Discussion of the talk given by Adrian Thatcher, led by a panel comprising John Gladwin (chair), Terry Weldon, Daphne & John Cook and Anthony Woollard.
Summary by Jane Fraser of key points made in discussion
If we are re-defining marriage, we need to re-define weddings. The modern Christian wedding has little to do with the theology of marriage. The person in charge is akin to a wedding planner. What do we make of the symbolism of the bride in virginal white and the groom in black, and that of the bride being given away by one man to another? It is commonplace for the bride to be pregnant or have children present and a baptism incorporated. Half of all children are born outside of marriage. The purpose of marriage is not therefore the procreation of children but to create a sound foundation to raise them.
Marriage is traditionally patriarchal – but we are becoming more egalitarian, going back to an earlier period when it was usual to have co-habitation before marriage. We need to spend more time thinking about preparation – as we do for confirmation. More time is now spent on a stag week for example!
A number of other relationships raise ethical issues. For example, polyamory, which is deeply rooted in biblical practice. In the polygamous form found in the Old Testament, it is inherently patriarchal and unequal in nature. But in a genuinely egalitarian relationship, what is the ethical objection? It may well be difficult to make such relationships work – but does that make them wrong? When considering ‘open’ relationships, which some gay men promote, there are some serious thinkers who argue that some flexibility at the edges helps the core relationship to endure more successfully. BDSM relationships are based either on giving and receiving pain, or on domination and submission in the relationship. It is axiomatic that there must be full mutual consent, but what are we to make of a situation where someone freely consents to submit, and finds satisfaction simply in giving pleasure to a partner?
An example was given of a different approach to the wedding by a young couple active in youth work for the church. Their focus was on the sharing and giving of vows and this was embodied in the Eucharist within the service. This was simply followed by some drinks and nibbles rather than the usual wedding reception and their parents had difficulty understanding this.
There are alternative approaches possible to the ritual of “giving away” the bride, though they are not widely taken up in church marriages. Clearly, this is particularly problematic in same-sex unions. An example was given of a lesbian couple who sought a church blessing of their relationship. They wanted their fathers to walk each of them down the aisle and hand each to her partner. Their families were very traditional and they wanted to demonstrate this to symbolise both fathers being happy with the union and the uniting of the two families.
The speaker agreed that ‘giving away’ of the bride presents a liturgical problem. Fathers say this is significant for them and feel immense relief that they are no longer responsible for bills, student loans etc. He stressed that the Church is suffering from amnesia since the Hardwick Act changed the process of entry to marriage. It was not just history that changed, but the whole nature of growth into marriage. At present engagement is an empty ritual and has nothing to compare with the richness of betrothal and the promises made at that time.
It was noted that change was happening in some Roman Catholic churches. Under the new Papacy the ‘words’ of the doctrine haven’t changed but the ‘music’ has because of what is coming out from Rome. There are many good pastors who are proactive in this process, and pastoral practice is influencing the thinking of the ‘words’. A priest at the baptism of the 3rd child asked if the couple had thought about getting married. They had assumed that as they already had children, they wouldn’t be able to marry in church.
It was suggested that the Church’s provisions need stripping down to the bare bones, leaving space to relate better to people’s experience. The liturgy on marriage is too set, whereas funerals have more liberty allowed. There is scope for negotiation over the details of the marriage service to take place, but this is not widely appreciated.
It was also noted that traditional rites give no clear role for the mother of the bride (and groom) and, for all that the ‘giving away’ is felt to be so meaningful to many fathers, it would be just as poignant for the mothers who are ‘losing’ their daughters.
Discussion then focused on a wider issue which was highlighted by problems such as “giving away”. Traditionally, marriage has been seen as a communal act; “it takes a village” (not even simply two families) to help build the new unit in society which a sexual commitment represents. This is problematic in our increasingly individualised society, and Christians as well as others could struggle with it. There could be a case for witnessing against the way in which social practice had suppressed individuality. The paraphernalia of marriage – the ideal of the “big wedding” in particular – are in danger of substituting the form for the reality. And patriarchal assumptions remain deep-rooted. As one participant asked: “Why do brides wear white? Not (these days) to symbolise virginity, but so that they will match the rest of the household chattels!” Alternative approaches to sexual relationships need to challenge such assumptions.
And finally, it was noted that the C of E Bishops’ rejection of same-sex marriage was very much at odds with the ideal of communal support of sexual commitment. Hence the decision of the conference to protest against the Valentine’s Day Statement.