Marriage Equals?

Martin Pendergast

Hardly a day, let alone a week, goes by without added controversy over Government proposals to introduce a legal provision for same-sex marriage. The Government’s Consultation document, Equal Civil Marriage, is available on-line: consultation-document . It is also important not to ignore the Impact Assessment document accompanying the consultation questions. I urge all CSCS members and friends who can access it, to respond to the consultation, individually or as groups, particularly specifying your religious affiliation, before its deadline on 14 June 2012.

The Consultation Document itself states that the Government is restricting its proposals to equal civil marriage, and also not extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. However, the Impact Assessment document hints that if there is a strong enough response on the issue, it could consider allowing civil same-sex marriages on religious premises for those denominations who wish to do this, as has happened with civil partnerships in religious buildings. This would still maintain the Government’s decision not to interfere with religious marriage per se.

There is also a hint that the extension of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples could, in fact, be considered, even though not presently on the agenda. There is a number of heterosexual couples who would prefer their current cohabitation to be accorded a legal status but not that of civil marriage, entailing in many minds a degree of subjection, one to another, rather than equal civil partnership.

There is much confusion, some of it wilful, about what is meant or intended by same-sex marriage or even civil partnerships so it may be helpful to reflect on some of the issues involved and to look at some of the sources of opposition. One argument put forward by opponents of equality is that civil partnerships already confer the same legal rights and responsibilities as marriage, so the desire for equal marriage is simply a question of the name. In fact, there are still a few legal and benefits-related anomalies which render civil partnerships and marriage unequal. The Equal Civil MarriageConsultation seeks to rectify these. Another important area is the regularising of the situation of transgendered persons and their marital status, post-transition. Currently, transgendered people have to legally dissolve their marriage or civil partnership, following transition.

When Christians celebrate sacraments and rituals they draw on patterns of human celebration and invest them with new significance in the light of reflections upon the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. So baptism was invented neither by the early Church nor by Jesus of Nazareth. Found in many religious and social traditions, it may signify incorporation into a given community, affirm identity or ritual cleansing. Anointing with oil reflects ways of honouring and preserving the human body, both in life and in death, marking the person as set apart to carry out a particular service, to strengthen or heal physically.

The breaking of bread and the sharing of wine builds upon patterns of domestic or extended-family meals marking significant milestones in the life of the particular group, or gathering of groups in a wider community. All of these, and others, are pre-existing patterns of human behaviour, sometimes expressed in ritual form, but not necessarily with a transcendent purpose. The Christian Eucharist builds upon the Jewish Seder meal, marking a people’s transition to liberation, investing the passing over from death to life with reflections upon crucifixion and resurrection.

Believers, following biblical injunctions and developing their liturgical traditions, have transformed these actions to give corporate and personal expression to their religious belief. The manner of worship expresses patterns of belief: lex orandi, lex credendi. For many people of faith these become imbued with a sacramental reality so that they become “outward signs of inward grace,” effecting what they signify, doing this in memory of the wonders God has done with humanity in its liberation.

One of the challenges from some mainstream religious groups is that current social trends and Government proposals attempt to ‘redefine’ marriage. This ignores the fact that marriage is a variable and culturally conditioned social institution with no inherent religious inspiration, but subsequently clothed with meaning by various faiths. In many cultures it was rooted more in property contracts or ways of social engineering through annexing others into extended family networks. Theologians such as Adrian Thatcher and Rosemary Radford Reuther have more than adequately detailed this. 1

As in so many other aspects Jesus of Nazareth turns prevailing attitudes and social institutions upside down. When it comes to marriage, his vision and that of the early Church communities, is a long way from promoting patriarchal ownership of women as property, masculine power over perceived feminine passivity, or the aim of increasing economic or social prestige through the coming together of small families as powerful forces.

The Church, in both its Eastern and Western traditions, possesses a rich historical treasury of rituals celebrating diverse forms of human belonging. Religious communities, through communally expressed vows, enable men and women in same-sex communities to express a solidarity of human relationships. Although rare today, this also happened in medieval times in mixed-gender religious communities. Catholic historians such as the late John Boswell and Alan Bray have unearthed the blessing of same-sex couples, both in sworn-brotherhood rituals, as well as in other forms more closely approaching heterosexual betrothal and marriage rites.2

What is fundamental, particularly to a Catholic sacramental understanding of marriage as a significant religious action, is the centrality of the personal relationship. Social recognition or status is dependent upon and subsequent to a deep interpersonal commitment. The couple themselves are the ministers of the sacrament, not a member of the clergy. The latter’s declaratory function is as a formal witness of the faith community in such celebrations.

