Christian Marriage – God’s Gift to the World
By The Revd Canon Jonathan Barry, Rector of Comber Parish November 2005
Marriage is understood by the Christian Church to be one of the greatest gifts from God our Creator to the human world.
In the story of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis we are told that male and female are created by God in his own image; that they are inter-woven in terms of flesh and bone; that therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.
The Hebrew verb for “cleave” is dynamic. It refers to personality at least as much as physical contact and knowledge. The English language does not do justice to the richness of the concept in Hebrew. What is expressed in the Bible is therefore a profound insight into the heart of creation. When the man and the woman cleave together, there is an inter-mingling of personality. That is why the Old Testament refers to a man as “knowing” his wife, when what is being referred to is sexual intercourse.
The reference to knowledge is no euphemism; it is a statement reflecting this understanding of the mysterious intermingling of the whole of our being expressed in the most intimate manner. There is an intricate psychological union, as the man and the woman bond, which is a very great mystery. And in the New Testament the writer to the Ephesians, not least, understands this mystery as a metaphor for the union between Christ in heaven and the Church on earth.
Thus human marriage, as it is understood in Christian terms, despite all its potential for sin, nastiness and destruction, at its best has the potential to be a sign to our world of the hope for salvation. In Christian marriage it is our hope that we may be gathered into one, as Christ and the Church are one, that each Christian marriage may aspire, despite all its human imperfections, to reflect the divine intention in the world and point in its imperfect unity to the perfect unity between Christ and the Church.
Whether the Church understands it or not, the contemporary explosion in the numbers of cohabiting couples is really very Old Testament in practice! A man and a woman meet, they find each other attractive, they fall in love, and within the context of their privacy they decide to live together and their relationship becomes one-flesh.
Thus cohabitation may be seen as the Old Testament, the old covenant understanding of marriage. Marriage is a creation ordinance, placed in the world by God at creation, “instituted of God in the time of man‟s innocency…” as it is described in the poetic language of the Prayer Book traditional marriage rite. Christian marriage can therefore be understood as the New Testament understanding of the Biblical revelation. The new covenant is the expression of consent and the promise of fidelity in a church wedding, in which the blessing of God is sought and the presence of Christ is prayed for in the union, that the unity and love visible in the marriage itself will become a sign to the world of that union between Christ and his Church.
Of course we must note that the practice of living together does tend to suit many young males wanting the advantages, not least sexual, that such a relationship brings, without any of the inconvenience of having to disentangle that relationship legally, if and when they decide to move on. The same phenomenon may be observed among young women, although usually it is the woman who is quite literally left holding the baby. Nevertheless it is often the case that people get together and live together first, long before thinking of giving their relationship a status that is permanent in their own perspective, and in that of family, Church and society.
But when such couples, as the relationship deepens, decide they are sure they wish to be together, for better for worse – as they describe it, but perhaps in their own words – they do in fact want to be
married, either in a registry office or in a church. They do want to say something significant and in a ritual way that will indicate to themselves and also their families and friends, that they are one. If they seek to marry in church we can say they are seeking to move from marriage in the Old Testament sense, which is common to all, to a marriage that is a new creation in Christ. While the registry office offers the legal recognition of the relationship by the state, the wedding in church is spiritual. Offering more than the state‟s legal recognition, it also gives the blessing of God.
What is the difference between Christian marriage - holy matrimony as it is called in the traditional language marriage rite in the Prayer Book - and marriage as understood in and by the world?
For a Christian the gift of sexuality, the power of the desire, the drive for union, the desire to be with someone special to us, is a gift from God. It was put into the world at the very moment of creation. The act of procreation, when a man and a woman set out to conceive and hopefully give birth to a healthy child, is in Christian terms an act on behalf of God the creator. Indeed, it cannot be viewed in any other way. It is something of indescribably exquisite beauty. It is something that entrances writers, poets and composers. Its power, perhaps too deep for words, is nevertheless understood by many a young mother and father, as they cradle their newborn child for the first time.
Marriage in the world can of course be merely a legal arrangement, entered into for financial and legal reasons. Marriages arranged between families and marriages arranged in bygone societies between princes and princesses as an expression of an alliance between nation states are the epitome of what Christian marriage is most certainly not!
