On June 12, 2012 the Church of England issued A Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation - “Equal Civil Marriage”- from the Church of England, a thirteen page challenge to the British Government's plan to enable same-sex couples to marry in civil services. The legislation will give the CofE, and all other religions institutions, legal protection to practice faith-based discrimination against gay people. The legislation in now way will force churches to marry same-sex couples. They can simply refuse, as many, but not all, will no doubt do. Nonetheless, this is not good enough for the CofE, and most other religious institutions in Britain (only the Quakers and Reformed Judaism accept gays as whole and equal people). The CofE demands that everyone embrace its faith-based bigotry and discrimination.
The statement itself is a times breathtaking in its inaccurate and hyped language. It states that equalty in marriage "would alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history (my emphasis)." It is simply not true that marriage defined as a relationship between a man and a woman has been and still is “enshrined in human institutions throughout history.” Either the CofE is ignorant about the history of marriage or it is lying. It would also seem to indicate that the CofE has not read its Old Testament. The church is clearly attempting to universalise throughout time and across cultures the Western ideal of monogamous marriage that doesn't even exist as an enshrined reality in Western societies (simply check the infidelity, divorce and remarriage rates).
The statement uses extreme language to make its case. It claims that the issue is the greatest challenge to the church in 500 years. It is worth quoting Giles Fraser, who responsed to the statement in The Guardian:
...there is the absurd hyperbole of the thing. “The greatest threat to the church in 500 years.” Do us a favour. Worse than the dissolution of the monasteries? Worse than secularisation? It is telling evidence of the irrational fear that the church leadership has of gay people that they are prepared to make such ridiculous statements. And as a threat specifically to marriage, what about divorce?
The dire predictions made about the devastating effects of introducing equality in marriage - from the end of different sex marriage, the movement towards tyrannical governments (one of the Archbishop of York’s concerns) to the collapse of civilized society itself - are so utterly nonsensical and over the top that one can only assume the church is irrationally frightened by homosexuality. Again Giles Fraser: “The leadership of the C of E will do anything to keep gay people out of the church."
Less than 8% of people go to church in Britain and only a quarter of marriages are conducted in CofE churches. And yet the churches, led by the CofE, insist that everyone not only accept their position, but also put it into practice. Simon Jenkins of The Guardian makes an excellent point when he writes:
What consenting adults do in private should be of no concern to governments, and that applies to worship as much as sex. If grownups want to dress in Tudor costume, douse babies in water, intone over the dead and do strange things with wine and wafers, it is a free country. But for a Christian sect to claim ownership of the legal definition of a human relationship is way out of order (my emphasis).
Archbishop of York John Sentamu is one of the leading voices opposing equality in marriage. In an interview with the Telegraph, Archbishop Sentamu said that the government would be dictatorial to legalise gay marriage. What follows is a response to that interview. It is a very preliminary look at the history and nature of marriage (people write books about this issue!). But even so, it shows the absurdity of the claim that marriage is and has always been between a man and a woman. There are many different forms that marriage takes. The institution has changed through time. It is changing now and will change in the future. This “debate” is not so much about marriage. It is more about whether Christian churches will maintain a faith-based bigotry towards and practice discrimination against gay people because they define gays as a sinful and pathological distortion of God’s creation, or whether the churches will accept gay people as whole and equal and embrace them as part of God’s good creation. The “debate” is also about whether or not secular societies based on enlightenment principles and the struggle for human rights will allow the churches to impose their bigotry and discriminatory practices on the social order.
If the church truly represents the nature and justice of God accurately, it is time to leave God and the church behind.
The Archbishop of York John Sentamu obviously has had horrendous experiences with a dictatorial government in the past and I can’t pretend I could demonstrate his courage if I were confronted with the same experiences. Still, Rev Sentamu’s comments should not go unchallenged. The Telegraph article quotes Archbishop Sentamu as saying:
Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman...I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are...
We’ve seen dictators do it in different contexts and I don’t want to redefine very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time and then overnight the state believes it could go in a particular way.
It is common for those who oppose same-sex marriage to argue that marriage is between one man and one woman, is a long held tradition and social structure throughout history and thus should not be changed. Religious believers would add that marriage is ordained by God and thus not the responsibility of the state, though I would guess must religious practitioners nonetheless sign the appropriate state document when conducting a wedding. This position implies at least two basic assumptions.
