Let Mutual Love Continue
A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this Service: Hebrews 13:1-8
The intriguingly named Kinky Friedman, a Jewish singer/songwriter, ran as an independent for governor of Texas in 2006. He was asked about his views on same-sex marriage. He replied, ‘I support gay marriage. I believe they have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us.’
Before you speculate about what his wife thought of his remarks, it’s worth knowing Kinky has never, in fact, been married. Nonetheless his comments highlight an unresolved question in the debate about gay marriage. The establishment of civil partnerships in 2004 guaranteed the legal rights of same-sex couples. But a civil partnership is always liable to feel like a legal contract. The word our society uses for something that goes beyond a legal contract to involve covenant loyalty is marriage. The question that neither society nor church fully resolved before the creation of same-sex marriage in 2014 is, ‘Does gay marriage change marriage?’
There are three answers to this question. The first is, ‘No. Marriage is a personal understanding between two individuals: gay people enter such an understanding with the same range of hopes and fears that straight couples do. Thus same-sex marriage neither adds to nor takes away from marriage. It’s simply an equivalent, with largely identical pressures and joys.’ And, by the way, there are many pressures. Marriages between men and women in England and Wales are at a record low. People, and not just people with the first name Kinky, are coming to see marriage as sorrow and burden rather than joy and blessing. In these circumstances it’s curious for those who believe in marriage to suggest that the biggest threat to the institution is coming from people who are so eager to join it.
The second answer to the question is, ‘Yes, gay marriage is a fundamental change to the nature of marriage – and it’s a good thing.’ Those who, over the last generation or two, have sustained permanent exclusive intimate relationships in the face of formidable social antagonism have a lot to teach everyone else about love and faithfulness and resilience. Their example offers to free marriage from many of the gender stereotypes that linger and are inclined to inhibit genuine equality. So gay marriage actually improves marriage.
The third answer is, ‘Yes, same-sex marriage does fundamentally change marriage, and it’s a problematic thing.’ In this view, the original and most enduring purpose of marriage is to provide a safe space to raise children and to protect the elderly and vulnerable. While some gay marriages do invite the birth and rearing of children, the inception of gay marriage as an institution highlights how the social imagination has increasingly detached marriage from children and children from marriage. This gradually diminishes the security of children and vulnerable people and reduces the coherence of marriage – making children and marriage more vulnerable without each other. These are serious concerns; but it’s hardly fair to blame them on gay marriage, which is intended to enhance social stability rather than jeopardise it. The truth is these far-reaching social trends are going on regardless of whether gay people marry or not.
Scrutinising gay marriage triggers investigation of marriage itself. It turns out that marriage isn’t a straightforward thing made complex by same-sex marriage; marriage is plenty complex already. The wedding service names three purposes of marriage: the delight and tenderness of sexual union, the strength and comfort of companionship, and the birth and nurture of children. In the middle ages if you wanted such precious things, especially the sex and the children, you had to get married. In modern western societies all three purposes are freely available without marriage. Marriage is no longer a necessity for sex, companionship, or children; neither is it the only route to financial security, social acceptability, or personal dignity.
Lest marriage become obsolete, we’ve rescued its ideal by creating the wedding. A wedding promises eternal, unshakeable love with a uniquely suitable partner and a happy-ever-after destiny written in the stars. But sooner or later most people discover what a friend of mine puts like this: it’s not about marrying the one you love – it’s about learning to love the one to whom you’re married. Is the sometimes-frenzied debate over same-sex marriage actually an ironic distraction from something more far-reaching: the terminal decline of marriage as we know it? The truth is, none of us know.
With that backdrop, what might it mean to say today, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, ‘Let mutual love continue’? What’s so good about marriage, and how are those goods enhanced? Until we answer those questions we can’t prejudge gay marriage. I believe an answer to those questions lies in one simple word. The word is, enough.
When a person gets married they’re saying to another person, ‘You are enough for me.’ You are enough because one person, if you really take the time to give them your serious attention, to examine their tiniest quirks and characteristics, to listen to their deepest yearnings and fears, to explore their fondest hopes and most painful wounds, and to share with them all those same things in yourself – one person is plenty. How in a lifetime could we ever exhaust the mystery, the wonder, the glory, the priceless gift of one other person?
If we look at the threats to marriage, we could start with these words: ‘You are not enough for me.’ You don’t have enough charm to distract me from the troubles of life. You don’t have enough skills to make up for all my practical shortcomings. You don’t have enough money to cover my wilful spending. You don’t have enough patience to cope with my mood swings. You don’t have enough appeal to awaken my unimaginative desires. You don’t have enough energy to do your share of the household chores. You don’t have enough grace to abide with my wayward recklessness. You are not enough.
