A Meaningful Marriage Manifesto
With all the major political parties backing the Same-Sex Marriage Bill it is tempting to say, ‘A plague on all their houses’ and disengage entirely from the political process. But none of these parties were exactly offering a shining defence of marriage even before the SSM Bill anyway. Whether it is the ‘family-friendly’ Tories failing to offer transferable tax allowances for married couples or support for stay-at-home mums (and continuing to allow 200,000 abortions to be carried out each year in the UK); senior Liberals making dodgy expense claims on behalf of their boyfriends (David Laws) or manipulating their wives into illegal actions (Chris Huhne); or a Labour leader who was ‘too busy’ to marry his pregnant girlfriend, or be named on his son’s birth certificate – none of them have anything to teach us about marriage. It is hardly surprising that such a class of people should consider marriage mutable enough to legalise it for same-sex couples.
It would be easy simply to rail against the venality of our politicians and to sink into gloom about the moral climate of our nation. There may be a time and place for this – we Christians shouldn’t forget that the Psalms are our songbook. “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear, so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter.” (Ps 58)
However, a more fruitful response at this time may be for the church to take a long hard look at what we say about marriage and think about where we need to make adjustments ourselves. Our politicians are merely reflecting a larger cultural shift in which marriage has come to be seen as little more than about having a BFF. If marriage is simply a public acknowledgment of one’s most significant romantic attachment there is no logical reason why it should be closed to people of the same sex. And here’s the thing: very often our churches have failed to offer teaching and practice that gives marriage any greater significance than this cultural view.
So, a manifesto. We are few in number, and on the ‘wrong’ side of where our culture has gone – all the more reason to live genuinely counter-cultural lives and demonstrate a godly alternative. To start building a resistance I propose we do the following three things:
Teach clearly that procreation is a primary purpose of marriage. Yes, there are other reasons to marry, other ‘goods’ of marriage, but the cornerstone of marriage is the forming of community which happens when a man and woman commit themselves in permanent and exclusive relationship, and have babies. There has been a trend in recent years for our marriage teaching to focus on relational aspects – have great sex, learn your partner’s love languages. There is nothing wrong with great sex and making your partner feel loved – I’m all for it! – but it can be more a reflection of our culture’s obsession with sex and romance than something distinctly Christian. Marriage is meant to mean babies.
Focus less on weddings and more on marriage. One of the consequences of people getting married later in life, having already slept their way through multiple partners, is that there is now a disproportionate emphasis upon the superficialities of the wedding day – a nauseatingly expensive round of dresses and photographers and flim-flam. The less significance there is to the substance of the relationship, the more significance is laid upon the inconsequential. So let’s make weddings simpler, cheaper, more about the public exchanging of vows and participation in community. At a wedding the couple are making their relationship accountable to the church and the church is inviting the couple into an exercise in community building. Christian marriage is meant to be less about personal relationship than it is about contributing to the common good. Let’s emphasise that.
Draw clear lines about divorce and remarriage. We need to be harder-nosed. In our desire to be culturally relevant and pastorally sensitive it is all too easy to come to theologically questionable positions on divorce and remarriage. We let the line shift, and then shift some more, and we find ourselves – in reality – expecting no more from Christian marriage than we would of anyone else. Let’s take it on the chin and bear the opprobrium of saying to people, “No, you shouldn’t get divorced” and “No, because you should never have been divorced, we won’t bless you in remarriage.” Local churches need to work out where the hard lines lie on this, and not fudge them. ‘Quickie divorce’ laws have done far more damage to marriage than SSM is ever likely to do.
If we do these three things we will be putting clear blue water between what is genuinely marriage and what masquerades as such. Doing them will make us look foolish, anachronistic and – predictably – bigoted. But they might just help us to build the kind of healthy churches our nation needs to see, with something solid to hold onto as everything else unravels. Doing them will make marriage meaningful.