Follow by Email

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Christian confusion around marriage, gay and otherwise, or why abolishing marriage as we know it might be a good idea

The churches and Christians generally should take a long hard look about the issue of marriage and the respective responsibilities of church and state. We have not yet disentangled our thinking from the distortions of Christendom. Let me try a thought experiment.

The state has an interest in issues to do with transfer and management of property, payments, taxes and an interest in the fact that children are appropriately cared for. This requires a formal recognition of such relationships by the state, or acknowledgement for the state's purposes that de facto such relationships have been entered into. That interest can be taken care of through a purely administrative process.

The state should have no interest or involvement in the ceremonies that "religious" or ethnic/religious communities and organisation may engage in to celebrate the commitment of people to long term relationships. Such matters should be an issue for the bodies themselves. 

The disentangling of the respective interests of the state and the civil community, including churches, would help sort out the confusion over what marriage is about. Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley have tackled this issue in an Ekklesia Research paper What Future for Marriage?.

As they point out ... the form of marriage we know as such today is a relatively late invention out of something that once had much more to do with solidifying dynastic power. The link with Christendom is important in understanding how this happened. This link continued with the ...  revival and spread of marriage in the general population ... based on a fusing, of course, of civil and legal provisions with Christian meanings and rituals, because the church and the state were seen as mutually reinforcing institutions with a common grounding.

Much of what Christians think they are defending as essential elements of Christianity in this context is nothing of the sort and is deeply at odds with Jesus' radical critique of the way institutions stand in the way of the new community that he called people to.

Most people both inside and outside the churches assume that Christian teaching is uncomplicated and unequivocal about marriage. But when we look at the texts and traditions involved, we discover that things are actually much more challenging, exciting (and, perhaps, worrying) than we tend to suppose.

There are certainly biblical traditions that uphold marriage strongly. But the Bible also portrays a wide range of extended family relationships. Jesus himself never married (unusually for a wandering rabbi, perhaps, and contrary to the fancies of the Da Vinci Code). Paul was rather sceptical and grudging about it, so the evidence suggests.

Meanwhile, the Gospels are often downright hostile a search for Jesus' sayings about 'the family' suggests that, while he cherished covenantal values, had married companions and abhorred the practice whereby men could summararily divorce and disinherit women at will, he saw blood ties or contracted family bonds as less significant than the creation of a new kind of community.

That community was rooted in those who were often despised and 'impure' within the established political order. But it reflected the levelling, forgiveness-generating, favour-free, all-embracing, demanding love of God's coming kingdom. And for that, Jesus said, one should be prepared to abandon all if necessary - even family as we have understood it thus far.

Barrow and Bartley's argument is worth reading carefully in full.  While it has specific reference to the UK arguments and legal situation, it offers a recasting of the current controversy that has ended up in a confusing debate in Australia that has focused on the proposal for "gay marriage". In summary they recommend for consideration:
... that the legal and ceremonial aspects of forming partnerships should be viewed as distinct, and that the differences between religious and civil/secular definitions of marriage openly acknowledged by all concerned.

In this way, individuals who want to enter into marriage as a religious commitment within Christian contexts would be free to do so - as would humanists with their own meanings, and people of other faiths in their distinct traditions.

But registering their partnership under law would be a separate process allowing different arrangements depending upon their intent, and including clear provisions for the protection of children.

By the same token, it would be up to religious bodies to decide what forms of civil partnership would be acceptable within their understanding of marriage, and they would be free to offer ceremonial services, blessing and pastoral support or not. But such blessing (with its inherent meanings) would not be imposed on the non-religious or those who did not feel able to, or want to, make the commitments required or encouraged within a religious framework.

This would allow both civic and religious authorities autonomy in decision-making, would avoid people having to make vows they do not believe in, and would encourage couples to think more seriously about the kind of commitment they wanted to enter into, and the consequences of this for others.

It would also separate arguments within religious communities about gay marriage and cohabitation from the state‚provision of legal contracts for relationships, and would make space for both faith-based and secular understandings - without privileging or constraining either.
... discussing the possibility of a new set of recognized civil partnerships would require lawmakers to focus on the intentions underlying legal arrangements. Such values as justice, compassion, protection, community, commitment and love could thereby receive greater acknowledgement within public policy debate.
 Some fresh thinking by the churches along these lines would be helpful, particularly if it addressed issues of justice, compassion and the reality of living in a pluralist society. 

No comments: