the more usual estate.
The revival and spread of marriage in the general population was based on a fusing, of course, of civil and legal provisions with Christian meanings and rituals, because the church and the state were seen as mutually reinforcing institutions with a common grounding.
First, from the Christian perspective, now that we can no longer rely on the state to ensorse or define ‘Christian meanings’, how might the churches meaningfully rediscover a Gospel-oriented (subversive) vocation of ‘Christian marriage’ – one long subsumed in the formalised obligations of the Established church towards many non-church people sceptical of its identity and calling?
Second, in terms of the concerns of those in society as a whole, how do we enable people who are (in fact) choosing different ways of developing human relationships in a plural setting to discover, celebrate (and find formal arrangements which embody) values like faithfulness, nurture and commitment, as well as providing legal security?
That latter question includes long-term live-in relationships (cohabitation), lesbian and gay partnerships, and also partnerships not necessarily based on sex or romance – which are usually ignored altogether.
The difficulty at the moment is that these distinct matters are all viewed unhelpfully under one single framework, that established by legal, heterosexual marriage. And while this can be adapted and attenuated (as in civil partnerships) or extended (as in gay marriage) this is done awkwardly, with much disagreement, and with more than a few holes.
What is called ‘marriage’ today is essentially a civil contract which can be dissolved or re-entered as many times as necessary. Superimposed on that is a Christian ideal of lifelong fidelity which many accept as a ‘nice idea’ but which is not necessarily what they are really choosing, and whose basis in a community of faith they often do not understand or accept
Some faith groups opposed to the full recognition of gay people are resisting this shift in legal definition, and would thereby deny others their full wishes – even though they are not churchgoers.
Practically and theologically, Ekklesia sees no reason why Christian marriage should be restricted to heterosexuals, and many vital reasons why it should not. That is a (controversial, legitimate and important) argument within the church about its own customs, doctrines and practices. But in this as in other areas of life, the church’s view does not have to be imposed on the civil arrangements of those outside the church.
Similarly, the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently argued that the government Law Commission‚Äôs proposal about granting legal rights to live-in (cohabiting) couples would risk, ‘further undermining marriage’.
We do not see why this should be so – unless, as at present, civic and religious understandings have to be run together, in which case a conflict of perspectives is produced without any natural way forward
From a specifically Christian viewpoint
As we have been pointing out, ‘Christian marriage’ is not just another term for a legal and civil partnership arrangement; it has the potential to be about something much more – the transforming possibilities of God; a covenantal commitment, rather than a civil-legal agreement.
Understood in these terms, Christian marriage is about the grace of God enabling us to achieve more than is humanly possible. No process of civic relationship registration or tax advantage can guarantee or enforce that. For the church to suggest that it can shows a singular lack of confidence in the divine grace by which it claims to have been formed and to live.
What Christian leaders need to develop are communities of hope (which is what the church is meant to be) that really can support and sustain the faith, love and commitment it entails. This, not the attempt to define more openly who can marry in church, is what is required to ‘strengthen marriage’.
- It is not the state’s job to promote Christian marriage, it is the church’s job.
- You cannot abolish Christian marriage, because its ground is the grace of God.
- What is ‘sacrosanct’ is not the legal institution of a civic partnership, but God’s offer of unity-in-diversity (communion) expressed through our freely-entered relationships.
So the church cannot expect to define what marriage is for everyone (believer or not).
Nor should the state or the government get to determine the religious meanings and impact of marriage and commitment within faith communities. It works both ways.
But the church can and should develop, and offer as a sign of hope, its own distinct understanding of human relationships as communion before contract, equality before social division and patriarchy. Marriage can be seen as a foundational expression of that.
Understood in this way, the role of the church is not to impose its will on society, but to invite people to look at the alternative (not-just-nuclear) community created by Jesus, to take it seriously, to see its promise, and to respond to it.
Indeed, de-linking civil arrangements for long-term couple relationships from Christian covenantal commitments will require the churches (and other faith communities) to work much harder to develop further their own understanding and practice of marriage as part of a wider community. This is a rather tougher, but more meaningful, job than simply “getting people down the aisle”.
Christians should, at the same time, be able to affirm different civil arrangements to express faithfulness and love – without necessarily having to accord them the same meaning as Christian marriage within their own understanding and practice.
If the churches’ concern is to enable society to develop life-long, stable relationships for the benefit of persons and the community, and if Christian marriage isn’t what many people recognise, then they need to recognise that society as a whole needs an honest conversation about what kinds of civil partnerships are really possible.
By dragging its feet on civil partnerships and opposing gay marriage in wider society, as at present, the church is ironically hindering people from forming the long-term stable relationships it says we need.
Full Article here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/article_abolishmarriage.shtml