Marriage is “a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman” according to a report by the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission, which also rules out blessings of same-sex unions by Anglican priests (BBC report here).
The paper, ‘Men and Woman in Marriage’ (available here) is about “how Christians have understood and valued marriage”. Although it does not repeat the Church of England’s formal objections to the Government’s Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill now going through Parliament, it says that “public discussion at this juncture needs a clear view of why Christians believe and act in relation to marriage as they do”.
Marriage is “an expression of the human nature which God has willed for us and which we share. And although marriage may fall short of God’s purposes in many ways and be the scene of many human weaknesses, it receives the blessing of God and is included in his judgment that creation is ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31)”, the paper observes, adding that “certain basic structural features make marriage the flexible and supportive social institution it is.” The three elements are:
It is an alliance outside the close family circle (technically called ‘exogamy’), so that a partnership of natural kinship-groups is formed in transmitting human life to new generations. It is undertaken for the full length of a couple’s life. And it is an exclusive commitment of one man and one woman.
Although marriage in some places and times have occasionally been defined differently, “most developed traditions give these three structural elements a central place in their practices” while the differences there have been “hardly amount to a significant challenge to these structural foundations”.
Much weight is given in the document, which is commended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to the importance of parenting, and the benefits to children from being raised by their birth-parents.
This does not mean, of course, that only an ideal family unit of two biological parents can provide a home for children. Society has good reason to be grateful to adoptive parents and step-parents, as also to single parents who must sometimes undertake heroic struggles. But the struggles underline the point: they would be less, other things being equal, and the child more securely placed, had it grown up within the marriage-bond of its mother and father.
When a single mother says to her children, ‘I have to be both mother and father to you!’ she recognizes the need to supply the place of the absent father, and teaches her children, at the same time, to look for something more in their home than she can give as a single mother. Furthermore, for children to grow up in some other home than their parents’ may in some circumstances, be their best hope of a secure childhood. But a good alternative will imitate as closely as possible the form it seeks to substitute for.
At the heart of marriage, the paper says, is sexual difference and complementarity.
Biological differences do not simply cease to matter at the level of personal relationship; persons are not asexual, but are either male or female. Their sex attains a personal meaning, as relationships are built constructively on the endowments and strengths it offers. The relationship of marriage is more personal, not less, as the partners come to it in receptiveness of what only the opposite sex can bring to their own.
On the Church-state question, the paper observes that the state’s regulation of marriage has never been seen as a means of defining the institution – as the same-sex marriage Bill seeks to do — but of protecting its inherent characteristics.
Since the dawn of the modern era it has been accepted that the regulation of formalities was a proper task for the state in its general concern to protect against abuse and injustice. The precise extent to which the state became involved in marriage has varied from country to country subsequently. In England (apart from the Commonwealth period) marriage remained an important element in Canon Law, and when in the nineteenth century civil marriage ceremonies were first introduced to Britain, great care was taken to keep their understanding of marriage consonant with inherited Christian understanding.
The greater involvement of the state was never understood to mean that there were two kinds of marriage, a ‘religious’ and a ‘civil’ marriage, with different laws appropriate to each. There have simply been two kinds of marriage ceremony. Correspondingly, the Church has generally not questioned the reality of marriages performed in civil ceremonies.
The document ends by pointing out that, while same-sex marriage laws will not alter the intrinsic nature of marriage, it will make it harder to live out.
It has seemed to some that the disagreement over same-sex marriage is a disagreement over mere names. But names govern how we think, and how we think governs what we learn to appreciate. When marriage is spoken of unclearly or misleadingly, it distorts the way couples try to conduct their relationship and makes for frustration and disappointment. The reality of marriage between one man and one woman will not disappear as the result of any legislative change, for God has given this gift, and it will remain part of our created human endowment. But the disciplines of living in it may become more difficult to acquire, and the path to fulfilment, in marriage and in other relationships, more difficult to find.