The first assumption is that marriage has been consistent through time and across cultures. This is clearly not the case. In many cultures, just to give one example, marriage was considered a economic arrangement that defined, secured and protected property rights between families. Often, given that the woman was considered property in the marriage arrangement, her consent was not required. Marriage was a purchase of the wife by the groom from the father. It is not an exaggeration to say that for generations in many cultures, including western cultures, marriage was an economic arrangement that protected the patrilineal bloodline. This is clearly not the case today, though the remnants of this social structure can still be seen in engagements and wedding rituals practiced today. However, it is self-evident that through time the social structures of and the legalities surrounding marriage have changed. If Archbishop Sentamu were to agree that marriage has changed, he needs to explain why marriage cannot change, indeed will not change, today and in the future.
Even a superficial look across cultures and time demonstrates that there has not been one consistent model of marriage nor one constant purpose for marriage. To name just some of the forms of marriage that have existed and still exist around the world:
- Polygamy - having more than one spouse at a time, such as one man with several wives or one woman with several husbands;
- Polygyny - having several wives at the same time;
- Polyandry - having several husbands at the same time;
- Endogamy - the requirement to marry someone who belongs to his or her own social group, family, clan, or tribe;
- Exogamy - the requirement by law to have to marry someone from another geographical area, social group, family, clan, or tribe;
- Common Law - a relationship that is created by commitment and agreement to cohabitate rather than by a religious or civil wedding ceremony;
- Levirate – the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother's widow, and the widow is obliged to marry her deceased husband's brother;
- Monogamy - the practice of remaining faithful, sexually, to one person at a time. Also refers to having one spouse at a time.
While more people may practice monogamy, more cultures have practiced other forms of marriage. For example, levirate was or still is practiced in:
- Central Asia;
- South Africa;
- South Sudan;
- Zimbabwe; and
- The United Kingdom.
And among this multitude of marriage forms there were and are numerous ways in which people agree to marry. Most common to us today are engagement, arranged marriage and proxy marriage.
To the list marriage forms we can add same-sex or gay marriage. At present gay marriage is legal in:
- The Netherlands;
- South Africa; and
In Brazil, Mexico and the USA, same-sex marriage is legal in parts of those countries. Countries that have not accepted and legalises gay marriage but do recognize and honour such marriages performed elsewhere include Israel, the Caribbean countries, Brazil, Mexico and parts of the USA.
Nor should we think that gay marriage is just a post-modern phenomena imposed on us by dictatorial governments. Scholars have found indirect and direct evidence of various forms of same-sex unions throughout time in:
- Myanmar (Burma);
- New Zealand;
- Cook Islands;
- South Africa;
- Zimbabwe; and
- Among numerous American Indian cultures.
There were even same-sex marriages in the wedding rooms of the “Mollie Houses” in 18th century London (without legal sanction I should stress).
Opponents of gay marriage should acknowledge that even the Christian Church has been ambiguous about same sex relationships throughout its history. For example, William N. Eskridge, of the Yale Law School, in his article “A History of Same Sex Marriage”notes that in the Middle Ages the Church created formally recognized institutions with defined liturgies that “combined the Church’s spiritual commitment to companionate relationships with its members desire to bond with people of the same sex.” Liturgies of “brother-making,” “enfraternization,” and “spiritual brotherhoods” were developed in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. The ceremonies were elaborate and included:
- Standing in front of the Bible and the cross;
- Prayers and litanies that celebrated “earlier examples of same-sex couples or friends in the early Church”;
- The couple being girded with a single belt “signifying their union as one”;
- Readings from 1st Corinthians 12:27 and John 17:18-16;
- The Lord’s Prayer and Holy Communion for the couple;
- A priest leading the couple around the lectern as the hold hands;
- The exchange of a kiss; and
- The closing of the ceremony by singing Psalm 132:1 ("Behold how good and sweet it is for brothers to live as one.")
“Significantly, this early brotherhood liturgy was acted out in a ceremony that was virtually identical to the liturgy later developed by the Church for different-sex marriages.
The main difference between the brotherhood liturgy and the one originally used to wed different-sex couples was that the former emphasized the companionate rather than the procreative nature of the relationship.”
