Friday, 25 February 2011
Between a man and a woman?
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 believe those in civil partnerships are "married" (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. I think you would have to be very narrow and arrogant to term the marriage in the example above a "sham" or not truly a marriage even though the partners ended up being both a same sex couple and a mixed orientation marriage! Many unions which some might refuse to dignify with the label "marriage" demonstate a level of commitment which would put some conventional marriages to shame, for example 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.
Since writing this post, which I still stand by, I have been thinking that this debate is muddied by the fact that "marriage" is actually a different thing to so many people, and also that, although we may agree that there are certain positives about marriage - procreation, child rearing, being part of a social unit, sacrificial giving, lifelong companionship, sexual fulfillment, personal commitment - we place different emphasis on the relative importance of these elements. A conservative interpretation, for example, both from the Roman Catholic to the evangelical ends of the spectrum places more emphasis on the ability to procreate than on the quality of the personal relationship between the participants.
I do think that a lot of the current debate comes from a very "heterosexist" perspective. I suppose this is understandable, because marriage has been almost exclusively something which happens between people of the opposite sex for most of human history. In the United States we have seen enormous battles over this issue. I do not think we will see the same level of opposition in the UK, but I could be proved wrong. There are undoubtedly some Christians who feel very strongly against the idea that marriage is being "redefined". Is it enough just to recognise that marriage may mean different things to different people (and different things to the Church and the State) or does it have to mean the same to all of us?