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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 168

When is a marriage not a marriage?



The argument is swinging!  There is no doubt about it - people everywhere are gradually getting to see that there is no harm and every good reason to accept gay people - and to accept their civil partnerships, if not their marriage. The momentum of opinion is swinging towards acceptance of gay people! That is very good news. It is also entirely as expected!

Why is it expected?  It is expected because it is basically, so obviously, right!  And so obviously in  accordance with the general opinion of sensible and informed people.  So why do I suggest that the argument is swinging?

There are straws in the wind that indicate that the time has come for at least the more advanced countries to move into a fully accepting mode towards gay people. That is to be greatly welcomed!  Why?  Because there are still many nations that have for one reason or another set their face against accepting gay people as normal! Many African countries, being in a developing state of development, are still deeply suspicious of gay people - and, indeed, have draconian laws against homosexuals.

A recent straw in the wind is the resignation of  Richard Cizik, who has been lobbyist and spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) for some time, has left. He was Vice President of Government Affairs for the NAE and apparently met with NAE President Leith Anderson and the two mutually concluded that his resignation was "a difficult but appropriate decision."   The grounds for his resignation are believed to be that he now believes that gay partnerships - and possibly even gay marriage - should be accepted. This of course is contrary to the beliefs of many evangelicals, who seem as set against gay partnerships as against abortion.

The N A E has spoken with a united voice for millions of American evangelicals since 1942, and is clearer, stronger and more broadly heard now than ever before.  The association is anchored in its 60 denominations with about 45,000 churches. However, the broader NAE constituency includes organizations, local churches and individuals numbering in the tens of millions.  Yet their spokesman has changed his mind on the subject of homosexuality. That, surely, is heartening news!

At the same time we are hearing that NEAC - the National Evangelical Council - an organisation influential in all matters evangelical these days - has had to apologise for what happened at its recent meeting in London. Apparently it attempted to railroad a resolution through to support the Jerusalem Declaration but the  meeting was not prepared to go along with what was proposed. They were forced to apologise:

“CEEC apologises for the fact that we failed to circulate the proposed resolutions prior to the Consultation day. We acknowledge that this was a serious mistake which understandably caused consternation on the day.”

These may only be straws in the wind - but I suggest that they are indicative of an ongoing broader shift of opinion - secular and Christian - towards a greater degree of acceptance of gay people as being entirely normal and acceptable, and acceptable even in church circles.

The battle going on in America at the present time is also very interesting in this respect. There is a great argument now in course about whether gay people should be allowed to marry or whether they should be restricted to civil partnerships. This, however, may be a battle too far too soon. We shall have to wait to see, but I think there are good reasons why it is best not to fight this battle at the present time.

My main reason is that there is an ongoing process of acclimatisation to gay matters by the general public - in truth public opinion has come a very long way in a very short time. Fifty years ago the advances made today by gay people would have been unimaginable. After all, we are reversing the attitudes and beliefs of many centuries.  Is this the right moment for gay people to agitate for gay marriage?

Some gay activists will say, of course, that this is exactly the right time! And they may be right. But I take leave to doubt it. And the reason I am not in favour of the agitation for gay marriage being accepted in today’s society is that there are actually very good religious reasons why gay partnerships should not be seen in exactly the same light as marriage. What are these reasons?

Gay people in America are trying hard to get gay partnerships recognised as marriages for a variety of reasons. It seems to me that their agitation is perhaps fuelled by the legal set up in their country. This is the only way, they think, to give gay couples the same rights under the law as married couples. Given that each state has its own laws in this matter, there is a genuine problem and it needs to be recognised and dealt with. But trying to make marriage and gay partnerships synonymous may not be the best solution.

In opposition there are Christian and other religious groups in America that see the very idea of gay people entering in to marriage with each other as a kind of blasphemy.  They see marriage as something instituted by God and, therefore, as sacrosanct. This stems, I think, from the idea of the New Testament (a reflection from the Old Testament) that when a man and woman combine in marriage they become ‘one flesh’. See Matthew 19. 4-6, Mark 10. 7-9, 1 Corinth 6. verse 16, and Ephesians 5. 30-32. I doubt whether anyone would want to suggest that two people of the same sex become ‘one flesh’ - and certainly not in the same way that St Paul meant to convey in the term.

Marriage - by whatever name it is called - has certainly been seen by most peoples of the world since time immemorial as being between a man and a woman. The idea of two people of the same sex calling their union by the  name of ‘marriage’ therefore appals some Christians and they are fighting the idea tooth and nail. They had a recent success in California (Proposition 8).

Gay people should be able to grasp the fact that the root of the benefit for them lies not in the general recognition of the validity of marriage for gay people, but in the obtaining of legal and other advantages of marriage for gay couples. They need to see that achieving the same ’marriage benefits’ for gay couples would demonstrate the fairness and equality we are looking for. To try to redefine what the word ‘marriage’ means for millions of people worldwide is perhaps a step too far.

The main religious arguments vary according to the religion espoused but, as far as I can ascertain, many religious people think that allowing gay couples to be ‘married’ somehow debases not only the meaning of the word ‘marriage‘ but also offends their religious principles in deeper ways. Religious people often see the use of ‘marriage’ for gay couples as debasing the concept of ‘family’ as well.    

