Gay Marriage Would Undermine a Sacred Institution

Gay Marriage Would Undermine a Sacred Institution

republished, with permission, from Comment is Free Belief, Guardian Online, 1 May 2009

by Andrew Goddard

Why are the overwhelming majority of Christians opposed to "gay marriage"? Is this just homophobia? While homophobia sometimes plays a part, it would be unwise and unfair – perhaps even ignorant and prejudiced – to dismiss concerns in this way. Much more serious issues are at stake.

Christians, like other major faiths, have always believed that marriage is ultimately a gift of divine creation. Aspects of its form clearly vary across time and space but it is not a totally malleable human construct that we can simply redesign at will. We believe that the distinction between men and women is an important part of being human and that to commit to a loving, life-long, life-giving, exclusive union between a man and a woman is something special and unique in human life. This is not simply a fundamentalist reading of Genesis or a late Christian development. It is a vision shared by Jesus and based on his words.

He argued that even the law of Moses was subject to a deeper law – the law of creation. In teaching about marriage he quotes Genesis – "at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

Any attempt to redefine marriage so it need not be entered into as a life-long commitment – Rod Stewart once claimed that "the vows should be written like a dog's licence that has to be renewed every year" – is therefore unacceptable. So are claims that marriage should cease to be exclusive and UK law should recognise polygamy, even though there are possibly thousands of UK residents who would welcome this. Similarly, a claim that marriage should not have to be between a man and a woman is also a denial of the reality of marriage as God made it.

Does this mean gay marriage is a "religious" issue? For many the most obvious religious aspect is the Christian claim that marriage points to God's commitment to be in a life-long, life-giving, relationship of love with each person he has made. Marriage between a man and a woman is seen by many Christians as a sacrament – a special sign and means of God's grace. To make such a claim for same-sex sexual relationships – which both Old and New Testament consistently portray as against God's will – is therefore to declare holy what Christians have traditionally viewed as sin. But it is wrong to think these are the only "religious" beliefs about marriage or objections to gay marriage.

Christians believe God is concerned with every aspect of our lives – all of life is religious – and that marriage as traditionally defined is a distinctive, universal, created good. Although a personal vocation and not a universal right, marriage is something God has given which benefits everyone, married or not, religious or not. It is the basis for stable and fulfilling family relationships for atheists and agnostics as well as believers. It is good not just for the couple but for all of society. Marriage is therefore something unique which should be recognised and supported by the law and honoured by all if society is to flourish.

But surely Christians have no right to impose their own understanding of marriage on others? This argument fails to recognise that this is not some new imposition but a vision that has for thousands of years shaped diverse societies. Even advocates of gay marriage admit that historically marriage has always been between men and women. That should lead to great caution in radically and rapidly redefining marriage.

More seriously, the allegation of unjust Christian hegemony ignores the fact that any legal definition of a status or institution such as marriage "imposes" a particular philosophy or worldview on society. It should therefore be a definition which has overwhelming support, not something amended because of a vocal minority. Few seriously believe there is a groundswell of popular demand for marriage to be re-defined. Even among gay and lesbian people there is major debate as to whether or not "marriage" is a helpful term and framework for faithful loving same-sex relationships.

Western society has, over recent decades, seen major changes with the erosion and sexualisation of friendship, the weakening of marriage and the rise of alternatives to it, including gay relationships. One reaction is to affirm and encourage these developments by imposing a legal redefinition of marriage to fit this new situation. It would be better to keep marriage's long-standing definition and privileged legal status while ensuring those in non-marital relationships have sufficient legal protections from abuse and injustice. In that context we may be able to find ways of having a serious and honest discussion about the good and the harm experienced by individuals and society as a whole through the major social and sexual experiment we are undertaking. Then we may discern together as a society – across various religions and those whose faith is not "religious" – whether recent developments and proposed redefinitions of marriage serve or undermine genuine human flourishing.

The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Tutor in Christian Ethics at Trinity College, Bristol and on the leadership team of Fulcrum

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