When Marriage Is and Isn’t image

When Marriage Is and Isn’t

The wisdom of wading into this one again might seem questionable, but I find it hard to let this week's parliamentary statements about gay marriage pass unremarked. If nothing else, it is worth pointing out the messiness of the proposed legislation, and the ecclesiastical as well as legal hostages to fortune it creates. Steve Holmes has spelled out some of these issues thoroughly and thoughtfully, so I will not repeat all his arguments, but will use one of them as a launch pad for some observations of my own.

Steve points out that the government,

By ducking some of the hard legislative issues, the ‘marriage’ they delivered [is] not equal. A same-sex marriage, under the proposals, cannot be dissolved on grounds of non-consummation; an opposite-sex marriage can. The point here is not the frequency of appeals to non-consummation (they are extremely rare, but the possibility is important for Roman Catholic practice), but the fact that, in law, ‘gay’ marriages and ‘straight’ marriages will remain different things under these proposals – just as civil partnerships and marriages were different things, conferring the same rights, before.

This is a tremendously important observation. It is important not only because it exposes the absurdity of claiming equality between marriage and gay ‘marriage’ but in that it pinpoints the nub of the issue – the very meaning and purpose of marriage: meaning and purpose that are inextricably linked to sex.

What is it that confers validity on sexual relationships? In our culture the answer, increasingly, is that of an experience of romantic love wed to the inalienable right of self expression. Within such a worldview ‘what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom is no one’s business but theirs’. Sex is merely a corollary of romantic love and self expression. It has no greater meaning or purpose. It is, in effect, commoditised. And within such a worldview it makes total sense if a man wants to ‘marry’ a man, or a woman a woman – which is why the current proposals are so difficult to argue against.

In arguing against gay marriage we are arguing against the fundamental values of our culture and to do so can appear nonsensical. It is not that long since arguing for gay marriage would have been considered equally nonsensical, but our cultural underpinnings have shifted. The reason they have shifted is that for a time we attempted to maintain Christian morality without the foundations of genuine Christian faith. I have quoted this before on this blog, but Nietzsche is remarkably prophetic about where we now are:

They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality… We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth – it stands and falls with faith in God.

The rug of Christian morality has been pulled out from under our feet. With no firm foundation of faith only a tottering edifice was left standing, and it has only taken a few decades’ shoving to see it fall.

So it is extremely ironic that what is being legislated for is marriage, and marriage ‘in church’ with all the trappings of Christian morality, with many ‘Christian’ leaders telling us that this is all fine and dandy. When the edifice has been demolished, why try to enter the building at all?

The inequality that will be enshrined in the proposed legislation between gay and opposite sex marriage reflects the fact that true marriage is about sex because marriage is about procreation. A ‘marriage’ that permanently excludes the possibility of procreation is not a marriage, which is why opposite sex marriage can be annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. With our cultural mindset we probably most immediately imagine that such a marriage is not a valid marriage because someone is being denied sex; but the real reason is that someone is being denied sex which means they are being denied the opportunity of procreation.

Marriage-sex-children forms an indivisible chain; any institution that claims the title ‘marriage’ but misses out a link in the chain is no real marriage. It is a mere cipher for a foundationless Christian morality.

This means that even if (when) gay marriage is legalized there will be many of us who do not recognize such marriages as valid. One ecclesiastical/legal consequence of this (which Steve Holmes does not examine) is what will happen when a ‘married’ gay couple come to one of our churches and we treat them in the same way we would anyone else having sex outside the bounds of true marriage – hopefully with grace and love, but also with the expectation of repentance and a change in behavior. No ‘quadruple lock’ will help us then.

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