Religions are never at their best when allied too closely to the political power.
The Christian church ought to have learned the lesson well, since its founder suffered a painful death when a Roman governor yielded to religious pressure and ordered his execution. In spite of that, established Christian churches have since had crusades, inquisitions, compulsory church attendance, and have imposed suspension of civil rights for ‘Jews, Papists and Dissenters’. In more recent years in Canada, the phenomenon was seen in a tragic endeavour by both Church and State to replace aboriginal culture with compulsory Christianity, through the residential schools system.
Equally, though, the enforcement of Muslim law in different parts of the globe has aroused concern with organizations devoted to promoting human rights, particularly the rights of women, who are alarmed by the cruel and unusual punishments imposed, particularly on those not of the true faith, by Muslim law.
An especial area where Church and State have (figuratively) been in bed together over a long period of time, has to do with the institution of marriage. On the one hand, sexual unions of all kinds have been taking place in the human and animal world since the dawn of time. Beyond the traditional lifelong marriage of one male, one female, the world has seen casual sex, prostitution, polyandry and polygamy, concubinage, ‘trial marriages’, and various kinds of homosexual couplings, all approved of or disapproved of by the prevailing culture, throughout recorded history.
The Christian church’s ideal has always been that marriage be a lifelong union of one man and one woman in a climate of mutual love and support, to the exclusion of all others, an image of the Christian concept of God as a Holy Trinity. Overlaid on that, though it is a view branded as heretical by several New Testament writers, is the additional teaching that real perfection lies in celibacy. Various proof texts are also brought up, mainly from the Old Testament, that condemn bestiality, consanguinity, fornication and homosexual relationships, as well as limiting divorce. Contraception and abortion have also been frowned on in certain religious circles—items that likely were not even on the radar screen in Biblical times. These requirements became, almost without thinking, the basis of matrimonial law in most European countries and in the Americas.
The church’s teaching may well be a counsel of perfection, but human nature is not perfect. As the influence of the church has declined, we have seen the state recognize marriages without the participation of the church. We have seen limitations on availability of contraception thrown to the winds, and a corresponding tolerance of abortion as a form of birth control. We have seen easier mechanisms for divorce. And now a rearguard action is being fought by the mainline churches over the recognition by the State (and possibly even by their churches) of same sex cohabitation agreements.
One wonders whether the Church itself is not a little bit too hung up on this question of sex—the main rival to religion in this world in directing conduct and (allegedly) bringing love, joy, peace and happiness to humanity. The Bible certainly has excellent examples within it of same sex pledges of loyalty—of David to Jonathan for the male sex, and Ruth to Naomi for the female—and I was interested to note a passage in Ezekiel recently, that implied that the ‘sin of Sodom’ had nothing to do with homosexuality, but involved the abuse of the needy and the homeless, an entirely different matter, about which the prophets continually railed in their own time, and could very well continue to rail today.
The teachings of Jesus on what is the ideal for marriage certainly have been proved by experience to be valid: a recent survey showed that couples who work through their difficult times rather than divorcing in the long run claim to be happier, and the connection of the AIDS epidemic with promiscuous sexual behaviour is well established. On the other hand, the church is a voluntary organization of those with specific beliefs, who are committed to certain types of conduct as a result of those beliefs. It is beyond the mandate of the church to insist that the behaviour that its beliefs dictate should be imposed on all. Conversely, all States have an obligation to prevent religious enthusiasms from resulting in unfair and destructive behaviour towards their citizens by religious zealots.
The outcome? Likely that the State will start to allow civil rights to be given to contracting parties by virtue of their relationship, whether this is called ‘marriage’ or something else, based entirely on their wishes, and its own social policy. Churches will supplement those contracts of which they approve, by their own celebrations of ‘Holy Matrimony’, using whatever ceremonies and imposing whatever obligations its members think it proper to adopt. The two systems of State and Church will proceed independently.
And my guess is that, just as divorced people are now accepted fully as members of the church, and even as clergy, so also the day will come when same sex partners will ask for and receive some form of blessing from their church, even if such a blessing is not called ‘marriage’.