"There is not a same-sex equivalent to bride and groom. To insist that there are such equivalencies, and to act on this error, not only represents marriage as something it is not but also envisions salvation as something it is not."
Vigen Guroian is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the author of The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key and other works. In the following viewpoint, Guroian argues that a same-sex union cannot be tolerated as part of the holy sacrament of marriage. As he explains, Christian marriage is not a civil partnership; it is a manifestation of God's will to join man and woman as one flesh bonded to Christ.
Marriage is not a symbolic union, according to Guroian, but a religious practice that exemplifies God's prophecy and "fulfills the goal and purpose of Creation." For these reasons, Guroian insists that it excludes same-sex partners. To keep the religious nature of marriage intact, Guroian suggests that the government perform civil ceremonies while allowing churches to enact the marriage sacrament subsequently on those who conform to the model put forth by God. As you read, consider the following questions:
1. In what part of courtship does Guroian claim that "consent" between partners belongs, according to Orthodox teachings? 2. What civil problems does the author foresee if marriage is no longer defined as a sacrament between man and woman? 3. How does Guroian think the Orthodox Church should respond to the civil tolerance of same-sex marriage? In recent years, homosexual persons and their supporters in North America have argued that marriage should be redefined to include the union of two persons of the same sex. Increasingly, this argument has been cast as a civil liberties issue: homosexual persons seek constitutional rights and liberties that have long been denied to them, key among these being marriage.
Same-sex marriage, however, is not just a legal matter. It is also a religious issue. For millennia, Western civilization has strictly understood marriage to be the union between a man and a woman. This definition, grounded in biblical beliefs about the nature of God and humanity, was reflected in common morality and civil law. Only recently has this understanding been questioned. At present, the debate is principally over marriage between homosexual persons, but it is not likely to remain so. For if our society extends the boundaries of marriage's meaning beyond the union of a man and a woman, there will remain no compelling reason under the law to deny "marital" status to heterosexual same-sex partners who seek the benefits that come with it, or, for that matter, to persons in polygamous relationships. This will explode the historical meaning of marriage that has [existed] in our culture for millennia.
Under these circumstances, the gay and same-sex marriage issue obliges Orthodox Christians to be very clear about their church's theology of marriage, and why a partnership—and partnership is the appropriate term, not union or marriage—of any sort between persons of the same sex is not in character nuptial.
The Legacy of Rome In pagan Rome during the first centuries of the Christian era, marriage was one of several acceptable forms of cohabitation and family life, and was available as a legal status only to free citizens. If two such persons, man and woman, lived together by consent in a regularized fashion and assumed the roles and responsibilities of husband and wife, then they were considered married under the law. Roman law stipulated that marriage in its essence was not about intercourse but the free consent of the individuals entering into it.
Marriage would exist, therefore, where there was the intention to form a household and did not require legal formalization, though that was available and qualified a couple for the special privileges accorded marriage. These included passing down the family name to children and inheritance of the father's estate by the legitimate offspring of the marriage. To this day, Western Christian understandings of marriage strongly reflect the Roman principle of consent. This consensual view of marriage became dominant in Latin and Western Christianity as the church ingested Roman law. To one degree or another, in Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions alike, consent was "baptized" as a central element of marriage.
The Roman Catholic Church eventually defined marriage as a sacrament, but the principle of consent has been at least as important in its theology of marriage. The principle of consent lies behind the Roman Catholic Church's belief that the bride and groom administer their marriage to one another and is reflected in its denial of divorce. In the Orthodox tradition, however, consent was not "baptized" as the validation or essence of a marriage. The clerical officer (bishop or priest), representing the church, marries the bride and groom, and the couple is by this act bonded as husband and wife to Christ and the church.
The conjugal love union is understood to be at the heart of marriage. Marriage is a sacrament of love. This love union is founded and grounded in God's will, in his creative act of making humankind male and female, so that, through their love for one another and sexual union, a man and a woman may become "one flesh."
Marriage Is Not Founded on Consent Nevertheless, many North Americans who identify themselves as Christians, including Orthodox, quite simply assume that the couple's consent seals the marriage; that in a practical sense the will of the couple brings the marriage into existence and the withdrawal of this will is sufficient to terminate it. Present secular marriage and divorce law reflect this. My point is simply that the principle of free consent remains fixed as a cultural norm even as a contemporary people forget the sacred meaning and sacramental significance of marriage.
This principle of consent, and the logic supporting it, is what today enables the advocates of gay marriage to make great headway in the legislature and the courts—and within the churches, especially Protestant churches that lack a sacramental understanding of marriage. It should surprise no one that, as the belief diminishes in these churches that homosexual acts are sinful, unnatural, or psychopathically abnormal, the argument for gay marriage will gain plausibility and persuasiveness among their adherents.
There prevails among many religious as well as secular people the belief that when two homosexual persons desire and freely consent to share their lives with one another as a domestic couple, the state should grant this partnership legal status as a marriage. And many, also, are coming to believe that the churches should solemnize these civilly contracted same-sex unions as Christian marriages. Since this logic of consent is deeply embedded in our culture and in modern jurisprudence, it is easy to imagine that the sorts of changes in marriage law and tax codes that the gay lobby is seeking may eventually be extended to other same-sex households that are not homosexual.
How could the state possibly discriminate—or even ask the questions needed to discriminate—between homosexual and heterosexual couples of the same sex that come to get licensed? If marriage is no longer defined as strictly between a man and a woman, why shouldn't widows or widowers, brothers or sisters, and the like, who live together for mutual assistance and economic reasons, be granted licenses for domestic partnerships that entitle them to the legal benefits and protections now accorded to married couples? It may well be that the law ought to grant some of the privileges of marriage to some of these household arrangements, just so long as the law remains clear that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The logic of the law and the modern egalitarian ethos, under the pressure of gay marriage advocacy, seem, however, to be pressing in a direction that will stretch the definition of marriage far beyond all historically recognizable bounds. This may sit well with a secular government, but such a redefinition of marriage cannot be acceptable to the church.
A Two-Tiered Arrangement This rising challenge to the traditional understanding of marriage is emblematic of the crossroads at which our society is poised. And it places Orthodox and other Christians in an agonizing countercultural position whether they like it or not. This requires careful navigation, at least as careful and considered, and needing as much attention and wisdom, as the period that began with the emperors Theodosius I and Theodosius II of the fourth and fifth centuries and continued through Justinian in the sixth century.
For this was the period in which Christianity became the official religion of the Empire and the great codes were promulgated that truly defined and shaped Christendom. This has been our legacy until today, when the heart and spirit of Christendom are, alas, being banished from North American soil and the last remnants of these codes, which privileged marriage, supported sanctions against abortion and suicide, and provided for public prayer and the observation of Christian holy days, are being cleansed from the land.
For reasons that in this [viewpoint] I can only sketch out, it is advisable that Orthodox churches in such states as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut cease to cooperate or collaborate with the government in marrying persons, as has been done in one form or another within Christendom since the fifth and sixth centuries. I have urged my own church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, to act in this manner.