Hello folks! I’ve decided to come back to write occasional posts – and thanks to C451 for his generous invitation to me to do so, especially after such a long absence from here. There are still many friends around – and it’s good to see many newcomers too.
Those who remember scribblings of mine in the past will remember my sympathy for the vexatious question of ‘gay marriage’. On many many reflections, I am glad that this subject has arisen in our contemporary and secularised societies (assuming that there aren’t many people on this blog from the ‘global south’!). I am glad because it opens a box that makes people think. Often, out of that box has come thoughts ill formed of one sort of another, coloured by all sorts of pre-emptive conclusions, and I have been partial to some of that in the past.
Concerning the law in England and Wales, the question of ‘gay marriage’ is a done deal, so to speak. I have a personal interest in the question, because of people that are close to me, friends and family, are affected, so the whole issue has caused me to think very much – linked as it is so much to a whole number of issues – very very very many across a whole field of academic disciplines and real world pastoral considerations, whether one is a professional pastor or not – a professed Christian is some form of pastor whether he likes it or not.
My own reflections and conclusions have changed in some areas, but not in others.
Where my views have not changed are in particular as regards an intrinsic dislike of those shooting from the hip with all sorts of preconceived views of what others may or may not think or what preconceptions or psychological considerations may be behind views. Shooting from the hip does not often lead to good relations, whatever one’s views. In respect of the law in England and Wales, my own views too have not changed. I was not in favour at the time of the proposal, and my views have not changed, but I am ambivalent about any changes now. I am a Tory party member (and a minor official indeed), and my views – so much as I can establish – are not too dissimilar to many others in the party. That is: ambivalence. My views at the time were that a mistake was made in the 1870s or 1880s (whenever it was) when the registration duties for births, deaths and marriages was moved from the purview of the Church of England to the government. Of course, such information is the sort of thing governments like to have their tabs on, particular from the early 20th century on with the Liberal governments welfare reforms of the previously parish based poor laws (I have read the history, but cannot quite recall the details now). This was all before the days of computerised databases too – and goodness me, it must have been a devil of a thing to track all these governmental issues in a paper based system – thank goodness for clerks and orderly card file indices! Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and my views are that births and deaths are fine for governments to track – who are the citizens, after all? But marriages, on the other hand, might have been better kept with the church. And to keep the non-conformists and Roman Catholics happy, such was the 19th century terminology, it would have been better to have a plurality of record-keepers, other than the C of E, as to who was married or not. One can see that of course, once there is a plurality, then everyone would want to get in on the act, and today there would not doubt be marriages registries maintained by Tesco, the British Humanist Association, Stonewall, and Symingtons the solicitors, or whoever, in addition to religious bodies of various flavours, not all Christian. The state’s laws as regards bigamy would be maintained, of course, so it would still be the case that an Islamic man couldn’t be registered in Britain as having more than one wife.
Where does all this ‘what if’ rambling lead me? It leads me to closer understanding of what a birth is, what a death is, and – indeed – what a marriage might be. So let me offer some reflections. First of all, Christian tradition is clear that births and deaths are not quite as simple as one might first suppose them to be. People are born, and they die. But at the centre of Christianity is Easter, the Resurrection, and people dying to be re-born. Indeed, perhaps these are the central concerns of the faith, but I mention them here to mark the importance of noting that these registers of births and deaths are of material or physical births and deaths, and indeed some may claim that after physical death that is not the end of the physical story of a person either.
So when a person might idly say ‘a person is born’ or dies, then there is a question as to what is meant by this. People can now see where my thoughts might be leading me, because I see a similar parallel for the question of the category of marriage. Is a marriage one that is spiritual or physical? But there is a lot more to this question too than meets the eye. Descartes’ duality has rightly long since been dismissed, so why make these dualistic distinctions for births, deaths or marriages at all? For record keeping? Well, there is worth in it, so it seems to me, for the good order of the physical state of God’s natural creation – humans seem to create so much of a mess, that order of human activity is a good thing. And indeed, that is a salient point, is it not? God wants humans, His people, the people of Israel, to keep themselves in good order.
But what of ‘marriage’? It is of a different quality to a birth and a death, I would like to claim, as regards record keeping. To move into questions of language can often throw up arguments and points of interest, and it is because of that that I write now. I am interested to hear the views of others on what I write.
