Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting.
We have heard a lot lately about marriage. It is of personal interest to me because I was married for 40 years, and am now living with a man to whom I am not married. Am I any less committed? I don’t think so. So what is marriage from the point of view of the legal authorities, and what do we mean by a Quaker Marriage?
I think we may be grateful that the state no longer takes a great interest in people’s sex lives. The state should be interested in the protection of children and other vulnerable people, and should prosecute crimes of violence. Otherwise, the less interest the authorities take in people’s sexual activities, the better.
But listening to the Gay Marriage debate, I notice that politicians suddenly became unnecessarily interested in other people’s sex lives. The fear seemed to be that allowing gay marriage would lead to an explosion of gay sex. There may be some gay and lesbian couples who are holding back waiting for their marriage lines, but I suspect this is a very small group. Marriage, for most people, gay or straight, does not mean a licence to engage in sexual activity – this they do not need. So what does it mean?
It seems to me that from the point of view of the state, marriage is about who takes financial responsibility for whom. Married couples agree to financially support each other, and any children who come into their care. This is advantageous to the state, and in fact Centrelink goes to great effort to establish that people are in committed relationships, and therefore ‘married’ for purpose of tax and benefits.
In a secular society in which many people do not see marriage as an estate instituted by God, I think that it is best that the state does not use the word “marriage” at all. The state should register civil unions, which are unions for mutual support. Religious bodies can then bless these unions or not, according to their lights.
Most religious authorities, unlike the civil authorities, have a long-standing interest in people’s sex lives, and are quite restrictive in which unions they will bless. For Christians this is perhaps surprising, because Jesus had very little to say about marriage. Those combing the gospels for suitable quotes for a wedding service can only come up with one quote in which Jesus was asked if a man could divorce his wife “for any reason”, which may have meant merely that he was tired of her and fancied a change. Jesus said he could not. But apart from this one quotation, the best that one can come up with is the story of changing water into wine at the marriage feast.
Of more interest might be his attitude to the woman taken in adultery. After her accusers had left her, and she was alone with Jesus, he might have given her a long lecture on her wicked ways. But he merely tells her to “go and sin no more” – a prudent suggestion considering how near she came to being stoned.
The position of the Society of Friends is interesting. Their support of gay marriage has little to do with the concept of the sanctity of marriage, and much to do with the Testimony to Equality – if people of one gender orientation can do it, why not those of another? Many Quakers seem to have equivocal attitudes towards marriage generally. They recognise the value of stable, long-term relationships both for the couple involved and for the children they raise. But they have often had unsatisfactory experiences of marriage, and are not in favour of faith communities insisting that people should persevere in destructive relationships.
Personally, I think we should not be worrying about whether people are married or not. We should be asking how we can foster good long-term relationships. And here I think faith communities have tended to put too much emphasis on the responsibilities of the committed couple. Of course the couple must take some responsibility for their relationship. They must not have unrealistic expectations about how happy their partner should make them, and they must at least treat each other with politeness and honesty.
But perhaps we should be looking more at how the social environment can support or destroy long-term relationships. The success of a relationship depends a great deal on financial stability, reasonable working conditions, and family and community support. It is well-known that the relationships of marginalised people tend to break down, a good reason not to marginalise them.
I like the idea of being married “in the care of the Meeting”. This acknowledges that we all need help to live well. But we all need to be in the care of the Meeting, whether we are married, partnered or single.