I love marriage as a matter of philosophy and practice. I have one wife, have only had one, and I’m giving all that I can (and sometimes all that I can’t) to my relationship with Dawn. To have a marriage that is honorable and full of love is a long life project. Sometimes I really enjoy it. Sometimes it’s grueling. My closest friends know that I’m not the easiest to live with. I know that my wife, the darling she is, is not always easy to live with, and the result is til death parts us.
I come to the enactment of this law with marriage in my view, with it in my experience. I can’t quite imagine not being married. Well, I can, because I have a creative and dancing imagination, but I’m trying to push a point. When you’re married, you’re supposed to give yourself wholly and completely to that relationship. And giving like that makes it difficult to envision yourself unmarried. But as I thought about this Act–and it’s not about marriage but civil unions–I had to stretch into that imagination.
What brought me back was the pastoral viewpoint. I think a lot of people of faith express strong sentiment against civil unions. Of course, people of faith express support for them, too. The same can be said about marriage. What I want to point out, though, is that the Church (and its people, if you will) has always been concerned with marriage, and it should be. That’s because the Church had focused on the sacraments, with what is sacramental.
To talk about the sacraments is to talk about experiencing grace. One way of understanding sacraments is that they are expressions of invisible gifts from God through visible things. The Church is good at dealing with what is sacramental. Marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic tradition, but it is sacramental for other traditions too because it carries grace. Marriage brings with it the daily reminder of our dependence upon the One who loves perfectly. So, the church has reason to talk about marriage. It has always had reasons.
That said, the Church has to be cautious when stepping outside of the realm of the sacraments. I think the Church needs to be related to the civic or public arena. But I also think that we must acknowledge that our role is unique and different from the civic arena. Obviously I’m suggesting a split that isn’t quite borne out in real life; people from/in the Church are in the public life. That’s good and that’s necessary because that truth makes religion relevant for daily life. But my point is the Church holds and handles the sacraments, while the political institutions of our time handles the laws. The thing is that marriage is a legal and spiritual institution.
When things like civil unions come up, it pushes us to an edge where we can’t help but meet at the tips of our borders, the Church’s border being the sacraments and the political world’s border being that which is judicial. We look at each other and come to terms with what the Church’s role and concern is and what it isn’t. I think spiritual leaders should debate and fight and pray about marriage and how it’s protected, preserved, and even revered in a culture that’s so poisonous to long commitments. But that struggle, those prayers, and those debates are because of the grace-filled nature of marriage, not because of rights and protections and legal benefits. Those legal benefits are properly qualified to the realm of law and politics and legislation. Those aren’t what I deal with daily. Those aren’t what the Church holds, handles, and invites people to participate in.
I’m celebrating a wedding tomorrow. One of things I’ll say is that the couple before me is signing up for a long life course in commitment. When I say that, I’ll be thinking about how everything around them will frustrate their vows and their commitments. Their own histories will object. Their dispositions, daily changing with the winds, will too. But that’s the vow. And that needs to be protected because it is a means of grace and transformation. That’s what the Church does, engage in the prolonged discussion and celebration of grace.
Now, and I’m almost done, how that looks is different from one Church or denomination to another. That’s because communities of faith find their answers first in the Scriptures. Diverse readings yield diverse interpretations, which bring about a buffet of practices. That’s how many churches can see something like marriage or gay marriage or divorce or baptism so differently. The Church or the denomination has to do its best work, asking the question, “What do we hear from our best source?”
If Scripture is a best source–or in some communities the best source–then it’s always a part of that discernment. If a community is under Scripture, that yields a different conclusion than if a community is next to or over Scripture. If first place is given to culture and ethos and social acceptability, the language of Scripture (and the God of it) will be too strange to listen to when matters like gay marriage come up. So the interpretations will be different. But each community of faith, handling the sacrament of marriage as it naturally does, can look differently. And the clincher is, somehow, we are still one Body, one Church, immersed and joined into one baptism if the New Testament is true.