First of all there is the question of time. I would like to claim that one of the greatest considerations impacting the Christian faith is the question of time, and the interplay between these notions of time and eternity. To stay with the temporal, though, what is the difference between an event and a process? Is an event a process of somewhat limited time? I suppose so, and it is not clear in the meaning of words, but it is important for what I want to write next about births, deaths and marriages.
However, before I do, let us also now consider the question of salvation. Without getting into too much debate, I would like to assert that salvation is the entering of the human person, in some manner, into a life that is eternal. Nothing new there, one might think. But imagine the proverbial nutter on the bus. Upper deck, busy bus, and he’s the one with the ‘Jesus Loves You’ t-shirt. One sits down on the one empty seat next to him, and he turns to you and asks “are you saved?” Is it an event or a process? Some people differ, but I would like to assert that it is a process – and indeed, one can never quite know at one’s physical death if one might be fully rid of sin and hence to have attained a status of full salvation in one’s temporal existence.
Isn’t marriage like that too? People talk of marriage as ‘something to work on’ and so forth, and I think that it is. Marriage isn’t a category or an event, but a process. Marriage liturgies refer to union as one, and so forth, but one can only know if one has been truly married in such a manner at a time after one’s marriage day, and perhaps not even if one has perfected a marriage even at one’s death. Marriage is therefore like salvation, a process, where the judge is out with the jury – and so it’s a journey. Married people know this, of course! The event, however, is the sacrament that is marriage. The sacrament is indeed an event – the public joining together, the vows, together before God. Not all would agree, of course, and so that is why I think it right to have separate records of marriages maintained by those who have understandings of marriage in all its various forms.
Tesco, Symingtons and Stonewall might want to register marriages as a form of secular contract. So be it. So what of the British government ‘changing what marriage means’? I say, nonsense ! Marriage as a status and a record has never been an event, so what the records are, as maintained by the government have been a sham (that’s a bit too strong a term, but it will do) since the record keeping was transferred from the church. Because as soon as marriage records no longer record sacramental marriages (think of all those registry office marriages), then that was the point at which ‘the government changed the meaning of marriage’. We can all quibble further about different forms of church marriage, sacramental validity, and other religions too, but that’s the point – what the government has deemed marriage has for a long time been a matter that has been questionable, and so my ambivalence remains about the current state of affairs as regards the law in England and Wales on the matter of marriage.
There are other considerations too, of course, about marriage and the state – which are areas where Christians have an interest – particularly as regards the tax system vis-a-vis married people – the state wants to know who is married. It used to be the case that church law applied, in England, to marriages, such as in matters where there may be trouble in a marriage and outsider taking in an interest in some form in the nature of peoples relationships. But a lot of that has been secularised, so there is an interest there too for the state to know people’s marriage status, although without getting into detail, I think that in general such matters might in hindsight have been better left too with those bodies who are concerned with the relations between human persons (church – and butt out government) although the sanction of enforceability would be needed by the state too. This is the territory that Rowan Williams got into as regards Sharia law in England, and there is much more that could be written about this whole area of overlap. However, with my Tory hat on, this is the last point I want to make: the matter of ‘gay marriage’ in law is more than the question of ‘endorsing sin’ or ‘equality’ or whatever the usual protests that are bandied about.
It is a question of the nature of the relationship between the state as the sole legal enforcer of laws in a land, the individuals, and those organisations which seek to engage people as where they can place their trust as regards the right and true manner in which relationships are formed and governed. State authorities might seek to ‘approve’ such organisations (I will limit myself to churches here), or – indeed – to co-opt them, as has been the case in England since 1534, as well as church authorities seeking to ‘approve’ states as to their righteousness, as was the case – and still is to some extent – with the Vatican and its relations with states. A sort of co-creation in the structure of right relationships between humans and the stewardship of the creation, one could say. As for being a Tory: absolutely. Tories (I can foresee quibbles) at heart see human relationships as being a many-to-many society, not without its facilitation by the state, but the Labour alternative (I limit myself to the British situation) is one where the individual’s primary relationship is not with his fellow citizens, or even with his family (look at the lack of seriousness in which Labour politicians take marriage, except to protest about their views on equality), but with the state. I remain a Tory in this regard, but as to other matters, I have changed a little. More on that perhaps next time. In another ramble. I will read people’s comments if they are so kind as to leave me with some thoughts. Toodle pip.