On the Immovability of Marriage
Media agent provocateur George Carey, a man who is so maligning his former office I don’t even want to name it, has struck out once again. This time, he’s trying to claim that the definition of Marriage is so set in stone, no one can possibly alter them. But alter them we have, and today’s ‘institution’ and ‘sacrament’ look and feel very different.
So Gay marriage is one of the topics I tend not to touch too often on my blog. I’m in support of individual churches, clergy and congregations following their consciences with this one, and have counted myself a member or associate of several churches which either carry out blessings or are vocal in wanting to.
I have a degree of awkward respect for churches that don’t want to bless same sex unions if that’s their genuine assessment of theology, but no society can call itself civilised and yet reject a person’s right to determine their next of kin on the basis of their respective identities. I also think all of this becomes much more difficult once we realise that gender (and sex) are not a pair of polar opposites.
Its with that “respective identities” that I want to start off. When George Carey was a child, parts of the Western World, most notably parts of the United States, were arresting people for getting married on the basis of a perceived incompatibility that many saw as fundamentally dangerous to society. We’ve actually had the debate about whether we can marry atypical couples before in the West, and for a long time, the rules were pretty fixed; no mixed marriages.
Let us also remember that marriage fundamentally changed when women were allowed to own their own property, and when it was finally accepted that rape inside marriage is an actual thing. Indeed, a minority of Evangelicals don’t wish to recognise those facts in their own marriages. But I’m genuinely thankful that women are no longer the property of their fathers until handed over to another man who then has a right to expect her to have sex with him.
While all of this is a lot of change to take in, I realise for some, its just an invitation to try and reclaim real marriage. The response of an American family I knew to changes in women’s position in society was an extension of those silver rings that are meant to symbolise chastity. The father bought rings for his two daughters to symbolise the fact that they belong to him and that he will one day decide to give them to a man in marriage. The overtones of arranged marriage and of women as the private property of men were astounding.
Another key change, perhaps even a move in the other direction according to some, came much earlier, when the church decided to intervene against the practise of entirely informal marriage commitments. The church demanded proper marriage ceremonies and recording of certificates to stop men claiming their marriages were never valid when it suited them, leaving women penniless and in the metaphorical gutter.
And these are just the changes to marriage within Christendom. Marriage, although very much a ‘thing’ in many many other Cultures and Religions, is still a pretty diverse set of arrangements. There are societies where men pay bride prices to the father and there are places where husbands receive a dowry. And its a fairly crude argument, but the problem facing heterosexual marriage isn’t gay marriage, its divorce.
Adding it all together, Lord Carey is simply wrong to say that marriage is an immovable outside the realm of government and Church. Its changed plenty of times before, and it will change plenty of times in the future. We’d be fools to say the discourse won’t move on.