No Episcopal priest is allowed to solemnize and bless a marriage unless premarital counseling has been done by the officiant or another priest of the church. It is a statement about the seriousness with which the Church goes about marriage.
Each priest decides what the nature and content of that marriage preparation will be. At the end of the first session, where I ask the couple to tell me the story of their meeting, falling in love, and then wanting to make the commitment of marriage to each other, I give them a survey of questions about all aspects of their relationship. They are asked not to answer the questions but to indicate that (a) this is something we are in agreement about, (b) this is something we are in some disagreement about, or (c) this is not something we’ve really discussed.
What is most revealing about this questionnaire is the way it uncovers different levels of trust, commitment and understanding between the two. One partner is convinced that a particular topic has been fully discussed and agreed upon, while the other is not at all sure. At least some gaps in communication are readily revealed. These gaps give me the opportunity to invite better communication between the two parties. Sometimes the presence of a third — and trustworthy — person gives one of the partners the courage to bring up a disparity that is too frightening to risk raising, now that the wedding invitations have been sent out.
Not a single issue raised in these several sessions of premarital counseling is specific to or exclusively relevant to opposite-gender marriage. Which has led me to wonder if same-gender marriage changes the definition of marriage at all!
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You are not alone in wondering if we aren’t tampering with a time-honored, hallowed tradition and practice. It feels a little like defying the gods! But I know it’s not unusual for people to think that what they have experienced in their own lives is the way it has always been. The facts about the history and evolution of marriage show that that is not the case.
Some people would have you believe that marriage began with Adam and Eve. But in the account in Genesis where Adam and Eve become one flesh (presumably through their mutual commitment and sexual intimacy), there is no mention of an “institution” of marriage nor any liturgy, vows, promises or other ritual used to solemnize their relationship. This prehistorical account can only serve as a backdrop to the meaning (not the “institution”) of marriage that developed over time.
The fact of the matter is, marriage has not been consistent or unchanging over time. Indeed, even in biblical times, we see a constant evolution in the practice of marriage. One man and one woman, united in marriage for life, mutually exclusive and “faithful” sexually, and joined because of their love for each other, is a relatively modern notion of marriage. Such was not the case in ancient times.
Marriage in Old Testament Times
From the earliest Old Testament accounts, polygamy seemed to be the practice of the day. Or, to be more accurate, polygyny (the practice of polygamy by males, not females) was practiced. In the ancient Hebrew culture, having more than one wife was commonplace. In addition to multiple wives, men who were wealthy enough to have slaves or concubines had sexual relationships with them. Even Abraham — father to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — when he was unable to produce an heir with his wife, Sarah, had a son by his slave Hagar. Abraham’s grandson Jacob married two sisters, Leah and Rachel. King Solomon was renowned not only for his wisdom and wealth but also for his 700 wives and 300 concubines! Over the years, marriage customs evolved, and by Jesus’ time divorce was discouraged and monogamy increasingly became the standard.
Ancient Israel was fiercely patriarchal, and for the purposes of marriage women had no rights. Divorce was permitted by a husband for some “uncleanness” in his wife, and that divorce was accomplished simply by giving her a “bill of divorce” and sending her away. Women had no rights in this regard and under most circumstances could not divorce their husbands.
In parts of the Old Testament, and at various times in Israel’s history, a man was required to marry his brother’s wife if the brother’s death left his widow childless. To be a female, or a child, without a man in the house as husband or father was thought to be a terrible thing — which is why so much attention is paid to widows and orphans by Israel’s prophets, and later by Jesus.
Marital arrangements were negotiated by the husband-to-be and the bride’s father and carried all the traits of an economic transaction. Affection or love might be present, or might develop over the years, but was certainly not a prerequisite of marriage.
Teachings on Marriage and Divorce by Jesus and Saint Paul
Jesus was quite radical in his regard for women. Not only did they follow him as disciples, but they are said to have funded his ministry financially. He resisted many of the teachings and proscriptions about women from his Scriptures (the Hebrew Scriptures), for which he was roundly criticized.
Jesus is quite clear that marriage is to be for a lifetime and that divorce is a serious issue, permitted to a man only in the case of “unchastity.” For either a man or a woman to marry anyone after divorce (“except on the ground of unchastity”), Jesus tells his disciples, is to commit “adultery” (Matthew 19:9; 5:31– 32; Mark 10:11– 12; Luke 16:18). Jesus does seem to imply that divorce because of unchastity is allowable for women as well as men, representing more marital rights for women than had been previously taught.
