Just a Thought

In all the debate about gay marriage on the internet at present, I have yet to see reference to marriage as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church. That absence is for me quite telling, because so long as we see marriage or any other human relationship as concerning only the individuals involved, I think we miss something important. An emphasis on the individual has the effect of limiting our vision. We speak in terms of equality and rights rather than complementarity and duties, what is owed to rather than what is owed by. I sometimes wonder whether that is why there are so many broken relationships in western society.

The point I’m making is general, so please don’t fill the comment box with arguments for and against gay marriage. Much better, surely, for us all to examine the relationships in our lives and ask ourselves whether we haven’t fall into the trap of thinking more about what is due us than what we ought to give. It’s just a thought, but it could be a life-changing one.


32 thoughts on “Just a Thought”

  1. Just as a point of information, The Ugley Vicar (aka John Richardson) has raised this aspect a number of times in his blog, most recently here.

    For me, this begs the question as to whether scripture is saying that this is an inherent quality of marriage, or whether it is simply using the analogy of marriage (as defined in its day and culture) to make the relationship between Christ and the Church more comprehensible to its audience. I do not (yet) feel I have a satisfactory answer to this.

  2. Sister Catherine, I’ve only begun reading your blog – and poking around your website a bit – recently. There is much that resonates and that I appreciate, but that is another story… In any case, thank you for it.

    But I wondered whether you have seen this article by John Milbank on gay marriage. If you haven’t, I suspect that you would probably appreciate it.

    • Thank you for the link. Can I emphasize, however, that I am using the current debate about gay marriage to invite reflection on relationships in general and how we think about them? I’m afraid I don’t always think what others think I think . . .

      • I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I know what you think! I thought that you’d appreciate Milbank’s perspective because it’s (at least in my opinion) intelligent and nuanced and probes deeper questions about relationships. I certainly didn’t expect you to agree with everything he says – I certainly don’t, in fact, I’m not generally a huge fan of his. But, at least in my experience, discussion of these issues so quickly becomes polemical that I am grateful when I see people discuss things thoughtfully!

  3. Although this point will cut no ice with secularists, I agree that it is an important one. Pope John Paul II wrote frequently that we only become truly ourselves by making a sincere gift of self, in imitation of Chritst’s total gift of himself to his Church. I also think this is the reason for the nuptial imagery that permeates Scripture.

  4. For many people Jesus has no place in their lives, and their marriages exist just the same. Whether you realise it or not you are implying that those people are selfish (“emphasis on the individual”) and their marriages are somehow less special without Christ.

    You are also implying that gay couples are inherently selfish for demanding the same rights as heterosexual couples, when, of course, that is not the case.

    When you say that the “point you are making is general” and that you don’t want argument, it seems like you are asking for your assertions and implications to stand unchallenged; without debate.

    • I didn’t read that into this article at all. What I understood sister to be saying was that the arguments being put forward for/against a change in the law are focussing on the aspects of marriage as they relate to individuals rather than on the wider social and theological implications. I did not read it to mean that those wanting to be married (gay or straight) were “being selfish” for doing so.

      • Those who are against gay marriage often argue that it is of no material benefit to society, so those aspects are in fact being debated in that context.

        I am a married heterosexual. I did not consider the social implications when I got married. Why should I? If I asked someone else to do that, I would be implying, of course, that their marriage may be detrimental to the society.

    • As I said above, my post is not about gay marriage (which is why I don’t want discussion to be sidetracked on to that single issue), it is about relationships, how we approach them, how we think about them. I think you may have read into my post what isn’t there: I invite debate, which I try to ensure is as courteous and respectful of other people’s opinions as possible. However, you have inadvertently confirmed one of the things I mentioned: the tendency to talk in terms of rights rather than obligations. I do think that has a bearing on relationships, their success or failure, don’t you?

      • But at the heart of the debate is a person’s right to be treated equally and have their relationship treated equally. If you want to frame it as a debate about our “obligations”, then surely we are obliged to treat others as we would have ourselves treated? Either way the same point is being made, whether we frame it as “rights” or “obligations”. (I don’t see what your objection to speaking about “rights” is in the first place)

        In terms of my relationship, I am not sure what obligations my wife and I have to wider society, other than to try to love each other and bring our children up to be decent and thoughtful human beings. I think that is what most people try to do, and it’s not always easy.

        On a final note: if you don’t want a discussion to be about gay marriage then don’t mention gay marriage in the discussion.

