Sunday, 31 March 2013

Redefining marriage? What's so new about that?

The US Supreme Court is currently debating whether to uphold or overturn the 1996 Defence of Marriage Act, an attempt by Congress to obstruct the spread of same-sex marriage across individual states. On this issue American politicians are still divided largely on party lines. 

Here in Britain the Conservatives have seen the benefits of indulging popular support for same-sex marriage, an inexpensive way of shedding their image as the nasty party while continuing to grind the faces of the poor. Opposition is left to backbench traditionalists and church leaders, most vocally the Catholics and of course, standing precariously on their established status, the Anglicans.

In Britain, the state got into the business of regulating marriage in 1753, while leaving the Church of England largely in control. Oddly, the legislation established some kind of exemption for Jews and Quakers, though not for Catholics, who had to continue being married by clergymen whose status they didn’t recognise. 

In 1836 the Church lost its monopoly, when parliament introduced civil marriage. Now, like any other religious organisation, the Anglicans can refuse to preside over a wedding ceremony, but have no power beyond that to decide who may or may not marry. On the question of same-sex marriage, they’re entitled to their opinion but it really isn’t up to them.

I’ve got some tangled history with this subject. I was raised Catholic but at 16, prompted by a wildly rebellious urge, joined the local Anglican choir. I learnt to sight-read hymns in four-part harmony and acquired the knack (an Anglican peculiarity) of reading the words of a psalm from one book and the music from another. For this I will always be grateful. I also discovered to my surprise that the vicar thought highly of historical figures I’d been taught to think of as villains, such as Thomas Cranmer. Not many years later, no longer considering myself a Catholic, I got married in an Anglican Church.

After I was divorced (a humane solution beneficial to both parties) I went out for a while with a nice Catholic girl, until she told me she’d have to break it off because I was a married man. Young and naïve as I was, and something of a literalist, I consulted a Catholic priest. After some questioning he told me that my marriage needed no annulment being null from day one, since, while still technically a Catholic, I had neglected to seek the permission of a Catholic bishop, permission that would have been granted on condition that my fiancée and I undergo a course of training on the significance of marriage.

(The vicar who married us had, in fact, delivered his own, very Anglican, version of marriage preparation. I remember a meeting in the vicarage during which he blushed and stammered, said ‘You’re clearly both intelligent people’ and handed us a pamphlet which instructed us that sex was ‘very, very pleasant’.)

I immediately told the nice Catholic girl that it was OK, I wasn’t married after all. I saw to my dismay that she wasn’t as thrilled with this news as I had been. I would later be told often enough that ‘It isn’t you, it’s me,’ but would never again be dumped with the line, ‘It isn’t me, it’s the Pope.’  

By the time I was ready to get married again (to Leni Wildflower) I’d lost interest in organised religion, but Leni had spiritual inclinations and was quite keen to be married in the eyes of some god or other. So I approached a friend who happened to be an Anglican priest of a fairly liberal kind. He turned us down because of that first marriage, which he told me remained sound as far as the Church of England was concerned whatever the Catholics might think.

So Leni asked a rabbi, a professional colleague in California, who said, ‘I don’t do mixed marriages’. Since the rabbi was female this hair-raising response could not be blamed on a strict adherence to orthodoxy.

In the end we settled for a California Methodist who allowed us to stamp on wine glasses to cries of mazel tov, and to say whatever we wanted about God, Vishnu or the cosmos.  

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