It’s Time

A couple of years ago, I attended a forum on equal marriage at which the principal speaker was the Right Reverend Gregor Duncan, the Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway. If commitment to a political ideology were a thing that needed to be proven, voluntarily getting lost in Inverclyde on a Saturday afternoon in the coldest January in my living memory must surely qualify. A couple of days after that, I convened a forum on equal marriage at the LGBT Group at St Mary’s Cathedral at which our invited guest was the Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway. I tell you those things so that you understand that when he asked, with as much exasperation as Bishop Gregor ever asks anything, which isn’t much, why I was obsessed with being able to use the word “marriage”, he had in all fairness by that point spent a significant portion of his weekend being harassed by me.

It had been a little bit about microphones and thuribles — somewhere in the middle of it all, Evensong happened — but it was mostly about this.

I offered him the glib answer: “If it’s only a word, why are you obsessed with stopping me?”

And then I gave him a more serious one, but, honestly, just because that one’s glib doesn’t mean it’s not true.

It is an argument that I’ve heard a lot of in the nearly six years since I got involved with the equal marriage campaign. From friends. From family. From politicians. From newspapers. From the Internet. From my Church. You can have a civil partnership. It gives you (mostly) the same rights and responsibilities and protections as marriage. Why do you need to call it marriage? It’s just a word. And it’s an argument that I would consider a perfectly reasonable one if it weren’t that the people who ask that are the same ones who have said in the breath before it that the definition of marriage can’t be changed.

You can say that words mean stuff. You can say that words don’t. You cannot do both.

Me, I think that words mean stuff.

I think that marriage means mutual love and mutual respect. I think it means equality. I think it means in sickness and in health and with my body I thee honour. I think it means commitment, commitment to celebrate together in times of joy and comfort one another in times of tragedy. I think that “marriage”, as a word, means social legitimacy in a way that “partnership” doesn’t, not quite. I think that my definition of marriage probably isn’t the same as the Biblical definition of marriage, not because I don’t define it as between a man and a woman but because I can’t find any marriages in the Bible that are worth emulating. I think it means imperfection. I’d like it to mean to the exclusion of all others and until death parts us, but I know that it doesn’t always and that straight people get divorced too.

This week is an important week for Scotland. The Scottish Parliament votes on Wednesday on its equal marriage bill. It will not be the end of the story. If it passes, there will be time to debate and add and vote on amendments to the Bill and a statutory waiting period before Royal Assent. If that all happens, we can expect this to be an Act of Parliament sometime early in the New Year, and then there are those of us for whom that means more battles to be fought within our own communities. Whatever happens on Wednesday, it is not the end of the story, but I feel as if this is going to be the most significant moment of this extraordinary campaign.

When the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was being debated in Westminster earlier this year, David Lammy said this. He said, “Separate but equal is a fraud. Separate but equal is the language that tried to push Rosa Parks to the back of the bus. […] Separate is not equal, so let us be rid of it.”

Why do I want to call it marriage?

Because it is marriage.

Because the same sex couples I know who represent to me the best of what I believe marriage to be are already married. I look at them, and I see the mutual love and respect and the commitment and the humanity that I talked about. There is no meaningful difference between their relationship and the relationships of the opposite-sex and legally married couples I know and love and admire. The law is not the thing that will change the definition of marriage. The people have already done that. And so if words really do mean stuff, it’s time to call it what it is.

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9 comments

  1. Marriage is not just a word. Jesus defined marriage quite clearly as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman. If we claim to be Christian and therefore followers of Jesus Christ why do we tend to ignore much of what Jesus taught? (I am aware that in stating this I am in danger of being accused of being prejudiced and bigoted so let me also state that I accept the right for same gender coupes to have their relationship recognised in law and blessed in church.)

    1. But he didn’t.

      He was asked a question about Jewish divorce practices, and he cast his answer in the light of Jewish cultural norms of the time. It’s a heteronormative assumption, to be sure, but there’s a vast chasm of difference between talking about divorce in the case of a hypothetical man and woman who get married and actively expressing the view that only a man and a woman should ever get married. I don’t think you’re bigoted or prejudiced (after all, I don’t know you), but I do tend to think that people who start out by saying that Jesus defined marriage clearly as anything are perhaps people who could do with re-reading that Gospel verse in the context of the verses on either side of it.

