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.
I have thought along similar lines.Civil Unions separate from any religious ceremony. Love and commitment have little to do with legalities or with the state. If we chose to have our union blessed in a religious ceremony and supported by our faith community that is fine.Some Friends were very supportive when my marriage broke up and for that I was very thankful. Let us support each other in our life choices.
It seems to me that the purpose of marriage is no longer taught anywhere, whether within a religious grouping or out there in the secular world. How many couples these days, going to the altar or just settling down together without any official ceremony, do so on the understanding that the primary purpose of a committed relationship is a) to make you a better person, and b) to serve the other selflessly? You will achieve a) by doing b) – it will knock the corners off you, teach you to be not-selfish, to be compassionate, patient, observant of others and their needs, to make good leadership decisions (the best ones are always made with the interests of the other in mind), and to be gentle, kind – in other words: loving. This can only be achieved by those who commit for the long term and who are prepared to see love as a rational decision, not a feeling, and stick with it for life. The greatest gift of love is to create for the other an environment of total acceptance (which will often require much personal overcoming of one’s feelings); to make this environment nourishing both physically and spiritually for the other; and to be consistent with it all. This is a big job and not an easy one, and if one is not prepared to spend one’s life putting oneself aside for the other (if BOTH do it, then nobody misses out, ok?), then one should not get married. In our selfish, I-must-fulfill-me society, it’s an extra big ask.
Unlike what many people today believe, the primary purpose for getting married is not the having of children. Children will automatically thrive if they are lucky enough to be born into a family where daily love is practised between the parents.
Why bother? One, you become a nice and useful person. Two, you’ve had the satisfaction of making someone else happy. Three, you’ve probably raised some fine children in the process. And fourthly – and this is the magic – you will eventually truly fall in love with this person, fiercely, wildly, and passionately, and have the kind of bond that most only dream about. This bond is earned by service, and has nothing to do with “meeting the right person who will make me happy”. (Of course, it is to be hoped that one’s original choice of partner is based on true respect for that person’s values, which these days is so often hardly a consideration – how can one expect a marriage to last when this is not the basic underlying reason for choosing a particular person?). Choose a good person, set yourself out to lay before them on a daily basis the love of God, as He commanded, and while it might take forty years or more, eventually in true romantic style “love will overcome all” and you will be rewarded. That’s when the partying should happen – not at the beginning! Saving the cost of a fancy wedding for the 40 or 50-yr anniversary makes good sense.
That these things are no longer taught is a great loss to society as a whole. We see and experience a great lack of love, we see people marrying for the wrong reasons all the time and know that they are unlikely to make it through, and – tragically – it is usually because they simply don’t know, have not been taught, what love actually is.