It is important to realise that the use of same-sex blessing and wedding ceremonies by the Church is not restricted to history. Today many denominations sanction same-sex blessings and/or marriages either as a decision by the local church or as an overall inclusive denominational policy. Some of these churches include:
- United Church of Canada;
- Anglican Church of Canada;
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada;
- Quakers in Canada;
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America;
- Presbyterian Church, USA;
- The United Church of Christ, USA;
- Swedenborgian Church of North America;
- Affirming Pentecostal Church International;
- Global Alliance of Affirming Apostolic Pentecostals;
- United Church in Australia;
- Quakers in Australia;
- Quakers in Great Britain;
- Eucharistic Catholic Church in Sweden;
- Old Catholic Church in Sweden;
- Church of Sweden;
- Unitarian Universalists;
- Mennonite Church in the Netherlands;
- Protestant Church in the Netherlands;
- Church of Norway;
- Church of Denmark;
- Metropolitan Community Church; and
- The United Reformed Church in England, Scotland and Wales.
Theologically, those how claim marriage is always between a man and a woman need to explain why God blesses contemporary forms monogamy over and above all other forms of marriage throughout human history. Even a casual look at nature and human culture indicates God is rather fond of diversity. Why is it that we think that God blesses our way as against say Mesopotamia a long time ago, or the Cheyenne a little while ago, or Mexico City today? It is interesting that God always seems to bless “Us” over and against the “Other.” Lucky us.
I am not suggesting that Time be dismissed. The major religions build their foundations of legitimacy in part on their ancient roots and in part on their contemporary interpretation of tradition. But if ancient roots are important then they are important for all. It is not only monogamy that is planted in the past. All forms of marriage are as well. And it is not only different-sex unions that have deep roots. So to do same-sex unions.
The second assumption behind describing marriage as between a man and a woman throughout time is that what we say is what we do. There is, and I suspect always has been, a gap between the Ideal and the Real in human norms, institutions and behaviour. The average person would describe monogamy as a lifelong commitment of a man and a woman to love one another while remaining emotionally and physically faithful to each other. As the saying goes, till death do us part. That is, of course, the ideal notion of monogamy, which many people realise, but certainly not all. Ideal monogamy is not what we practice in our societies.
Among different-sex marriages there is a very high rate of infidelity and a high rate of divorce (though it should be noted that divorce rates have been declining since the 1950’s). Some sociologists and anthropologists even speak of “serial monogamy” as a major marriage form in western countries. Studies show that up to 60% of monogamous couples practice infidelity. There is a 50-50 chance that one person in a monogamous marriage will be untrue to their spouse. Some studies show that 3% of all children are the product of infidelity (I have read that throughout history upwards of 25% of children are the product of sexual relationships women have with men other than their husbands). Divorce rates, as do rates of infidelity, vary from country to country, however, studies show that 30—50% of monogamous marriages end in divorce, while 49% of all marriages involve remarriage. Some anthropologist conclude that humans beings are neither monogamous nor polygamous. I have come across phrases like “slightly polygamous” and “ambiguously monogamous” used to describe marriage in the western world.
The point is not to damn monogamy, which would be absurd and unhelpful. After all, I am in a monogamous faithful marriage which I rather like, though I have, with so many others, been divorced in the past. The point is that blanket ontological and theological statements about the true nature and form of marriage are misleading and do not reflect the diversity of human experience. Adding same-sex marriage into the mix seems to be one of the very least challenges now facing us. And recognising that same-sex union is one of the numerous forms that marriage can take certainly does not threaten the very existence of different-sex marriage, despite the hysteria of religious fundamentalists.
Finally, Archbishop Sentamu suggests that if democratically elected governments were to legalise gay marriage their actions would be akin to those of dictatorships. It might be worth remembering that there was a time when inter-racial marriage was considered a sin and an abomination. Inter-racial marriage was forbidden socially and legally. However, through time social norms and the laws have changed in numerous cultures. Part of that change was no doubt due to apparently “dictatorial” governments passing laws that legalised inter-racial marriage and sometimes enforced those laws with police and/or military force. Perhaps Archbishop Sentamu would considers that governmental “interference” as not only justified but welcome in the fight against injustice, rather than declaring them the unwanted actions of dictators.
Questions for another time would include:
How and to what degree should the state intervene to create a more equal society?
What is the relationship between liberty and equality?
Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger
[1 ]Eskridge, William N. Jr., “A History of Same Sex Marriage” 91993). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 1504.
 There are volumes of books, articles and website devoted to analysing rates of infidelity and divorce in marriage. However, for a quick initial look, good old Wikipedia seems to reflect the current findings. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infidelity#cite_note-Adultery_by_Louise_DeSalvo-12.
 There is a video on YouTube of a man coming home to find his wife packed suitcase in hand crying because she has to leave him and their marriage. The man of course asked why and she says because of gay marriage. It really is funny, but more importantly highlights the absurdity of suggesting that two men or two women marrying is going to somehow destroy straight marriage.