At a same-sex marriage debate held at a Uniting Church last month, one thing all three speakers seemed to agree on was the fact that marriage is an institution that has undergone significant change. In response to the debate’s question, ‘Should the Church celebrate same-sex marriages?’ Reverends Peter Weeks, Dr Garry Deverell and Dr Avril Hannah-Jones offered arguments for ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Maybe’, respectively.
Rev Alex Sangster, minister at Fairfield Uniting Church, emceed the debate, which was the first of a ‘Spring Series of Controversial Questions’ at Williamstown Uniting Church.
Mr Weeks, minister at St Thomas Uniting Church Craigieburn, was the first to speak. He began by stating he has been in a same-sex relationship for the past six years.
“Marriage is an institution that has changed significantly over time. For most of its history, marriage has been a legal contract between two men; transferring property, the bride, from one (the father) to the other (the husband).
“The Uniting Church removed these last symbolic links to a totally outvoted, patriarchal way of viewing marriage.”
Mr Weeks outlined the Uniting Church’s current definition of marriage as a lifelong union where both people can ‘know the joy of God in whose image we are made, male and female’, interpreting the latter as affirming equality rather than necessarily heterosexuality.
“I would certainly accept the argument that true community between men and women is where God resides. But within that community there are many varied sub-communities,” he said.
Mr Weeks recently conducted a wedding between a 75-year-old and an 82-year-old wherein, after reading the liturgical words ‘entrusted with the care of children’, he explained good-humouredly that it was part of a general understanding of marriage, not the particular marriage he was conducting.
“The Uniting Church does not say that marriage is for the bearing of children, nor does it require children,” Mr Weeks said.
“It states that those who marry may be entrusted with the gift of caring for children. Marriage provides a secure (but not the only secure) environment where children can be raised.
“Marriage is to help shape a society in which human dignity and happiness may flourish and abound … and ought to be encouraged for those of us who are in same-sex relationships as well as those who are in opposite sex ones.”
The second speaker, Dr Deverell, minister at Oakleigh Uniting Church, gave reasons for a ‘No’ response. He began by offering background for his claim that the response was not borne of an intolerance for same-sex attracted people.
He pointed out that scripture is “completely silent” about sexual relationships between consenting adults of the same gender. He explained texts that appear to condemn homosexual relationships actually condemn other behaviours “if read carefully”.
“Recent Christian theology is trying to begin again with the whole issue [of homosexuality] starting not with specific texts but with the nature of God as the trinity of love and the character of the church as baptised and covenanting people called to imitate this love through myriad forms of valid relationships,” Dr Deverell said.
He continued that, “the nature of homosexual unions between consenting adults might well represent one of these legitimate covenants of God’s love,” however qualifying his belief that the difference between the genders is central to the definition of marriage.
“Our different genders can tell us something about the way that God’s love for ‘the other’ is manifest. Divine love … has to do with the coming together of unlikeness into a bond characterised by mutual submission.
“While the Church has indeed sought to occasionally reform marriage … some things have not changed; the bond of a man and a woman for life and an openness to procreation and the care of children through their sexual union.
“I don’t think marriage can bear the pressure of such a dramatic change in its meaning without at the same time ceasing to be itself.”
Last to speak was Dr Hannah-Jones, who outlined justifications for a ‘maybe’ response to the question.
“When it comes to marriage, my head and my heart are split. My heart tells me that once same-sex marriages are legal, the Church will celebrate same-sex couples with the same joy that we celebrate the marriages of different sex couples.
“My head tells me that the Church shouldn’t celebrate marriages at all,” she said.
“One mistake made in this debate is the assumption that there is something particularly Christian about marriage.”
Dr Hannah-Jones pointed out that what is currently being debated in the public sphere is a legal process.
“One of the huge changes of the Protestant Reformation was a belief in the superiority of marriage over celibacy, which led to the demand that Protestant pastors be married, “ Dr Hannah-Jones said.
“Protestant reformers tried to make marriage not only normal but respectable. Marriage and family were idealised and became the Christian way of life.
“The discussion that we’re having now shows how successful that campaign was. It has only been the last 500, of the Church’s 2000 years, that weddings have been held in churches.”
While affirming her belief that the Church should bless the relationships of those who come seeking it, regardless of the hetero- or homosexual status of the relationship, Dr Hannah-Jones argued that the Church shouldn’t celebrate or conduct marriages at all.
“All the legal stuff, the paperwork and month’s notice and need for witnesses, could be handed over to the state. Because, after all, for most of Christian history, solemnising marriages wasn’t the Church’s job; it was the state’s.”
She suggested the Church bless relationships as covenant friendships.
“Marriage is what the state does; Christians are called to love each other as friends. Such services could quote the story of David and Jonathan and read the words Ruth said to Naomi.”