Those formed in a faith which believes in a humanely divine and divinely human capacity will hold that particular human experiences are open to God’s self-revelation in remarkable ways. Through these experiences our sensibilities grow for recognising the presence of God around, in, and among us – sensibilities that include awareness and awe, yearning and partial fulfilment.

The potential for sacramentality in heterosexual relationships is largely taken for granted in Christian traditions, even if not universally counted as a Sacrament. Growing numbers of theologians as well as those involved in marriage preparation and relationships- support, affirm the potentiality of same-sex relationships for being good and holy. The question then is not whether same-sex relationships can be morally justified and graced, but when, under what conditions, or according to what criteria they can be so.

What is required of religious institutions is that the debate about same-sex unions should shift from the rhetoric of taboo, to a discourse about an inclusive framework of Christian sexual ethics: do no unjust harm; free consent; mutuality; equality; commitment; fruitfulness; and social justice. It should move from a fixation upon the sacrament of marriage to the promotion of the sacramentality of human relationships. In so doing, it will recognise that just as their may be a non-physiological fruitfulness in mixed gender couples unable to conceive children, same-sex unions can be equally fruitful.

Abrahamic religions are, generally speaking, far from initiating this level of dialogue. They, (including many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered adherents) are mostly stuck at the stage of still arguing ideological positions. Many of us, people of faith or not, do not wish to be encumbered with, or use, either patriarchal vocabulary or the property-rights baggage of marriage as commonly understood. Nevertheless many of us strongly affirm the sacramentality of our human relationships as entirely consistent with the fundamentals of our respective religious traditions.

The socialjustice element in sexual ethics does not just mean LGBT people of faith claiming social or political rights. Faith communities and their leaderships have obligations towards persons as sexual beings, not simply as invisible numbers in church, mosque or synagogue. Recognising social justice in sexual ethics means that communities will accept their responsibility for the communal support of their LGBT members in the discernment of their relationships.

The Catholic tradition holds that the Church is actualised by sacraments of unity. No gift of love to anyone is just “for the two of us”. The sealing of every shared covenant and the life that is shaped are significant and needed ways in which the Church finds God present in human relationships. Just as the Church needs the light and strength of those who are learning how to love, so do all those need the strength of the faith community. This strength is given in many ways, but no more importantly than through the sacramental life. This is why same-sex partners should not be turned away from the table of the Lord, nor denied the blessings and affirmation of their unions.

One of the many “best kept secrets” of the Catholic Church is its development of doctrine and practice. It has creatively celebrated various comings together in human relationships in its past. It is not beyond its wit to do the same today for this and coming generations, but do its hierarchies have the will? Judging from the Catholic Bishops of England & Wales A Letter on Marriage, issued to beread, even if not actually done so everywhere, in all their churches on 10 March 2012, the answer is NO.

What are we to make of this? In spite of the Catholic Bishops’ Letter referring only once to the Government’s proposal, in its first sentence, “to open the institution of marriage to same-sex partnerships”, lesbian and gay people might feel that a finger is being pointed at them; that they somehow undermine marriage and family values. Parents and families who have grown to celebrate and support the civil unions of their daughters and sons, hurt by some of the statements from religious leaders, may well feel conflicted between loyalty to their church and love of their children.

In fact, the Archbishops’ Letter on Marriage is little more than a re-affirmation of general Catholic teaching on marriage and human relationships; indeed, much of it could be applied to same-sex civil unions without even entering into debates about same-sex marriage per se. Its only controversial note depends on how a phrase about the Church’s welcome to divorced and remarried Catholics is understood.

Does this Letter, signed by Archbishops Nichols and Smith actually contribute something to the debate on marriage and sexual relationships which should be part of the imminent Government consultation on equal civil marriage legislation? Certainly, A Letter on Marriage is markedly gentler in tone than either the offensive remarks from some Scottish Catholic leaders, or the Vatican’s often harsh language referring to homosexual people.

In spite of a Catholic Voices sponsored survey this week purporting to show rejection of same-sex marriage proposals, other polls suggest that Catholics support greater LGBT equality on a par with the rest of the population. In conversations with many clergy, I find similar questioning about the Vatican’s stance on homosexuality to that on contraception, use of condoms in HIV prevention, and admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the Sacraments. As a civilly-partnered gay man, heavily involved in a local Catholic parish, I have never experienced any antagonism towards either myself or my partner. Indeed, our names were included in parish intercessions, the Sunday after our civil partnership registration.

