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Let’s Cut The Gordian Knot of Language!

I have been married to the same man for 30 years and have no personal axe to grind here except that I am as fed up as everyone else that this pointless and frustrating debate is dragging on and on and on. There are some, it seems, who would drag it out to eternity.

The latest to join the fray is Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor:

“Redefining it as simply a contract between individuals irrespective of their sex, without regard either to its procreative function or to the complementarity of the relationship between man and woman, would be an abuse of language,” he said. “More important, it would weaken marriage by diminishing its implications and therefore its significance”.

Actually, I think the Cardinal has unintentionally shed a ray of light into the general gloom. If it is the language that upsets the blinkered, by all means let us change the language.

I propose that we cease to use the word ‘marriage‘ at all, for anyone. The state (ie the legislation), any churches that are willing (Unitarians and Quakers so far) and the rest of us that support the idea can simply refer instead to ‘union‘. The word has a respectable antiquity in this context. The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 begins the service of the solemnization of matrimony as follows:

‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church’.

This could be redrafted:

‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation to join together this [wo/man] and this [wo/man] in holy union, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church’.

Personally I rather like ‘betwixt’ but the modernisers amongst you can surely come up with a passable version of this for the 21st century if the language of the 17th is not to your taste.


One of the problems with ‘civil partnership’ as an expression (and as a reality) is that a partnership is not a union, but something that commits the parties to a much more limited and circumscribed relationship. Those of the same sex who want marriage do so precisely because they wish to make a much fuller commitment before God (or before society). I suggest the word ‘union’ suggests exactly that.

16 comments on this post:

Barbara Hart said...

I also find this debate more than tiresome for two reasons.
On the one hand some of the most loyal couples I know are homosexual and it offends me deeply that those against same sex marriage have no respect for the genuine love they have for each other.
On the other hand, if theirs is not a marriage because they cannot procreate what message is being sent to people like me who married far too late to have children or those who married young and found they could not have children?

Lay Anglicana said...

Oh Barbara – absolutely! I am in the same boat as regards having children and most of the arguments about women not being bishops, for example, boil down to ‘they ought to be at home looking after the children’. I think this is another case where the vast majority of people in the country, and even the vast majority of church goers are out of step with the powers that be in our Church, who seem to be dominated by the Conservative Evangelicals. I was told in all seriousness by someone recently that women could not play a leadership role in the Church because they were taken from Adam’s rib. I was sorely tempted to ask about the seven days of creation. Did God get time off to eat and sleep – did he stop mid-morning for a chocolate digestive? How literal can you get!

18 December 2012 18:53
18 December 2012 18:47
Tiggy Sagar said...

The objection some people have though is to the use of the same term for heterosexual unions and homosexual unions – so they would still be up in arms.

Lay Anglicana said...

They might still be up in arms, you are right.
On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that their objections are more visceral than cerebral. If you offer people a clean slate (and we could find a word other than union, it just has to be different from the word ‘marriage’) it doesn’t have all the ramifications, associations, history and literature that the word ‘marriage’ does. For instance, the legislation could use the word ‘union’. The Quakers and Unitarians could talk about ‘union’. Eventually (OK this is some time off) the Church of England may follow suit?

18 December 2012 18:57
18 December 2012 18:51
Stephen said...

Laura – you have identified a key factor here: the words we use are everything, and their meanings have to be a matter of general agreement. I don’t object to “union” as you suggest; but I suspect that we will simply end up redefining “marriage”. Personally I have no problem with this: we have redefined countless other words over the centuries , some of them very important ones! But I will be interested to see whether your “union” idea gains widespread traction, or whether those who object to same-sex “marriage” are really against the whole thing in principle.

Lay Anglicana said...

Stephen, I don’t have a great deal of faith in my suggestion, but I am getting fairly desperate that some sort of solution is found. Of course, if I ruled the world it would be easy. I would just announce that everyone should be allowed to get married, and that would be an end of it. Sadly…:)

18 December 2012 22:45
18 December 2012 18:52
UKViewer said...

I suspect that using words other than marriage will fall upon the sword of those who actually think that Unions are reminiscent of Arthur Scargill and many other militant Union leaders of the past.

I think that the word ‘Joining or Joined’ would work better. “We are joined”, a “Joined Couple”. ‘Coming together to be Joined”.

I wouldn’t use the word ‘Joint’ to much in this context as it has unfortunate connotations with the use of ‘Hashish’. 🙂

18 December 2012 19:19
Tiggy Sagar said...

I can just imagine people now saying angrily, ‘I’m not joined or in a uhion – I’m married!’ OR ‘I don’t want to be joined or in union – I want to be married!’ People get very silly when you try to change anything.

I think ‘in union’ is better than ‘joined’ as that reminds me of ‘conjoined’.

It doesn’t really matter whether it’s visceral or cerebral, they’ll still insist that they don’t want the two things to have the same name because they don’t want marriage to be equal.

