Monday, 29 March 2010

What is marriage?

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.


  1. I enjoyed this article very much. You are so right, some couples though legally married, are not really married, and others though they can't legally marry, are so much more married than those who can leagally marry. I know this all too well. Thanks for writing.

  2. I am afraid that I suspect that they fear some clerics will use it as an excuse to conduct civil partnerships - not that they will be forced to. After all, who has been forced to marry a divorcee against their will?

    And in my training I was taught that the couple are the ministers of the marriage - that they are married when they decide they are - the role of the priest is to register and bless it. Which of course makes a nonsense of offering a blessing instead - all that is being refused is the civil registration. But of course others will have a different view.

  3. The other thing they said on our course which supports your view is the question of when a couple are married... is it when they sign the register, consummate it, when the vicar pronounces them man and wife... or is it when they decide in their hearts to be together forever?

  4. I'd go for the "together forever" as my litmus test.

  5. I think you are right that the hierarchy of the C of E may fear some priests will go ahead and conduct CPs, Alan - after all some conduct blessings even though they are not "supposed to".

    Anonymous, I am so glad this post meant something to you. Please visit again.

  6. What trouble me is that God goes to some lengths to describe what marriage is, and it doesn't line up with what you describe.

    I find it pretty hard to justify broadening our understanding of something which the bible is clear on, and I don't know where that sort of reasoning might lead us if applied to other central concepts of the bible, such as justification by faith.

    I understand the arguments that some non-married relationships are more committed than some where people who have mearely gone through a ceremony and then get divorced or whatever, but they're two seperate issues.

  7. If this is a reference to what the bible says about marriage, then I am afraid the bible ( or God) is not at all consistent. Exodus 21 :10 makes it clear that a man is free to take a second wife - providing he continues to feed and clothe his first wife.Deuteronomy 21: 10-14 makes it clear that a man can take a wife from among his prisoners of war( after she has been allowed to mourn the death of her family for a month), it does not mention the need to get her consent and it is clear that, if the man then tires of her, he can release her to go back to her own people - but must not sell her.

    The understanding of what is meant by marriage is pretty broad when considered across the bible and differs according to cultural norms.

  8. Okay, there may be a lot of differences there, but what's consistent?

    1) It's between a man and a woman.
    2) It's public.

    The Deuteronomy 21 stuff is distasteful, but it's a whole lot better than what I imagine the cultural norm would have been, to just go and rape the women from peoples you conquer, or make them concubines with no commitment.

    Exodus 21's poligamy is also distasteful, and to me looks like it's telling people what they cannot do, rather than what they can. i.e. they cannot dump their wife and just get another with no provision for the first.

  9. There actually isn't any commitment in the Deuteronomy one. The man is told that "if you no longer want her ( having married her!) let her go free." We are also told that "since you FORCED HER to have intercourse with you, you cannot sell her" - so it is quite clear that it is understood rape is involved.

    The passage,far from being disapproving, actually suggests the idea that, " when you take prisoners, you may see a beautiful woman you desire and want to marry."

    Basically it is just rape, sanctioned by law! Wouldn't it be strange if this was one of God's standards for marriage and if we were to apply this today?

    So, if we look at the Deuteronomy model for marriage:
    1. It IS between a man and a woman
    2. It may be public - it certainly doesn't give the woman any rights
    3. It is not consensual
    4. It does not involve long term commitment
    5. It can be repeated again when new prisoners of war are captured
    6. The man concerned could have other wives at the same time, as is made clear in the next section which talks about if a man has two wives.

    Of course, if you think this is OK and a part of God's plan for marriage and shows us how consistent and careful God is in his laws for marriage - just because it is heterosexual rape being describe - well, you are entitled to your view, but I shall stick to mine.

  10. We obviously have different understandings of this. To me Deuteronomy is putting restrictions on the bahviour of sinful men, to set boundaries so that the vulnerable are afforded some protection. Whilst (I presume) you see it as approving/suggesting that such things are a good idea.

