The Church of England has recently talked much about the sanity of marriage but much that has been said seems to owe more to an idealise, even mythological, view of an institution that in reality is much more diverse than often presented.
In the Old Testament there are examples of polygamy, the use of concubines and of wives discarded. For much of the history of marriage it has been linked to deals on land and property with the bride just a sweetener in the deal. With the bride veiled looks were unimportant and the wedding ring now worn with such pride was in effect a means of branding a woman to show she was owned. And often the poorer classes were excluded from the institution altogether.
It is only in the West, and then only in more recent times, that love has been the primary motivator for marriage – most marriage has been about learning to love a partner you might not, given free choice, have chosen to marry. In the main marriage now comes not at the beginning of a relationship but more as the affirmation of an existing relationship, often after the commitment has been made to a joint mortgage and perhaps before the arrival of children or at least before they go to school.
And for all the vaunting of love there remain offensively high levels of domestic violence whilst we have learnt to accept high level of marital breakdown, playing down the known emotional costs to those involved, including the children, and the wider economic impact on society. In honouring the significance of marriage there are bigger issues at stake than preserving it as the exclusive realm of one man and one woman.
The Church of England’s own liturgies reflect this evolution. The Book of Common Prayer speaks of marriage being ordained for the procreation of children and the research does indeed show that a happy marriage remains the best place to bring up children. Nevertheless we also need to recognise the role of marriage in caring for children born by donor, surrogacy, adoption and the blending of families. It is better that the alternative preface in Common Worship speaks of marriage as the foundation of family life.
BCP also speaks of a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication. Given the high levels of marital breakdown, the sexualisation of society and the pollution of pornography this remedy is clearly not all that it might be. In a more positive vein Common Worship speaks of the joy of the bodily union strengthening the union of hearts and lives. Sex is something to be celebrated not just contained.
Thirdly BCP speaks of marriage being ordained for mutual society, help and comfort. This is the gift of God in creation. Genesis has God saying it is not good for man to be alone. Our knowledge of genetics shows us that there is also a strong biological driver with man and woman each only carrying half the DNA code for reproduction. But if genetics shows us LGBTI to be also a gift of creation, why can this also not be accepted as part of God’s purpose? Why should LGBTI individuals be denied the God-given gift of not being alone?
But it is when we come to the vows, that I believe we come to the real sacramental heart of marriage. The vows call each party of the marriage to love the other unconditionally, even as God loves us unconditionally. Marriage is the sacrament of the unconditional love of God. Those of us blessed to be married know of the struggles to try to love one other human being unconditionally and can only marvel in awe and wonder at a God who loves each and every single one of us unconditionally. In marriage we are called to be like God towards one other human being; this is indeed a high and sacred calling.
And it is precisely because it is such an honourable, significant and socially stabilising calling that I would want it extended to all couples, regardless of sexuality. In reading the words of the Common Worship Marriage Service I find nothing that need exclude same-sex couples and much that can only enrich, inform, sustain and, yes, bless, their relationships.
The truth is that the nature of marriage has always evolved, is still evolving, and this wonderful and venerable institution is robust enough to embrace equal marriage for all.