The issue of marriage equality is simmering in Australia. This year, we were surprised by the referendum in Ireland in support of same sex marriage. This news was followed soon after by the decision of the Supreme Court in the US concerning marriage equality. In Australia, the Assembly of the Uniting Church has engaged in consideration of the issues surrounding changes in the understanding of marriage. Several careful, long reports have been produced. The Assembly in July decided to “continue to engage in a culturally-appropriate conversation about marriage and same gender relationships.”
I am irked by much of what is reported in the media about the “church” or “Christian” position on marriage equality. It tends to be a simplistic presentation, boiling all of the diversity of Christian views down into one or two slogans. It does not help our growth in faith as we wrestle with the tension between the apparently contradictory attitudes of Christianity and Secular Society.
My message this month is a little bit different from usual. I will raise some questions about marriage, hoping that these will help you explore how you think about the issue of marriage equality. The central question is “What is the essence of marriage?”, but let’s look at this from some different angles. Of course, it is not possible to do justice to the complexity of the question in a short space. (In preparing this message, I benefited from a short article by US Lutheran scholar, Barbara Lundblad.)
Marriage and children
In Genesis 1, God commands the man and the woman to fill the earth with people. To what extent is this command definitive of marriage? One can argue that today, humanity has actually fulfilled this command. The world’s population in many places exceeds the capacity of the land for food production. In this case, what is the role of child-bearing in marriage?
On the other hand, there are many examples in the Hebrew Bible where children are born outside of a relationship that corresponds to our contemporary understanding of marriage, e.g., with Jacob, Genesis 29, 30.
Marriage and companionship
In Genesis 2, God creates one prototype human, Adam, but soon declares that it is not good for Adam to be alone. Then God splits Adam into two, male and female, so that they are partners. What is important in this story – the removal of alone-ness or the pairing of male and female? Where you place the emphasis will influence how you think about same-sex relationships.
Is same-sex marriage unnatural?
The Uniting Church recognises that attitudes to marriage differ from culture to culture, and that we are a multicultural church. Different cultures tend to believe that their attitudes are “natural” and that others are “unnatural.” In the Bible, in some places, marriage with people outside of the covenant with Moses is forbidden and the breakup of such marriages is forced (Ezra 9, Nehemiah 13). In Australia, the protector of Aborigines denied permission for a mixed marriage as recently as 1959. Obstacles were placed in the way of marriage between Australian servicemen in Japan after the war and Japanese women. These examples show the fluidity of the understanding of marriage in our dominant culture. What is it about marriage that makes people think that same-sex marriage might be unnatural?
Same sex marriage and morality
Some of the examples cited above would not be considered moral anymore. What is the source of morality? What makes any relationship moral? Is any male-female relationship other than marriage moral? Your answers to these questions can be a starting point for whether you consider same sex marriage can be moral.
If you believe that marriage is by definition a relationship between male and female then same sex marriage is impossible, like a square circle. However, this shifts the question to “What recognition should be given to a same sex relationship in the Uniting Church and under law?”
One of the US Supreme Court judges wrote “No union is more perfect than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideal of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family…” Do you think that a same sex relationship can embody these ideals? If so, what would you call such a relationship?
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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