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