Amidst all the sound and fury around redefining marriage this week, I've been trying to work out what I think. The Ugley Vicar has already pointed out a lack of clear thinking in government about what marriage is, and what it is actually trying to do.
So much of the debate seems to come down to whether or not marriage is a 'given', an institution, something which exists independently of our efforts to define or redefine it. And if it is a 'given', how much of that is up for grabs, and how much of the nature of marriage can be tweaked from culture to culture? So the Church of England, for example, has moved from a set of marriage vows where the wife promises to 'obey' and the husband to 'worship', to creating an alternative symmetrical set of vows, to taking the symmetrical vows as the norm.
Here's Dietrich Bonhoeffer Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to His glory, and calls into His kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more that something personal – it is a status, an office.
This sense of an office is part of the furniture of Christian thinking, whether we are thinking about leadership in the church (apostles/bishops etc.) thinking about power (kings, prophets, the place of the law), work and rest (sabbath), or relationships. There are some 'givens' which God has put in place, for our good and for the good of community and the planet. Even in secular terms, we still recognise a 'vocation', that sense of a call which comes from beyond you to take a particular place in society as teacher, healer, carer, pursuer of knowledge etc.
Postmodern liberalism, on the other hand, doesn't recognise any givens. Everything is a social construction, everything is up for grabs. Inherited institutions, from the monarchy to the Lords to the church to marriage, carry no intrinsic authority, and have to justify their existence on the same terms as everything else. All is merit and practicality. And there's plenty to be said for this. I would much rather have a competent Bishop than one who says 'I'm the bishop of (insert), this is what I do', to justify any action.
The political and cultural outworking of this is the extension of free choice into any and every area of life, from conception to cremation. The battle over assisted dying is the same as the battle over marriage, is individual free choice sovereign, and does anything else trump it? The proponents of euthanasia, consistently led by the BBC, will not let this one drop until they win it.
However the flipside of this is that any principal that liberalism appeals to must be a social construct as well. You can't reject all 'given' social institutions, and then insist on innate and given moral values. The notion of 'equality' which the government is currently appealing to is a social construct too, and just as open to challenge as the institutions it is used to challenge.
The Biblical description of marriage - the exclusive and life-long union of one man and one woman, instituted and blessed by God - is consistently affirmed from Genesis 1 to the arrival of the 'Bride' in Revelation. It is a microcosm of the human race, a reflection of the love of God for his creation, the ideal context for having and raising children (though the Bible wouldn't recognise our nuclear family, operating as an independent unit from any form of community or clan). There are things that are like marriage: a parents commitment to their children is (hopefully) life long, there are deep friendships which offer companionship, there are extended families who support the rearing of children. Marriage doesn't have a monopoly on the social goods it embodies. But that doesn't mean that other relationships which carry these social goods need to be renamed 'marriage'.
This is not simply a matter of equality, or justice, it's a deep philosophical and cultural issue about the very structure of existence. Are we simply making it up as we go along, or is there some kind of a structure to human existence and society which actually needs to be respected and worked with? It doesn't strike me that this week has made these questions any clearer, or helped us to resolve them.
Other bits worth reading:
Peter Ould has several posts
God and Politics notes that ignoring the public response to the 'consultation' is seen as a badge of honour by the Equalities Minister.