The alternative malaise of marriage is this: ‘You are too much for me.’ You read my mind when I’d prefer to be private. You have deep needs when I’d prefer to suit myself. You have your lively friends round when I want to be silent. Your need to flourish makes me fear I’ll disappear. Your inner demons mean I can’t relax. You insist on me explaining when I expect you just to know what I want and need. You want to have another child when I’m feeling overwhelmed. You spend so much money we’ll never buy a house. You want to change career yet again when we can’t make ends meet as it is. You are too much.
And these two painful sentences coalesce into a third, which says, ‘We are not enough.’ We can’t be grown-ups. We can’t bring out the best in each other. We can’t have a family. We can’t hear each other. We can’t trust each other. We can’t deal with your mother moving in to share her declining years. We can’t create such an adventure out of life that it stops us dwelling on our regrets about the past and our fears about the future. We can’t hold each other without suffocating each other. We can’t let go of each other without abandoning each other. We can’t cope with the challenging behaviour of our child. We can’t find in each other a magic potion that dismantles and disperses all our other frustrations and sadnesses about existence. We thought we were attaining the superhuman status of lovers; but it turns out we’re just two human beings. We are not enough.
The social historians tell us marriage is fragile because people live longer, women can attain economic independence, contraception is reliable, people expect fulfilment and happiness, social shame is vastly reduced, and we now believe it’s right to walk away from a violent partner; all of which are true, and were much less the case 60 years ago, and unimaginable 200 years ago. But I believe the real threats to marriage are these three: you are not enough for me; you are too much for me; we are not enough.
What can be done? After nearly 30 years of ministry, having walked with couples as they got together, sometimes blew apart, and sometimes stayed together, I have two kinds of answers.
The first is about the practical, human side of marriage. If you compare a marriage to a bath, it’s about the tap and the plughole. You have to find ways of pouring more water in the top, and preventing too much water leaking out the bottom. Everyone gets the part about water leaking out: each couple comes to understand the destructive words, habits, and behaviours that make life together unsustainable. But you’ve also got to find ways to pour water in. A couple needs to grow, and that means working on a shared project and finding the resourcefulness to sustain that project in tough times. A couple needs to play, to do creative tasks together, to find things that are of value for their own sake. And a couple needs to discover that such things change over time. Old dogs can have fun learning new tricks. If there’s no water going in the top, any water leaking out the bottom is going to prove far more damaging. We’d all like love to be a noun – a feeling. But the best way to create or restore love is to treat it as a verb – a thing you do. The way to discover or rediscover the loving feeling is to do and appreciate loving things.
The second answer is about the divine side of marriage. A marriage is a miracle. It takes more than the couple’s own strength to flourish. When Hebrews 13 talks about marriage it does so in the context of the practices of the church – things like hospitality to strangers, remembering those in prison, and not trusting money more than you trust God. Perhaps one thing more than the others: eating together. Doing such things reminds a couple why they’re married: because together they’re seeking to advance the mission of the church. You can’t stare at each other forever, in either adoration or disdain; in the end your marriage is given to be a blessing to others, and the practices of the church remind you what kind of blessings are involved. Blessing others is the best way to find a blessing for yourselves. And that’s how a church makes a marriage. It takes a village to raise a child; it takes a church to make a marriage.
I started with the question, Does gay marriage fundamentally change marriage? The answer, I believe, is this. Marriage is fundamentally changing, and would be whether or not there was such a thing as same-sex marriage. What we really need to be talking about is marriage. The real issue about same-sex marriage isn’t in any significant way about being gay: it’s about marriage.
And the reason all this matters is not primarily about the rights of gay people or even the disintegration of society as we know it. It’s because there’s one more divine dimension of marriage. When people find it hard to believe, they’re saying to God, ‘You are not enough for me.’ God seems too small, too vague, abstract, distant, intangible. When people are angry with God, they’re saying, ‘You are too much for me.’ Too intense, too demanding, too looming, too relentless. Fundamentally they’re saying, ‘We, even with God, are not enough.’ Not enough to withstand the millstone of our past or survive the threats of our future. This is the mystery: the things we find hard about marriage are the things we find hard about God.
In the end eternity and now are about a marriage. A marriage God has already made: with us. A marriage where God has committed everything, and so have we; although we often forget it. That marriage we could call God with us. But it has another name. That name is Jesus. Jesus is God with us. Jesus is the marriage of heaven and earth. In the end all human marriages end, if not by sin, then by death. But Jesus embodies the marriage that doesn’t end. Jesus is the marriage that we were made for and that truly lasts forever. Jesus is God saying, gently, patiently, winsomely, lovingly, ‘I am enough for you.’