THE TWO FACES OF MARRIAGE


With an election looming the same-sex marriage debate is off the agenda in Australia for some time, but sooner or later it will be back. Tedious as that will be, its return will at least draw attention to a hitherto little remarked phenomenon: that the concept of marriage in our society has already undergone a change. There are now two views of marriage abroad in the community. The traditional view that marriage is the foundation stone of a family is giving way to a new view in which the focus is exclusively on the couple getting married and their "commitment" to each other.

It is this new view that is so adaptable to the idea of same-sex marriage. In the days when everyone took the traditional view same-sex marriage would have seemed an absurdity.

The notion that marriage is a necessary preliminary to child-rearing has been undermined by the willingness of many prospective parents to do without it. They regard marriage as dispensable. Thousands of children are now born outside marriage (34 per cent of all births in Australia in 2010, the latest year for which I could get figures) and carry no stigma of illegitimacy as they would have done in the past. The ecclesiastical and other protests that marriage means family reflect the view of only part of the community, and almost certainly a diminishing part at that. In an increasing majority are not only those couples who choose to procreate without marriage but people in favour of same-sex marriage, at least if the evidence from England, where the "gay marriage" proposal, initiated by a Conservative (!) government, was approved this week by 400 votes to 175 in the House of Commons, is anything to go by. It has been suggested there that opposition to same-sex marriage is mainly felt by older people, and if so will decline as the crusty intolerant fuddy-duddies die off.

Marriage in the traditional manner involves responsibility to other people, even if they are not yet born. It used also to be argued that it involved a duty to society, not only to perpetuate the species but to bring up younger generations in stability and continuity of values. You don't hear much about that any more, possibly because no one has much confidence in the future; not so much apres nous le deluge as let's not think about it. But the "family" concept of marriage is further undermined from within by the fact that couples who for age or other reasons are unable to procreate have always been able to get married. In the days before same-sex marriage was thought of this did not seem an anomaly. They married for companionship, or as a declaration of their love. It seems an anomaly now, when same-sex marriage-campaigners quite legitimately ask, if infertile couples can get married for companionship or for recognition of their relationship why can't anybody?

The new view of marriage has coincided with the greater social acceptability and visibility of gay relationships. It follows that if marriage is seen as a statement of "commitment" in love, something concerning only the couple, with children an optional extra, fair-minded people, especially those who are likely to have a gay couple or two among their friends, will see no reason why identicality of sex should be allowed to impede those couples from publicly expressing their commitment too. Of course, once you accept that, there is no longer any reason why such commitments should be limited to two participants; that figure having been determined by the mechanics of procreation, in this regard an irrelevance. That three or more contractants, all lovingly committed to each other, or to one among them, might be included in the marriage, or a non-human "partner", follows equally logically, but point that out and you'll be accused of alarmism and "homophobia". (Yet how strange it would be if a reconsideration of the nature of marriage initiated to further "gay rights" should lead to the establishment of common cause with proponents of polygamy, most notably of course our Islamic co-citizens, not hitherto noted for their sympathy for homosexuals.)

The near-eclipse of the conventional notion of marriage does not mean that the truth about marriage has changed; semantically and etymologically it is a nonsense to speak of marriage between two persons of the same sex, except metaphorically in which case it can be applied to all sorts of other things like heaven and hell and Venice and the sea. Marriage in the primary sense is between a husband (by definition male, from Old English husbonda, master of a house) and wife (female, from Old English wif, a woman), not two husbands or two wives or two undifferentiated "partners". But etymology carries no legislative weight. If public perception of the nature of marriage has changed the law probably will too.

If that happens the Christian Church would be wise to emphasise the sacramental nature of marriage, as something available to its adherents who accept the traditional Christian teaching on marriage, and withdraw from acting as a delegate of the state in conducting wedding ceremonies. To continue to do so would imply not only acceptance of the new state-imposed definition of marriage but would lay the Church open, as a registered marriage "provider", to claims of discrimination if it turned away gays and lesbians who would like a pretty Gothic background and the joyful sound of the organ on their wedding day. Resigning their function as a state marriage agency would cost the churches wedding fees but not much else. Churches are losing ground in the marriage market anyway, with more than 60 per cent of Australian weddings conducted by civil celebrants (frequently in ceremonies of a toe-curlingly meretricious sentimentality unachievable within the liturgical confines of a church wedding).

With the Church no longer acting for the state, Christians would have to go through two marriage ceremonies, as they already do in some European countries. There is no reason why the church ceremony could not be a valuable witness to Christian faith and to Christian teaching about marriage, something no one is going to hear about from anywhere else in the community. This witness would keep the Christian doctrine of marriage alive, until the day comes, as it inevitably must, when the pendulum swings the other way, and our society, dangerously diminished in numbers in a world in which hostile beliefs and practices are on the rise, a society which even now in some places is well on the way to aborting and contraceiving itself into a minority on its own Western territory, tires of sterile marriages between people of the same sex and reverts to the traditional view as necessary to its own survival.

7 February 2013

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