Thursday, 13 March 2014

Sex and Marriage

Christianity,  feminism, marriage and same sex marriage

Let me say something blatantly obvious. So obvious it shouldn't really need pointing out: but something I have not heard anyone say out loud in this whole marriage fiasco that the Church is getting itself into.

The controversial thing about same sex marriage - as distinct from same sex relationships, same sex civil partnerships, or even plain old same sex sex - is that if sex takes place within marriage, it isn't sinful. Not all marriages (or other relationships) involve sex, of course. But it is the sex that is controversial.

Those who take an unhealthy interest in other people's sexual sin have had a mantra - all sex outside of marriage is wrong. Marriage good, all other sex bad, is meant to be the rule. (Its a rule few people observe, but the point of this sort of rule is idealism rather than realism).

And that, of course, is why the idea of a couple of the same sex marrying each other, if you think gay relationships are always wrong, is a problem. Thats why the Church authorities - who argued vigorously against Civil Partnerships when they were first mooted - are now desperate for clergy in those partnerships to stay there, rather than get married.

If 'Marriage is good, all other sex bad', then anyone married and having sex (with their marital partner) is by definition not sinning. So if you want to continue to define gay sex as sinful, you have to argue it isn't really a marriage.

But why do we say that in the first place? In the story of Adam and Eve, they never went through any form of marriage. If it was so important, don't you think the Bible writers might have mentioned it? (At least, if you believe that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation). There is an awful lot of sex in the Bible, much of it quite disordered. Giving a slave girl to your husband to bear children for you? Mmm, that Biblical ideal of marriage...

Marriage is a feminist issue.The thing is, sex is a powerful human urge, that can lead us to destructive and selfish behaviour, as well as forming powerful kin-bonds. For most of recorded history, the point of marriage law has been to regulate sex. It has been legislated for primarily to regulate the ownership of children and thus inheritance and property. Because women bear the children, and before DNA tests men couldn't be sure of their paternity, controlling women's sexual activity became an economic imperative for the landowning classes. Not to mention the fact that women were themselves considered a form of property. Those with little other property didn't want someone else making use of what was theirs.The fact is, much 'common sense' morality surrounding sex is an internalisation of these property interests.

And the ironic thing is, in the middle ages the Church was at the forefront of challenging this. The  Pope repeatedly clashed with heads of states, as both claimed the right to regulate marriage. Kings wanted to control it because of the dynastic interests and property rights involved. The Church radically claimed that this was about two people, and that they had to give their free consent. Further, the Church began to raise sex in importance, claiming that having sex was effectively giving yourself in marriage. It was a radical and controversial idea, that if a man had sex with a woman, they should get married (or even WERE married), even if they were of different social classes. The fact that consummation became part of the legal definition of marriage perhaps indicates that sex was not, in fact, a key part of many dynastic marriages. But it was important that marriages involved sex if marriages were about establishing legitimate heirs.

Marriage was a contract more than a relationship. Until relatively recently, it was possible to sue someone for 'breach of promise' through the British courts if they pulled out of an engagement. The assumption was that the other party reneging on an agreement to marry damaged the goods or brand you were selling. Partly, at least, that was because it was assumed you may well have had sex with your betrothed on the basis of the contract to marry.

Believe it or not, the Church was championing women's rights in the context of its days. He told you he wanted to marry you, and slept with you? You might be pregnant and become destitute? Right then, he must marry you. Even if your family had hoped to do better for themselves.

It is sad that a doctrine of marriage that once was designed to uphold the interests of the people involved against powerful other interests that saw them as pawns, is now being used to do the opposite.

I could say more. The medieval worldview saw everything in hierarchical terms. God at the top, ranks of angels precisely graded by status beneath, then men, women and children (in that order, and in their various degrees), then birds, animals, fish, plants, rocks. Everything had its place. In this worldview, it was 'natural' for men to subordinate women, just as it was 'natural' for humans to exploit the planet. If this is your understanding of how the world is, the worst thing about gay sex is men subordinating and being subordinate to other men, rather than exerting mastery over women.
(Lesbian sex is also seen as wrong, because women are not submitting to men, but its not as important because women aren't as important).

