Marriage" by Rev. Meg Barnhouse
The Rock of Ages at The Taj Mahal
"I’m a bit confused. In Spartanburg there are large billboards
that say, "Our community supports traditional marriage."
Well, yeah. I’m trying to think of ways to support traditional
marriage. Then I get to thinking, what is a traditional marriage?
How far back are we going for these traditions? Because if we
go back to biblical times, we have the traditional marriage
of Abraham where he and his wife traveled quite a bit. A couple
of times when Abraham was in fear of his life he lied and said
his wife was his sister, so the Pharaoh took her for one of
his concubines. Then when the Pharaoh found out, he threw them
both out of the country for violating his traditional
morals, which dictated you don’t do things like that.
Or are we talking about the traditional marriage of Isaac where
his father sent a servant to pick out a wife for him, and the
servant brought her back to Isaac who took her into his tent
and "made her his wife"?" Or their son Jacob’s
marriage, where he worked for seven years for Rachel and then
was given her older sister in a sneaky way after he had drunk
enough at the wedding feast not to know the difference until
it as too late? Then he married Rachel, too.
Are we talking about traditional marriages where the parents
decide who their children are going to marry? Are we talking
about traditional (North) American marriages? (North) American
marriages from the 1600s? The Victorian Era, where women were
not allowed to have anesthesia during childbirth, not allowed
to own property, not even legally considered to have custody
of their children? Just how far back in history are we supposed
to go? Back to the last century when there was no birth control
information to be had? When it was not illegal for a man to
beat his wife or rape her? No, wait, that wasn’t the last century.
In South Carolina, that was the early eighties (1980s) I’d be
willing to talk about supporting traditional marriage if people
would have the manners to tell me what it is they want me to
Someone told me that "traditional marriage" means
marriage between a man and a woman, but
I said that couldn’t be it. Why would marriage between a man
and a woman need any more support than it already has? It’s
the only kind of marriage that’s legal. It’s the kind of marriage
almost everyone has. It’s the kind you see on TV and the only
kind little kids are taught about in school and the only kind
that is mentioned in books and the only kind you see pictures
of in magazines. How much more support than that do they want?
If marriage between a man and a woman is the one they want
us to support, that would mean they were against same-gendered
people joining together in commitment. That can’t be it. The
Christian Right is for marriage, right? They support
commitment between two people. It is what makes our society
stable. Gay people being able to marry wouldn’t threaten marriages
between men and women. I mean, it’s not as if legalizing same-sex
marriage would suddenly make men all over the place say "Oh,
golly, I was going to marry a woman, but now I think
I’ll marry a man!" Or women saying "You know, I had
been dreaming of marrying a man, but now that it’s legal to
marry my best friend, I think I’ll do that!"
On second thought, that last one sounds pretty good. Marrying
my best friend. Hmmm. I must think about those billboards some
Sermon: "Does Marriage Need Defending?"
Before I begin, I would like to thank Clare and all of you
for your warm welcome this morning, and our guest pianist Chris
Foley for the lovely music. It’s great to be home, among friends,
listening to the Steinway and the rumble a streetcar going by.
It feels like church to me!
I can’t tell you what an honour it is to be back in my home
congregation, a church I first walked into as a young woman
of about 19, and to be among many of the people whose dedication
to this faith and this community inspired me to go into the
ministry. There are more of you than you realize! Margaret Fuller
said "A house is no home unless it contain food and fire
for the mind as well as for the body." This church has
been "food and fire" for so many souls over the years;
I am just one of them, but I treasure the ministry that this
church has brought to life in all of us.
I know that today is a significant day in your life as a community
as well – a day when you will make decisions about your future
plans, hopes and dreams for yourself. I wish you all the best,
and a sense of the ministry of this wonderful church that you
hold in trust. . I was thinking as I prepared this sermon about
the impact you have had on so many people, issues and ideas
over the years. About how a member of this church, Joseph Workman,
was the first person in Canada to recognize that people with
mental illness should not be locked up in jails, but treated
humanely in hospital. About how decades later, Frank Lewis of
this church was instrumental in abolishing Canada’s death penalty.
About all of the lives and deaths you have held each other through
over the years. About how this church has given birth to five
other congregations and at grown at least six fine ministers
I can think of, to say nothing of a host of stellar lay leaders
that have arisen here. This church is a flagship church, and
always has been the primary voice of liberal religion in the
city and the community. I’m very proud to have grown my commitment
to this faith in this church, and you should be, too. The question
before you, before all of us is - what are we going to do with
that one great gift? What are we called by our faith to do at
this moment in time? The decisions you will make today will
be one answer to that question.