Christian marriage is a marriage between two consenting adults, a man and a woman, both of them understanding that their love and desire for each other is God-given, and that they ought to live - as they promise in the wedding - in a life-long mutually exclusive union. Within the sanctity of their marriage bond, they will express their confidence, their weakness, their frustration, and their ambition. Each will be a psychological mirror for the other. In her husband the woman will find her femininity reflected and affirmed. Likewise, in his wife, the man will find his masculinity reflected and affirmed. Each in love will moderate their lover‟s bad points; each will address vulnerability; each will affirm and support the other‟s strengths. That is the ideal. Christian marriage is a pilgrimage and Christians will understand it as such. It is a journey through this world with one‟s partner for life, ready to endure
whatever may come. It is a calling to the sacrifice of unconditional self-giving.
Many of these positive attributes will be found in heterosexual couples, who are not married, and homosexual relationships, whether it is a partnership between two men, or between two women. It is nonsense to say, as some Christians want to say, that a significant relationship between a same-sex couple cannot experience marriage as found in the world. Clearly such couples can find their relationship reflecting many of the aspects of the marriages of heterosexual couples. They can adopt children. Same-sex female couples can do more than adopt; if they wish they can even arrange for one of the partners to conceive and give birth. The recognition in British law from December 2005 of civil partnerships for same-sex couples, with the possible provision for promises to be exchanged before the civil registrar and the exchange of rings, is in fact marriage in all but legal name.
Once again we must ask the question, what is the difference between Christian marriage and marriage as now understood in and by the world? Marriage was indeed in the world from the beginning, from that moment of creation. It was in the world long before Jesus. Our Lord in his teaching underpinned the divine imperative for marriage - it is one man with one woman in a life-long mutually exclusive union.
Because of this the Christian Church has an innate understanding of that man-woman relationship at the heart of creation. God placed it there deliberately as a way of regulating and directing sexual desire, channelling love and creating family life, which will orbit around that love at its core. This is how it ought to be. But sometimes it is not, for marriage is part of creation and therefore part of the fallen state of this world.
The Fathers of the Early Church taught that marriage ought not to break down. In contrast, by the
Middle Ages, the Latin Church‟s teaching had changed to marriages cannot break down. At the
Reformation the mainstream reformers opposed this doctrinal innovation, re-affirming the Catholic teaching of the Fathers, dealing with instances of marital breakdown on their pastoral merits, and where it was deemed to be correct, offering a service of remarriage in church to those who wished to begin a new life in Christ. From the Middle Ages the Church of Ireland in its marriage doctrine and discipline has maintained the Catholic Apostolic traditions of the Church. This has been debated and
re-affirmed by the General Synod in the closing years of the nineteenth century and again as recently as 1996.
In the Church of Ireland all priests may remarry parishioners, if they wish. None must. The bishop‟s opinion should first be sought, but it is an opinion only, it is not episcopal permission that can be given or withheld. It is the incumbent‟s decision alone, as it has always been. While there are always those who would wish to ban remarriage in church, they should understand the gravity, if their view were to prevail, of the fundamental departure from Catholic tradition and Protestant principle.
From time to time it has been suggested that the Church should not minister to people through remarriage, offering instead a blessing in church following a civil registration. This implies that every new marriage following divorce is adulterous. If that were truly the case, then the Church has no business in seeking to bless it! It should have nothing to do with it. If the new marriage is deemed to be truly a sign to the world of hope triumphing over experience, if theologically it can be said it speaks of resurrection against the death of betrayal and despair, of new life following the death of the former relationship(s), it is right that it should be celebrated in church. This has been the teaching of the Church from the Fathers. Indeed, it has always been apparent in the teaching and practice of the Orthodox tradition. No going back to the old way has been needed on their part, because they had simply never departed from it. In the Church of Ireland it can be said in the context of traditional reformation theology that neither the innocent nor the guilty are married, only the penitent.
