Thinking About Same Sex Marriage?
When I first suggested the monthly Discussion Forum at Open Sanctuary, I envisaged facilitating a space where people with different life journeys could come and safely share their views and insights around important topics, which are in one way or another linked to our spirituality. However, I thought to steer clear of really contentious issues such as is now facing the Australian community, the question of same sex marriage. I was also daunted by the complexities involved.
But last Sunday I attended a local church where the preacher did not avoid the issue, and I admired her handling of what she said. As I sat there I knew I had to stop avoiding working through the issue for myself, and to offer it for discussion at Open Sanctuary as possibly the most timely issue with which most of us are grappling. There may well be ultimately more urgent and important ones, such as AI and killer robots(!), or the control of violence, climate change, etc..; but there is something about the question of marriage and sexuality and the dominant value of equality that seems to touch us all at a very personal level.
Let me say from the outset that I think that same sex marriage will become part of Australian law, eventually, even if the forthcoming postal, voluntary, non-binding plebiscite returns a ‘No’. For reasons I think we need to try to understand, the tide around the world, at least within countries derived from the European traditions, seems to have turned against a traditional understanding of marriage, whatever that in detail is. What the new understanding will be I don’t think anyone knows at the moment. It will be in the hands of the law-makers to fully define the new; or at least it should be. Lets hope it is something more socially responsible than ‘registering your sexual relationship with the Government’. Is this about a whole new chapter in the history of the institution of marriage, from which probably most of the religious traditions, and perhaps the spiritual, may well be excluded? Is this a very major time in the ongoing life of our culture, for good or ill.
So having decided what the inevitable outcome will be, regardless of my vote, my attention has gone to thinking about the reasons and implications for our society and culture for this very significant, if not fundamental, shift. What follows are bits and pieces of my reflections. I hope there is something here that will stimulate a reaction that you might bring to our discussion. Or you may already have some thoughts that you would like to share with the group. I am not wanting to persuade you to change your mind, but rather for us all to be open to each other to hear each other. Truth and life are all about relationship.
The implications for the churches and religious institutions are very significant, it seems to me. It could be seen to mark the final death knell in the Church’s influence in European based cultures. In turn, the implications of this I suspect are beyond analysis at this stage. Never before in human history has a culture so turned on its own religious roots. It is the atheists who now speak as prophets. What is this about?
I have been interested in reading about marriage at the time of the Reformation. Martin Luther was a key figure. Up to this point marriage was very much under the prerogatives of
the Roman Church, not only bound by cannon law but upheld as one of the seven sacraments. Luther wanted to wrench this central social institution from the clutches of the Pope. This meant throwing out canon law in Protestant countries. But something had to replace it. Luther decided that marriage was to be a matter for the civil authorities under the guidance and auspices of the religious. It was no longer a sacrament, and its basis was in civil law informed by the Bible. But Family, as the outcome of the commitment of marriage, was one of the central pillars of society for Luther, to be upheld by both the civil and religious authorities. At the heart of marriage was a public spiritual commitment before God, as mediated by the Church. This was the foundation of Family which was the foundation of Society.
On the whole, such a view has prevailed in Protestantism. What has changed is how the Bible is viewed. Protestant religion can be divided very generally speaking into two broad camps, conservatives and liberals. Both camps have weathered the storms of the massive shift in Western culture with the rise of modern science, in particular the idea of evolution and the vast age of the Universe. Conservatives have remained with the Biblical story more or less; the Bible is the Word of God and the sole basis of faith. Liberals have tried to stay with the huge changes in our culture, and understand the Bible as a product of history to be interpreted from within this changing culture. But few outside liberal Protestantism, in the general community, are all that interested in what it has to say. Its concern is to include people who don’t really want to be included. It is likely that liberal Protestantism will accept same sex marriage and incorporate it into its liturgies and life, as it has largely accepted the ordination of practising homosexuals within their circles. The overarching question for liberals is, on what ground do they stand? Conservatives are sure they stand on the solid ground of the Bible; Catholics on the inviolable tradition. For liberals there is no such ground; all it would seem is shifting. Is this where a living spirituality might come in?
Conservatives on the other hand are in for the fight. The authority of the Bible is at stake, and it is the issues of homosexuality and same sex marriage which have emerged as the ‘last stand’. Within the Anglican communion a breakaway group has formed, GAFCON, which is gathering steam and uniting conservative Anglicans. They have threatened to boycott the next world wide meeting of Anglican bishops at Lambeth. This is serious stuff. Break from our culture, yes we will. And if you force us by law to marry gay couples, we will turn our back on you!
