Tuesday, March 9, 2004

That Which We Call a Rose

My Faithful Correspondent sent me a link to a good commentary in the Christian Science Monitor on who defines the word “marriage.”

The concern among many who are opposed to same-sex marriages is that the traditional cultural resonances of marriage are dissipating. They see the Massachusetts Senate’s effort to keep the word marriage just for heterosexual couples – even while conceding away its benefits – as a last-ditch effort to save the institution.

“Some see the word as politically trivial, but if they do they’re missing the point,” says Douglas Kmiec, a professor at Pepperdine School of Law in Malibu, Calif. “It was quite insightful to say to the court, ‘If you want all the benefits, you can have them. What you can’t have is the cultural definition of marriage itself.'”

Marriage, however, is changing – just as it always has been. From antiquity to relatively recent times, marriage was about property and child-rearing. The notion of marriage for romance or happiness has emerged only in the past two centuries.

It’s a word that is fraught with meaning, conjuring up images of home, hearth, kids, dogs, station wagons, and picket fences. There’s been a lot of discussion inside the gay community – or at least the one I’m in touch with – about whether or not the term “marriage” is a word that gays should readily adopt. After all, it’s been kind of tattered and dog-earred over the last half-century, and examples such as Britney Spears, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, and Robert Blake make you wonder if you really want to drive that one around the block. Some of the more militant gays don’t want to have anything to do with a word that screams “straight.” But so far no one has come up with a term that says the same thing without sounding like it was put together by a law firm: “domestic partnership” or “civil union” just doesn’t cut it. Can you imagine what that old standard “Love and Marriage” would sound like if it was “Love and Civil Union”? Doesn’t exactly flow. (For those of you under forty, it’s the song that was used as the intro for Married With Children.)

Just to be sure, I went and checked out what the Quakers have to say about “marriage.” I pulled out my copy of Faith and Practice 1972, published by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I received this copy when I joined the Miami Friends Meeting in 1974. The Quakers are both liberal and traditional in their history, and this owner’s manual, as it were, lends insight to the feelings of how they saw marriage then and how it might be practiced today.

Marriage is a commitment made in the presence of God and of witnessing friends, with no official pronouncements needed to complete it. Marriage depends on the inner experiences of the man and woman who marry and not on any external service or words. Before the actual wedding takes place, the Meeting has made careful investigation and preparation; it gives its approval and its loving oversight.

The marriage is a public commitment because it is a relationship in which the entire community is involved. A new home is being established, probably with children to be born, and the Meeting is deeply concerned for its success. The persons who marry have the support and guidance of their religious community since all are members one of another. The couple is entering into a contract, but more than that — a life commitment.

There is no mention in this book about gay weddings. In fact, the entire book leaves out any discussion on homosexuality (not surprising in 1972). But it is clear that the Friends have always seen marriage as not being bound by the strictures of Man but of God – the couple is brought together through His leading and the Meeting is only there to be a witness and support. That has been carried through from the time of George Fox in the 17th century to today, and the sense of many meetings is that joining gay and lesbian couples in marriage would not be outside the realm of possibility. In fact, as long ago as 1996 the Albuquerque Friends Meeting spoke out forcefully against the anti-gay marriage movement in New Mexico, going so far as to publish several Minutes in oppostion to proposed legislation that would have made performing a same-sex marriage a crime. (Anyone who knows Friends meetings knows that getting a Minute out of a Meeting for Worship for Business is a very big deal.)

As staunch defenders of equal rights for all, the Friends have been powerful allies in supporting rights of oppressed minorities for centuries, including the abolishonist movement in the 19th century and the anti-apartheid movement in the 20th. And in spite of their silence (no pun intended) in 1972, they have been in the forefront of defending the rights of gays and lesbians as well as welcoming them into their meetings. So if there is a better example of the kind of meaning that come with the word “marriage” than the one supplied by the Friends, I haven’t heard it. And I think that in those terms, it is a word that can be used by all.

(For more information on comptemporary Quaker weddings, check out this site.)