Should the church celebrate same-sex marriages? Maybe
When it comes to marriage, my head and my heart are split. In the six years that I’ve been a minister of the Uniting Church, and thus a registered religious marriage celebrant, I’ve celebrated the marriages of 34 couples. They’ve been of various ages. Most, but not all, have been Australians. All but two of the couples had been living together for years when they came to meet with me. Sometimes, a year or so after the wedding, I’ve baptised a child of the marriage. In other cases I’ve baptised the children, and then married their parents. Weddings have been held in the Royal Melbourne Zoo, at a farm, on the top of Mount Dandenong, and in a hotel owned by the groom, as well as in churches. Some people have asked me to preside at their wedding because they or their relatives have been congregation members; some have been friends; some have just been looking for a pretty church; others have been guests at a wedding I’ve celebrated and have decided that they’d like me to do theirs too; and in one case I was related to the groom, so I had a fun year telling people I was going to marry my brother.
In every case the couple has been married according to the rites of the Uniting Church, and in every case I’ve been given the opportunity to preach the gospel. And I have loved being the celebrant at every single one of those weddings, offering God’s blessing as two people have married each other. My heart tells me that having couples come to the church to be married is wonderful and that there should be lots more of it. My heart tells me that once same-sex marriages are legal the church should celebrate the marriages of same-sex couples with the same joy that we celebrate the marriages of different-sex couples.
But my head tells me that the church shouldn’t celebrate marriages at all.
I want to begin by reminding us what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about whether or not same-sex relationships should occur; they do and the only possible way to stop them would be by recriminalizing homosexuality. We’re not talking about whether or not churches can bless those relationships. Clearly that’s possible, and the Uniting Church allows its ministers to do that as long as we make it clear that the blessing isn’t a wedding. What those championing same-sex marriages are asking for is for those relationships to be recognised by the government, as well as by their family, friends and community. A legal marriage in Australia involves a Notice of Intention signed at least one month before the wedding; a Statutory Declaration stating that the couple are of age to marry, aren’t married to anyone else, and aren’t too closely related to each other; a service conducted by an authorised celebrant, religious or civil, in the presence of at least two witnesses over the age of 18 and using a form of words authorised by the Attorney-General; and three certificates signed on the day by the couple, their witnesses and the celebrant. This is what the current debate is about; being part of that legal process.
At this point I’m going to take off my minister-and-marriage-celebrant hat and put on my historian hat. As a historian, let me say that one mistake often made in this debate is the assumption that there is something particularly ‘Christian’ about marriage. We talk about the number of couples being married by civil celebrants as though that’s something new. But the involvement of the church in marriages was only formalised about five hundred years ago. When the church came into being people were already marrying and being given in marriage, without being Christian. While many early Christians argued that celibacy was superior to marriage, the majority of Christians still married, following that pre-existing pattern. So the Church fathers pondered what made a marriage ‘Christian’, beyond the simple fact that it was between two baptised believers. Augustine said that there were three goods of marriage. Two were common to all people: ‘the cause of generation (having children) and the fidelity of chastity (not sleeping around)’. Only one was unique to Christians: ‘the sanctity of the sacrament’. The Letter to the Ephesians compared marriage to the relationship between Christ and the church, with two becoming one flesh. Christ and the church could not be separated; so neither could the parties to a marriage. The early church agreed that ‘Christian’ marriage was a marriage like any other, except that it could only be ended by death and not divorce.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, this understanding of marriage as indissoluble prevailed. But marriage was still a civil rite rather than a religious one. Sometimes a priest might bless a relationship, but people didn’t get married in churches. In the thirteenth century the church declared marriage one of the seven sacraments, and did attempt to convince people that weddings should be celebrated as part of the church’s liturgy, but people continued to hold that while marriage might be a gift of God, the act of marriage consisted of an act of consent between the woman and man concerned. Nothing to do with the church.
This lasted until the Reformations. One of the huge changes that the Protestant Reformation brought about was a belief in the superiority of marriage over celibacy, which led to the demand that Protestant pastors marry. The change from centuries of tradition was so sudden that it was often difficult for people to accept the woman and children living in the pastor’s house as legitimate, and some wives were jeered at as priests’ whores. In response, Protestant Reformers tried to make marriage not only normal, but respectable. Marriage and family were idealised, and marriage became the Christian way of life. The discussion we’re having now shows how successful that campaign was.
It was during the Reformations that the idea of weddings as religious rites held in churches was introduced. Protestants no longer counted marriage as a sacrament, but they wanted its superiority to celibacy recognised, which was one of the reasons that they came to demand that weddings be celebrated in churches; first at the church door, then later by the table. The Catholic Church, upholding the status of marriage as a sacrament in opposition to the Protestants, now said that a marriage was created by the consent of the parties in front of a priest in the presence of two witnesses. So, it has only been for 500 of the church’s 2000 years that weddings have been held in churches and witnessed by priests.
After this very short history, I hope you’ll understand why I’m arguing neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’ tonight. My argument is that the church shouldn’t celebrate same-sex marriages – and the church shouldn’t celebrate different-sex marriages either. All that legal stuff that I described at the beginning – the paperwork and the month’s notice and the need for witnesses – could be handed to the state. After all, for most of Christian history solemnising marriages wasn’t the church’s job, it was the state’s.
Taking off the historian’s hat and putting the minister’s hat back on again: What I believe the church should do is bless the relationships of those who come seeking a blessing, whether the couple is same-sex or different-sex. I suggest that we bless those relationships as covenant friendships rather than as marriages. Marriage is what the state does; Christians are called to love each other as friends. Covenant friendships would be relationships based on love and faithfulness, entered into by equals, for life. They could draw on the model of friendship shown by Jesus; and the portrayal of the early church as a community of friends. Services could quote from the story of David and Jonathan, and read the words Ruth said to Naomi. Churches might lose money by no longer being a wedding venue, but we’d be following the example of Jesus who called us friends.
Should the church celebrate same-sex marriages? Yes? No? Maybe.