I do not see Christians as a persecuted minority, more as a group of people who can feel outraged that we do not possess the freedom to impose our views on society in quite the same way as we did in the past. However, there is no doubt that many Christians are genuinely fearful that they will fall foul of the law of the land, particularly over the issue of Civil Partnerships. We saw recently the Lilian Ladele case (I have mixed feelings on this and am not going to blog on it here) and many Christians are fearful that priests may be prosecuted for not allowing Civil Partnerships to be celebrated in their churches. There is a clause in this legislation which specifically states that no institution or individual will be required to register such a partnership; an assurance that has clearly not pacified many of those who have concerns.
Some of the discussions around Civil Partnerships being allowed in places of worship have made me think about what we mean by marriage and how we can possibly define it - as a private relationship, a public commitment, a sacrament, or as all of these things? Some people feel that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. I do not hold this view, but I can understand that many others genuinely do.
I believe that the most important thing about a marriage is the personal, private and intimate relationship between the two individuals concerned. This is why I believe that two people who live together may be as “married”, sometimes more married, than those who have gone through a ceremony (I know not everyone agrees with me!)
I also believe that marriage is a sacrament, although in the Church of England baptism and communion are the two major sacraments. The act of marriage is an outward and visible sign of an inner, invisible grace. One of the problems when we decide who is really married is that we judge that inner grace when, as fallible humans, we do not have the wisdom or knowledge to do so.
I listened to a programme a while back on Radio 4 where a married couple were interviewed. One spouse was a male to female transsexual and had undergone gender reassignment surgery. The wife had stood by her spouse during her surgery and transitioning and accepted the fact that she was now married to a woman because, as she said, she would rather be with a spouse who was happy than one suffering the misery she had witnessed at first hand during their marriage. The male to female transsexual, for her part, had chosen to forgo the right to be legally recognised as a woman, because this would entail the couple divorcing. They could, of course, have divorced and registered as a same sex couple in a civil partnership, but they had always been married and that is how they wanted to stay.
I think this story encapsulates the way that human love defies easy categories and there are many other cases which do the same. An example might be a gay couple together for forty years where one nurses the other through a terminal illness. Compare that relationship to an opposite sex couple who marry but divorce shortly afterwards – which couple is or was ever truly “married”?
Human being like the security of rules, categories and tick boxes, but human beings are also the most amazing things and real relationships defy boundaries, categories and glib assumptions. Depending on your personality, your inability to really understand or police human relationships will either scare you or give you a sense of awe.
We are told that there will be no marriage in heaven. Someone who had lost a spouse once told me how deeply sad this verse always made them feel. I like to think we do not have to feel sad about the lack of marriage in heaven, marriage is something given to us for our mortal lives but relationship is eternal and I think relationship – and specific relationships- will continue in some form. The very concept of the trinity has relationship at its heart. Relationship is eternal. There will not be marriage in heaven, but there will be love.