Bishop rethinks marriage
On the whole, the response from the churches [to the call from some in our community for the Federal Parliament to change the legal definition of marriage to allow gay and lesbian people to marry] has been an understandable recourse to the so-called “traditional” view of marriage. To be honest, I am not sure how well this works, because I am not sure there is much agreement in the churches about the traditional view of marriage, and I am not sure there is a lot of acknowledgement that even the Christian view of marriage has changed over recent years.
The Judaeo-Christian view of marriage is in the first place fundamentally a realist’s view. Our forebears knew people were going to have sex, no matter what, and so they knew children were going to be born, no matter what. Under God, therefore, marriage was instituted to give legal protection to the children who are inevitably born; legal protection to the good order of the society in which sexual relationships are inevitable, and legal protection to persons in committed life-long sexual relationships. Properly understood, marriage is an institution to protect children, to ensure the good order of society, and to guarantee the rights of married persons.
Secondly, the Judaeo-Christian view of marriage, based as it is in our Scriptures, has from the beginning been in a state of change and flux. Like any other human institution, even those established under God, marriage is an organic reality and it grows and changes over time. To name just one obvious fact, it is clear that in the early days of the institution of marriage in Hebrew life, marriage was not monogamous. The Old Testament stories of the patriarchs and the kings make that very clear.
More recent changes are reflected in the various introductions to the marriage service in our own prayer books, from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer through to the current A Prayer Book for Australia.
Furthermore, in recent times we have become entirely more tolerant of the re-marriage of divorced persons, and rarely if ever question the right of persons to marry if they do not intend to have children, which most certainly was not always the case.
However, what is interesting is that the right of certain classes of people to marry never seems to have been much under discussion in the church, except in relation to so-called “prohibited relationships”, such as brothers and sisters, or in relation to a person’s age. Certainly it was assumed it would always be a man and a woman who married, but was that not simply because that is how children are born? Or was it perhaps because up until recently there was no perception that people could be anything other than heterosexual?
It is interesting to note, however, that on grounds other than their view of marriage, the early Christians did assume the rights of all people to marry. For example, contrary to Roman law, Christians allowed people from different social classes in the Roman Empire to be married. This was not because of their view of marriage but because they believed that across all social differences, “All are one in Christ Jesus”.
So where does that leave us in an age where people are known to be same-sex attracted and where we have the IVF program? Is there not an argument that all people should have access to the institution of marriage, precisely in order to guarantee under law the ongoing protection of children; the good order of society and the rights of those who are in committed life-long relationships? And is it not perhaps unjust to deny the rights of any group of people to that access?
The way of the Gospel, in the end, is the way of persuasion by a godly life, and by godly words and actions. A godly life, and godly words and actions are marked by grace, and the truth on any matter will emerge as we live by the same grace with which we are met by God in Jesus Christ.
The Rt Rev’d John Charles McIntyre is Bishop of the Diocese of Gippsland. John was formerly Rector at St Saviour’s Anglican Church in Redfern. This is an abridged excerpt from John’s address to the 36th Synod, May 18-20, in Sale, Victoria.