In 'Marriage: A Teaching Document' the bishops state:
‘The words ‘till death us do part’ are not a special religious ideal; they describe the form of relationship that God has given to human beings as a natural endowment. Knowing that they must both one day die, the partners offer each other a security and continuity in life that will help them to approach death with humility and a good conscience. Yet it is important that those who marry know the full extent of what they are doing. And Christians believe that that requires an understanding of the love that God has shown mankind in Christ, a love which marriage is called to reflect. Those who understand God’s love to them will understand their own love as a part of God’s work in the world, and will be better equipped for what they undertake. Precisely because it is a lifelong partnership, marriage is chosen by God to express the permanence of his love for us, which accompanies us through all the changing scenes of life not only until the day we die, but beyond death to resurrection.
The description of Christian marriage as a ‘sacrament’ is valued because it has its source in the New Testament (Eph 5.32) (). It means that the pledged relation of husband and wife is a sign of the pledge of love that Christ has for his Church, the promises he has made to it, the faithfulness, forgiveness, and patience that he has shown it, the delight he takes in it.
The grace of God in the Holy Spirit is given to all who enter marriage in the conscious desire to hear his call, seeking his strength to live together as they have promised. This is why marriage in the context of worship, properly prepared for by a process of reflection and discussion about the life of faith, is an important ministry of the Church.’
Apart from the mention of ‘husband and wife’ in para. 2. this statement could clearly apply to the marriage of same-sex couples.
At one time I was clear that the concept of marriage should be restricted to the commitment between a man and a woman. Since my own Civil Partnership my views have changed and I now believe that if a life-long, pledged, faithful partnership is the sign of marriage, then same-sex couples can fulfil this definition. The religious dimension, as outlined by the bishops, clearly applies to both.
It seems to me that marriage is, firstly, a fundamental commitment that enables human beings to overcome what Genesis identifies as our existential alone-ness – it is not good to be alone. Our humanity finds it’s fulfilment within relationships and the uniting of two human beings (regardless of gender) is the means not only of overcoming that existential aloneness but also to becoming fully human. In religious (Christian) terms that is reflected in the way God can only be God in relationship as revealed in the doctrine of the Trinity: ‘God is not only loving, he is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Love must have an object, argued Richard of St Victor in the twelfth century. If God is love and has always been love then he must always have had ‘another’ upon whom to direct his love. Furthermore, argued Richard, love must have a third party otherwise it’s self-indulgent. True love desires the beloved to be loved by another. So the Father and Son desire to share their love with another: the Holy Spirit’ (Tim Chester – ‘God is a Divine Community’)
If we accept that we are made in God’s image and likeness then we, too, find our completion in a loving union with another. But what of those called to a life of celibacy? What of those called to Religious Life or to the Solitary Life? The principle remains the same except the object of love is not discovered within a one-to-one relationship but through love for others. And, even with Religious, this love is constantly tested through the particular relationships that they experience (1 John 2: 9-11). Even the solitary hermit must realise this love for the Other for love only directed at the Self leads to disintegration.
Socially, of course, marriage has been understood as the union of a man and a woman, the two ‘opposites’ which can create new life. Yet there is nothing to preclude this principle of the union of opposites bringing about a new creation holding true for members of the same sex. It is not the union of sexual opposites that defines marriage but the fulfilling of the need for us not to be alone. I can only be I if I am in relation to Thou, and the more committed I am prepared to be in that relationship, the more I discover my-self. As the opening paragraph of Marriage – A Teaching Document states: ‘Marriage is a pattern that God has given in creation, deeply rooted in our social instincts, through which a man and a woman may learn love together over the course of their lives. We marry not only because we love, but to be helped to love. Without the practice and disciplines of marriage, our love will be exhausted and fail us, perhaps very harmfully to ourselves and others. When publicly and lawfully we enter into marriage, we commit ourselves to live and grow together in this love.’
Again, whilst the Document uses gender-specific terms the principle is not about gender but about human need.
Marriage is also a social convention, a contract between two people, and this is of equal importance to the theology of humanity. Since the law came into force allowing Civil Partnerships to take place people have become far more accepting of same-sex partnerships and the use of the word ‘marriage’; to define these has become common-place. Indeed, when such couples seek to define the relationship they are in then ‘married’ is the easiest term to use and one which is, gradually, being accepted by British society.
It is obvious that the academic and theological question of whether same-sex couples can be married is going to be heatedly debated. But it seems that there is a general movement going on in our society which simply accepts what it sees – that two people of the same sex can enter into loving, monogamous, creative relationships which benefit not only them but society at large. I believe it is this movement cannot be stemmed and will, eventually, lead to the acceptance of same-sex marriage even if there remain those whose convictions mean they will become increasingly marginalised. My hope is that the Church does not argue itself into that position.