About two weeks ago I went against my better instincts and joined a discussion on Facebook on the push for marriage redefinition in Australia. I stated my considered position: that as a Christian I could not agree with the popular demand for a change in marriage definition and that I could live with a change in the legal definition if it should come to that. I said that a consequence would probably be my handing in my celebrant licence to avoid legal complications and state intrusions in the future so that any marriage ceremonies that I conducted in the future would be purely religious in nature. I also said that I was considering filing for divorce should these changes come, not because of necessary compulsion but as a sign of political dissent and as a matter of consistency (e.g. how could I in the future counsel Christian engaged couples that all that is required is a commitment before God rather than a participation in a State institution when I myself continued to participate in that same institution?).
I’ll admit, at the time I hadn’t seriously thought this last radical course of action all the way through and wasn’t even totally committed to that particular path – it just seemed like the logical conclusion that if you are going to be Out of something then you should be all the way Out so as to avoid confusion. Maybe this is a lesson to me to think everything through to the end first, but if I did that then I would never leave my office.
My views on resigning my licence were met with predictable disappointment, but my idea on divorce really seemed to provoke offence. A number of people said that they were genuinely shocked and insulted that I would even consider such a step. It was not so much, “Whoa, that’s radical. Are you sure you really need to go that far?” but rather, “I can’t believe that you would consider doing something so hurtful!"
The reaction struck me as odd because it seemed to go against one of the main arguments of the Gay Marriage Lobby: “Marriage is a personal relationship between two people only. How does a man-man or woman-woman marriage affect heterosexual couples in any way? Why doesn’t everybody just mind their own business if gay marriage is not going to affect their relationships?” If such an argument is true, then how is it possible for someone else’s divorce (whatever the circumstances) to cause social offence? How would it affect a legal homosexual union if heterosexual people chose not to participate in the same legal process? I figured that I had simply touched a nerve and let it go through to the keeper.
On Wednesday a Canberra local news outlet ran a story about a Christian couple who are planning to “divorce” should the Government officially recognise homosexual unions as valid marriages (note: the implication of the article was that the trigger would be an amendment to the Federal Marriage Act but it was unclear exactly where the “line in the sand” was to be). The husband, Nick Jensen, stated that he was not intending to abandon his wife or family but would simply cease to have his marriage relationship defined by the State (which he points out is a fairly recent legal convention). The motivation of the Jensens is simply one of conscience – they do not believe that a broadening of the legal definition would accurately reflect the reality of their relationship and do not wish the State to categorise them in ways contrary to belief.
The story was then picked up by Fairfax and NewsCorp where it led the online readership figures and comments for most of the day. The stories were then shared via social media where they attracted even more discussion. Not all the comments either on the news sites or social media were overtly hostile, but broadly speaking when the red herrings about Divorce Is A Sin Too and So Is Eating Shellfish (which suggest that the argument hadn’t really been comprehended) are taken out the negative reactions could be classified into three groups:
- This is just clickbait about people looking for attention. Irrelevant!
- Marriage is better off without them. Good Riddance!
- These people are bigots, just like you’d expect Christians to be. Boo Hiss!
Once again, I was surprised by the reaction that the moral decision of one Christian couple (not prominent or in any way claiming leadership or representation of others) could generate. And, once again, I was surprised by how that reaction was at odds with the stated mainstream philosophies that supposedly undergird the push for gay marriage – “There is room for us all in this tent if we mind our own business and accept our differences.” It might be argued that this is reflected in Reaction 1, but I will note that this seemed to be the least common of the negative reactions and the tone of most (difficult to determine exactly online) was distinctly passive-agressive (less “This doesn’t really matter” and more “Who cares what they think”). There was no-one (that I could find) who seriously thought that this Christian couple had got it wrong on a purely sociological level, that marriage is best served by including the progressives and the conservatives, and encouraged them to rethink their decision.
In fact, the most common of the negative reactions might be described as Good Riddance and Don’t Come Back! Marriage in the 21st Century, it seems, is going to be much better off without all these pesky theists around talking about faith and tradition and man-woman exclusivity. You get the picture that traditionalists in this debate are viewed by many as obstacles to be overcome rather than opponents to be persuaded and that they can all pack their bags if they can’t get with the program. Once again, not exactly consistent with the oft-repeated claim that gay marriage will have no impact on traditionalists whatsoever...
Perhaps some in the Christian camp will wish that the question of Protest Divorce had never been raised and will dismiss it out of hand as ill-conceived and unnecessary. But the more I consider the matter the less I am sure that position can simply be assumed. At the very least, the discussion over the last 24 hours has revealed where the General Will around the question of gay marriage actually is rather than where it is claimed to be. The public argument is that there is room for everybody, but when that assumption is pressed it is found wanting. Do Christians then need to change their assumptions about how they might bear authentic witness to the true purpose of marriage and to the God who created it in the space we now occupy?
The topic is very big, but I want to focus on one particular question: in the event of marriage being legally redefined to include gay relationships, should Christians go through a legal divorce? Would the rightness of such a course of action depend on whether the primary aim is Social Protest or Christian Witness? Might particular context or roles within the Church determine whether such a step might be necessary.
I haven’t completely mapped out how I will proceed, but I am intending for my next post to be on the 3 Types Of Marriage, then move on to Church-State factors, and then issues of Mission and Witness. I’m not sure how long this might take but I’ll try to be thorough and engaging at the same time.