Tuesday, 6 March 2012

For parish magazines: Same-sex marriage - a rational concern

Some time ago, I met two men, both still quite young, who had nevertheless been together as a couple for almost two decades.
Under proposals now being considered by the government, and which are clearly receiving widespread public support, they will soon be able to enter into not just a civil partnership but a marriage.
And what, many of you will ask, could possibly be wrong with that? Surely it is irrational to deny same-sex couples the recognition we give to heterosexuals?
But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that, far from being irrational, the objection to same-sex marriage is entirely rational. And that is because marriage itself is a fundamentally rational act.
Our sex-drive is something we share with the lowest of creatures. It is a basic and primitive urge. Our bodies want sex in the same way they want food or drink.
In feeling and expressing these urges, however, we display quite complex behaviours and emotions. We make ourselves attractive. We kiss and cuddle. We fall in love. We form pair-bonds for the purpose of breeding.
But look around the animal world and you will see similar things going on. The peacock’s tail and the teenager’s hairstyle are not really very different. And the affection of a human mother for her child is clearly similar in many ways to that of a chimpanzee, just as a troop of gorillas bears some resemblance to a human family.
That is why biologists think of these behaviours and feelings as belonging to the ‘middle’ parts of our brains, which are important to us, but not unique to human beings.
Where we differ from the animals, however, is in having a ‘higher brain’ where rational thought takes place. Human beings display not just sexual urges and behaviours, but sexual morality. And this is where marriage comes in.
In the Book of Common Prayer, the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage is expressed in blunt but clear language. Marriage, it says, “is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God”.
Marriage is where rational thought comes in to control our instincts and affections.
Now the Christian church has its own reasons for framing marriage in these terms. The problem facing society is deciding exactly what principles it will apply to ‘same-sex marriage’, if not the Christian reasons.
Two issues in particular demand our attention. First, if the definition of marriage can be expanded to include same-sex couples, why should the same not apply to other arrangements, such as for bisexuals? Clearly there is emotional support for the former. Should we allow emotional objections to the latter? 
Secondly, marriage originally provided a rational and moral framework for the expression of our sexual instincts and affections. But in same-sex couples, whilst the affection is there, the instinct is clearly misdirected – it is ‘homo’ not ‘hetero’-sexual. Society has to decide whether such relationships really are no different from one another, and whether treating them as identical will have no unwelcome effect on our understanding of ourselves, of society and of morality.
One thing is clear. The Christian understanding of marriage is becoming ever more distinct from that held by society in general. And that could be a very good thing, for it will finally make it clear that being a Christian is not the same thing as just being a ‘good person’.
Some people are worried that the church’s stance on same-sex marriage may make evangelism more difficult. Actually it may just make it easier.
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  1. John,

    A question - do you know of any other ancient sources/texts that define or articulate what marriage is? Put another way, is it only within a Christian context that marriage has an ultimate foundation? If this is the case then I can see why speaking about Marriage will increasingly become an evangelistic opportunity...

    Kip' Chelashaw

  2. Kip, my only 'authority' on this that lies ready to hand is Ewdard Schillebeeckx, "Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery". He suggests that in early Mediterranean culture, marriage was a transference of the bride from the household religion of her father to that of her husband, but that towards the Christian era that became more 'secularized' and the religious component of marriage diminished.

    His statement on p248 is significant: "It is clear from the foregoing that the contract of marriage was, in the first Christian centuries, felt to be a straightforward secular act, but that this contract was nonetheless inevitably accompanied by all kinds of moral, Christian, and ecclesiastical problems."

    Schillebeeckx traces a progressive involvement of the Church in the whole matter of marriage, which was not assumed at the outset (there is, of course, nothing in the NT about 'marriage services').

    He writes that marriage in Roman culture went on to become a matter of mutual consent. Though accompanied by religious rites, these were 'traditional' rather than 'effectual' - consent was enough. The Greeks, though not so keen on marriage (he says) nevertheless regarded it as a civic and religious duty for the perpetuation of offspring. There were accompanying religious rites, but again of a traditional nature - in fact, very much like a lot of church weddings!

  3. William Fisher, N.W. England7 March 2012 at 11:40

    "But in same-sex couples, whilst the affection is there, the instinct is clearly misdirected..."

    To whom is it clear that it is misdirected? To you, clearly, but not to everyone, and certainly not to me.

  4. William, what I meant is that if the sexual instinct is directed to an object or individual with which or whom sexual reproduction is impossible, then it is 'misdirected'. That happens in nature, but its misdirection is nonetheless clear.

    1. William, N.W.England7 March 2012 at 18:45

      When the sexual instinct is directed to a person of the other sex, it tends to result in sexual reproduction, although it by no means always does so. When it is directed to a person of the same sex, it never does. That this simple biological fact, of which practically everyone is aware, indicates that in the latter case it is misdirected is an assumption which I see no reason to make; its misdirection is not at all clear. It is simply differently directed.

  5. John wrote, "Some people are worried that the church (of England's) stance on same-sex marriage may make evangelism more difficult. Actually it may just make it easier."