      • She is saying, clearly, that by speaking in terms of rights and equality for an individual and not focusing on a human relationship’s wider effects that we are missing something important. She ponders if our focus on rights and equality leads to the breakdown in relationships.

        She frames this, again, very clearly, by referring to the debate on gay marriage. Then she says later she doesn’t want to speak about gay marriage.

        I am actually struggling to understand what in fact she is saying of any substance.

        I’m not trying to be provocative, I just don’t understand what the problem is with talking about an individual’s rights and their personal concerns? Why on earth can we not talk about both? What is wrong with fighting for a gay person’s rights and asking for them and their relationships to be treated as equal to my relationships? What exactly are these obligations that our relationships should have to wider society?

  5. Many thanks for this. I agree entirely and it seems to me that we miss a distinctively Christian dimension to marriage if we do not reflect on this scriptural image. Among other things, it reminds us of the sacrificial self-giving that truly gives life.

  6. Interested in Revsimmy’s question about the analogy or reflection. Do we consider the relationship between all flocks and their shepherds to be somehow ordained or more special because of its use as an image of the relationship between Christ and the church – of course that might be very meaningful for some shepherds. As might the marriage image for many Christians in the marriage relationshisame sex or not.

    • Thank you. The imagery we use as part of our reflection may have meaning for some, not for others. I write as a Catholic Christian, with a particular background (eg my reflections on individual/group are, partly at least, attributable to my being a lapsed medievealist!)

  7. Your point is a bit like rights and responsibilities in so many areas of life. Most of us know (or think we do) our rights but few of us really live up to our responsibilities (which often affects others rights I think).

  8. Thank you so much, Sr Catherine! This so needed saying! It is a major frustration for many Christians regarding this whole debate and I have been wondering how to approach it when we’re treading on eggshells and resistance to change is misconstrued.

    Marriage is not an ordinary partnership and is designed to be propagative in a way that is different from other relationships, even if children are not involved.

    This can, of course, work for good or for bad, but whether we acknowledge or disregard it, the truth is that the bonding between a man and a woman is a life force that is multiplied in the union and can be compared with the proliferation of healthy cells or cancer cells in the body, both of which require dynamic energy.

    The meshing in marriage at all levels of the personality is little understood and large sections of the Church, who should be guiding and initiating, are as illiterate as any.

    As an Anglo-Catholic, which holds to the Roman Catholic view on such things (despite that we are in Communion with our broader church and a few others) I feel the Church of England has totally lost the plot.

    The image of Christ’s union with the Church, it’s true, may not be easy to grasp, but it is a kind of shorthand, a cipher, to describe something mystic and greater than we are. Time was when couples took that on trust, whatever they made of it afterwards.

  9. I so agree that there is a tendency – a very strong one – in society in general to focus on one’s rights and not on what one can give. However, there is an equally strong tendency among people brought up in the “it is better to give than to receive” culture to ignore one’s one needs to a harmful extent. The balance is hard to maintain but we do need to respect ourselves as well as others.

  10. The topic of gay marriage is such a painful one for me that I find it difficult to step around it to get to your main point, i.e. complementarity and duties in a marriage, or any serious relationship or commitment for that matter.

    This year my husband and I will have been married 41 years. We have grown in love with each other and with Christ in the process. It is a triangular relationship really. We pray together daily and go on retreats together.

    When I was a young bride, I thought that a marriage was a 50-50 relationship (I come from a family tradition of divorces, separations, affairs). ie I give 50% and my husband does the same. The mother of a good friend of mine told me that it was in fact a 90-90 relationship. Whereby one always feels that one gives so much more than one’s spouse…

    I know that God gives me 1,000% – a boundless, extravagant love. How much I would like to respond in the same manner. I pray that I may learn to respond in kind. Maybe this will come about when I die…

    I have a younger friend who is an ex-priest who left the orders because he did not want to live a ‘falsehood.’ He will undoubtedly remain a priest till he dies. I also am sure that God is in his relationship with his partner, for wherever love is, God is as well.

  11. Thank you very much for all your contributions. I can see that for some using a topical allusion as an introduction to a wider question may be difficult, but, as readers of this blog will know, that is one of my blogging traits. I can also see that questioning some of the language we use to discuss marriage and other relationships may be difficult too, especially if my starting-point, the union between Christ and his Church, means little or nothing. I didn’t intend an essay, ‘just a thought’ as my title indicates; but you have generously taken up the thought and taken it in various directions. Thank you.

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