I've been married for 17 years, and I'm very happy to recommend marriage as the ideal form of human relationship. The trust, commitment, mutuality and fidelity of a good modern marriage are ideal conditions for human flourishing. It's for that very reason that I want as many people as possible to be able to avail themselves of it. But the marriage I want to recommend is not a property transaction. It's not about a dominant and a submissive partner (a view associated worldwide with higher levels of domestic abuse, according to research conducted by Dr. Susannah Cornwall). It's about mutual love, commitment, delight, tenderness, self-giving, and, yes, sex which is all of those things too. Against such things, there is no law.

The first line of every marriage service I conduct is:
'God is love, and those who live in love live in God.' I find it hard to see the sin in that. So opening up marriage to same sex couples is indeed a radical step, redefining what they are doing as God-given and a cause for rejoicing. It is clear that the Church as an institution is not quite ready for that, but it isn't getting any choice: gay people are getting legally married.

It's fascinating, as a historian, to see Church and State still arguing over who gets to define marriage. But marriage laws predate the church by many centuries. History says that the Church has only ever won its case by persuading the State that it has the moral high ground. I'd love to see the Church get back on its real high horse, campaigning vociferously and in every nation for the interests of two people in love to trump political unease or vested interests. Any chance?

25 comments:

  1. Ditto. A fascinating piece. Thank you.

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  2. It is boringly predictable to see a feminist 'Christian' fail to use biblical argument but instead go to prove that she's really only interested in sociology / psychology.
    For the record, the creation story in Genesis uses the Hebrew word that is routinely translated as 'wife' of Eve before the fall (see Gen 2:24,25), so they were 'married'.

    But the core point about marriage is that it is a creation ordinance defined by God as being between a man and woman. Given that, it is pure rebellion to try to redefine it as what it isn't. You may try to pretend to the world that the dog over there is a cat, but in reality it isn't. You may try to redefine it as a cat, you may demand that I pretend it is a cat, but it will still remain a dog...

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  3. Thank you for reading, Enders Shadow. Please be assured that many other people have concentrated on the Biblical side of this, and what I am doing here is trying to fill a gap in the Tradition/Reason/Experience sides of the Quadrilateral. I have focused on these areas because they are under explored in current discussions, not because they are all I think important. I hope that is fairly clear to everyone reading this.

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    1. Helpful answer, thanks. I still feel your attempt to deny that Adam and Eve were married is ill-founded - indeed God's presenting Eve to Adam can be seen as the precursor to the BCP 'Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?'

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    2. Which has been removed from CW for very good reason!

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  4. Actually, some of us have made this point, and have been making it for quite some time, albeit perhaps not spelt out as clearly as you've made it here. See, for instance, Notes from a Gay Christian Woman

    You say it’s OK to be gay as long as I don’t do gay: that I must remain celibate. You say that sex is for marriage, but you deny me that privilege. You put fences around me — for my protection, you say. But that’s not true, is it? The fences are for your protection, to keep you safe from me, from the threat that I and my friends supposedly present to your nice, clean-cut clearly defined community.

    Also in my Open Letter to the House of Bishops:

    So you place both gay clergy and gay laity in a double-bind, in a Catch-22 situation, caught out by the Church’s proper teaching that sexual activity belongs within the context of marriage but, when presented by the State with a lawful opportunity to marry, either denied that opportunity altogether (clergy) or denied the opportunity to celebrate that relationship (laity) by the Church.

    Oh, and in response to "Ender's Shadow" — sorry mate, but no way were Adam & Eve married: no ceremony, no contract, no priest or registrar: just lovers doing what lovers do and producing babies. The Genesis account isn’t about marriage: it’s about procreation, another step in the great epic of creation itself. We’ve taken hold of that story and imbued it with a theology of marriage, but marriage itself as we define it is simply not there in the creation story.

    Marriage isn't a "creation ordinance" (whatever that's supposed to mean) — marriage and the conventions we’ve placed around the reproductive process are human constructs, which God has graciously seen fit to bless; and despite the naysayers, we who defined it in the first place have every right to redefine it for today's context.

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    1. I like the Biblical view in the Song of Songs. A couple, unmarried, who delight in one another, who enjoy sex as part of a fulfilling relationship of love - the sheer joy of their bodily union enriching the union of their hearts and lives. This is marriage - a covenant made by 2 people and that the family and community bear witness to and seek to prayerfully affirm and bless.

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  5. "I'd love to see the Church get back on its real high horse, campaigning vociferously and in every nation for the interests of two people in love to trump political unease or vested interests. Any chance?"