It is vitally important the Church should uphold the Christian standard of marriage to the world, that people should understand they marry for better for worse, that their marriage ought to be a sign to all around them of the God who endured pain on the Cross, to be vindicated by the joy of the resurrection to life anew. The desire for instant gratification of western society, the refusal to defer fulfilment in personal lives, all spell potential disaster, not just for the individuals, but also for society itself. The community that we call the family is the nucleus therefore of society. It is within the healthy Christian family, in which people find their sense of belonging and identity, their sense of being loved and worthwhile, that we can see the Church as the lifeboat of society.
Without healthy families, society is doomed. While there are thankfully millions of marvellous marriages in the world, where the people are not Christian and have never heard of our Saviour, nevertheless the Christian Church will teach that marriage from its perspective is special and therefore Christian. Its significance for Christians is that it is a God-given partnership between men and women and part of the divine purpose for all people.
Why the Term, ‘Christian Marriage’ Fails the Church and the World
By The Very Reverend Michael Burrows, Dean of Cork September 2005
I have over the years found myself feeling uncomfortable with references I hear, not least in the General Synod, to „Christian Marriage‟. People probably use the phrase in a well-intentioned if
injudicious manner, intending thereby to affirm the sanctity and seriousness of the marriage bond. However, to me the phrase somehow sends out signals that marriage as experienced by Christians or indeed solemnised in their churches is somehow of a higher quality than that available to everybody else. Everyone, as it were, can taste the cake, but only we know about the icing.
Such a view is quite contrary to traditional Anglican theology and indeed liturgical expression. We see marriage as a gift of God, certainly, but it is a creation ordinance – mysteriously built into the very
order of things for all humanity to enjoy responsibly. It is something in its intention and purpose lifelong and exclusive; it orders our relationships, provides a context for companionship, sexual unity and reproduction, and is a veritable bedrock of society. These are all ideals to which human beings would assent far beyond the setting of Christianity, although Christians of course would claim a particular concern for seeing the highest possible standards maintained. With Jesus himself, we do not see ourselves offering a superior form of marriage, but we do have high aspirations in relation to how marriage is upheld.
So it is that our liturgical formularies, marriage rites and canons carefully avoid referring to something called „Christian Marriage‟ – rather they refer to „Holy Matrimony‟, the life-long union between man
and woman which God has built into the very order of creation. We believe that the best place to enter into a covenant of marriage is before God in church, praying about what is happening and seeking blessing, but we do not believe that marriages contracted in a civil ceremony are any less substantial or indeed devoid of holiness. We are careful not to separate what the Church does and what the State does – when people have already been married in a civil ceremony we are very careful that any subsequent liturgical service does not look like a wedding or appear to add legal or even sacramental substance to what has already been done. Equally we have recognised the capacity in sad circumstances of the civil courts to undo what has been done in church, and we do not suggest to those who have been divorced that they need an additional visit to church to undo some theological aspect of their union which the civil law cannot handle. As we all know, we have agonised over the appropriateness of remarrying in church those who have been divorced, but we have never held that such marriages, wherever solemnised, are in any way defective in law or somehow sub -Christian.
All this thinking involves something quite distinctively Anglican - the disinclination to see marriage as involving a sacramental bond which is qualitatively different to what is available to ordinary mortals, and the inclination to act at all times in a manner consonant with the civil law in so far as is practicable. In other words – to state the principle again – we have distinctive teachings about
marriage as opposed to a different concept of it. That estimable Anglican Society, the Mothers‟ Union,
seeks the upholding of Christ‟s teaching concerning marriage as opposed, as far as I know, to promoting any notion of Christian marriage as something separate or superior.
All these things are important for reasons other than linguistic and theological accuracy. We live in a world where fewer people seem to be choosing marriage, preferring it seems other arrangements. If the church is to articulate to society how marriage remains the bedrock for social stability and the optimum context for the upbringing of children, we need to recall society anew to its own understanding of marriage as opposed to suggesting, self-righteously and rather piously, that we alone enjoy a better product.
