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Marriage and Martians

08 March 2013

THE phone-in on same-sex marriage was predictably lively. And a spokesman for an organisation opposed to the change was feeling pushed to the edge: "We talk about two men getting married today, when once we'd never have thought of such a thing. So where does it end? In 20 years, will someone be asking why a human can't marry an animal?" The presenter of the programme said "Oh, really," in a dismissive manner. But behind this extreme reaction lay the question that everyone is asking afresh: what is marriage?

For something as unchanging as this ancient institution, it does seem to have changed a great deal, and, if the present Bill goes through Parliament, it will change again. Given the variety of interpretation down the years, explaining marriage to a Martian would not be easy.

"Let me explain: the age of consent for marriage is 12, or 21, or another age; marriage is a relationship your family choose for you, or it's a relationship you choose yourself; or it's an arrangement between one man and one woman - though it may also be a relationship between one man and various women.

"The purpose of marriage is clearly procreation, or the purpose of marriage is companionship; it is a union for eternity, or it is a union only for this earth; women have no rights in the relationship, or they do have rights, and non-consensual sex is a crime in law; marriages are made in heaven, or marriages are sometimes a mistake.

"A marriage can be between only a man and a woman, or it can be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman; it is something that you can do only once, or it is something that you can do more than once. God only likes first marriages, though second marriages may sometimes be happier. Now, does that make everything clear?"

Like many of the people in the phone-in, the Martian could be forgiven for being confused about marriage. The past 3000 years offer a vast campsite of different practice and possibility, and where we pitch our particular tent is not an easy choice. The liberating truth, however, is that marriage does not exist - and I say this in merry hope, not gloomy despair.

Relationships exist in their endless variety, but marriage itself, like everything that is precious, defies and dies by definition. I think of the beautiful but fragile snowdrop: fearing for its future in the storm, the law-makers set it in stone to help it keep its shape, while the Church covered it in gold to declare its holy state in the world. So now the snowdrop is defined and sanctified, and secure and honoured, but some way from the original.

When we speak of quality of relationship, we may be wise; when we speak of marriage, we may be something else.

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