    I have every intention of making this so. It may take many years and the battle may be won long before the church ever takes that side, but we can hope!

    This (institutional church homophobia) too shall pass, after all.

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  6. Wel said. And you are right that it doesn't say Eve and Adam were married in the Bible.- words for 'women' frequently mean 'wife' as well.

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  7. I think we should acknowledge Ender Shadow's brilliant achievement. It begins by complaining that you 'fail to use biblical argument' and then goes on to say marriage is 'a creation ordinance defined by God as being between a man and woman'. All we need now is Ender Shadow's new edition of the Bible. The old, obviously outdated, one neither describes marriage as a creation ordinance (that was Luther's idea) nor defines it as being between a man and a woman. In fact, it doesn't define marriage at all.

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  8. Yes. I think the main difference between Evangelicals and Liberals is that liberals take the Bible much more seriously.

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    1. Surely the key difference that liberals don't subscribe to biblical authority. Allowing liberals to dispense with the unending exegesis, simply say, "the Bible is wrong," and move on.

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    2. I wonder about that ... really I do, from my reading Liberals take the Bible seriously but tend to make the words mean whatever suits the current cultural way of thinking.
      But re same-sex marriage ... I don't have any answers but I do have a problem ... Jesus Himself validates the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman by referencing Adam and Eve (Matt.19:1-12) ...
      Then there is the problem of the prohibitions of sex between members of the same gender ... especially in Romans 1 ...
      Yes, I have read the usual explanations ... but they tend to come across as making the Bible say what we want it to say....

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  9. Who married Adam and Eve then? They were the only people on earth at that time. And exactly where in the Bible does God define marriage? Sorry, doesn't do it for me.

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  10. Seems to me — with apologies to those who've heard me banging on about this before — that the critical issue is faithfulness. What God expects of his people is faithfulness, to one another and to God. Way back when the biblical writers were doing what looks to us like gay-bashing, the idea of stable, faithful same sex relationships wasn't there: in their worldview, everyone was hetero and you could only have a same sex relationship by betraying that norm, by being unfaithful to a straight partner. In today's world, that's no longer so; and the dear old Bishops in the C of E are still living in yesterday's world, thinking heteronormacy rules: in their mindset, the accident of gender difference takes priority over the virtue of faithfulness; and until they can get their heads around that conundrum, they're stuck in a rut.

    Dear Bishops, if any of you are reading, perchance, please reflect on this and ask yourselves whether God — who pictures the relationships between Israel and God and between Jesus and the Church as a marriage — is really bothered about gender differences? What aspect of marriage is critical to these relationships? What is it that truly makes a marriage?

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    1. I should add, that's the Bishops in the House of Bishops who have signed up to the 'Pastoral Guidance' I'm referring to — there are several non-HoB Bishops who have already realised this and openly support equal marriage; don't want to label all Bishops the same!

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  11. To reinforce comments by Jonathan and Phil:
    First, there was no Christian marriage service until about the 7th century and even then many Christians did not use it - living together is the more ancient practice rather than official service. As Miranda points out, the church tried to ensure marriage was not a property transaction. (It failed at least in parts - the mediaeval French rite treats the bride bas property to be handed from one man (the father) to another (the groom)).

    Then there is Genesis! Before the creation of Eve (a name meaning 'life' and not a girl's name - we have made it into that) Adam seems to have been androgynous - again Adam is not a male name in Hebrew and is a pun an adamah (dust). Hence Tribble translates adam as 'earth creature' - clunky but accurate! So, sorry Ender's Shadow but you need to read the Hebrew a bit more closely. And no, there is no marriage service in Genesis and the creation ordinance seems to be about men and women needing each other - it's a stretch to say what mean by marriage is a creation ordinance. In any case, if it is an ordinance, is it commanded that all shall enter into it? If by ordinance we mean something like 'provision' as in the Reformed use of ordinance to refer to baptism or eucharist, then again Genesis is not precise enough to make the point some want to make.

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  12. Traditional Church teaching on marriage is based on the natural law which views sexual intercourse as being both unitive and procreative. There is a large part of Christ's Body who cannot see how homosexual acts are this and thus cannot be described as marriage. Lyn.

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  13. The obvious answer to that is to question why they then allow post-menopausal women to marry.

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  15. This was like a breath of fresh air - I'm so glad I stumbled across this blog. Please keep posting! You give me hope for the future of the church!

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