Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Purpose of Marriage

formerly What is Marriage For?

@lfeatherstone, who is a Lib Dem MP and Equalities minister in the Coalition government, argues that neither the state nor the church "owns" marriage. Quoting a remark by a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, who had said that the Church doesn't own marriage, she interprets this to mean that marriage should belong to the people, and urges people not to polarize the debate on extending marriage to same-sex couples.

However, Lord Carey disputes her interpretation of his remark. "When I said that not even the Church owns it (marriage), I meant that the Church has no authority to change the definition of marriage as far as Christian thinking is concerned - there is a givenness to it."

Meanwhile for Pope Benedict XVI, marriage owns reproduction. Wrapping up a 3-day Vatican conference on infertility, His Holiness asserted that marriage and marital sexual intercourse (putting it in and jiggling it about a bit) is the proper way to create a human being, and reiterated his attack on artificial procreation (including IVF) as a form of arrogance. Matrimony, he said, “constitutes the only ‘place’ worthy of the call to existence of a new human being”.

The opposition to same-sex marriage seems to be based on the converse assertion, that reproduction owns marriage. The purpose of marriage being to propagate the species, or so the argument goes, therefore no relationship can count as true marriage if it lacks the potential to propagate.

We might imagine that this exclusion would also rule out the marriage of infertile people, as well as those who are past child-bearing age. But there are many examples in the Bible of elderly and infertile women suddenly producing children (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, ...), so if faith can overcome such obstacles, why can't a child spring (like Dionysus) from the thigh of a man?

Elsewhere, the purpose of marriage is said to be companionship, binding two people together in love and spiritual union, although theologians tie themselves in knots when they try to restrict this to sexual love. (Why shouldn't two elderly sisters who share a house have the same rights of inheritance as a lesbian couple? Why is civil partnership only available to those who share a bed? And what about the curious concept of a celibate civil partnership, which seems to be the only option available to homosexual priests?)

The confusion here is that marriage has many purposes, including social and legal ones. We may not wish to pry into the bedrooms of our friends, and we may be very reluctant to grant the immigration and tax authorities the right to pry into anyone's bedroom. And when a couple (of any kind) proudly and lovingly produce a child, it really shouldn't matter by what feats of acrobatics or bioengineering, and with the collaboration of which other parties, the child was engendered. 

But I'm guessing that Archbishop Carey and Pope Ratzinger aren't going to be in a hurry to bless the offspring of - to pick a random example - Elton John and David Furnish.

Lynne Featherstone, This is not gay rights versus religious beliefs (Daily Telegraph, 24 February 2012)

John Bingham, Lynne Featherstone tells Church 'don't polarise gay marriage debate' (Daily Telegraph, 24 February 2012)

Church 'does not own marriage' (BBC News, 25 February 2012)

Pope decries artifical procreation; fertility treatments as ‘arrogant’ (New York Daily News 25 February 2012)

Pope says arrogance drives infertility field, tells couples to shun artificial procreation (Washington Post, 25 February 2012)

Juniper Berry, What the Bible says about God and the infertile woman (Squidoo)

Updated 13 June 2015

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