I read Archbishop Peter Jensen’s piece on marriage in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald with considerable interest, and have been following the heated debate over the proposal to change the word “obey” to “submit” in the Anglican marriage vows. I don’t really understand why non-believers are so eager to condemn marriage vows that they’ve no interest in taking anyway. If Christian women freely choose to promise to submit, then in a society that guarantees religious freedom, that’s their choice.
But what what the Archbishop appears not to understand, perhaps unsurprisingly given his decades in church leadership, is contemporary secular society’s enthusiasm for marriage. "Individualism leaves us with little reason to join our life to that of someone else," he writes. If the institution is in such moribund decline, then why have I attended a dozen weddings in the past 12 months, most of them secular? I could have saved a fortune on gifts and dry-cleaning bills.
Now, the marriage rate is certainly lower than ever – although it hasn’t dropped since 2005. But I would argue that this is not because we “choose to bypass" marriage or "need to rethink it”. I believe it’s precisely because secular society understands how serious marriage is that many people choose not to enter into it unless they’re very confident that it will work out. We are well aware that “it really matters”.
Indeed, I’d argue that secular marriage has a meaning that it might not have for Sydney Anglicans, who are warned by Archbishop Jensen and his colleagues that the only valid way to experience love and sex is by marrying. When those who have no moral imperative to marry nevertheless choose do so, they choose to do so out of love alone – often later in life, after a number of serious relationships, and after living with their spouse beforehand.
I don’t know whether Archbishop Jensen has attended many secular weddings. I doubt he’s attended any gay weddings. Perhaps if he did so, he would realise that “making our promises before witnesses and trying to keep them” can be meaningful even without the Bible. Perhaps he’d understand that the 70% of Australians who choose secular ceremonies are able to understand the gravity of what they are undertaking.
And perhaps he wouldn’t assert that “secular views of marriage are driven by a destructive individualism and libertarianism.” To the contrary, civil, secular marriage is an antidote to individualism and libertarianism. It’s inherently anti-individualistic, because it makes coupledom the fundamental basis of one’s life. And it’s anti-libertarian in that it’s a contract where you give up a degree of personal freedom in the interests of approaching life as a couple.
These changes are central to all marriages, both Christian and secular. And furthermore, both Christian and secular marriages fail when couples abandon them due to individual selfishness – or because, in some instances, couples simply grow apart.
What’s more, if secular society is so opposed to marriage, why is gay marriage one of the most prominent civil rights battles in the Western world? Jensen is clearly aware of this, since he has devoted considerable effort to opposing it. Gay couples, for whom the Bible’s heterosexual concept of marriage has little to offer, do not need the Archbishop to remind them how important marriage is at the same time as he attempts to deny them it.
Nevertheless, much of what the Archbishop writes resonates with non-Christians, whether married or single, like me. Many people would agree that “husband” and “wife” are more meaningful and profound terms than “partner” – indeed, that’s precisely why gay couples want to have access to them. Many husbands would view that as their most important role in life. And many enter into marriage because they think it will be better for their children.
As a former Principal of Moore College, which trains the majority of Sydney’s Anglican ministers, the Archbishop is one of Australia’s leading theologians. I’ve no doubt he’s articulated the New Testament’s position accurately. So those who object to his point of view are probably objecting to what the Bible says – or, more specifically, what the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians.
I’ve no wish to engage in a debate over precisely what Paul meant, and am ill-equipped to do so. Let me instead explain why that passage, and the new Anglican vows, present a view of marriage that makes many people uncomfortable. The analogy that man is to woman as Christ is to the church does call upon both parties to love and serve one another, as the Archbishop points out. But it’s hardly an equal relationship – Christ is perfect, the church sins; Christ is divine, the church is worldly. If Christ is “the head of the Church”, that is surely the antithesis of equality.
Jensen attempts to dispel our discomfort with men being placed in a superior position with the argument that the man’s obligation to the woman is “more onerous”. Yes, great power comes with great responsibility – even Spider-Man can teach us that. But in the end, you still get more power, don’t you? To assert that husbands have the more onerous obligation in marriage neatly illustrates why feminist object so violently, and I would argue validly, to these teachings.
But then again, the Sydney Diocese are comfortable with asserting male superiority. It does not permit women to teach, as per another of Paul’s instructions. Indeed, Paul said that women should remain silent in churches, one of a number of his mandates which have proven controversial over the years. Personally, I find it difficult to relate to an institution which makes such demands of women, and this is one of a number of reasons why I am not a churchgoer.
Of course men and women are different – if they weren’t, nobody would buy books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and FM breakfast radio shows would have nothing to make jokes about. The important question is whether they are equal.
Sydney Anglicans have recognised this by arguing that their view of women’s role in the church is “equal but different”, and indeed, the Archbishop’s wife and sister-in-law serves on the Steering Committee of a group which is called Equal But Different. Forgive me if I simply suggest that an institution in which women are not allowed to occupy the same leadership positions as men contradicts my, and I suspect many people’s, definition of equality.
Let’s talk now about the vexatious issue of submission. Marriage necessarily involves submission of one’s will in certain circumstances. And this can be enormously difficult. People in committed long-term relationships (whether married or otherwise) might have to live in a town or country where they might not want to live, or stay at home with children when they’re rather be working, or stay in to keep their spouse company when they’d rather go out, or not have sex with somebody else when they feel like it. Even something as simple as restaurant choice can involve submission.
In a broader sense, though, this is an exercise of free will where spouses choose to deny themselves short-term gratification for the long-term emotional reward of a relationship. Marriage, simply put, is a promise to keep doing this into the future. It’s much the same as when we sign up for employment and voluntarily submit our will to our employer’s. It’s in our ultimate self-interest.
Where the argument really loses me – and indeed, where Ephesians really loses me – is the suggestion that this obligation should be understood differently for women and men. (Or indeed, for two men or two women who wish to marry.) There is no argument offered for this beyond the fact that Paul says it must be so.
If I ever marry, I would never want my wife to submit her will to mine simply because I’m a man, which is precisely what Ephesians suggests. I would want any power dynamic that exists to be an equal one. Neither of us should “wear the pants”, we should have a leg each!
Personally, I’m comfortable with stating that I find Paul’s views on topics like sexuality and slavery and the role of women outdated, which perhaps explains why I am not a churchgoer. It’s also worth noting that in Ephesians, Paul requires slaves to submit to their masters in similar terms, which is a position that I don’t see Archbishop Jensen advocating in the newspaper.
Then again, others of Paul’s views are extremely progressive for their era. For instance, he writes in Galatians 3:28 “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
I have met the Archbishop, and have heard him express regret that the Church is not able to make a larger contribution to the debate over these kinds of social issues. But I fear that there is a fundamental tension between secular society’s comfort with its views on human rights and relationships “evolving”, to use Barack Obama’s term on the question of gay marriage, and the Church’s position on the authority of documents written thousands of years ago. I do not know how much each group can teach the other, starting from such different positions.
Nevertheless, I can reassure Archbishop Jensen that on the basis of the secular weddings I’ve attended recently, the institution is thriving. Whereas if civil vows were rewritten to require women to promise to submit to their husbands, I have no doubt that the marriage rate would drop dramatically.