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Thursday, 18 August 2011

A hopeless confusion - current debates about marriage

I have great difficulty getting involved with current debates about granting the right to marriage to same sex couples. The debate from my point of view is hopelessly confused and to line up on one side or the other in the debate is but to remain enmeshed in the confusion and to leave entangled what needs disentangling, the respective roles and responsibilities of the sate and the churches, and any other group for that matter.

The historical and theological issues at stake are sketched helpfully in a piece by Simon Barrow What Future for Marriage? on the Ekklesia web site.

The interests of the state and the church in issues of relationships should be distinct, but we still have a massive confusion which goes back to the Christendom settlement. The state has responsibilities around assuring the protection, safety and well being of children, not directly but in holding parents and guardians responsible, and for legal issues around property.the church has responsibilities around supporting its members in the vocation of christian marriage and in carrying out their commitments to faithful discipleship in that role. As Simon Barrow observes:
What is called 'marriage' today is essentially a civil contract which can be dissolved or re-entered as many times as necessary. Superimposed on that is a Christian ideal of lifelong fidelity which many accept as a 'nice idea' but which is not necessarily what they are really choosing, and whose basis in a community of faith they often do not understand or accept. Ekklesia
 Simon's recommendation, for which I have a good deal of sympathy, is that we disentangle the respective roles of church and community groups and the state around the issue of marriage.

  1. Our current confusion between the civil (secular), juridical (legal) and sacramental (religious) meanings of marriage arises from the 'Christendom' assumption that religious understandings can be superimposed on society through the state, and vice versa.
  2. It is positive to enable people to express their civil commitments in legal terms which reflect the variety of long-term partnerships people are actually forming - and which offer as much stability, especially for children, as possible.
  3. What the church calls marriage is not just another name for a legal and civil arrangement - it is specifically about the kind of relationships made possible by God's love and the community of people who seek to be transformed by this love through worship, common life, mutual forgiveness, and discipleship.
  4. If you try to force everyone in society into a one-size-fits-all legal arrangement you risk devaluing what is possible for different kinds of partnerships, sell short the meaning of Christian marriage - and end up in something of a no-win mess. That is where we are right now. Ekklesia
And that is why I find it hard to enter into the current debate about same sex marriage. To take a position on the debate as it currently exists is to remain within the entangled confusions of the Christendom settlement. Much of the churches stance on marriage in the current debates is theologically confused and historically ill informed. Christians have no stake, in my view, in upholding the intervention by the state in upholding issues of Christian meaning with respect to relationships.

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