Last week I received several email copies of a letter calling on Australia’s federal Parliament to reject legislation that would permit same sex marriage. The authors, the ‘Ad Hoc Committee for the Preservation of Marriage’, are seeking the support of the major Christian churches in Australia, on the reasonable grounds that without vigorous and well-argued opposition, moves to introduce same-sex marriage are likely to succeed in Australia sooner rather than later. It was suggested that I might like to provide some feedback to various Anglican leaders and groups. Having sponsored an unsuccessful Melbourne Synod motion on the topic in 2009 I was not initially inclined to say anything.
Three issues, however, have struck me about the controversy this letter represents. First is the surprising inconsistency of much theological examination of marriage, especially in light of the church’s changing history in relationship to the appraisal, regulation and promotion of marriage itself from Jacob, Leah and Rachel to the Reformation of clerical marriage. I find myself frustrated with the assumptions made in the defence of heterosexual monogamy as God’s plan for humanity. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the claim that the sexual union of one male person and one female person in the context of a voluntary, lifelong commitment represents the triune nature of God’s own being, Three Persons in One God. I’ll leave you to figure out what’s odd about this.
Second is the gradual evolution away from the vapid discourse ‘heterosexual marriage is the foundation of human society and without it all will be lost’ to the far more engaging question of children. This is a good thing; weak generalisations benefit no-one. Today’s opponents of same-sex marriage point on the one hand to the natural order of procreation (for humans), requiring a man and a woman, and on the other hand to a concept of marriage that must be inextricably tied to child-bearing and child-rearing rather than to romantic love or companionship alone. These are conversations worth having, and I admit to being more conservative than many of my friends on the topic of marriage and children. If I could have my way and ignore the needs and passions of others, I would probably recommend that we promote marriage as an institution only for people while they are raising young children (including single parents), and invent other forms of relationship recognition for everyone else.
Third is, of course, my own personal stake in all this, which is not unrelated to the first two issues. To use postmodern terminology, I have ‘been in a relationship with my partner’ for almost 18 years. Although it’s insanely complicated, I am assured that there is sufficient legislation in place to protect our ‘rights’ in relation to medical treatment, superannuation benefits, wills, and so forth. There are cultural similarities to the wedded state; when we moved in together (another bit of postmodern terminology) my father took my partner aside as his own father-in-law had done in 1970, and told him to be sure I got my sleep.
I can attest that we have no desire or intention to bear chidren – though if my work circumstances were different I would consider fostering children. I can also attest, at least on my part, that I have no desire to walk down the aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral wearing white to the tune of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. After so many years, the only reason to hold a wedding ceremony would seem to be for the presents, and we have too many possessions already.
To get married now, or even to take advantage of a civil partnership arrangement were one made available, seems a bit like Charles and Camilla getting married. There’s no way they are ever going to have children, everyone knows they’re an item, and they certainly don’t need presents.
And so we come back to the human desire to give and receive love, to grow old in companionship with one another in community. If marriage is primarily about the rearing of children, then why do we marry people who are beyond child-bearing age? If human society is to be modelled on the inner life of the Triune God, why do we continually advocate the codependency of the two over the communion of the three? If Christians really do teach that the deepest of human relationships is that of heterosexual monogamous marriage based on sexual union, placing sex-for-reproduction at the heart of the human vocation, who is responsible for our unhealthy obsession with sex?
If same-sex marriage becomes possible in Australia (and it seems likely) I will be happy to celebrate with my friends. In the meantime, I would be grateful if my bishop did not sign this letter, though I would understand if he thought he had to do so. All I seek from the church are the proud and open smiles from my fellow Christians that say, your relationship is a sign of God’s grace to all humankind. This blessing means a great deal more than a registry office ceremony.