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Explaining marriage to a Martian

The phone-in on gay marriage was predictably lively. And a spokesman for an organisation opposed to the change was feeling pushed to the edge: ‘We talk about two men getting married today, when once we’d never have thought of such a thing. So where does it end? In twenty years, will someone be asking why a human can’t marry an animal?’ The presenter of the programme said, ‘Oh, really!’ in a dismissive manner. But behind this extreme reaction lay the question everyone is asking afresh: what is marriage?

For something as unchanging as this ancient institution, it does seem to have changed a great deal and if the present bill goes through Parliament, will change again. Given the variety of interpretation down the years, explaining marriage to a Martian would not be easy:

‘Let me explain: the age of consent for marriage is 12 or 21 or another age; marriage is a relationship your family choose for you or it’s a relationship you choose yourself; it’s an arrangement between one man and one woman though it may also be a relationship between one man and various women; and the purpose of marriage is clearly procreation or the purpose of marriage is companionship, in which case the couple may decide against having children; it’s a union for eternity or it’s a union only for this earth; women have no rights in the relationship or they do have rights and non-consensual sex is a crime in law; marriages are made in heaven or marriages are sometimes a mistake; a marriage can only be between a man and a woman or it can be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman; it’s something you can only do once or it’s something you can do more than once. God only likes first marriages although second marriages may sometimes be happier. Now does that make everything clear?’

Like many in the phone-in, the Martian could be forgiven for scratching her head, a little confused about marriage. The last 3,000 years offers a vast camp site of different practice and possibility and where we pitch our particular tent is not an easy choice. The liberating truth, however, is that marriage doesn’t exist and I say this in merry hope not gloomy despair. Relationships exist in their endless variety but marriage itself, like everything that’s precious, defies and dies by definition.

I think of the beautiful but fragile snowdrop. Fearing for its future in the storm, the law makers set it in stone to help it keep its shape while the church covered it in gold to declare its holy state in the world. So now the snow drop is defined and sanctified, secure and honoured but some way from the original.

When we speak of quality of relationship, we may be wise; when we speak of marriage, we may be something else.



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