    Here in the U.S. it is clear that the Episcopal church's stance is in favor of same-sex marriage, and in my experience, that stance makes apologetics and therefore evangelism impossible.

  6. John I have set out some headline reasons for not revising the definition of marriage at http://www.psephizo.com/?p=1112

  7. First, if the definition of marriage can be expanded to include same-sex couples, why should the same not apply to other arrangements, such as for bisexuals?

    In the case of bisexuals, they could marry either someone of the opposite or same sex. It is wrong to assume that bisexuals need or indeed want to simultaneously have a partner of each sex. I don't think there is any evidence that those of us who are bisexual are more likely to be polygamous or promiscuous. Indeed it is possible to be bisexual and extremely monogamous, both in behaviour and inclination. Bisexuals are not "greedy" or "indecisive", just attracted to both genders. Bisexual people can be promiscuous, but then so can straight people and gay people. Bisexual people can be very faithful, so can straight and gay people. Bisexual people can be celibate - just the same as gays and straights. In short, just like everyone else, and not requiring some sort of "bisexual marriage" involving more than one partner!

  8. Suem, you seem to be saying that bisexuals can and should operate a 'self-denying' ordinance on their sexual desires.

    I'll let the implications of your suggestion speak for themselves.

    However, I did not suggest that this was about 'promiscuity'. On the contrary, a recognized social arrangement for bisexuality would be arguable on the grounds that it would avoid promiscuity - just as some are now arguing that the Church should accept same-sex marriage or civil partnerships in order to encourage faithfulness.

    Furthermore, the question is addressed not to the Church, but to an increasingly secular society. It is that society which must come up with reasons why not (if any).

  9. I believe that the 7 reasons cited by Ian Paul are thoroughly sound, and echo the views of many other orthodox Christians who are speaking out on the issue.
    Perhaps the warning given by Ian that "we have now moved into different territory,and there will be unintended consequences" identifies a major objection.
    Indeed so! SSM will move us from the Biblical simplicity of the God ordained heterosexual union which is clear and understood, and logically opening the door to any number of sexual 'variables'.
    As I have writen elsewhere: " SSM is a Trojan Horse.... it may well give birth to some strange and unwanted creatures in years to come as polygamists, bigamists, bisexuals, polyamorists (multiple sexual partners) and others, all clamour to be recognised as eligible for 'marriage'.
    One other unintended consequences in a future sexual 'free for all', would be the plight of vulnerable potential victims, namely children.
    Thus Dr Jennifer Morse on these:
     The essential public purpose of marriage is to attach a mother and a father to their children and to one another. Given this, then every child is entitled to know and be known by both parents.

     Adult society must protect the child’s right to affiliation with both parents. Without man/woman marriage there will be no institution specifically protecting the rights of children to be in relation with both parents.

     Children have the best life chances when they are raised by their biological married parents.

     Man/woman marriage provides children with access to their genetic, cultural and social heritage. By contrast SSM changes marriage from a child-centered institution to an adult centered institution. " (see her website - The Ruth Institute)

    I ask also about the unintended consequences of SSM in the realm of euducation: "Further, why should parents and children be forced to abandon a traditional view of marriage, and children indoctrinated into an alien SSM ideology when their parents may wish to teach them according to their own values and world-view?
    Is there a single sound reason why our Christian, or for that matter secular, or educational cultures should all be abandoned at the whim of politicians?"

    These illustrate but a few of the serious failures to think through the proposals which are initiated primarily for ideological and electoral reasons.
    They are unacceptable.

  10. You are thoughtful and conscientious and therefore always interesting. But your lack of understanding of human sexuality is something that you should address before (literally!) pontificating about people whose sexuality is not the same as your own. Your idea of bisexuality and of homsexuality is ignorant but you could easily correct it by humbling yourself, going out to homosexual and bisexual people, eating, living, loving, and being with them, as Christ would have done, and only then, and very tentatively, beginning to presume to know the mind of God in relation to those people. Just a suggestion! Until then, it would be interesting to know the sins to which you are yourself most susceptible - which obviously don't include any non-heterosexual sin- and then hearing your informed thoughts about those. Yours in Christ. Max.

  11. Max, it seems you're telling me I'm wrong, but you're not telling me how and where. I'd invite you to do so.

  12. These things are too deep to be told on a blog, or read in a book, or worked out by careful thought. That's why I think you would do better to live with the publicans and sinners, and not to be told about them. Or to write about the publicans and sinners you do live with. I could say more but I think that would be to undermine this key message. In love. Max.

  13. Max. You wrote: These things are too deep to be told on a blog"
    Your comment appears to be something of a cop-out from the issues under discussion. What "things" are too deep please? And are not many blogs world-wide engaged in the discussion of the issue of SSM and related issues.
    That is what these forums are there for!
    How will your suggestion of anyone "living with publicans and sinners (whatever that may mean) contribute to the discussion in hand?
    The central issue is the question - why should the law be changed to allow SSM? Do you have an answer for this blog?
    It all sounds deeply spiritual but Max, you have not actually contributed much to the debate in your comments thus far, or put forward reasons for any view you may have.

    blog, or read in a book, or worked out by careful thought.