Christian think-tank raises radical questions about marriage
The UK Christian think tank Ekklesia is raising radical questions about the legal, civil and religious meanings of marriage, and has suggested that ìserious considerationî should be given to the idea that the current legal form should be replaced by a variety of recognised civil partnerships through which couples could specify the type of commitment they wished to make to one another.
At the heart of Ekklesiaís concerns, set out in a discussion paper entitled What future for marriage?, is the distinction between civic and religious meanings and arrangements ñ which it believes hinder the attempt to find appropriate forms for the committed relationships people are forging today, and also prevent the churches from communicating a Christian understanding of marriage as a religious covenant, rather than simply a legal or inter-personal arrangement.
ìWhat we are offering in this discussion is not a final proposal, but an invitation to participate in a major re-think about the meaning and practice of ëgetting marriedí on the part of both religious bodies and the government ñ based on a mutually beneficial disentangling of the roles, interests and practices of church and stateî, it says.
Ekklesia says the new understanding it is advancing would remove the anomalous status of the Church of England. It would also create greater clarity in the situation created by civil partnerships, which grant gay and lesbian couples similar rights to those who get married, but not comparable status.
The legal aspect of the union could allow different arrangements depending on the intent of each couple and would also provide for the protection of children.
The framework would make clear the distinction between a religious marriage and one defined under law. This would avoid people having to make vows they do not believe in and would also encourage couples to think more seriously about the kind of commitment they want to enter into.
Ekklesia's co-director, Jonathan Bartley, says its initial discussion paper is a response to the increased pressure on the established institution of marriage ñ with more people choosing not to marry, to forge different kinds of partnerships, or to get divorced in greater numbers.
ìLegal marriage clearly isnít working,î says Bartley. ìA divorce rate of around 40% is surely evidence enough of this.î
Something needs to happen to address these trends, says Ekklesia. Desperately trying to ëkeep the lid oní is not the right approach.
The think tank stresses that its aim is not to undermine long-term faithful relationships, but to find better ways to strengthen them within society as a whole ñ something the current institution does not appear to be doing.
It is also challenging the churches and other faith communities to deepen their understanding and practice of marriage as a religious commitment. The era of the church telling people what to do or seeking to superimpose their understanding through the state (what it calls the ëChristendom approachí) has passed, it says.
The current ìone-size-fits-allî arrangement ñ and attempts to modify or stretch it ñ suits neither the realities of the relationships people form in a plural society, nor a coherent theology of marriage and relationships within the churches, claims Ekklesia.
Both civic and religious authorities autonomy in decision-making in this area, it says. Arguments within religious communities about gay marriage and cohabitation should be separated from the stateís provision of legal contracts for relationships, thus making space for both faith-based and secular understandings ñ without privileging or constraining either.
Ekklesia also points out that what the Christian tradition has to say about marriage is more complex and varied than most people inside and outside the church acknowledge ñ saying that Jesus, for example, ultimately put the creation of a new community above family ties.
But it says that the alternative Christian idea of marriage as ëcovenantí (ìthe grace of God enabling us to achieve more than is humanly possibleî) remains crucial. But it states that it is not the stateís job to promote a specifically Christian vision of marriage ñ this is the churchís task.
In theological terms, what is ësacrosanctí is not the legal institution of a civic partnership, Ekklesia suggests, but relationships forged within a community which recognizes Godís grace as the basis of its operation.
What future for marriage? says: ìThe church cannot expect to define what marriage is for everyone (believer or not). Nor should the state or the government get to determine the religious meanings and impact of marriage and commitment within faith communities. It works both ways.î
ìBut the church can and should develop ñ and offer as a sign of hope ñ its own distinct understanding of human relationships as communion before contract, equality before social division and patriarchy. Marriage can be seen as a foundational expression of that.î
The think-tank says that it expects the ideas and questions it is developing to ìraise eyebrows in some quarters. Christians trying to do away with marriage? Whatever next?î
But co-director Simon Barrow suggests that the views it is putting forward are ìactually rather traditional in one sense ñ and mostly radical because the church has lost a sense of what it is there for, and we have all been confused by the unhelpful fusing of religious and civil authority in public discussions.î
Says the think-tank: ìDe-linking civil arrangements for long-term couple relationships from Christian covenantal commitments will require the churches (and other faith communities) to work much harder to develop further their own understanding and practice of marriage as part of a wider community. This is a tougher but more meaningful job than simply ëgetting people down the aisleí.î
Ekklesia disagrees with Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, in his suggestion that the government Law Commissionís proposal about granting legal rights to live-in (cohabiting) couples would risk ìfurther undermining marriageî.
It says that this is only so when as at present, civic and religious understandings have to be run together, adding: ìTrying to stop the civil authorities providing protection to established cohabitees is actually a rather bad way to promote the ideal of lasting love that marriage is meant to enshrine in a church context.î
Its paper explains: ìIf the church wants to argue that Christian marriage, rooted in the grace of God, is a greater good, a better gift and preferable to civil cohabitation, it is free to do so. But there must surely be something wrong when the churchís ëdefenceí of holy matrimony apparently involves perpetuating what many will understandably see as an unholy injustice against established live-in couples by denying them legal rights.î
A similar argument can be advanced in the case of the lesbian couple who wish to have their marriage in Canada recognised in the UK, and who have gone to the High Court, it says.
ìPractically and theologically, Ekklesia sees no reason why Christian marriage should be restricted to heterosexuals ñ but that is a (legitimate, important) discussion and argument for the church about its custom, doctrine and practice. It does not have to be imposed on the civil arrangements of those outside the church.î
Ekklesia concludes: ìOur message is that a plural society will naturally need to develop different institutions and understandings around long-term partnerships. At the same time, religious bodies will have their own meanings and practices. Sometimes these will coincide, sometimes not. But the best way to promote specifically Christian marriage as a lively option in this context is by good example, not compulsion.î
The think-tank intends to produce a report on options for marriage and partnerships (including practical proposals and theological perspectives) in the near future. It is seeking internship assistance and welcomes papers and contributions. Comments and responses can be made to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the discussion paper What future for marriage?
See also: Archbishop's view on cohabitation rights challenged - 11/06/06.
Jonathan Bartley's latest book, Faith and Politics After Christendom, will be published at the end of this month. It argues for a new way of looking at the relationship between religion and public life, and says the churches need to abandon an establishment mentality in order to be more subversive and creative in what they offer.