July 2017

A plebiscite of one’s own

The question of marriage and its meaning is presently astir in the public domain, writes Alice Priest. But my own interest has sprung, not from the public debate, but largely from the private chambers of my own heart.

BY Alice Priest

Not so long ago I asked my Dad to participate in a plebiscite (of sorts) on marriage. The question of marriage and its meaning is presently astir in the public domain, not only through the call for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, which continues to occupy the national debate, but also through the 2016 Australian census data, which is turning up some intriguing trends concerning marriage, amongst many other things. But my own interest has sprung, not from the public debate, but largely from the private chambers of my own heart.

In conducting a spontaneous plebiscite with my Dad across the table in a Chinese restaurant, I wanted to know what he thought, not about same-sex marriage, but about heterosexual marriage – specifically, the idea of me marrying. There was a time in my life, in my late teens and early 20s, when marriage seemed both probable and desirable. But times – and my life have changed. Encountering the love of my life in my early 40s has led, not to an inevitable march to the altar, but to prolonged grappling with fresh questions, doubts and unexpected epiphanies.

My endeavour to be faithful to Christ and his Church has been an enduring feature of my life, as it has Dad’s, so it seemed reasonable to suppose that Dad might still be expecting a solemn visit from my middle-aged sweetheart and a request for my hand. Was he expecting to dust off the suit and walk me down the church aisle? Was he expecting to become a grandfather? Was he expecting a bill for the reception!? More than that, though, I wanted to know what he would do, if he were my age, and in my shoes, with the Church in its present state. In my situation, would he go down the marriage aisle again himself?

I half-expected him to answer immediately in the affirmative, but he told me across the restaurant table that it was a serious question and he wanted to take it ‘on notice’. Fair enough, I thought, a bit surprised. Some days later, I received a rare email.

Dear Alice, in answer to your question if I was 42 [today, and faced with the question of marriage], what would I do? In my life my faith has been a huge part of who I am and in my married life it has been the rock I have held on to in the hard times. So for me I would have to get married in the Church… So the short answer is, be true to yourself. I will love you always, you have been a precious gift to me. love dad

My mother has rapidly progressing Alzheimer’s. As so much of her cruelly disappears, her connection with my father, now her full-time carer, becomes more apparent. Just a few years back, before the diagnosis, the family celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a Mass and a renewal of their vows. We sang one of their favourite hymns, “Will You Love Me?” by Brian Boniwell. Along with “A Long Way to Tipperary”, “Blue Moon” and a most eclectic bunch of other old songs and hymns, “Will You Love Me” is a standard amongst the repertoire my now almost inarticulate mum has taken to, quite unconsciously (yet incessantly), whistling.

Recently, thinking that perhaps my musical mum might manage to give voice to some of these tunes, I downloaded a dozen or so of the sung versions of her whistling ditties (with lyrics). A strange thing happened when I put on “Will You Love Me?” Mum immediately said, “Oh, this is a lovely song”. We started singing together following the words on my laptop screen atop the kitchen bench. She hardly needed the prompts.

Dad had been quietly listening from the adjoining lounge, perhaps not wanting to break the seeming spell of Mum’s joyful song and confounding onset of fluent recall, but was overcome with emotion as she, oblivious to him, sang out, “Will you give me your life forever?… Is your love strong enough to endure?… Will you live with me the darkness as I die?”

A huge lump choked my throat as I sensed Dad faithfully answering every one of those questions with utter devotion, and then saw him quietly pacing away into another room endeavouring to keep his own great feeling in check. The meaning of their long-lived, faith-filled marriage, with its joys and its sorrows, its eight children, its binding and abiding, in that moment became crystal clear to me. Something of God’s own heart was laid bare.

Compelled by this moment of revelation, I reflected that this is THE beautiful meaning of marriage – of holy matrimony. Giving your life over to another in love, like Jesus. Enduring. Living the darkness with another, even into and unto death.

According to Relationships Australia research, one of the key reasons people chose marriage is “to signify a life-long commitment” – yet, conversely, they avoid marriage because of “the belief that strong commitment does not need marriage.” Somehow, both seem right to me.

So, I am conducting a plebiscite on the question of the perceived value of marriage, especially when one is long past 30 (the typical age to marry, according to the ABS), when one’s life and faith is already much learned and half lived, when love has come and gone before, when love’s expression in commitment and fidelity is already the prerequisite standard, when children are unlikely and not deeply desired, when God’s grace is there – sacramental – in our midst already, cheering our love on, both in and outside of the walls of my Church. I say “I do” to the grace of God walking with us in our relationships, and I say “I do” believe God’s grace is freely given and available wherever love is found.

Of those who do marry today, 75 per cent choose civil ceremonies, and just 25 per cent choose religious ceremonies. The data shows that the vote on the traditional social and religious convention that love and marriage simply “go together” like the proverbial horse and carriage, is well and truly swinging. Today, fewer than half of all Australians count themselves as married. According to the ABS, at my age (40-45) I have only a 10 per cent likelihood of entering into a marriage.

And even for the young, the desire to marry is plummeting. According to the first census taken after World War II, more than two-thirds of people aged 25 to 29 were married (like my parents); this figure dropped to almost one-quarter last year (2016).

There is a clear and interesting irony regarding these trends, as recently reported in The Australian (30.6.2017): “Even as Australians slowly turn away from the tradition of marriage, a separate debate about whether to allow the nation’s 46,800 same-sex couples the option of marrying has consumed the parliament”. Various polls are unanimous in showing a significant majority support for marriage equality, including those identifying with major religions, Catholics, and a majority of older Australians aged over 55. Beyond achieving an equality of legal and economic rights, I can’t help but wonder if there is something important being revealed here about the ideals of marriage and how we long to be loved.

If you’d like to cast your own vote on my plebiscite, then follow this link.

Alice Priest

Alice Priest is a religious educator with more than 20 years’ experience across a range of settings – from the classroom to youth ministry and teacher education. She has lived and worked in Catholic school systems and ministries in Italy, Germany and Australia. Alice is currently working at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in Sydney, where she teaches religion and English, and is head of faith formation and liturgy.

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