If anything the situation for the Catholic Church is even more dire. Marriage for Catholicism is still a sacrament informed and bound by canon law. Can you see what a fundamental threat changing the nature of marriage is to the Catholic Church’s self understanding in society. It forces it even more into a religious ghetto no longer representing or interacting with the main stream. But, you might say ‘what standing anyway?’ The Catholic Church, and other churches for that matter, have made a pretty good job at ‘white-anting’ their standing in Western society. I think it is undeniable that the outrage of clergy abuse has left the churches generally at the lowest ebb of their authority ever in the very culture they were fundamental in forming.
Even apart from the latest plunge in the standing of the Church, only around 8% of Australians attend church regularly any way. The Church’s opinion is no longer likely to hold much sway. However, there are others who while not supporting the institution, or religion as such, more or less walk with it as far as traditional values around marriage and family are concerned. How large this group is we will have to wait and see. For many, the sticking point is family and the raising of children. They can’t believe a homosexual couple family is able to provide the same development and growing space for children as a heterosexual couple, a view strongly attacked by the LGBTIQ community, pointing to other research based evidence. Both sides appeal to research to support their opposing positions.
However important that issue is, I think there are other issues to be aware of as well. Marriage once did not need to be legally defined. Everyone more or less accepted that it was a legal and spiritual relationship between a man and woman until death separated them, and from this union children were hoped and cared for; a family was created. It was John Howard in Australia who insisted that marriage be legally defined in the Marriage Act. He felt this was needed to protect us from the very thing that is now happening. Now it is likely that Parliament will change that definition. If you are like me, you will have a little concern that Parliament is being given authority to fiddle with our language, and change age-old understandings of words. We may well rue the day this precedence was set in place. Language belongs to the community. The meanings of words can certainly change, but do so in the complex machinations of community life, not in acts of parliament. Might it not have been better if the LGBTIQ community had simply organized community rituals and declared themselves to be married regardless of parliament and the law. In other words keep such a fundamental social institution within the life of the community. Once such authority resided in the religious and spiritual institutions; the demise of such institutions however need not undermine the natural authority of the community apart from parliament over some issues. There is an authority crisis in the land; everything is being centred in government and we can only be the poorer for it. Corporations are moving in on the vacuum they sense, and this is entirely self-interested. I wonder if the whole issue of same sex marriage can be viewed as an issue about authority. I think that is why culturally it might be so significant.
In case you think I am over stating this way of seeing things, it is entirely possible that some church groups will pull back from the new law around marriage altogether. They will hold wedding ceremonies in the community in which a man and a woman pledge their lives to each other before God and a host of witnesses, who will all sign a document and certificate that this commitment has been so witnessed; and ne’er the government be brought anywhere near such proceedings. But the couple will not be without law mind you; the law can deem them to be a de facto couple. So there we are.
However, getting back to the main game, given that marriage is likely to be entirely handed over to parliament and government and its ancient definition changed by a show of hands, I believe that it is important parliament and government really take responsibility for deciding the nature of new-marriage; and not ride on the coat tails of the tradition. This is a new day. This suggests a number of questions.
To what extent will new-marriage be about commitment? An often heard catch cry, including from politicians, is ‘if two people love each other, why shouldn’t they be able to marry’. It is a fundamental human right, we are told. On that basis polygamy will make a big comeback. Marriage traditionally is not about love; it assumes love, rightly or wrongly. Marriage traditionally is about commitment, life long commitment and family.
To what extent will new-marriage be about raising and supporting children? Will this be written into the law, or will it ride on the coat-tails of traditional marriage in an un-examined way.
Is the advent of new-marriage an opportunity to re-think the nature of marriage as most modern heterosexual couples are now trying to live it, a union of equals? Traditional marriage as informed by some parts of the Bible is not a union of equals; the man is the head of the woman. We know we don’t want that; but what do we want if the parties to marriage are equal? What does it mean to be equal?
Is the advent of new-marriage an opportunity to re-think a number of related issues, and write them into law. What are the responsibilities of parents? More than that what is fatherhood, what is motherhood? Can we really run on the old assumptions? I think not; this is a brave new world!
I suspect new-marriage is going to be as much a real challenge for the LGBTIQ community as it is and will be for heterosexuals. Once the euphoria is over, the realities of legal commitment will hit some hard. It is tempting to let a bit of cynicism colour the debate; the people most supportive of same-sex marriage and stand to get most from it are the lawyers and the wedding industry. Marriage has been saved! Or we could go a bit further with the comedian Robin Williams: Why should gay people be exempt from the miseries the rest of us inflict upon ourselves. The humour is in the shock, in the clash between the ideal and what can be the reality. Or, in returning to AI and killer robots, climate change, and the control of violence, etc., is our preoccupation with marriage a bit like arguing over deck chairs on the Titanic.
If you have got this far, congratulations and thanks. I hope there has been something here that has stimulated your thinking and your interest in coming to the Discussion Forum on the 16th of September.