I've been pondering the meaning of marriage more intently than usual in the last few months. At General Conference for our United Methodist Church, my sub-committee looked at revisions to our definition of marriage. Here in California, our Supreme Court's decision has broadened marriage to include same-sex couples. And, most recently, I've been pondering the implications of the marriage proposal on last week's Bachelorette finale.
I don't know if it's wise to attempt deep interpretation of the Bachelorette, but the absence of the words "marry" or "marriage" in the proposals of the winning suitor struck me as strange, on a day when I'd gathered earlier with other clergy to talk about how we might respond to the legalization of same-sex marriage in our state, even as our church prohibits clergy from conducting such services or hosting them in our churches.
As many same-sex couples make the move to claim legal marriage, a TV show aimed at arranging marriages features people who avoid the term. Jesse, the winning suitor, chose other words for describing the commitment he wished to enter into, both as he asked the Bachelorette's father's blessing and as offered her a diamond ring from bended knee.
I can imagine many plausible reasons for his avoidance of the words of "marriage," fear of the conventional commitment it involves certainly being among them (for an unconventional, snowboarding suitor, especially). I wonder if "spending forever with" sounds more genuine in a culture where marriages don't last a lifetime as often as they do.
All of which is a stunning reminder to me that we heterosexuals don't need to worry about same-sex couples destroying marriage. We've done a pretty fine job on our own, I think. (And, for the record, I'm not thinking that shows like the Bachelorette do us any favors.)
All this came on the heels of scripture lessons in our Sunday worship that tell of Rebekah and Isaac's engagement, in Genesis 24. A biblical model for arranging marriage that's far from what I count as desirable. Not wanting his son to marry a Canaanite, Abraham's servant prays that he might meet a woman at a well who, by drawing water for him and his camels, would prove her worthiness as a bride for his master's son.
If we were really interested in protecting marriage, I suggest we spend some time honestly talking about what we know as good (and, even, holy) about marriage. I think too many things are too easily confused.
Separated from Matt by his deployment, I'm aware of how grateful I am for the support we get from so many others in our marriage. Clearly, I don't know what our relationships would be like if we were not married, but I know that I am thankful for the ways our being married helps sustain us and our relationship. Marriage helps name and define our relationship to the wider community. It means that the Army communicates with me, and that I receive opportunities for benefits. More importantly, it has meant that a whole community of people, many of whom were present as we made covenant with one another, do things to help us sustain our relationship in the midst of many challenges. And, that the two of us see God as having a role in sustaining us in this covenant.
My hope is that our relationship is also a blessing to the community. I sense ways that we strengthen and improve one another. The challenge of sharing in lifelong covenant with another person demands I work at cultivating skills and grace that make me a better person. I believe that marriages, like other commitments made (formally and informally) among humans can be of tremendous benefit to us all.
I do believe that God created humans in such a way that we're enriched and improved by our belonging together in relationships of commitment. As our church's Social Principles already state, I do not believe that marriage is essential. Or that marriage exists for the purposes of procreation. I celebrate marriages with or without children.
And, certainly, I celebrate that marriage is no longer a transaction of property, transferring ownership of a young woman from her father to her new husband (though lingering insistence on including a "giving away" of the bride suggest we've not totally abandoned this...).
I look forward to a day when our states and our church will both recognize marriage between people of the same gender. And, when we'll let these relationships of commitment strengthen us all as we struggle for justice, peace and other such good things that serve God.
I also look forward to a clearer cultural understanding of what marriage is. Something beyond diamond rings and elaborate parties. Something that gives us an idea of how we're called to shape our lives around commitment beyond our immediate selves, and to be a part of relationships that serve the broader community.