There is another important factor - the religious meaning of marriage as involving a man and a woman is associated with the immemorial practice of human groups. We all naturally think of marriage as involving a man and a woman. This ingrained habit is another bulwark against easy change of use of the word ‘marriage’ and, of course, to the meaning of the word ‘family’ also.

In support of their views religious people point to what they consider the essential factor in marriage - the production of children. No gay couple can have children - they are physically incapable of doing that - and so, it is said, the word marriage should not be used about their gay union.

So lets sum up where we have got to.  Religious people oppose gay couples being ‘married’ in the eyes of the law because of both ingrained views of what marriage is, and also because of their religious convictions. The former can be changed - but it takes time! The latter are perhaps more difficult to shift!

On the other hand, some gay people suffer severe disadvantages in their gay unions because they do not have the legal and other benefits of married couples. They see that as unfair - and I think most people would agree. In  order to obtain the same legal and other benefits as for married couples, gay couples want to have their union recognised as ’marriage’ in the eyes of the law. They would then be as eligible as any man and his wife for such benefits.

However, there is a deeper agenda at work here!  There always is! The religious people see the extension of marriage to gay couples as a further encroachment of the acceptance of the rights of gay people. They feel their religious values and principles are being attacked and they want to resist the pressure. On the other hand gay couples feel that, quite apart from the benefits they are missing, the refusal of society to recognise their union as a marriage is indicative of a deep rooted discrimination against gay people. They therefore are pushing for the acceptance of gay couples being ‘married‘.

In view of the mix of motives on both sides and the variety of legal  positions in the various states of America, and the wide variety of religious views it is no surprise that the position is becoming more muddy by the day!  But it is an important matter and it is not going to go away, so what can we say about it?

I start from a religious viewpoint - as a Christian I believe that marriage is a state that is ordained by God for human beings. Hitherto that has been only between a man and a woman, and is based on the idea that the man and woman become ‘one flesh‘ in their marriage. But the definition of marriage could be changed - be expanded perhaps, although that would be going beyond scripture.  Simply because of the fact that marriage has hitherto equalled ‘man/woman’ does not mean that it cannot change. God is big enough to show us new ways to which we have to adapt, especially as humankind attains fresh knowledge and understanding. So I rule out idea that we must preserve, on historical grounds, the idea that marriage is only between a man and a woman .

Secondly I fully accept that gay couples (in civil partnership) should have the same benefits and rights as married couples. If the law does not at present grant such rights and benefits, then the law should be changed to suit the new circumstances in which we all find ourselves.

Thirdly, I think that there is such a difference between the two relationships (man-woman and man-man or woman-woman) that this should be marked. At present it is marked by the use of the term marriage for just a man-woman relationship. I think that is a good thing and should continue. It signifies a relationship made (usually) with the expectation of children being born of the mother with the husband as the father. So I would preserve the term ‘marriage’ for such relationships. Same sex partnerships should be accepted for what they are - same sex partnerships.

Fourthly, I believe that the union of two people of the same sex is just as valid in God’s eyes as in marriage. Just as blessed by God. Just as worthy of respect and honour. Just as needful of all the benefits that accrue for married couples. They do not, however, become ‘one flesh’ in the scriptural sense, I think. They should however be able to adopt children subject to the usual rules of the country in which they reside - they are a family in the true sense. Their union should be called a partnership - for that is what it is. We often refer to them as civil or legal partnerships. That, too, is acceptable. Obviously I believe that wherever such partnerships are disadvantaged as against married couples, then that should be rectified. There should be a statement written into the law of the land at the highest level that same sex couples who enter into legal partnerships are equal in every way with (though not the same as) married couples.

The two different states (marriages and partnerships) will probably be referred to as ‘marriage’ by people in general. They may even be regarded by many as the same thing. That is not a devaluation of the term ’marriage’, so long as it is abundantly clear that they are different legally. The difference legally would be occasioned only by the sex of the parties involved. They would be treated equally by society and legally.

The advantage of this arrangement is that religious people will be able to see that gay people are not trying to ‘take over‘. Gay unions will be as acceptable in most of society as marriages. Gay people will have the same rights as married people, but they will have their own slot legally. Although gay people cannot produce progeny, they should be able to adopt. Whether they adopt or not, they will be a ‘family’ in the same sense as any heterosexual couple.

Finally, In addition to believing that marriage is a state ordained by God for a man and a woman, I also believe that a partnership  is a state ordained by God for two people of the same sex who love each other and want to commit themselves to live the rest of their lives with each other. In time I am sure that Christians everywhere will come to see and accept that as true.  The sooner the better! Because until then the message of the church to the world is that partnerships are not valid for church blessings. And that, surely, is very wrong.

For these reasons I think that civil partnerships should be the order of the day for gay couples - but whichever way it goes in America, the indications are that being gay is no longer the disgrace it was at one time, nor will it necessarily hinder a person’s career or embarrass them socially. The needle is swinging towards full acceptance. The quicker, the better!


Tony Cross
December 2008


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