    I don't think that the behaviour as described is remotely good. I do think that having a law which clearly states that wives gained through conquest are not property is a good thing.

    The next section also doesn't advise or suggest the benefits of having two wives, it says 'If you do, don't treat the offspring differently'.

    With regard to it being consensial or not, it simply doesn't state one way or the other. I guess that for most people the choice between prisoner or wife removes some of the issue.

    I don't see this as God's plan for marriage at all, I see it as being Gods restriction on human behaviour to prevent complete depravity.

    God's plan for marriage can be seen in Genesis 2:24-25, which is what Jesus refers to in Matthew 19:4-6.

  11. Deuteronomy certainly doesn't disapprove of the behaviour it PERMITS (it doesn't DESCRIBE the behaviour - it PERMITS it as being allowable within God's laws and marriage is involved, let us be clear on that.)

    You see it as God's restriction - so does God collude in human sinfulness? Does he not mind rape, as long as there are some restrictions on it? If it is allowed by God in the bible it must at least be acceptable?

    It is also quite clear that in the Old Testament, God approved of polygamy. At one point in 2 Samuel 12;8 he explains that he, the Lord, GAVE David Saul's wives. So, does God change his mind?

    Of course you don't see this as God's plan for marriage, because it doesn't concur with YOUR view of marriage!!! You have to admit that, if you don't agree with it, then you must think that this part of the bible is wrong or innacurate in its depiction of how we should live our lives?

    The passage in Matthew is Jesus prohibiting divorce. I would agree that Jesus prohibits divorce. Yet I could name you many divorced - and remarried- Christians. How do you account for this?

  12. I don't see that I need to account for it, I do see that those divorced and remarried christians will. The OT permits divorce, but the bible says that God hates it, and that's what I'm trying to get at. Jesus says that the law on divorce and remarriage was given because the peoples hearts were hard (which I take to mean that the people were sinful).

    What Jesus then explains is what God intended from marriage in Genesis 2. That the man (singular) and the woman (singular) will be one.

    In Ephesians 5:32 Paul describes marriage as being illustrative of Jesus and the church, the Church is one Bride for Christ one Groom.

    It's a long time since I read it, but Hosea is also quite helpful. The bible repeatedly describes God's relationship with his people as a marriage.

    As far as God colluding in human sinfulness, that's a whole can of worms. Did God want Judas to betray Jesus, or did he permit it, or did he force him to?

    The question of God's absolute soverignty, election, pre-destination, and our free will is a topic that we have no choice but to ponder :)

  13. If God says in Genesis that man (singular) and woman (singular) become one in marriage then why does he change his mind later and give David all of Saul's wives - and say he would have given more if David had wanted more?

    I don't have a problem with any of your texts on marriage - I am just pointing out to you that you want to promote some sections of the bible on marriage as more valid and dismiss or ignore those that don't fit your world view.

    What annoys me is that many fundamentalists accuse liberals of "being selective" in their choice of texts and of minimising other bits. But - this is exactly what fundamentalists do too!!

    I don't mind you reading the bible selectively - I do myself - but at least be honest about it.

  14. Hi, I am from Australia.

    Please find a completely different Illuminated Understanding of the all important emotional-sexual dimensions of our existence-being (and hence of marriage too) via these references.

  15. My problem with this is that you are pretty skirting away the fact that homosexuality is a sin, whether in a one night stand or a committed relationship.
    The law is not about allowances, but restrictions because the people were "stiff-necked."
    It really just asks the question, do you want what God wants, or what you want?
    Are you living in reality, or making your own version of Christ.
    Sure, marriage has been obliterated by divorce and people's lack of commitment and self-control. But in reality, that is a very different issue.
    You really can't say that homosexuality is ok in any form if you truly believe the bible is the arbiter of truth.

  16. And the thing is, you are my sister if God is your Father. I pray He gives you the fullness of Christ this year.

  17. Hi Daniel and thanks.
    I guess we see the bible in very different ways, I expect you see it as inerrant in a way that I simply do not. But nowhere does the bible condemn loving and committed gay relationships and nor should we.