Even more significantly, society seems inclined in these days to start to use the language of marriage in relation to same – sex relationships. I would be regarded as quite liberal in relation to same-sex partnerships, and I do not even regard them as being inappropriate subjects for prayer if they are committed and exclusive. I suspect that a minority of people are always going to be gay and their orientation is essentially morally neutral. That said, a same-sex couple cannot experience marriage
as it is found in creation – what they share cannot ever involve the relational, the unitive and the
procreative. If the churches cocoon themselves talking about Christian marriage as something peculiar to them, the rest of the world may feel free to redefine the term marriage as it likes. We need to speak to society in a way that preserves the language of marriage for what actually is marriage. Even the famous or infamous diocese of New Westminster in Canada is scrupulously careful to avoid the term marriage in relation to the same –sex partnerships it feels deserve prayer. It is an example
we could follow as the production of legislation concerning civil partnerships gathers pace here.
Not only, at the end of the day, is talk of Christian Marriage inaccurate and contrary to our tradition, it also has the capacity to weaken the witness of the church to marriage in these critical times by giving the impression that we and the rest of society are somehow content no longer to talk about the same thing. And so I dare to end with a cri de coeur, as I have so often done at the synod – „Marriage is
Marriage is Marriage‟. It‟s a truth which the world desperately needs to hear and if we ghettoise our own terminology we may ironically be in danger of abandoning it.
Marriage – a response to Dean Burrows
By Dermot O’Callaghan, General Synod Representative November 2005
I have been asked by Rev John McDowell, chairman of the Church of Ireland Marriage Council, to comment on a speech made to General Synod by Very Rev Michael Burrows, Dean of Cork. The main theme of the dean‟s speech is that we should be careful to talk about „marriage‟ rather than Christian marriage.
The dean reasons that:
- marriage is a creation ordinance, for everyone whether Christian or not
- it orders society‟s relationships in three ways that are beneficial for the common good,
providing a context for: (i) companionship; (ii) sexual unit; (iii) reproduction
- as such, it is a bedrock of society.
He believes that talk of „Christian marriage‟ is not only inaccurate, but also contrary to our tradition,
which fully recognises marriages whether secular or from other religions, and also affirms the validity of divorces recognised by the State.
He reasons further that we should be careful to speak of „marriage‟ rather than „Christian marriage‟ because to speak of Christian marriage may give the wrong impression that marriage solemnised in a Christian church is somehow superior to marriage elsewhere. That could weaken the Church‟s witness in society inasmuch as people might come to think that we view non-Christian marriages as somehow different from and perhaps inferior to our own version.
All of the above is my rough summary of Dean Burrows‟ main theme (excluding his reference to same-sex relationships, to which I shall refer separately.)
I believe that the dean is entirely correct in his affirmation that marriage is a creation ordinance which applies universally, and not just to Christians.
In response, I would make several points which in different ways build on his theme, modify it, disagree with it or extend it into other areas which I think should rightly concern the Church of Ireland Marriage Council. I agree with the dean‟s three elements of the context for which marriage was instituted – companionship, sexual unity and reproduction – but prefer for the sake of simplicity to
combine the first two under the heading „relational’ (covering both companionship and sexual
relationship) and „procreational.‟ This placing of the sexual relationship primarily on the relational rather than the procreational side of the discussion is of considerable significance and requires justification below, since it has a direct bearing on the vital question of contraception.
1. A Biblical Definition of Marriage
(a) The first purpose of marriage is relational rather than procreational
As a creation ordinance, marriage has its origin in Genesis chapter 2, where we are told (v.18)
that the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper/ partner
suitable for him.” The ensuing story gives us several clear principles for sex and marriage.
First, the stated purpose of marriage and sex in this verse is as a remedy for loneliness, not
as a vehicle for procreation. The primary purpose is relational rather than procreational. Of
course, procreation will generally follow as a result of sexual relations, and (though this is
increasingly contested today) there is overwhelming evidence that traditional marriage is the
best context in which to bring up children. But a childless marriage is in no way less of a
marriage than one blessed with many children. The Church through the ages has wrongly
placed an extraordinary emphasis on the need for sex to be geared to procreation. This
emphasis is entirely absent in the Genesis 2 account, which says nothing about children.
