The Marriage Question

marriage license

Dwayne and I have been married for over thirty-five years now.  When we were married, we were kids.  Really.  We were the age of legal majority, but we were not old enough to drink alcohol in some states … or in any state today.  Why did we get married as 18 year olds? Partly because we wanted to live together and living together without being married was still seen as taboo — certainly by our friends and family.  Mostly, though, we got married because we intuitively defined marriage as never having to face the world alone.  We shared an intrinsic tension between 1) not being able to imagine that we would ever NOT want to be married to each other and, simultaneously, 2) not being able to imagine that anyone would ever WANT to be married to me.  Yes, we were definitely kids.

Next week the Presbytery of Monmouth will weigh in on our “definition of marriage.” At least, we’ll be voting on amendment 14-F which proposes that we change our Directory for Worship to describe marriage as:

“Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.

“In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the rights and obligations of the married couple in society. In the Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and acknowledges.

The amendment is to replace all of W-4.9000 with these words plus a few more paragraphs.  You can see the proposed wording side by side with the current wording here. The intent of the change is not really about the definition of marriage, per se, but loosening the scope of marriage to include people of the same gender.

On Friday the Supreme Court agreed to hear cases related to the legalization of same-sex marriages.  Thirty six states plus the District of Columbia currently offer marriage licenses to couples of the same gender. What a massive change in the past three years when only nine states plus D.C. allowed gay and lesbian marriages!  Since the court denied hearing cases on the issue in October, there has been some disagreement among federal district courts on the issue.  Some surmise this is the reason the court has decided to take up the issue this season.

The PC(USA) already made a decision allowing pastors and congregations to perform same-sex marriages in the states where it is legal.  Last June (2014) the 221st General Assembly passed an authoritative interpretation of the PCUSA constitution which allows for both sessions and teaching elders to use their own judgement in whether or not to perform weddings among people of the same gender.  Next week’s presbytery vote is to change the constitution so that marriage is explicitly described as being between two people — 86 of our 171 presbyteries need to vote in favor of the proposal in order for it pass.

Presbyterians are still divided on the issue of same-sex marriage.  Some of us see two women or two men marrying as being contrary to the most ancient and fundamental intentions of God.  Others of us see God’s law as being more fluid and as a response to culture.  Some of us are in favor of civil marriage for same-sex couples, but believe that the church’s covenant is restricted to marriage between a man and woman.  Others are not in favor of same-sex marriage in society or in the church.  It’s an issue which has severed us.  We have lost congregations to more denominations with a clear restriction against same-sex marriage; we have lost members and faithful leaders in our congregation for the same reason.  On the other hand, we have also attracted new members who have been encouraged by our more inclusive stance and have redeemed ourselves in the eyes of many former members who had not felt comfortable in our church “family” because of a lack of acceptance of their sexuality and identity as a LGBTQ person.

Because of the emotional and spiritual import of this decision, the Bills and Overtures committee of Monmouth Presbytery will have a one-hour “pre-presbytery” meeting to ask questions and discuss the greater question of marriage.  I expect that most of us planning to attend the meeting have a clear understanding of how we will vote on the amendment, and that there is little we can say to persuade someone else to change their minds … but there is still a great deal to be said about marriage that is not spelled out in the constitutional amendment or our Book of Order.  I wonder if and how we can have the larger discussion about the covenant of marriage … here are some of my questions …

  • Does it, or should it, matter whether or not a couple gets a civil marriage license before having a church wedding?
  • What is the relationship between civil marriage and a church wedding?
  • What is the relationship of sexuality to marriage?
  • What about children? At one time, parenthood was the natural(?) expectation for a couple after they were married.  In a society where many couples never have children together, does the relationship between marriage and children change?
  • What are the principles of a Christ-centered marriage? How does this differ from a civil or non-religiously based marriage?
  • What “understanding” of marriage do you think is necessary for a couple to enter the covenant of marriage?  Were Dwayne and I (as 18-year-old “kids”) mature enough to make that kind of decision?  How would we, as the Church, determine that?

How I wish we weren’t so emotionally tied to the same-sex definition of marriage that we never get to discussing the deeper issues!  Thirty-five years … and my own personal “definition of marriage” is maturing into another life phase.  Our daughter was married a year and a half ago, and my father is getting married in April.  Some people argue that marriage is all about the love of the couple, but these weddings flood me with mixed emotion and indicate that marriage is a much larger relationship.  They also further challenge me to consider and reconsider some of my own assumptions and understanding of marriage at different stages of our lives.  *sigh*

So, what if the issue of same-sex marriage were off the table — what if it were completely resolved in the church and in your community — What are the broader questions about marriage that you’d like to consider?  What have you been thinking about marriage? What are your questions?

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