Lay Anglicana said...

I’m afraid you’re right, Tiggy. My suggestion is born of desperation and no panacea, I do realise.

18 December 2012 22:48
18 December 2012 20:00
Richard Haggis said...

Your solution is kinder than mine, Laura. My view is that if a the thing looks like a marriage, gets vowed like a marriage, and is lived like a marriage, then it almost certainly is one. When we got married (who in their right mind says “civilly partnered”? It sort of implies that beforehand it was was rather rude)everyone called it the “wedding”; people ask “how long ago did you get married?”. The world is galloping past both church and state, although at least the state is trying to catch up. Interestingly, both the C of E’s woeful questions are essentially about the same thing – when women priests were agreed, they lacked the balls to apply to all three holy orders equally; when Civil Partnerships came in, the government lacked the balls to call it marriage (and the C of E tried to wreck it in the House of Lords). Both were good things so far as they went, and I think neither affects the reality of human relationships, nor of ministries lived out under God (we all know women bishops, even if they might never live to be ordained as such), but I have a deep-seated impatience with seeing where the story is going and not just going there, right now, and cutting the crap.

Lay Anglicana said...

“The world is galloping past both church and state, although at least the state is trying to catch up” – yes, absolutely. So who will step forward and cut the crap, then?

Wendy said...

Laura, I’m just so delighted you wrote ‘cut the crap’…I think I’m in love… 😉

19 December 2012 22:46
18 December 2012 22:47
John said...

Yes Richard, most couples of my aquaintance regarded themselves as married before, some decades before, they became Civil Partners. Most had exchanged rings or tokens and taken some form of vow or promise to each other… and those of faith included God in that promise or oath. And so we became that third entity, ‘a couple’. We regarded ourselves as married before God, Civil Partnership allowed state and legal recognition of some financial and practical matters which are valuable to us but neither Church nor State offered recognition our marriage. To date our marriage is only recognised by our family, friends and those in community who know us.

19 December 2012 11:16
18 December 2012 22:41
Phil Groom said...

Personally, I think the attitude of people like Murphy-O’Connor is all the more reason to retain the use of the word marriage to refer to these relationships: why should we let the bigots win? And let’s not mince words: this is bigotry we’re dealing with here.

What is marriage? Above all, it’s about faithfulness: that’s what God calls people to, throughout scripture. Faithfulness versus unfaithfulness is the constant, recurring theme of scripture: from Adam & Eve’s betrayal of God’s trust in Eden to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in Gethsemane; Israel lambasted by the prophets for her unfaithfulness to God; the church called in the New Testament to remain faithful to God — and it’s this relationship with God that the human institution of marriage but faintly reflects. Again and again, God cries out to his people to be faithful.

If marriage is so important for having children, why did God beget a bastard to save the world? Let those who carp on about marriage being about procreation explain that one! No: the legitimisation of children through marriage is a human invention, all about preserving “pure” bloodlines and passing on property — and where is property in the Kingdom of God? It isn’t, of course: everything comes from God, belongs to God and returns to God; ownership is a myth, ephemeral at best.

What makes a marriage is faithfulness; what breaks a marriage is unfaithfulness — and if marriage is in danger, if marriage is in disrepute, it’s heterosexuals who have done the damage and made a mockery of it. Seems to me God is now saying, “Enough! You people have disregarded my call, have betrayed my trust: you’ve thrown it away; but now I will give that trust to all people who will commit to faithfulness regardless of gender” — an echo of what happened to Israel when Christ came and threw the doors of the covenant wide open to the Gentiles: no longer an exclusive covenant but an inclusive one, for all who will put their trust in God.

“Those people to whom I entrusted this gift of marriage have not honoured it,” says the Lord, “therefore I will find a people who will honour it.”

So it seems to me: rather than “cut the Gordian Knot of Language”, let’s tie the knot more securely and reclaim the word marriage for what it was always meant to mean: a celebration of faithfulness!

UKViewer said...

Well said Phil.

The key for me is that word faithfulness. Marriage is the word we use to describe it, and the Church acknowledges that marriage is a Sacrament, which those involved making their promises brings the grace of God to the couple. The church stands by as a witness, not a celebrant.

Limiting marriage as an ‘institution’ rather than a sacrament may be in the gift of governments and men, but the Sacrament is a gift from God to the couple, not the state or church. So, all of the hoo ha about legislation, canon law, quadruple locks is so much hot air.

A single clause act is needed, allowing people to celebrate ‘their’ marriage as both a legal, civil affair and a Sacrament wherever they wish, including Anglican churches.

Church of England, ‘wake up’ ‘smell the coffee’ the Elephant in the room is about to trample all over your prejudices.

21 December 2012 06:51
19 December 2012 09:39

[…] Laura Sykes of Lay Anglicana; in particular: Let’s Cut The Gordian Knot of Language! […]

22 December 2012 09:40

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