Monday, February 18, 2013

The lost battle against 'same-sex marriage' and what the church should do next

[I am away from my base of operations, hence the lack of other productive blogging right now]

I now consider that, in the West, the public battle against so-called 'same-sex marriage' is all but lost. In this post I am going to explore some of the different fundamental assumptions that have characterised the positions for and against it, why the church has all but lost this, and what I think the way forward is.

I begin by saying that, from the Christian perspective, 'same-sex marriage' is not really marriage at all. The best defence the Christians have put forward is that there is a long-standing, traditional understanding of what marriage is, that has been for the most part trans-cultural, and this accepted definition of marriage ought to be retained. Such a definition looks something like this:

A sexually exclusive, faithful, lifelong, publicly recognised union between a man and a woman.

(If I had some books to hand I would give a slightly better definition and some references). Now, on the 'justice' question, there has never been any discrimination against homosexual persons from entering such an arrangement - that is a homosexual man could enter into a marriage... with a woman. I realise that is not what the LGBT movement means by equality or freedom from discrimination, but in strictly legal terms, equality before the law means that they were equally free, or not, to enter such arrangments as they existed.

The last 60 or so years have seen significant alterations to the widely understood notion of 'marriage'. Particularly, no-fault divorce reflects a shift in which marriage is no longer seen as *necessarily* lifelong. The advent of 'open-marriages' challenges the notion of sexually exclusive, as does the wide acceptance of pre- and extra- marital sex (I do not say 'rise', since I am not sure it has become especially more common, rather than especially more commonly accepted).

A more broad notion of marriage now exists in most people's minds, something like:

A publicly recognised union of affairs between (2) parties.

Whether that union is sexually exclusive, faithful, lifelong, is really considered to be up to the parties involved. Despite attempts by the LGBT movement to suggest otherwise, polyamorists and the like rightly recognise that if 'marriage' can be re-defined by what we will it to be, there is no intrinsic reason the marriage union can not be re-definied as between 2 or more parties, and at the very extreme, we may redefine what sort of 'parties' a marriage union may involve.

There already exists, in many jurisdictions, a legal equivalent to marriage, named something like 'civil union'. Some LGBT advocates suggest that where such arrangements are financially and legally equivalent, that this is not sufficient 'equality', articulate a position that recognises that the campaign to gain 'marriage equality' is really about legitimising same-sex unions morally-speaking in the public mind.

The reason I say the church, in the West at least, has already lost this battle is that we live in a post-Christendom, secularised world, and 'what a word means' really comes down to 'what people mean it to mean'. The majority of people do not understand 'marriage' in the traditional sense, but in a sense far more like my second definition, with an accompanying set of *connotations* drawn from the Christianised-traditions of Euro-centric cultures. The church is unlikely to be able to shift this linguistic, and thus mental, shift.

And yet, in another sense, this does nothing to change what the churches understand by 'marriage'. Except that now the impetus is upon Christian communities in a very new way, to explain and catechise believers into what 'we' understand 'marriage' to be. Particularly for those who grow up outside church communities, to say that we expect people to enter into sexually-exclusive, faithful, lifelong unions between opposite sex partners, will become increasingly strange, and the ability to articulate and to instruct about our peculiar practices will be all the more necessary.

I think churches should get out of the marriage game. In a post-Constantinian world, the problem of officiating a religious wedding, and at the same time acting in the office of the state, is going to get more and more tangled. And I do not doubt for a second that some homosexual rights activists will deliberately provoke lawsuits by seeking to be married in churches and by ministers. Split up what 'weddings' are, leave the state to administer civil unions of whatever kind it pleases, and let ministers officiate essentially non-legally-binding ceremonies at which members of a believing community publically testify to their intention to enter into a union of a very different kind from what our society upholds. For a church that wants to remain faithful to its convictions, and counter-cultural in the sunset of the West, I believe this is the way forward. 

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