The meaning of marriage

Friday’s Church Times contains another excellent response to the now infamous Church of England document Men and Women in Marriage, this time by Jane Shaw.

The document appeals to ‘a unique relationship between a man and a woman’ and ‘the complementarity of the sexes’, which it treats as ‘universal and timeless concepts’. Shaw replies that, far from being universal and timeless, they developed at particular times for political reasons.

She focuses on the Enlightenment, with its support for the notion of human rights. Treating humanity as divided into two sexes was a way to maintain the theory while denying equality to women; but ‘concepts of sexual difference and complementarity that our ancestors would barely have recognised 300 years ago, let alone 3000 years ago, are regularly mapped back on to the Hebrew scriptures, especially the creation stories in Genesis 2’.

This enables reactionary church leaders to argue that the word ‘marriage’ should be restricted to one-man-one-woman relationships; having, seemingly, already given up the campaign against civil partnerships they now concentrate on opposing the use of the word ‘marriage’ for same-sex partnerships.

To treat the debate as though it was all about the meaning of a word is really quite bizarre. Words change their meanings; there is never a time when one word or other isn’t being transformed, but we don’t normally imagine the change is breaking any kind of taboo. The compilers of dictionaries do not fret about it; they accept that words describe but do not prescribe. What a word means depends on how it is used. What the word ‘marriage’ means depends on what people use it to mean.

So here comes my brief history of marriage. When our ancestors evolved from missing links they were already forming partnerships, learning a thing or two from the birds and the bees and producing children. Judging from modern studies of primates most of them probably paired for life with a certain amount of ‘cheating’, while a minority had same-sex relationships. Roll on a few hundred thousand years and language developed. They called these partnerships by words which translate into modern English as ‘marriage’. Societies found that when a girl becomes sexually active they needed to provide a supportive network for the babies; so they developed rituals to establish the responsibilities, and gave them names which translate into modern English as ‘weddings’. Note the order: first the partnerships, then the notion of marriage, then the notion of weddings.

In medieval Europe the Christian Church put a lot of effort into putting itself in charge of administering weddings. Eventually they succeeded. Catholics described marriage as a sacrament, some Protestants as an order of creation. In either case the word ‘marriage’ no longer described a well-known pattern of human relationships; instead it described a spiritual relationship established by God. This made it possible for church leaders to claim that a relationship which looked like a marriage wasn’t a real marriage unless it had been given that heavenly stamp of approval. I still remember being a troublesome student at my theological college in the mid-70s. Our Ethics tutor told us that marriages are made in heaven. I asked the obvious question, the one the Sadducees asked Jesus about a woman whose husbands kept dying and being replaced – who would be her husband in heaven? I’m afraid I can’t remember his answer, but I do remember being dissatisfied, and feeling guilty about giving him such a rotten time.

In that system, who can tell whether a particular partnership has got that heavenly approval? Why, of course, church leaders: the experts on what God is up to. Once this was generally accepted the Church could lay down what marriage was for and what it permitted. Marriage was for the production of children. Accordingly, the twentieth century saw a battle over the moral acceptability of contraception, and then we moved on to same-sex partnerships.

The catch is that twenty-first century society no longer accepts that the Church is in charge of even administering weddings, let alone defining marriage. ‘Marriage’ is a word. It means whatever English-speaking people mean when they use it. In the same way the French word ‘mariage’ means whatever French-speaking people mean by it. They may mean something slightly different from what the English mean by ‘marriage’; but even if the French ‘mariage’ included same-sex partnerships while the English ‘marriage’ did not, nobody would deduce that therefore same-sex partnerships were more morally acceptable in France than in England.

I wonder whether the current focus on the meaning of the word ‘marriage’ should be seen as a distraction from a real change of moral stance by some church leaders – the abandonment of opposition to civil partnerships.

Whether it is or not, the order of play is: first God gives us bodies and relationships, then we find words to describe them. Words themselves don’t determine the morality of actions and relationships.

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