Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ending the Tyranny of Marriage

Well, my original post on same sex marriage made a bit of a splash not so much here but around the intertubes. It got posted around Facebook and even ended up on Catholica. Some people liked it and some people didn't. One critic took me to task not only for the ideas but for using big words. No problem, I knew what I had to say wouldn't be popular with a lot of people.

What I want to do in this post is to sketch some thoughts about how to break down the tyranny of marriage under which we all labour or at least to suggest some possibilities for a plenitude as opposed to a singularity for our affectional lives and affiliations. I'll start with the civil sphere but will turn my attention to the religious sphere or should I say ceremonial sphere, illustrated in a Christian context about how to implement such a plenitude.

Many of the responses made in support of me focused on the religious background of marriage and why should the State be enforcing a religious institution rather than one of it's own. They argued that the State should institute a civil partnership scheme for all and if people wanted a marriage they could go to their church/place of worship afterwards for one. Well, such a regime already exists in France and probably other European countries and their civil partnerships are called marriages and work under the marriage model. So it's not really an improvement.

In fact, I think part of the problem is that people think of marriage as primarily a religious institution. It's not, it's a very old cultural institution and a patriarchal one to boot. Religion is involed because religion is part of culture. Indeed it came as quite a surpise for to discover how recently marriage had become 'religionised' and universalised in Western European culture. For most people in medieval Europe cohabitation, if marked religiously, was accompanied by either a blessing at the church doorstep prior to Sunday Mass or even just the posting of the banns of marriage at the church entrance. Marriage was a family affair - it marked the joining of families not individuals - and, as still applies in India today and throughout the ancient world, it was an event celebrated and solemnised by families. In medieval Europe the aristocracy and the wealthy were the ones who would have a full Church wedding because their status brought into play property, legitimacy and power issues that didn't apply to the ordinary peasantry.

It's the Reformation that marks a major change, at least ideologically. The Reformers saw marriage as a crucial part of the godly order they were trying to implement. The Roman Church in response finally defined marriage as a sacrament and saw itself as the implementer of marriage. The Revolution in France put paid to that. The State took over the role of the Church as the guarantor of marriage a function it maintains to this day as I have already observed. In the UK it was different because there the Church was a State institution already. I was also very surprised to discover that it wasn't until the 18th century that the British Parliament mandated marriage for all in the Anglican Church as the only legitimate way to marry/cohabit, with the exception of Jews and, I believe, Quakers. The State is here basically subcontracting to the Church, its agent, in this model.

So there is nothing specifically religious about marriage even if it becomes invested with a suite of religious ideologies. And in capitalist society marriage has taken front and centre as the main vehicle for our affectional and our erotic lives. Marriage or a marriage like relationship is the goal held up for all of us for fulfilment.

In many respects then civil unions/partnerships are really a form of marriage lite. They're couplist and exclusive and relate to cohabitation. At the same time, I like the idea and I believe that since they were introduced in NZ they've been taken to by many mixed sex couples as well as same sex ones. Sadly though it appears the UK's civil partnerships are only available for same sex couples. In this country the whole civil union thing is bogged down in the processes to try and keep it from looking like marriage lite so it's still to really get off the ground. But even if it is marriage lite it, it's still an advance on marriage. The other important thing is to make sure there is an intenational framework for recognising civil unions as there is with marriage.

At this stage I think that is about as far as the State will go. I personally rather like the idea of mutual adoption but adoption laws vary so much from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and are really geared towards adoption of children. I don't know if many jurisdictions actually make provision for adult adoption. But the mention of mutual adoption takes me straight into the realm of religion because of the rediscovery by John Boswell of the rites for making brothers or sisters, adelphopoieia, that were practiced in the Eastern Church and seem to have counterparts in the medieval Western Church. Boswell claimed that they were rites for joining same sex couples in an analogous way to say civil unions. Instead these are rites that seem to have someothing to do with adoption of what we might term blood brotherhood. In the Balkans they clearly brought families into relationship in a similar way to marriage. But while I think Boswell was wrong there, I think he would be on firmer ground for suggesting that these rites might have been used by same sex lovers as a way to bless their relationships. We are all familiar with marriages of convenience used to mask one's sexuality. I can easily imagine that some such could work the other way with adelphopoieia. Now while these rites were gradually suppressed over time, in the Greek Church in the 19th century, it seems that there are some Eastern Churches that still use them (and it would appear that these rites are still performed in parts of the Balkans even if unofficially).

I think the time has come for these rites to be revived. No doubt it will be difficult in the Roman Church and various Orthodox Churches that have suppressed them. But they could be revived in Independent Catholic Churches and perhaps even in the Anglican Church. And more adventurous Roman and Orthodox priests should also be encouraged to at least consider celebrating them. I would certainly be much happier using a rite like this than the ghastly traditional marriage rite. The other thing about these rites is that they can cover more than just homosexual relationships. They can also cover non-sexual but homo-affectionate relationships, strong committed friendships.

And I would argue that it is about time that friendship was valued and celebrated. It's not clear from my reading whether medieval practices of sworn friendship were another form of adelphopoieia or something different. If adelphopoieia actually brought families into kinship whereas sworn friendships didn't then there is a difference already. One is kinmaking in a strong sense, the other blesses and affirms relationship without necessarily linking two kinship groups. It's time friendship was celebrated, affirmed and blessed. I'm not speaking here about solely romantic erotic same sex relationships. Imagine if two or three male or female friends wanted to celebrate their friendship and have it blessed. Imagine a world in which friendship is celebrated and honoured, including friendships between men and women!

And while I imagine the ways this could happen in a religious setting by drawing on rituals from the past, it doesn't only have to be in a religious setting. Australia now has a well established network of civil celebrants. Their main role has been to perform civil weddings. But as our culture has secularised, many of these celebrants have branched out into funerals and baby namings and same sex commitment ceremonies as well. Maybe it's time for the celebration of friendship or commitment to friendship to be added to the repertoire.

In our society, to be unmarried or not in a marriage-like relationship means to be counted as single and therefore lacking in some way. And yet so many of us singles live in a rich world of loving friendship completely discounted by mainstream society. At the same time the marriage model of two people dependent only on each other is toxic, masking as it does both the real world of friendship in which such relationships exist and on which they depend. In fact marriage in the best sense is a variety of sexual friendship with the intent of parenthood. And if marriage is to continue that really is the direction, I believe, for it to head. But marriage then must sit in a range of friendships some of which are sexual, some not and some that might be sexual at some stages and non-sexual in others. And all of them celebrated, honoured and blessed.

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