Marriage, sanctity and gay sexuality – where is the love?

Wedding Rings

Update 17 March 2014  Same-sex marriage became legal in England and Wales on 13 March 2014. The first ceremonies will take place on 29 March. Scotland is expected to legalise same-sex marriage later in 2014 .

Update 11 May 2012 US President Barack Obama yesterday announced that he believes gay couples should be free to marry. It’s just a statement and has no legal implications, but like similar previous statements by David Cameron and new French president Francois Hollande, it is a further indication of where the discussion is going.

Gay marriage and the question of the sanctity of marriage is a hotly debated topic on both sides of theAtlantic.  Presidential hopefuls express opinions, the Archbishop of York has warned governments (and the British government in particular) not to meddle. On Facebook there are petitions. The contention seems to be that if Governments allow same-sex couples to marry they will be interfering in a sacred issue and will somehow “break” the institution of marriage. Can this be true?

This issue must be important because it even reared its head at our recent church annual general meeting, alongside the usual Sunday-club report and appointment of stewards! But before we throw ourselves behind one camp or the other, as Christians we need to stop and ask ourselves some questions. What is marriage? What is a good marriage? What makes it different from any other relationship? The word sanctity that is being bandied around really just refers to the qualities or attributes which set something apart as special or holy – so what is it that makes marriage special?

Legality and Biblicality

Marriage is, of course, a legal status – most states long ago took on the role of defining who could get married, registering those who are and controlling how a marriage could be ended. Governments see marriage as a useful institution that creates stability in society and provides care and support for most of the youngest and weakest in society. Marriage is a convenience to society, but if that was all it is, if it were just a variety of business agreement then no-one would be bothering to argue much. There has to be more.

For a Christian our first thought is often that definitions should be “Biblically based”, but it is actually quite hard to find any consistent image of marriage either in the Old Testament (where those who are not polygamists seem to be adulterers, and marrying out of love was not a consideration) or the New (which seems strangely devoid of married people). It has long amused me as I have sat at wedding ceremonies down the years that the best the traditional liturgy could come up with to justify the Biblical nature of marriage is to say that Jesus once went to a wedding! And all we know about that wedding was that there was plenty of alcohol involved! No, marriage as we know it today, an equal and exclusive loving relationship between two individuals, voluntarily entered into and with a commitment for life, is the result of a process of refining and clarifying that has taken place over thousands of years.

What’s so special?

The New Testament does have something deeper (if more vague) to say about marriage. Although its writers never explicitly call the Church the bride of Christ, many verses imply it, and though the language used reflects the moralities of the day, the basic image is a compelling one. In this scenario, just as God made mankind in his image, marriage is a reflection and a representation of the relationship that God has with his people. This understanding might begin to give us a glimpse of what God intends for marriage.

So, what is it that makes a marriage special, unique sanctified? Some suggestions might be love, unity, intimacy and fellowship. The following list is not meant to be definitive – your list might be a bit different. It also doesn’t imply that your marriage is bad if it is lacking in some of these respects – it might suggest what areas to work on over the next few years!

  • Love in mind, body and spirit. A married couple give to each other without expectation of receiving, sacrificing their own feelings and thoughts and energies for each other.
  • Unity in mind, body and spirit. A married couple move in union, thinking together, feeling together, sharing their bodies together.
  • Intimacy in mind, body and spirit. A married couple open themselves up to each other, willing to make themselves vulnerable in the belief that they can trust their partner to be honest and gentle with them and faithful to them, and that this is exclusive and forever.
  • Fellowship in mind, body and spirit. A married couple give mutual support and companionship, providing someone who is always there to talk to, to sympathise with, to pray with, to keep warm at night.

Ignoring the superficial

Marriages aren’t sanctified by rules surrounding who can enter into them, a marriage is sanctified by the way those inside it treat each other. We live in a world that has superficial interests in Marriage. Governments like the stability marriages bring to society. Society seems enthralled with the usually short-lived celebrity marriages and the glitzy photographs from the wedding. Many young people seem obsessed with having a spectacular or unusual wedding ceremony or an even more spectacular honeymoon, whatever the cost, and give little thought to the reality of what it will mean to live with this person day-in day-out for life. As a church we should ignore the superficial things and emphasize the quality of the relationship.

We might think that is what we do, but is it really? Many of us are aware of relationships within our congregations that are wrong, where couples don’t talk anymore or, worse, are hurting each other emotionally or even physically. Often the whole congregation knows about this, but the general attitude is that it’s a personal matter that the couple have to work out between themselves. On its own that would be a sad but defensible attitude, but when those same congregations are signing petitions to prevent same-sex couples, however loving, from entering into marriage at all, we really have to ask ourselves what on earth we are playing at. What is more important, the number of male genitalia a couple share, or the love they share? How you answer that may tell you an awful lot about what you really believe in.

Why wait to be told?

The Bishop of Salisbury said recently about the subject of gay marriage, “As a parish priest I was struck that I could bless a bridge over the Thames and new toilets (cleanliness is next to Godliness) but not a Christian couple who said they loved each other so much that they wanted to be together for life.”

We are God’s people. We were made with love, made to be loving, purchased with love. Our greatest commandments are to love God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. And yet we niggle over who should be allowed to love who – surely that is the Pharisee way of interpreting God! We should concentrate on the quality of our relationships and support other loving, supportive relationships wherever they are found. We shouldn’t have to be told by our governments that all people are equal and that loving relationships are good – we should be telling them that! Surely it’s time to kick our old Pharisee habits and embrace the love?