In a recent article on the Fulcrum website, Andrew Goddard has written forcefully against the government’s proposals for equal civil marriage on the grounds that they will so fundamentally redefine the nature of marriage that the institution of the family, and the social stability that it engenders, will both be endangered.
Unlike some high profile church leaders Goddard makes his case lucidly and cogently. However he is no less wrong.
In essence his argument amounts to this:
- people nowadays perceive marriage in purely personal terms, as a matter of free individual choice and do not appreciate its institutional value for social cohesion and promoting the common good, particularly with regard to procreation and child-rearing;
- the case for gay marriage therefore is argued in terms of ‘extending individual rights’ and ‘promoting equality’ by ‘opening up’ civil marriage to same-sex couples;
- in actual fact, however, marriage is not just a question of individual choice but a key institutional pillar in the social structure and what will happen if the Government goes ahead is that the whole concept and legal category of marriage as ‘the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others’ which we have had ‘for centuries’ will disappear, and with it the stability which it has ‘traditionally’ provided.
Goddard’s lamentations over the demise of the tradition of marriage and the family are manifold but his main complaint is that there will be no terminology ‘to speak precisely of that way of life’ which is opposite-sex marriage.
Goddard’s piece is entitled ‘Should we redefine marriage?’ Like many conservative religious thinkers, Goddard falls into the trap of imagining that his particular take on marriage, the modern nuclear family of mum, dad, 2.4 adorable children, a dog and a mortgage’ so beloved of evangelical ‘family values’ ideology, represents an unbroken tradition ordained of God, sanctified by the Bible and hallowed by the centuries.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Marriage has been redefined again and again to adapt it to changing circumstances. The social meaning of marriage is culturally specific and has changed many times in the course of history. One has only to think of the American states for example where skin colour was considered at one time to be an absolute bar to marriage.
The modern advocacy of the nuclear family based on romantic attachment between two people is a relatively recent invention and is linked with the rise of Protestantism. Previously the Catholic Church believed the celibate state to be superior to it. Indeed for many centuries the church had little or no interest in or involvement with marriage. And of course it is embarrassing for thinkers such as Goddard that it appears nowhere in the Nicene Creed.
And as for the Bible, the claim that there is consistency here in the teaching about marriage is frankly incredible. Biblical men have multiple wives and many concubines, they marry and have sex with their relatives, they engage in forcible sexual conquest, and all apparently with the approval of the Almighty. And, as I have argued in The Gay Gospels (www.thegaygospels.com), Jesus was certainly no nuclear family man. He sought no wife, and he had a particularly loving relationship with one of the disciples. He told his followers to leave their families and said that nobody could be a disciple unless they hated their own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters.
So the clear answer to Goddard’s question is that it is in the nature of marriage that it should be continually redefined.
Adam and Eve/Adam and Steve
For Christians the essence of marriage is made plain in the story of Adam and Eve recounted in Genesis.
And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.
1. God created the first man, Adam, and then realised there was a problem. It does not look even as if God intended to create another human being, let alone a full blown heterosexual family. It looks much more like God created Adam in his own image and only then realised that there was a problem.
2. The rest of Creation is intended to help humankind thrive and flourish. God tries to find a soulmate for Adam by creating the animals. And he lets Adam name them, perhaps in the hope that one of them will provide that relational bond that will fill the yearning emptiness inside him. But it is all to no avail. For Adam ‘there was not found an help meet’ for him. What is clear however, is that all God’s subsequent creative efforts are aimed at helping Adam to thrive.
3. God realises that Adam has to have someone like himself as a companion. He makes Eve out of Adam’s rib:
And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof.
So the essential point about Eve is not that she is female but that she is human. Only a human can meet the needs of another human for real companionship. The comparison being made is not that between a male/female pair and a male/male pair, but between a human/animal relationship and the deep mutual commitment which can occur between two human beings.
4. This implies that the principal divine purpose of human pair unions is a loving purpose – it is for the mutual happiness and fulfilment of two human beings. Notice here that we have got a long way through this story and there has not yet been any reference whatsoever to the purpose of marriage being procreation. The whole focus in this all-important creation story has been on companionship.
5. Procreation comes only as an afterthought. The absence of any reference to childbearing continues right on until chapter three of the Book of Genesis. And even then, it only occurs as a sort of incidental afterthought, and merely as a minor detail in the story of God’s punishment of Eve for eating the apple and leading Adam astray. It is worth noting en passant also of course that we are left with real uncertainty about how Adam and Eve’s offspring then sired the rest of the human race. What manner of marriage did they have?
Thus the whole Biblical story which is so often used to justify the ‘one man-one woman’ policy is actually driven by a concern with human wellbeing, not the procreation of children. Steve would have done just as well as Eve had Adam been gay. Eve was not a wife; she was a lifelong companion.
So what will actually happen if gay marriage is made legal?
The short answer is nothing. Some gay people will get married. That is all. And some straight people will continue to get married as they always have done. The main threat to the future of marriage is the behaviour of heterosexuals who are choosing more and more not to marry, and if they do marry to get divorced later. Almost one in two marriages now goes down this road. Goddard’s ideal of celibacy before marriage and lifelong fidelity within it describes the life pattern of very few heterosexual people today. In this light it does seem perverse that Goddard and his cruder colleagues in church leadership positions focus their whole attack on gay couples who actually want to live out the marital ideal and support the institution of marriage, but who just happen to be homosexual, while totally ignoring the elephant in the room which is heterosexual promiscuity and serial monogamy. These constitute a much larger and more present danger to the linguistic and cultural reality of societal and family institutions than loving and committed gay couples.