This week the state premier announced a change to civil unions – they would go on being registered, but there would no longer be a ceremony to celebrate them so as to avoid offending Christians.
Leaving aside the question of how weak a person’s faith must be if it is damaged by someone else’s commitment to a lifelong relationship, this raises the whole question of what marriage actually is, anyway.
Marriage, as we know it, is not the way marriage has always been, or has always been celebrated.
In Biblical times, it wasn’t celebrated as a religious ceremony, but as a civil and legal matter – a property transaction. Remember the story of Jacob, working for Laban for seven years for his wife – and then being cheated into taking the wrong sister, and having to work another seven years for Rachael. A woman was a piece of property. She was owned by her father until sold to her husband. There was no need for her to consent or to be involved in the negotiations in any way.
The church became involved in marriages when couples began going to seek a blessing for their marriage on the steps of the church – over time a blessing on the steps became a blessing inside the building. But marriage was still always a civil and legal matter – the church’s involvement was only to bless what had been done through civil channels.
In much of the world, this separation is still very clear – people gain their marriage licence from civil authorities and then go to the church for a blessing on what has already been done. It gets lost a little in Australia, because clergy who conduct the wedding (a service to bless a marriage) also do the civil and legal paperwork on behalf of the State.
Currently, the debate is raging about civil unions and the possibility of Gay marriage in some future time. And people are anxious because that would require a huge revolution in our understanding of what marriage is.
I would suggest we had an even bigger revolution in our understanding of marriage a couple of decades ago, and hardly anyone objected or noticed. Until a couple of decades ago, Christian wedding services still acknowledged marriage as property transaction, the question was still asked: “Who gives this woman to be taken by this man?”
The change in the understanding of marriage to the point where today both parties are counted equally as human beings (not one as a piece of property) is a much bigger change in thinking than anything the government may be considering now.
So what is “Christian marriage”? What is “Christian” anything? What makes an institution Christian or otherwise is not the set of rules around it, but the faith of the people in it. In that sense, many marriages that have been celebrated in the church are not “Christian” marriages, and quite possibly many that have been celebrated outside the church have become “Christian.”
Grace and peace