(The famous procreation text „be fruitful and multiply‟ is found in the previous chapter of
Genesis; but it is said to the birds and fishes (v.22) before it is said to the man and woman
(v.28). It would seem to be a general blessing of fruitfulness -“God blessed them and said,
„Be fruitful and multiply‟” - rather than a moral command that all sexual activity should have the intention of producing children. (This insight has important implications, which I would amplify if required.)
So, as noted above, I place the unitive (sexual relations) element of marriage in the relational
component rather than the procreational. This is entirely in keeping with the new emphasis of
the Book of Common Prayer (2004). It is also in keeping with the teaching of the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 7:5 the apostle Paul gives some wonderful teaching on the relationship between husband and wife, which the Church has not always noted. He says, “Do not deprive one another (of sexual relations) except by mutual consent and for a time, so
that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” In this passage, Paul sees the sexual
relationship between husband and wife as ongoing and regular – and (just as in Genesis 2)
there is no mention whatever of children. The sexual relationship is entirely justified as being relational rather than procreational, as I have earlier argued. Indeed the apostle tells husband and wife that to refuse one another sexual intercourse would be to deprive one another of
something that God has given them richly to enjoy. Of course Paul‟s teaching in the previous verse is that neither husband nor wife owns their own body – it is jointly owned by both. This
precludes the abuse of forcing one‟s spouse to have sex; it provides room for the contingency that either party may not be feeling well, and that things change as people grow older. But, as a general rule, Paul says that married couples should refrain from sex only under three conditions:
- by mutual agreement
- for a limited period
- for some higher purpose (such as devoting time to prayer).
Paul‟s use of the language of „deprivation‟ makes it clear that he regards sex between husband and wife as something primarily geared not to procreation but to relationship-building. This teaching of both Old and New Testaments has been strangely distorted by the Church from an early stage in its history.
(b) The intended nature of marriage is to form a new primary loyalty bond
In marriage the man and woman leave their parents and cleave to each other, becoming „one flesh‟. In effect they form a new bond with a new primary loyalty - to each other. The one-
flesh activity is more than a mere statement of fact: it carries a moral dimension. Becoming one flesh in marriage requires a commitment to exclude all other parties. If even parents must in a sense be „left behind‟, how much more so any other person who might be a sexual rival to the one-flesh relationship of marriage.
To be sure, many varieties of sexual practice which deviate from this rule are encountered in the Bible, but the haunting words of Jesus [when addressing the question of divorce] call us back to the original creation ordinance: “But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19 v.8). What has happened is not necessarily what should happen. It is to the latter that we
(c) The intended duration of the marriage bond is lifelong
When Jesus was questioned about divorce [in Matthew 19 as noted above], he quoted from Genesis 2 – the famous leaving and cleaving text. And he added a postscript which had the effect of copper-fastening the Genesis 2 text. He said, “Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6). [The Anglican Communion has changed its teaching on divorce and remarriage in recent years and has a bad conscience about this, thinking it has gone against the teaching of Jesus. I believe that in fact the Church has misunderstood Jesus‟ teaching about divorce, however – Jesus forbade a particular kind of
divorce (where the divorced spouse, usually the wife, had done nothing wrong), not divorce when a marriage had broken down which was sadly recognised and permitted under the Law. I would again amplify if required.]
(d) The ‘one flesh’ bond is for opposite-sex, not same-sex relationships
When Jesus quoted the Genesis 2 text about „leaving and cleaving‟, he deliberately prefaced it with some words added from Genesis 1 – „Haven‟t you read that at the beginning the
Creator made them male and female‟. This adds a clear heterosexual copper-fastening to the
„leaving and cleaving‟ passage in Genesis 2, which is couched in any case in the terms that “a man will … be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (v.24). The Bible gives us no warrant for same-sex one-flesh relationships. Indeed, they are universally forbidden in Scripture.
