Sometimes when you have a chance to visit with a friend from your student days and see them in action as a ‘grown-up’ you are truly amazed at what you find. This has certainly been true in my case during a weekend at Grace Cathedral (San Francisco) as a guest of its Dean, The Very Reverend Jane Shaw. Out of the cathedral’s basement, Jane and her staff are running a veritable university of the humanities – nurturing the life of the mind with the same passionate dedication as did the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages. In our youth, Jane and I studied the History of Christianity together at Harvard Divinity School, and it was thrilling to return to some of the converstations that we started as students all those years ago.
Yesterday evening, we co-hosted a roundtable discussion on ‘Christianity and Marriage Equality‘. I’m a specialist on the early Christian family, while Jane’s historical research has been on the Enlightenment and the twentieth century, so it was fascinating to compare notes. It was also fascinating because Calfornia and the UK are facing very different challenges at the moment where marriage equality is concerned. Californians are waiting for the US Supreme Court to hear a case on the constitutional status of Proposition 8, a referendum which reversed the state law granting the right for same-sex couples to marry (although the same-sex marriages registered during the short-lived legal ‘window of opportunity’ remain valid in the state). By contrast, in the UK Parliament is debating the Same Sex Marriage Bill, which would confer the right to marry on same-sex couples (who already enjoy the right to register civil unions). Interestingly, in the UK – where the essential framework of partnership for legal matters such as immigration and next-of-kin status are already in place, it is the symbolic value of marriage itself that has proved to be the sticking point.
Jane and I kicked the discussion off by introducing the anthropological ‘functions’ of marriage. We also showed how various and surprising the Christian tradition’s way of handling these functions has been, as the tradition has progressed through successive legal regimes and cultural environments (a journey the tradition is still making today). We then offered a brief history of Christian marriage itself, from the time of Paul and the other New Testament.
I’ll write again before too long with some further reactions to the very interesting discussion that followed. But in the mean time, one point that interested me greatly. Toward the end of the discussion, Jane told a story about the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, who had been ‘her’ bishop in her early years as a priest in Oxford. Commenting on the then incipient debate about marriage equality, Bishop Richard suggested that if the Church of England were to have a genuinely clear idea of what it means when it talks about marriage, the question of whom God calls to that particular vocation would probably solve itself.
I think it is fair to say that while some societies have a perfectly clear idea of what they think marriage is, what has characterised the Christian tradition as a whole on this point has been flexibility and diversity rather than certainty. Across time and geography, Christians have improvised on the basis of conflicting biblical resources and changing definitions, all wrapped up in the idea that ‘what marriage is is quite obvious, so we really don’t need to define it’. Up to the present, this lack of definition has served surprisingly well – indeed, it has been a key factor contributing to the tradition’s remarkable flexibility and vitality across time. We should keep this encouraging thought in mind as we all prepare ourselves for another round of flexing.