The Competing Claims of Church and State
When I listen to many people who oppose redefining civil marriage so as to include same-sex couples, they often quote definitions of marriage that are, at their heart, religious. This is understandable since, within Christianity at least, marriage is fundamental to the very existence of the Church. The impression that is created, however, is that we think that the Church owns marriage.
The common response to this by those who don’t share our faith is to say, “You people can define and practice marriage whatever way you want, but leave the rest of us alone. Marriage is a legal matter, controlled by a secular State, and so religion shouldn’t come into it.” By this way of thinking, the State owns marriage.
In this final Chapter I am going to make what may seem, to some at least, a radical suggestion. I would stress that this is my own personal opinion, and does not necessarily represent the official stance of the local church that I serve as pastor, the denomination I serve as National Bishop, or the organisation (Evangelical Alliance Ireland) that I serve as Executive Director. Consider what follows as one Evangelical Christian’s attempt to find a way of approaching marriage where everyone can remain true to their convictions without anyone trying to impose those views on anyone else.
I want to suggest that the Church does not own marriage, but neither does the State own marriage. Marriage, for most of its history, has been a community event. Maybe it is time for marriage to be returned to the community?
Evangelicals and Civil Marriage
Until very recently most Evangelical churches did not have the right to celebrate weddings that were legally recognised. Often our members had to get legally married at a Registrar’s Office and then have a religious ceremony in church. In some cases Registrars would make arrangements to be in attendance at the church ceremony, but in many areas they only worked Monday to Friday, meaning that Evangelicals, unlike members of more established churches, could not get legally married at weekends. That hardly amounted to persecution, and must seem comparatively trivial in contrast to how Christians are often treated in other parts of the world, but there was still a clear perception that most Evangelicals were being treated as a second-class religion by the State.
Now, with the introduction of solemnisers in 2007, ministers in Evangelical churches can act as agents of the State by conducting legal weddings. Eight years ago, most of us viewed this as a triumph. We were happy to enter into a cosy relationship with the State whereby we acted on their behalf, and by which we acknowledged the right of the State to regulate and control who can and can’t get married. However, this new found parity of esteem has raised new questions as we realise that what the State refers to as ‘marriage’ is actually something very different from what Evangelical Christians mean by ‘marriage.’ Some of us are starting to question whether jumping into the State’s pocket with more established churches was actually a good idea at all.
Marriage, in the eyes of the State, is a legal contract that confers certain benefits, including those in the area of taxation and inheritance. It is not necessarily a life-long commitment. There is nothing to stop a couple entering into a legal marriage with the attitude of, “Ah well, if he doesn’t make me happy I can always get divorced.” Some couples even enter into pre-nuptial agreements, already preparing for the moment when the marriage is dissolved. Please note that I am not saying that all couples who enter into a civil marriage view it that way. Many people get married in a Registrar’s office with a high view of marriage. But legally speaking, such noble intentions are not a requirement.
Marriage, in the eyes of the State, is not a covenant made in the sight of God. Indeed, the marriage contract can be legally ratified by a government official with no reference to God whatsoever. Now the proposal is that marriage should be redefined, not merely to apply to the union of a man and a woman, but also to same-sex couples.
For many Evangelicals the proposals to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex couples has been the moment where the penny drops and we realise that what we call ‘marriage’ and what the State calls ‘marriage’ are actually two totally different things. We differ over the issue of whether it is a covenant or a contract, over whether it is a lifetime commitment or not, and over the relevance of God to marriage. This was already true in many respects as regards heterosexual marriages – we just hadn’t really stopped to consider the issue. If we end up differing with the State over the gender, and possibly at some later date over the number, of the participants then the only thing we’re left with in common is that both concepts of ‘marriage’ refer in some vague sense to people making promises to one another.
The debate over the Irish Referendum on same-sex marriage has clearly highlighted how the concept of ‘marriage’ is being increasingly stripped down to a bare minimum. As ‘no’ campaigners have raised a number of issues that they see as being part of marriage (for example, the raising of a family) the opposite side have repeatedly responded by saying, “That isn’t what marriage is about. Marriage is about two people who are in love making a public commitment to each other.”
This ‘hollowing out’ of marriage was explicitly stated in an editorial in the Irish Times which pushed for a ‘yes’ vote by saying that marriage no longer meant what it used to it and “is now about adults making a public statement of their commitment to each other.” A few days later Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny stated at his party’s conference, “And therefore I say to all same-sex couples in our country. This is about you, it’s about your right to say two small words, made up of three simple letters – I DO. For you, in your lives together, may they become your letters of freedom.”
Many of us believe that marriage is much more than a bare minimum of two adults making a public statement of commitment, or indeed saying “I do.” It may well be that the ‘yes’ side, including all the major political parties, have contributed to a minimalist view of marriage which will ultimately have a much more profound impact on our society than the outcome of a Referendum on the gender of the people involved. The Referendum, which was supposedly about marriage equality, has turned out to be more about marriage redefinition. Civil marriage, as a concept, has been so disembowelled as to be indistinguishable from civil partnership.
However, I am left with two main questions. Firstly, is ‘two adults making a public commitment’ really what most people mean when they use the word ‘marriage’? Secondly, if marriage really is to be redefined in such a way, then what rationale is there for keeping it under State control? Why should the State have any interest in, or control over, the ways in which two people who are in love choose to express their commitment to each other?
More than Semantics?
Is the issue more one of language than of substance? There are already civil partnerships available to both heterosexual and same-sex couples. What is the difference between a civil partnership that would bestow the exact same legal benefits as marriage and a non-religious marriage contract? A placard at a recent Dublin Gay Pride march declared, “You can stuff your civil partnerships – we want gay marriage!” Is the debate really over who owns a word?
