June 2015

Can marriage change – again?

The idea of “marriage equality” is an idea of our time and we must engage with it seriously. We do not do this by merely re-stating past positions. We engage in a two-fold way, writes Garry Everett.

BY Garry Everett

There is a wonderful line in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s song, “The Music of the Night” which perfectly encapsulates the dilemmas we face when considering the complexities of the “marriage equality” debate – “In the dark, it is easy to pretend, that the truth is what it ought to be!”

In this line, the “dark” for me, is constituted by fear; by old unquestioned prejudices; by a lack of openness to the new; by the comfort of certainty; by clouds of confusion; the unwillingness to share. So we pretend. We take the easy way out, and don’t confront the uncomfortable truth. We say one thing, but deep down we feel another. We wear a mask and no one knows who we really are or what we really think. Then we can make the truth be what we think it ought to be. We close off the Spirit of surprise, of growth, of possibility, and settle for a constrained and contained version. We pretend we are in control.

On the other hand, we can make ourselves vulnerable; we can become liberated; we can re-define boundaries; we can examine our assumptions and beliefs; our ideas of privilege; of what is natural; and of what is set in stone and why.

The idea of “marriage equality” is an idea of our time and we must engage with it seriously. We do not do this by merely re-stating past positions. We engage in a two-fold way. Firstly, we should share our lived experiences and reflections on marriage, including the Christian experiences of marriage as sacrament. We may be surprised by the complexity and variety of these experiences. Secondly, we should listen compassionately to the views of those who advocate change, and learn from their experiences and needs.

Unfortunately such a reasoned and reasonable approach rarely occurs. What we tend to see is the standard oppositional approach. The progressives make uncompromising demands which they label fair and equal. The conservatives retaliate with arguments based on tradition, along with a sprinkling of dire forecasts about possible future developments. Each is concerned to defend its position but not to listen in compassionate ways to the other. In the end, the outcome is never unifying, but only promotes division; never seen as developmental, but only as regressive; only as defeat or victory, never as a shared development of thought and practice.

In all this controversy and change, having some perspective is important. The meaning of the term marriage has been changing for centuries. British historian Christopher Brooke, writing in The Medieval Idea of Marriage, puts it this way: “The history of Christian marriage is most curiously compounded of human experience, social custom, theological speculation, sturdy common sense, and the uncommon chicanery of lawyers – and much else. A clear and lucid basis was not found in the Bible”.

What this statement indicates is that the meaning of the term marriage has been evolutionary, and that the end may not yet be in sight. Major shifts have seen changes for the status of women (from chattels, to equal partners); from marrying for reasons of gaining power or land, to marrying for love; from treating children with scant regard, to welcoming them as family.

Even Vatican II removed the distinction between the primary and secondary ends of marriage, thus regarding the two ends (the procreation of children and the mutual love of the couple) as of equal importance. This was a significant shift in a teaching that was centuries old. The current push to open the term marriage to include gay couples, is seen by many as a further step to being more inclusive – “fair and equal”. The Catholic hierarchy does not share this view; the Catholic laity seems divided.

What can Christians do in the current context?

I offer the following suggestions for consideration. Regardless of the outcome of any parliamentary vote or decision, it is imperative that each of us is clear and confident about our individual positions regarding marriage and marriage equality as it is proposed.

1. Be open to the movement of the Spirit in the world. Meet and discuss your views about the idea of broadening the meaning of marriage to include gay couples.

2. Read about the evolution of Christian marriage and discuss the shifts in meaning, including among others, from contract to covenant; from superiority to mutuality.

3. Explore the depth of meaning in theologian Father Richard McBrien’s comment that: “this is the first age in which people marry and stay married because they love each other” (Catholicism, 1981). This puts love at the heart of marriage, and has significant implications for our understanding of the term.

4. Ask over and over: “are my reactions and decisions based on love or fear”?

5. As a Catholic, explain to a friend how you understand marriage as a sacrament.

6. Listen to the other’s view in a spirit of openness and compassion.

7. Be clear about the roles of the Churches and the State in what is being proposed.

8. Examine carefully whether any proposal to re-define marriage necessarily reduces the significance of marriage for some.

9. Speak to your local Federal member; express your views and priorities about marriage.

In my opinion, Australia will soon incorporate the provisions of gay marriage in our legislation. What will I do when my neighbours are gay married couples? What will I do when I meet the two women who are the parents of my son’s best friend at school? How will I respond when my parish wants to exclude gay marrieds from sacramental programs for children? How will I react to change?

Gay marriage is an idea of our time. How am I a citizen, and a Catholic of this time?

Garry Everett

Garry Everett has spent all his professional life, as well as much of retirement, as an educator, and mostly of adults. Garry’s enduring interests lie in family, Scripture, theology and Church renewal. At a local level he is involved in social justice and ecumenism. He is also a member of his parish St Vincent de Paul Conference.

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