Against the background of this ancient teaching on marriage as emanating from our creation, affirmed by our Lord and resonating with common sense, I want to support the dean‟s heartfelt cry that “Marriage is Marriage is Marriage”, and make an observation which modifies his view somewhat. First, while agreeing that we should not allow ourselves or others to lapse into thinking that „Christian marriage‟ is anything other than marriage, yet it is possible to continue to affirm the universality of marriage while at the same time recognising that it comes in a variety of cultural and religious forms. I don‟t find myself reacting against terms
such as „Hindu marriage‟ or „Jewish marriage‟ – I don‟t see them as attempts to be superior in
any way. This being so, I think it is fairly harmless for us to talk in similar terms of Christian marriage as long as we are careful to note the dean‟s valid concerns. Although Christians (or Hindus) may give immense significance to their particular marriage tradition, we should all remember, as the dean says, that the real significance of the matter is the marriage itself, not its religious, secular or cultural expression. The latter are, so to speak, semantic variations on a common theme. To use a different metaphor, there are many varieties of rose, but all are equally roses.
While agreeing in principle with the dean‟s main point, I believe nevertheless that there are several much more serious issues facing the Church and its teaching about marriage at the present time, as discussed below.
2. Threats to Marriage
(a) The very definition of marriage as lifelong monogamous commitment
What is marriage? Traditionally it has been defined as “the voluntary union for life of one
man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others”. This landmark definition, given by
Lord Penzance in a legal case in 1866 has found widespread acceptance in the English speaking world. In addition to the voluntariness of the contract and the opposite-sex requirement, it involves two crucial elements:
(i) lifetime commitment, and
(ii) monogamous fidelity
both of which are for the good of the marriage partners, for children and also for society as a whole. All of this is entirely in keeping with the teaching of Scripture noted earlier.
The first threat to marriage appears to me to be the very real danger of trivialising marriage itself. There is no problem in our fully recognising marriages from outside the Christian tradition, for the reasons discussed above. Hindu, Muslim, secular – marriage is marriage.
But the Sunday Times recently reported (31 July 2005) that in the USA today, in some four out of five marriages, the participants are writing their own marriage vows. When Brad Pitt
and Jennifer Aniston married in 2000, she promised to make his favourite milk shake, while he said he would „split the difference‟ over the temperature in their home. The marriage didn‟t last long.
The marriage vows of actor Will Smith and Jade Pinkett did not promise to “forsake all others.” They built in a different kind of commitment – that they would be open with each
other about their extra-marital affairs. And in America it is said that most couples are no longer promising a lifelong commitment to each other. Instead of “till death do us part” they
use a non-commital but “more realistic” phrase such as “for as long as love lasts”. We should
realise that even in Ireland the long-standing assumptions about what people consider marriage to be, are increasingly being challenged today.
It seems to me that this is an area that the Marriage Council might consider addressing. (I don‟t know, for example, what vows must be exchanged in UK/ Ireland for a marriage to be valid. There must be some limits to the wording, surely).
(b) Same-sex unions and the redefinition of fidelity
Dean Burrows stresses his opposition to the term „marriage‟ in the context of same-sex
partnerships, while giving approval to the partnerships themselves. This strikes me as straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel, but at least he and I are agreed on the definition of marriage.
In 2003 The Ontario Superior Court ruled that Canada's legal definition of marriage as "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman" was “discriminatory, unconstitutional and violates homosexuals‟ human rights” which are guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It seems to me, however, that if we value marriage we must favour it against other types of relationship. This necessarily means that we must discriminate against other marriage-type relationships that are not marriage. It doesn‟t violate anyone‟s human rights – all people have the same rights under the law. What it does violate is the notion that one may redefine marriage to involve same-sex as an alternative to opposite-sex partners – a
notion which both Dean Burrows and I would oppose.
Of course, the move in New Westminster diocese (in western Canada) to bless same-sex unions has been a major cause of controversy in the Anglican Communion.
Also, we cannot avoid facing up to the possible consequences of transfer of values from the gay culture to society in general. Promiscuity is widespread in the gay community. Project
Sigma, funded by the UK Department of Health, found that most gay men had an average of seven partners a year. It defined a „closed‟ (ie monogamous) relationship as one where a person had not had sex with a third party in the previous month.
In California, a major study of male couples found that “all couples with a relationship lasting more than five years have incorporated some provision for outside sexual activity.” “Fidelity is not defined in terms of sexual behaviour, but of emotional commitment.” (The Male Couple,
DP Mc Whirter, AM Mattison, Prentice-Hall 1994, p.252).