Saint Paul can hardly be said to be supportive of marriage. The early Church expected the imminent return of Jesus in the Second Coming, and life was to be lived as purely and purposefully as possible until that event. Paul gives a nod to human reality and passion by begrudgingly offering a concession for the meantime: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:8– 9).
Paul does promote a kind of egalitarianism in marriage, balancing the husband’s authority over his wife and her body with an equal authority for the wife over the husband and his body (1 Corinthians 7:4). It is not at all certain, and highly questionable, that such egalitarianism in marriage was practiced in such a patriarchal society.
Holy Scripture and “Family Values”
While looking at the institution of marriage as practiced and taught in the New Testament, we must be very careful not to project our current understanding of marriage and “family values” back onto an ancient time, when such notions would have been foreign to that culture. It must be noted that the model of family we have today — that is, the so-called nuclear family — would have been unknown in ancient times, when the extended family was the norm. Married couples often lived in a household with parents, children and other relatives. People were much less mobile than today, and families lived, worked, and socialized as extended family units. One man married to one woman, living in a home with only their children, was a rarity.
The teachings of Jesus can hardly be used to support the notion of the modern nuclear family — or even the idea of the biological family. Jesus had some things to say about families and familial relationships that sound harsh to modern ears. Indeed, he seemed to promote a family based not on biological origin but on intention, choice, and shared beliefs.
Matthew’s Gospel records an incident in which Jesus is speaking publicly, when he is told that his “mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to [him]. But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ ” (Matthew 12:46– 50).
Jesus’s closest companions were a dozen men who followed his call to become his disciples. It is also clear that Jesus had other disciples beyond “the 12,” including women. In addition, Jesus singled out three of the disciples (Peter, James, and John) whom he groomed for leadership.
Even so, in addition to these three disciples, there was “the one whom Jesus loved.” John, the so-called Beloved Disciple, is identified this way only in the Gospel of John and may have been his followers’ way of giving their mentor special status among the disciples. But still, it is remarkable that one of the official accounts of Jesus’ life, authorized by the early Church to be a canonical book of Scripture, would name a particular person as “the one whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). It is this same disciple who is identified as standing next to Jesus’ mother, Mary, at the cross, witnessing Jesus’s crucifixion. Seeing them, Jesus says, from the cross, to his mother, “‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:26– 27).
Now, I am not saying Jesus was gay or that he had any sort of sexual intimacy with “John, the Beloved Disciple” or anyone else! Still, it is remarkable that one disciple was singled out as “the one” whom Jesus loved, the same one pictured as reclining beside Jesus at the Last Supper, and the same one to whom Jesus spoke from the cross, telling him to take Mary as his own mother, and for Mary to take John as her son. I am not saying or even implying more than the text itself states, but I am cautioning us not to put into Jesus’s mouth or mind modern notions of marriage and the nuclear family. According to the Scriptures themselves, Jesus seems to have gathered around him an intentionally chosen group of people whom he regarded as his family (and one especially) — more deeply so than his own biological family.
Marriage in the Early and Medieval Centuries
For many centuries, marriage continued to be a civil and private matter. Over the years, Christianity began to have an influence over the institution of marriage, “Christianizing” some of the harsher variations of it found in Western Europe. Germanic marriage custom offered an almost purely economic understanding of marriage, seeing it as a business deal between father and husband, who agreed on a mutually acceptable “bride price,” payable in full when the bride was delivered to the husband at the wedding. (About all the bride got out of this tidy arrangement was a wedding ring — signifying that an agreeable price had been reached between her father and her husband-to-be. Later, other more ethereal and symbolic meanings would be attached to this ring, but originally it was no more than a symbolic down payment on the agreed-upon bride price.)
Eventually, the Church began to exercise more influence over the practice of and conditions for marriage, articulating various impediments to it, including prohibitions against marriage to those deemed “too close” by blood. The Church became involved in investigations of these impediments, declaring an annulment for those found to be in violation of these impediments (necessary, since divorce was increasingly forbidden). Even so, the Church still regarded marriage as a civil and private matter. Not until the 12th century did a priest of the Church become involved in wedding rites, and not until the 13th century did the priest actually take charge of the service.
Consistent throughout this time, the consent of those being married was essential, although given the disparity between the rights of men and those of women, and the economic dependence of one on the other, it is hard to imagine that the woman’s consent was as genuine or real as that of her husband-to-be or her father. In the case of marriages arranged for children (for economic or sociopolitical reasons), the modern mind would not understand the “consent” given (cajoled or coerced) by these children to be in any way “meaningful” consent.
Marriage After the Reformation
Along with all the other changes brought by the Reformation, marriage became, according to Martin Luther, “a worldly thing ... that belongs to the realm of government.” English Puritans believed marriage to be purely secular, and although religious oversight of marriage was restored when the Puritans lost power in England, the Puritans brought this secular understanding of marriage with them to America, where it persisted.
