Full civil marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples now stands within reach. If the Roman Catholic governor of New York can get this done, so can everyone else. This is nothing short of amazing and cause for great celebration. If we’re not careful, however, this heady moment could derail a queerly Christian witness to the good news of the Gospel.
I worry, for example, that at least one diocese in the Episcopal Church has so quickly boarded the state’s marriage train that it left its theological luggage in the station. The Diocese of Long Island, responding to the recent marriage equality legislation in New York, is now requiring its clergy in same-gender relationships to get married. Some of these couples may have had their relationship liturgically celebrated and blessed already, yet Long Island is now relying on the state’s civil contract to make those relationships religiously legitimate. (Read more about those diocesan policies and their national implications here.)
In microcosm, Long Island casts the ongoing confusions between Church and State in bold relief. Surely Christians want to say something more about marriage than whatever the state says about it. But what do we want to say?
I recently heard feminist Catholic theologian Mary Hunt preach a wonderful sermon in which she applauded the inevitable march toward full marriage equality and then urged us to imagine how we can do better.
Marriage, she said (rather provocatively), is not a right but a privilege. Health care, on the other hand, is not a privilege but a right. We can do better than marriage equality if we detach the basic human right to health care from the privileging of just one kind of relationship. If we continue to make human rights contingent on a privileged relationship, then the “freedom to marry” quickly becomes the “necessity to marry” just to get affordable access to a physician.
In a similar vein, Christian ethicist Marvin Ellison has noted that the divorce rate is so high in the United States because the marriage rate is so high. Ellison would have us notice, in other words, that marriage has become the default position for what it means to be a grown-up, a rite of passage into being a responsible, contributing member of society. Here the “freedom to marry” becomes the “pressure to marry” just to look like an adult.
In the midst of this ever-shifting cultural landscape, the Church has good reasons to applaud the freedom to marry as a matter of social justice. But is that all? The Church can and should do better. The Church can and should bear witness to something other than the economic necessity to marry or the social pressure to marry, and the Church could do this by turning to its own theological traditions.
To be sure, there is no single, coherent theology of marriage in Christian history, but there are rich theological themes in that history that we can still tap today. Christian traditions, for example, invite us to consider marriage as a vocation to which some but not all people are called. There are many other vocational paths through which we can bear witness to the good news of the Gospel and the Church can and should celebrate them as well.
Other themes in Christian history also come to mind to provoke our spiritual imagination – the creation of households (of many various types), the significance of covenants (rather than contracts), how relationships of all kinds empower us for ministry in the world, to name just a few.
Most of all, perhaps, many married couples know what the Church seems rather strangely to have forgotten: marriage is not the best thing we can hope for. Yet over the course of several centuries in the modern West, the Church has baptized marriage as the apex of human fulfillment – just ask the modern wedding industry how much it costs to celebrate that fulfillment.
Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul would find such exultation of marriage rather strange indeed, as both of them suggested something quite different: rather than marriage, union with God is the apex of human fulfillment. At its best, marriage can only reflect and point to that hopeful promise and, thankfully, other types of covenantal relationship can do the same.
Everyone who wants to enter into a civil marriage contract should be able to do so. The Church should say that, loudly and clearly. The Church could also say something else: no one should feel compelled to get married for economic or social reasons. And to those who don’t want to get married, the Church can offer some queerly Christian hope: you can live a full, meaningful, responsible, adult life – even if you’re not married.
Will the Church say those important things? Only if it ends its collusion with the State. And I’ll say more about that in Part Two. Stay tuned.