Dean Burrows strongly opposes me directly on this element of the debate, pointing to examples he knows of permanent, faithful, stable same-sex relationships. I accept that these exist, but the important question is whether they are truly representative of the gay experience. It may be argued that if gay men had an opportunity to build a culture in which lifelong commitment was encouraged within the wider society, their practice would become more monogamous. In my view this would not happen – rather the reverse: their values would
influence society. Andrew Sullivan, the journalist, believes that homosexual relationships could “nourish the broader society” by such things as “a greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets” (Virtually Normal, Picador, 1995, p 202-3). But such values, if they
spread to society generally, would destroy marriage. And the main casualties would be women and children.
How would the values spread? By being taught in schools and shown on television (as happens already). If a child must be taught that several options – opposite-sex, same-sex
and perhaps others - are equally valid, then by definition the typical lifestyles of each are equally valid. And if promiscuity is acceptable for gays, every child will reasonably conclude that it must be equally valid for opposite-sex relationships.
(c) Opposite-sex couples and the dilution of marriage
Most young people today live in sexual relationships before getting married (if they ever do so). Whether their cohabitation is under one roof or a relationship where though they don‟t actually live together, they are „an item‟ sexually speaking, matters little from the point of view
of Christian morality. If cohabitation in future should be afforded official recognition by the State, in terms that are comparable to the recognition given to marriage, then heterosexual young people will be able to choose between two alternatives - marriage or cohabitation –
each of which provide equal benefits (materially speaking), but the first of which demands a substantial cost: commitment to a lifetime monogamous relationship. To be sure, many will go on to marry, particularly when children are born, but any dilution of marriage by State support of an alternative which is in many ways superficially more attractive, should be opposed by the Church. Such an approach is not easy, because we want all children to be supported regardless of their family background. But there must be a way forward which provides support for children without giving approval to the family choices taken by their parents.
We should be take note of some words of Oxford professor AH Halsey, who wrote: “… what should be universally acknowledged is that the children of parents who do not follow the traditional norm (ie taking on personal, active and long-term responsibility for the social upbringing of the children they generate) are thereby disadvantaged in many major aspects of their chances of living a successful life. On the evidence available such children tend to die earlier, to have more illness, to do less well at school, to exist at a lower level of nutrition, comfort and conviviality, to suffer more unemployment, to be more prone to deviance and crime, and finally to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they themselves have suffered … The evidence all points in the same direction, is formidable, and tallies with
This strategic comment should be a counter-balance to the short-termism that says that all relationships into which children are likely to be born are to be deemed ‟equal‟.
3 Current developments in Ireland
From December 2005 same-sex partnerships are recognised by the State in the UK, including Northern Ireland. The Church of England has responded to this legislation by permitting its clergy to enter such partnerships, but with a promise of sexual abstinence. But the legislation is implicitly sexual in intent - close relatives within the degrees prohibited for marriage are prohibited from civil partnership also. It does not make sense to allow people to enter a sexual relationship with a precondition of sexual abstinence.
Moreover, if this approach were replicated in Ireland the situation would be even worse, because of legal differences north and south. In the Republic the Law Reform Commission is consciously pursuing a different policy from that in the UK, whereby male/female cohabitants, as well as same-sex partners, would be recognised as having legal partnerships. If we were to permit our clergy in NI to register same-sex partnerships (as in C of E), we might soon also have to allow them to have opposite-sex unmarried partnerships in the Republic.
The different legal approaches north and south will create great complications in society on this island. I believe that the best way forward for the Church is to take a third way, reaffirming the traditional alternatives of celibacy or marriage for our people, both clerical and lay. It will be difficult enough for us to give pastoral care to lay people who are caught up with the misguided thinking of the secular world; to encourage the clergy in this direction would be most unwise.
There is much more that could be said on the changes taking place in our society. I hope that what I have written here will be a helpful contribution to the Church of Ireland Marriage Council as it seeks to uphold the continuing value of marriage in a rapidly changing world.