When I have stated that I object to the artificial redefinition of the word ‘marriage,’ I have been accused of engaging in semantics. However, I have asked several members of the LGBT community, “If you could have a beefed-up civil partnership which conveyed all the legal benefits of marriage, but stopped short of being called ‘marriage,’ would you be happy with that?” In most cases the answer has been, “No! We want the word!” Perhaps all of us are engaged in semantics?
Of course words are powerful because they convey meaning. Words have the power both to hurt and to heal. For many of us the word ‘marriage’ has a whole range of positive connotations that have been built up over centuries.
Words also change their meaning over time. This is part of the natural evolution of language. The very word ‘gay,’ for example, meant something different when I was a child to what it means now. It never occurred to me as a young boy that the Flintstones theme tune that sang, “We’ll have a gay old time” could ever be understood as containing a reference to sexual orientation.
But I do have difficulties with the deliberate redefinition of marriage to suit a political agenda. If the word ‘marriage’ really ends up evolving into something different from its age old meaning of a man and a woman joining together in a lifelong union then so be it. In that case we shrug our shoulders, accept that language has changed, and revise our speech and our Bible translations to use a new term that more accurately reflects ‘the relationship formerly known as marriage!’ Such a course has already been suggested by Patrick Riordan, a Jesuit priest, who advised the Catholic Church to avoid getting involved in the civil marriage debate and instead to start using the term ‘matrimony’ to refer to sacramental marriage as conducted within the Church. If that’s the way we have to go then so be it, but the deliberate manipulation and redefinition of language by governments is, in my opinion, uncomfortably close to the concept of ‘Newspeak’ in George Orwell’s novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’
The Imposition of Values
I have already cited EAI’s vision that the Kingdom of God “represents a third way, an alternative to the power structures of an imposed religious tradition or (the mirror-image) of an imposed absence of religion.” We cannot impose our vision of what marriage should be on the rest of society. If other segments of society wish to use the word ‘marriage’ to refer to unions that, in our opinion, fall short of the Christian concept of marriage, then we are hardly in a position to stop them, nor should we wish to have such power.
There is a fear among some Evangelicals, however, that the reverse may happen, and that churches will be forced to accept the imposition on them of an unbiblical concept of marriage. For example, anti-discrimination legislation could conceivably be used to force churches to offer same-sex wedding ceremonies even though such unions would be contrary to the beliefs of such churches.
To be fair, there is no suggestion that any political party is considering any such crass interference with religious freedom, and we would hope that such fears have no basis in reality. Neither the Church nor the State has the right to force their opinions and values down the throats of others.
However, there are signs that the distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage is not as clear as some would pretend. Secular States might say that the two are separate during a referendum campaign where they want to minimise the Church’s influence, but they are inclined to forget that distinction at other times and to enforce their view of marriage on the Church.
For example, laïcité is a core principle in the French Constitution. This concept of secularism would appear to separate Church and State, and it is often stated by media commentators that French civil marriages and religious marriages are entirely separate. But this is not strictly true. The separation actually only works in one direction. Religions are told to keep their noses out of civil marriage, but the State then presumes to regulate and control religious marriages. So, for example, it is illegal in France for a church to conduct a religious marriage if the couple concerned have not already been joined in a civil marriage.
Here’s a scenario which will inevitably happen sooner or later. Two men, either gay or bisexual, marry each other in a civil ceremony. Then, for whatever reason, they separate but remain legally married. One of the men experiences a conversion experience by which he becomes a Christian and enters into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Next he meets a Christian girl and falls in love. This couple now want to get married. In the eyes of the Church, which does not recognise same-sex marriage, there is no impediment to marrying this man and this woman. In the eyes of the State, however, they are already legally married. So what happens if an Evangelical pastor marries them in a religious ceremony? Will the State happily accept that religious marriage is none of its business? Or will it attempt to impose its concept of marriage upon the Church? Will the bridegroom be charged with bigamy? Will the pastor suffer legal sanctions?
In France, where separation of Church and State is a one-way street, such a scenario would expose the pastor and the couple to prosecution. In the US, where Church and State separation is more equitably applied, it appears that the State has no such legal right, but that will not stop individual States from trying to interfere.
Kody Brown is a polygamist, belonging to the Apostolic United Brethren, an offshoot of the Mormon religion. His family are featured in a reality TV show called ‘Sister Wives.’ Legally, of course, only one of Brown’s ‘wives’ is legally recognised as his spouse by civil law. The other three women are cohabiting with him, but are not legally married to him. Nevertheless the state of Utah attempted to prosecute Brown for bigamy, which carries a 20-year prison sentence, on the basis that the TV show had depicted a religious marriage ceremony. Brown’s defence was that, from the standpoint of civil law, only one of his ‘marriages’ was legal whereas the others were just ‘commitments.’ One wonders how such a defence might play out in Ireland, given that marriage is being redefined to such an extent that it is nothing more than a commitment between two people anyway!
The position of the State of Utah, therefore, is that they not only get to determine who can get married in a civil marriage, but they also wish to control what happens in a religious marriage that supposedly has no legal standing. A federal judge ruled that the State of Utah was acting unconstitutionally, but Utah has appealed that decision.
Of course Evangelicals in Ireland are not polygamists, but such cases demonstrate how civil authorities, even those who pay lip service to secularism and the separation of Church and State, are prepared to ride roughshod over religious communities when it suits them. That should lead us to be somewhat sceptical when we are told to confine ourselves to discussing religious marriage and not to interfere in the civil marriage debate. This brings us to what is, for the Church at least, the heart of the matter in the marriage debate. How do Evangelical Christians, and indeed other minority groups, protect their rights in a society where they are, quite correctly, afforded no special privileges?