Catholic Voices, with close links to Opus Dei, presents itself as an authoritative lay voice on matters of the moment, but it is not an official agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and does not reflect the diversity of views in the Catholic community. Indeed, it has demonstrated its antipathy in this regard by banning three CSCS members from attending a debate on same-sex marriage. It has recently published a Briefing Paper - In Defence of Conjugality: The Common Good Case Against Same-Sex Marriage. It presents many of the same spurious claims used to object to the introduction of Civil Partnerships, now found to be completely unwarranted. Both Anglican and Roman Catholic hierarchies now appear to have reversed their earlier opposition to same-sex civil unions, so on the equal marriage front, “how long, O Lord, how long?”

I believe the Catholic Bishops of England & Wales are correct in their views on same-sex marriage when they say that civil same-sex unions are not the same as marriage. To the common mind though, they are. Bristle though I do, some of my Catholic relatives often refer to our civil partnership ceremony as a ‘wedding’ or, ‘when you got married’.

As noted above, State and Church have regularly redefined marriage and its structures over centuries due to the influence of changing cultural patterns, religious influences, and insights in social and human development. The structures of marriage are rooted not in biology or gender difference per se, but in relationality. If it were not so, those who clearly have no potential for fertility could not enter a valid marriage. Faith communities have countenanced and rejected polygamous marriage, allowed nullity, divorce and remarriage, and the 20 century Catholic Church developed its earlier teaching that marriage was solely for procreation, declaring that its purpose is twofold, including the mutual relationship of the couple.

Yet I am not a supporter of same sex marriage for myself. I believe marriage is essentially dependent on the subjection of one person to another, even if it’s a mutual subjection, in the exchange of vows. I therefore do not seek such status. Civil Partnerships are based on equality, legally expressed in a joint signing of a contractual covenant, rather than through vows. This value of equality is what those of us in same-sex civil unions bring to the common good. For those of us who are people of faith, the sacramentality of such unions is what we strive to live out. Many parents, families, friends, and members of congregations have grasped this message, even if, sadly much religious leadership has not.

This is not to privilege same-sex unions over opposite-sex marriages, nor to suggest that heterosexual marriages are not also based in an understanding of shared partnership, rather than property possession. One of the issues which will have to be examined if same-sex marriage reaches the statute book is the language of the legal marriage formula. It’s current emphasis on ‘taking’ – possessing – contrasts with the covenantal-relationship understanding which many heterosexuals hold as they reflect on the meaning of their marriage. Apart from the language of ‘wife’ or ‘husband’, could a new legal marriage formula more adequately reflect the self-giving element of human relationships, rather than suggestions of ownership, possession, or even dependency?

Unelected religious leadership cannot be allowed to present itself as the sole voice of the common good. Indeed, for example, some faith-leaders have shown a volte-face on the value of civil partnerships. In 2003, the Catholic Bishops of England & Wales, strongly prompted by the Vatican’s Doctrine Congregation, suggested that same-sex civil unions would be contrary to the common good. In 2011, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales, said: “We would want to emphasize that civil partnerships actually provide a structure in which people of the same sex who want a lifelong relationship (and) a lifelong partnership can find their place and protection and legal provision. Clearly, respect must be shown to those who in the situation in England use a civil partnership to bring stability to a relationship.” th

The common good is not simply an abstract ideal yet to be achieved. It is realised, here and now, wherever mutuality in social and personal relationships is promoted and respected. It is what transforms the cold face of ‘society’ into a community of communities. It is where individuals and groups are in solidarity, one with another; where what is bad for one is bad for another, and what is good for one is good for another.

The common good pushes against managerial and functionalist approaches to human beings, as Rowan Williams suggests: “taking responsibility for one another, assumes that the ‘other’ for whom you’re taking responsibility is a three-dimensional person – not an item, not an abstraction; but somebody with a particular history, with a particular set of strengths and weaknesses, with particular gifts to give.  Reduce that three dimensionality to something else and you are reducing the chances of a vital and healthy community life.” 3That is precisely what LGBT people bring to the common good in the transformation of society not as some kind of Trojan horse, undermining human, social or family values.

1Marriage After Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times, Adrian Thatcher. New York University Press;

Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family, Rosemary Radford Ruether, SCM-Canterbury Press Limited

2The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, John Boswell, New York: Villard, 1994

The Friend, Alan Bray, University of Chicago Press, 2006.

th Press Conference, 26 November 2011

3 Archbishop’s Visit to South Wales 26 March 2012

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