Sunday

Same-sex marriage and divorce: all means all

Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ (Genesis 2. 18)

Genesis 2. 18-24
Mark 10. 2-16 

            Today’s biblical texts touch upon two pastorally difficult issues for modern Britain: namely, who can get married and how we view divorced people.  On the one hand, then, most of us will have read about the government’s proposed change to the marriage laws of the land by 2015 in order to allow same-sex couples to marry.  The public consultation drew some 228,000 responses from individuals and interested groups.  Amidst these responses were the predictable submissions of some Christians who freely used and abused today’s readings amongst others.  The submissions commonly suggest the following kinds of things: that there is such a thing as a ‘biblical definition of marriage’ (there isn’t)[1]; that gay marriage would be the end of family life and a moral society (it won’t be)[2]; and that only those who have the capacity to procreate can be labelled as being in a ‘marriage’ (news indeed to infertile couples).  On the other hand, divorced people and their families are often made to feel sinful when Jesus’ apparent blanket prohibition against divorce is read out, and are sometimes even excluded from full participation in the sacramental life of their community.  Remarkably, in both instances, very little is said about what marks marriage out as special and important even though a great deal is said about how people supposedly fall short.

In contrast to the often stilted debates about marriage and divorce, the Prefaces available in the wedding services of the Church of England give a capacious and realistic sense of what marriage looks like.  We might do well to listen to the notes they sound.  First, in marriage the couple invite God’s blessing on their sex life, which can be for children or pleasure (or, as is possible I would think, both for children and pleasure).  Second, the marriage services also stress the companionship and aid the couple will give to each other, much in the same vein as our first reading in which God sees that the mythic first human being needs a loving helper.  Elsewhere in the marriage services there is also a recognition that both the couple and their supporting community may well fall short of the ideal of marriage.  People neglect or hurt other people – an obvious truism – and such damage may come from within a relationship as well as from those family members or friends involved in the daily life of a marriage.  When such damage occurs in a marriage, the failure remains a corporate one, then, as much as it involves one or both of the married couple.  Here, God offers forgiveness and healing when it is sought by the couple and their community, both within and beyond the failure of marriage.  As today’s Gospel points out immediately after the prohibition on divorce, Jesus welcomes those who come to him with a child-like sense of dependency, trust, and need.  No act, no-one, and no relationship remains beyond God’s love.     
  
Marriage forms a way of life, then, in which couple may experience sex, friendship, and comfort with a lifelong commitment to the importance and integrity of the other person.    It also involves failure, irrevocable or less serious.  The idea and ideal of marriage is a salutary one, however, because it affords a vision of peace and delight for the world.  In it, the inherent dignity, value, and wonder of the other person is held up by the marriage partner, often beyond any instrumental value the relationship might afford in terms of money, social standing, or promise of good health.  In short, marriage lets us look at someone else – or see a couple look at one another – as God sees the whole world : as loved, desired, and as a cause for joy, even when the grounds for that vision may be mystifying to everyone else.  Even when a particular marriage fails and falls away as a living reality through divorce, the institution of marriage offers up one way how human beings might see themselves painted into the iconic love of the Holy Trinity.  As Jeffrey Johns neatly puts it, we should celebrate relationships which exhibit three characteristics echoing God’s nature: namely, that which is permanent, faithful, and stable.[3]

          Now, although it may seem strange that God would take interest in our sex lives and friendships, it makes sense when we see marriage not as an isolated unit of two individuals but as an echo of God’s desire for us and our perfection in communion with Him.  Indeed, marriage acts as one prism through which the whole Christian story refracts into multi-coloured good news: the creation stories in Genesis, the actions of Christ in the Gospels, and our worship as the Church tells us that God desires us and draws us into a relationship which takes us outside of ourselves.[4] We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.  Our vocation as Christians is, in a loose manner of speaking, to be married in love to the world and God.

          I suppose marriage and divorce appear at different distances on our respective radars.  For some of us, they will appear as remote issues, something that only really concerns people older (but not necessarily wiser) than ourselves.  For some others, marriage appears as good, bad, unknown, or as a yet impossible hope.  Accordingly, as we look at our various radars, we might have a variety of opinions about the legal and spiritual status of divorce and same-sex marriage.  I hope, however, that we might all see marriage in as capacious a way as the marriage prefaces of the liturgy.  I also hope that we might see that the invitation to any kind of fellowship and communion – whether in friendship, marriage, or in church -- comes from the same Jesus who invites all to come to him like children.  As Desmond Tutu once quipped, ‘all means all means all’, rather than a self-selecting few.  As the public debates continue, may we indeed proclaim that Gospel for and to all.   Amen.
     


[1] See Esther J. Hamori, “Biblical Standards of Marriage,” The Huffington Post, posted and accessed 29/5/12 on http://www.huffingtonpost.com/esther-j-hamori/biblical-standards-for-marriage_b_1540159.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false.
[2] See What’s in a name?  Is there a case for equal marriage? edited by Blair Gibbs, Policy Exchange, 2012, available on http://policyexchange.org.uk/images/publications/whats%20in%20a%20name.pdf.
[3] See Permanent, Faithful, Stable: Christian Same-Sex Marriage, DL & T, 2012.
[4] See Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, 2002.