In response to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church reasserted and strengthened its authority over marriages, now requiring that the marriage be presided over by a priest and witnessed by two other people. This ended secret marriages as well as those marriages that were never formally solemnized, but rather were simply deemed to be marriages by virtue of the couple’s mutual consent and common domicile. These came to be known as common-law marriages and continued to be recognized in some states in America until 1970.
In most of Western Europe, marriage became a civil matter and remains so to this day. Those who wish a religious community’s blessing on a marriage may obtain it only after a civil ceremony presided over by the State.
Generally speaking, most modern cultures have prohibited marriage between people of two races, most notably in America (during and after slavery), in Nazi Germany, and during the years of apartheid in South Africa.
Slaves in America did marry, but such marriages were not legally recognized. The slave owner could still buy and sell “married” slaves, often separating husband from wife and destroying families in the process. Oddly enough, some slave owners encouraged marriage among their slaves — partly to assuage criticism by abolitionists and partly to render their slaves more reluctant to run away. Marriage, recognized by the State, was one of the more sought after of newfound rights that came with freedom, and by the early twentieth century most African-Americans were legally married.
What continued not to be recognized and affirmed was marriage between the races. Miscegenation (a combination of the Latin words miscere, “to mix,” and genus, or “kind”) was strictly forbidden, and antimiscegenation laws were common across the United States. Several attempts (from 1871 to 1928) were made to write antimiscegenation laws into the U.S. Constitution, though these efforts failed. State antimiscegenation laws continued in many places until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional (Loving v. Virginia), thereby striking down those laws in the 16 states that still had them. President Barack Obama’s parents could not have been married in these 16 states prior to 1967.
The right to marry was a hard-fought civil right in the United States long after the end of the Civil War. Yet this was a fight not over the meaning of marriage but over who was eligible to participate in this institution. African-Americans as well as couples of two different races were not arguing over the importance or meaning of marriage but rather fighting for their civil right to participate in this noble institution. They were not trying to redefine the meaning of marriage but only attempting to become eligible for its traditional meaning and practice. The definition of marriage was not changed by the opening of access to it for African-Americans.
I would argue that such is the case with our current debates over marriage for same-gender couples. At the end of the day, this is a very conservative argument being made for gay marriage. After all, gay and lesbian couples are seeking not to destroy the institution of marriage but to join it! Gay couples want out of marriage what heterosexual couples want — respect, recognition, protections (even from a spouse in the case of divorce), a wholesome environment in which to raise children, and legal rights and financial benefits by which government rewards and supports the stability of society that marriage promotes.
As we can see, the understanding of marriage has not been constant throughout history, but rather has been gradually evolving over time. Surely none of us would agree with or condone marriage practices in biblical times (either Old or New Testament). Few of us would hope for or espouse the inequality of men and women so typified by marriage arrangements of the past. Indeed, as a clergyman and representative of the State in marriage, I have tried my best (as have many others) to deprive the rite of marriage of its sexist, women-as-property ingredients. The father “giving” his daughter in marriage to the husband has been replaced with both mother and father “presenting” their daughter to the groom and both mother and father of the groom “presenting” their son to the bride. Though initially surprised and sometimes shocked by such proposals for changes in marriage traditions, the bride and groom and their families have generally (and enthusiastically) embraced such changes as better expressions of what they actually feel and intend.
We all now agree that freely offered, mutual, and romantic love is an essential ingredient in a marriage. Such romantic feelings of love have not been considered a prerequisite of marriage for most of history, and mutual love was only a happenstance by-product of such a union, not its purpose. Our understanding and practice of marriage have been in constant change over the centuries, bringing us to a common understanding of marriage as a mutual commitment, entered into freely and by mutual consent, by two people who love each other, pledge their fidelity and trustworthiness to each other, and wish their union to be a blessing both to any children that come from it and to the society as a whole. In doing so, they intend to contribute to the stability of society. In return, they expect from society the respect and social recognition of their commitment to each other and its attendant benefits.
Gay and lesbian couples in general want exactly that. Nothing more. But also nothing less. Proponents of marriage for gay or lesbian couples are not changing or undermining the meaning or definition of marriage; rather, they are merely seeking the right for gay or lesbian couples to be eligible for its responsibilities and benefits, both legal and social. Marriage for gay or lesbian couples is not an undoing of the meaning and purpose of marriage but rather its natural and appropriate evolution.
Excerpted from "God Believes in Love" by Gene Robinson. Copyright © 2012 by Gene Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.