Friday, 16 March 2012

In Defence of Modern Marriage

IN DEFENCE OF MODERN MARRIAGE


To start with, there’s no such thing as “gay marriage”. Not because it’s not allowed yet, but because it makes no sense, and it’s not what anyone wants. The government is suggesting that the rights and duties and legal language of marriage be extended to include gay couples. Nothing new is being proposed, unlike in 2005 when the Civil Partnerships Act became law. Just that what is already there should be understood more broadly, to include all citizens who wish to make a binding commitment with one other person.

This should be the occasion of rejoicing, not least from the Christian churches, which argue from their Scriptures that “God is love”. As an elderly monk – himself a grandfather – said to me one time in America, “there’s so little love in the world, the least you can do, when you see it, is bless it”. But the Church of England and Roman Catholic hierarchies seem unable to do this. Cardinal O’Brien finds the idea grotesque. They seem united in finding the marriage of gay people deeply threatening to the reality of other people’s marriages. This intrigues me. Obviously, there isn’t a Mrs Cardinal, but I wonder if, for instance, Lady Carey, the wife of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, actually feels that her marriage to George would be undermined if gay couples were acknowledged as married? Would the Cardinal start to think, “oh, if gay men could marry, I might not be a cardinal?” Would Lord Carey think “if gay women were allowed to marry, I might never have found a wife?” Is this what they are worried about? Are their own commitments – to celibacy or to marriage - built on such frail foundations? Of course not, they will say. And I agree. So, why should the rest of their heterosexually- or celibacy- inclined peers react any differently?

And then we have the children. The Roman Catholic Church has at least the virtue, if such it is, of consistency on this one. They detest birth control, and regard it as unnatural. Far better that people abstain from sex if they have enough children already, or, if they have not “the gift of continency” than that they should have still more unwanted children, because, after all, sex must have its price. And, what the hell, why not make the children pay it? It’s true that most, but not all, gay couples will not have children. Some do. There is no evidence that those children go without, either emotionally, or materially, and evidence that positively points against the idea that growing up with two mums or two dads makes you gay, or sets you up any less well for life in the world.

But marriage is for a man and a woman, it says so in the Bible. But does it? Yes, the Genesis story is about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, but you’ve got to go some to try to find modern marriage in that book: Polygamy, sexual slavery, concubinage, rape, prostitution, even celibacy; but a covenanted relationship between equal partners? Apart from David and Jonathan – and there’s no evidence that was sexual – there is none. In fact, apart from the Curse in Genesis 3, and the naughty rudeness of the Song of Solomon, nothing even acknowledges that women might have sexual desire at all. Biblical marriage looks like something deeply unattractive.

So, the churches can keep that. Modern marriage is a product of our own culture, our own society. Christianity played its part in creating it – it was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (the first married Archbishop of Canterbury) who put “the mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other” into the wedding service. He was dared to put it first (after procreation and the avoidance of sin), but his nerve broke. Centuries later, his insight has prevailed.

Couples who fall in love, and wish never to be apart, fall for that one – “the mutual society, help, and comfort” – as the essence of marriage. They might have children, they might not, that is immaterial. There are good marriages, there are bad marriages. We all know that these things are defined not by law, but by practice. But it is the purpose of the law to encourage the best, and discourage the worst. When gay couples are allowed to call their relationships marriage, the sky will not fall in. When they claim their rights as equal partners in a world in which they were made as equals, they will make things better for everyone, not worse. Youngsters, gay or straight, or bi, will think “yeah, I could do that”. The role models will be the best relationships, not the ones of which the churches approve.

Marriage is made for mankind, not the other way round. And by their fruits you shall know them. It’s in their book. Could their religious lordships just pay a little attention? Or else, shut up.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
March 2012

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