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Redefining Marriage: What is at Stake?

Wednesday, 29 February 2012  | Jonathan Tame

“Marriage is an alliance entered into by a man who can't sleep with the window shut, and a woman who can't sleep with the window open.” George Bernard Shaw

While national Marriage Week was celebrated in 18 countries last week, the governor of Washington state signed a bill legalising same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, the British government is preparing to launch a consultation next month on redefining marriage to allow same-sex couples to wed.

Those supporting the change in legal definition argue that it’s an equality issue. In that case, any society committed to ending discrimination must not only allow same-sex couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples (which already exist in civil partnerships legislation), it is argued, but should do away with religious restrictions on gay marriage too. On the other hand, those opposing the redefinition of marriage agree that politicians should ensure minorities are not discriminated against, but it is not their job to redefine a centuries old institution that has its roots in the church, nor to pass laws forcing faith groups to act against their beliefs. Moral, religious and cultural arguments are being made to support the traditional view of marriage, but in public debate, the benefit of heterosexual marriage to society in the long term must be demonstrated.

Two arguments stand out. A sustainable society requires each generation to ensure the best possible outcomes for their children. Research studies overwhelmingly conclude that a stable domestic relationship between the biological parents of a child outperforms every other family structure in terms of health, emotional and financial outcomes for their children. Any change in law that further weakens this gold standard of heterosexual marriage for family formation and child development will lead to poorer prospects for children and the next generation.

Secondly, the way that men and women relate to each other is crucial to personal, family and society’s wellbeing. Competitive or coercive gender relationships have led to incalculable suffering over the years; but this problem is not solved by promoting gender uniformity (which is behind the campaign for same-sex marriages). Instead, the structure which best encourages interdependent relations between the genders needs strengthening; society calls this marriage. Redefining it for the sake of the few could bring relational suffering to the many; is it worth the risk?

Gender roles and relationships are stereotyped to the n-th degree, but each one of us can still choose how to relate to the opposite sex; do you have any relationships that need to be shifted from a competitive towards a more complementary basis?

 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2: 24)

Read on...

“Gender cooperation: some implications of God’s design for society” is a Cambridge Paper by Michael and Auriel Schluter, which explores some of the challenges of influencing gender relationships. Read this insightful paper here.

Jonathan Tame is Acting Director at the Jubilee Centre, Cambridge. This article first appeared on Friday Five: Stimulating relational thinking, February 17, 2012.


Geoff Leslie
March 1, 2012, 10:15AM
This article is a little disappointing. The first argument is OK perhaps: I agree with it but I would have liked the author to produce some evidence that children raised in a loving homosexual family have worse outcomes than those in the average hetero family - and it might not be easy to find.
The second argument is very weak. How does allowing a homosexual couple next door to become married weaken my relationship to my wife? What possible reason is there to think that allowing homosexual marriage is a plot to create gender uniformity? Wouldn't that plot be easier to find in those wanting 'equalitarian' marriage relations versus 'hierarchical complementarians'? (And I don't believe it is there either!)
The second argument is
Charles Sherlock
March 1, 2012, 12:23PM
I've some sympathy with Geoff, but I hadn't read Jonathan's piece as 'arguments', so much as a challenge to examine my own living (as a male now married for 42 years).

Like Geoff, I don't see why 'gay marriage' should threaten mine, or anyone else's, but I don't think anyone is arguing for 'gender uniformity' since that is just obviously pointless...

My personal puzzle, which I happily admit is shaped by biblical data and theological reflection: Why is 'marriage' wanted by same-sex couples? The institution receives widespread critique, and in western societies most couples now live as married before a wedding - yet marriage is all about 'vive la difference!' Or is this being confused today with 'vive le differance', a la Derrida?

PS: there is but a single role model for one man/one woman marriage in the scriptures, as anyone who has tried to write prayers for a Christian wedding will realise! - Isaac and Rebekah (well some will include Tobias...) whose relationship is not quite what Jonathan is asking for. Which somehow fascinates me...
Helen Beazley
March 2, 2012, 12:20PM
I'm not convinced by either argument (I am not saying I am for against same sex marriage, merely commenting on quality of arguments). I'm not convinced by the second argument for reasons spelt out by Geoff. I'm not convinced about the first argument - sounds like we are going to decide whose in and out of marriage on the basis of social engineering - if being in a middle income family generates better outcomes for children than poor families will we only allow people on good incomes to marry??
I'd be really interested in an article looking at how marriage developed as a religious sacrament and as a legal contract. Is it possible to untangle the history of these 2 concepts? Allowing marriage as an act between a same sex couple (or between 2 atheists for example) is a separate issue to allowing the observance of marriage as a religoius sacrament, where the church communities should have ultimate say.

Charles, really interesting what you say about the dirth of one woman/one man marriage models. I thought Adam and Eve would be the central model - is there a a reason you don't count them? - but still a very interesting point

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