      I also think it is worth pointing out that although I obviously have an interest in where the Scottish Episcopal Church will go with any change in the law, the actual change in the law is of interest to many people who do not claim to be Christian and who quite rightly have no interest in having their relationships held to the standards of anything that Jesus did or did not say.

      1. Really! Are we reading from the same Bible or the same passage? (Matthew 19:3-11.) The question Jesus was asked about marriage breakdown (divorce) is as surely pertinent today as it was then. He replied by defining marriage in very specific terms (verse 4) and his definition has been accepted by Christians (and agreed by most other faiths) down through the ages as it has by society at large – until, that is, very recent times. To claim that he was merely reflecting the Jewish cultural norms of the time is disingenuous and makes for questionable exegesis. As an Episcopalian my faith is built on the three pillars of Anglicanism: scripture, reason and tradition and on all three counts marriage can only be and has only ever been defined and practiced as between a man and a women.
        If the concern is about equality between homosexuals and heterosexuals it should be possible to make civil partnerships and marriages of equal status before the law while at the same time recognising that they are both different though similar in many ways..

        1. I am reading the same passage. In the NRSV translation, if that differs from yours.

          It’s not his definition. It’s a definition from Genesis, which was important in context for him to quote because of the bit about becoming one flesh (what God has joined together, etcetera). If the question is about the definition of marriage according to Genesis, that’s a different conversation.

          It’s my view that a question was asked that had absolutely nothing to do with the genders of the hypothetical married couple, and that in framing his answer Jesus makes the presupposition that that that couple are a man and a woman, which was not a monumentally unreasonable presupposition for him to make in the first century AD in a conversation with the Pharisees. I don’t know that he would have agreed with me had the question been asked. I don’t know that he would have disagreed, either. It wasn’t asked.

          Incidentally, there are a number of things that were accepted in Scripture and that we don’t accept, and the reasoning quite often *is* that this was the Jewish cultural norm of the time but that we now know better. Like slavery. And marital rape. And all of Leviticus.

          I accept that heterosexual and only heterosexual marriage is supported by Anglican tradition. I don’t accept that that it is defined as that to the exclusion of all else in Scripture, certainly not New Testament Scripture. I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to why same sex marriage is unreasonable, by which Christian ethics means illogical. The pillars of tradition, scripture, and reason don’t hold up an argument when two of those pillars aren’t present.

          1. Dear Beth,
            Thank you for your reply.. Here is my final response:

            In order to answer the question posed by the Pharisees it was necessary for Jesus to define marriage by quoting Genesis 2:24 which of course the Pharisees would have been familiar with. Did Jesus contradict this definition? Did he attempt to interpret it in a different way? The answer has to be a resounding NO!. Indeed Jesus affirmed this teaching by stating, “What God has joined together let no one separate.”

            Yet Jesus was not above contradicting the writings of the Old Testament as he did in this passage regarding Moses’ teaching on divorce. (See also Matthew 5:38: You have heard it said (Exodus 21:24) ’ an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ . But I say to you ….

            To suggest that the context of Matthew 19:3-19 renders as irrelevant the definition of marriage as quoted by Jesus is completely unreasonable. To suggest that it can be ignored is quite wrong. Why did Jesus say it if it wasn’t relative to the context in which the questions were asked?

            As I said before Jesus’s teaching that marriage involves a man and a woman has been accepted by Christians (and agreed by most other faiths) down through the ages as it has by society at large – until, that is, very recent times. For the whole of the Christian era this has been the cultural norm and not just the tradition of the Episcopal Church.

            We can change our secular laws so that a loving monogamous committed relationship between a same gender couple are accepted in our land as married. But does that really make them married in the eyes of God? I wonder?

          2. I’ve never disputed that he affirmed the idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment or that he came out heavily against divorce. I have said before that it is merely my view that he did those things, which answered the question that the Pharisees were interested in having answered, and didn’t comment on anything else, including the gender of the people involved.

            It is also my view that a loving monogamous committed relationship between a same gender couple is already accepted as married in the eyes of God. I never claimed that marriage was just a word. I think that marriage is oh so very much more than just a word. It is my hope and now my belief — you have presumably heard by now that the Bill passed its first vote in the Scottish Parliament — that the law and the language we use is going to change to reflect something that I think already exists.

            This is evidently something that we disagree on, but I would like to thank you for conducting this debate in such a polite and civilised manner.

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