Another answer, for me, came a few months ago when I received
a letter, a petition and a survey from Stephen Harper, mailed
to my church and yours, asking for my help and your help in
"defending traditional marriage. I understand that every
church in the country received this same mailing, including
our Unitarian Churches across the country, because the Canadian
Unitarian Council has already fired off a response to Mr. Harper’s
mailing. I also received at home another mailing from Mr. Harper
asking my opinion about "undocumented refugees." I
wrote down on his survey that all of us in North America are
descended from "undocumented refugees" including himself,
that I took offense at his xenophobic comments, and mailed it
back! So I’m surprised I’m still on his list. Obviously Mr.
Harper and his people do not do their homework.
I found Mr. Harper’s mailing so offensive that I couldn’t NOT
speak in response to it. I found the content extremely offensive,
but I think I was most offended by the assumption, so often
made, that all churches and religious people must be on his
side of this question. I am a deeply religious person, as are
all of you, and I do not see anything of love, faithfulness
or Spirit in his sad attempts to use religious communities for
his own political ends. And I will tell him so to his face if
I ever have the chance, which I imagine someday I will.
And since that time we have begun to see quite a lot furor
in our decent little country about same-sex marriage. I thought
when it first happened through the court decision in Ontario
– how civil, how quiet, how utterly Canadian, to simply do the
right thing through due process of law. Now we are hearing back
talk and back-tracking, talk of referendums and retroactive
pension payouts - and court challenges to those payouts.
Amid all the seriousness of the debate, you know an issue is
becoming a part of the mainstream fabric of our society when
it starts showing up in comedians’ routines. I heard one the
other day say "Same Sex marriage? We already have "Same
Sex" marriages… once you get married, it’s the same sex
all the time!" And the one I’ve heard most often is… "Why
shouldn’t gays be allowed to marry, too? Why should we be the
only miserable ones?" Indeed…
One of the things that Mr. Harper asked us to do was to "defend"
traditional marriage, and I’d like to say a few words about
what that means. As our reading this morning pointed out, you
need to say a little more about what exactly you mean by traditional
marriage, because marriage is a lot of different things in many
places around the world. I’ll start just with our own North
American version of marriage. I have probably conducted 150
or so weddings in my life, and here are a few interesting facts
about that traditional Western wedding to which Mr. Harper is
Do you know why the man stands on the woman’s right in a "traditional"
wedding? So that he may be free to draw his sword (presuming
he’s right handed) and fight off potential attackers who would
steal his bride - for her lands, her money or her virginity.
Unless of course, he had stolen her in the first place, and
the attackers were her own people, trying to get her back, which
was quite often the case.
Do you know why your father "gives you away" in a
traditional wedding ceremony? Because until very recently in
our society, and still in many, many, places around the world,
a woman is her father’s property, becoming her husband and his
family’s property after the marriage has taken place. In India,
while visiting the city of Varanasi, I slipped into the wedding
celebration of a wealthy Brahmin who was over 60 years old…
not that there’s anything unmarriageable about a 60 year old
groom, mind you (!) – but his "bride" was about 13,
and she looked very, very unhappy. Her father, who was some
20 years younger than her groom, seemed pretty happy, though.
It was a very lavish party.
I know I look at such situations with my western eyes, but
what does such a marriage say about values of love, respect,
honour and decency? Or is there another word we should be using
for what transpired that evening in Varanasi?
Do you know why it is still a legal requirement that I ask
each partner in a wedding if they come of their own free will?
Because people have been married with their hands tied behind
their backs and a gag in their mouths – to cement alliances,
steal lands, or create heirs with a wedding night rape. A while
ago I met some men from West Africa and asked them about their
lives. They said "Well, we are trying to modernize, but
we still had to have adult circumcision to become men and bought
our wives with cows… more cows for a more beautiful wife!"
They smiled, and said it was more symbolic that real… but even
the symbol sent a shiver down my spine. Pretty women worth more
cows… ugly women free? In some places in the world, a woman
is valued so poorly that she is immolated on her husband’s funeral
pyre when he dies, or killed by her own brother or father if
a rape has taken her virginity, making her a worthless bride.
So let us be absolutely clear. Throughout human history until
very, very recent times, and still in many places, traditional
heterosexual marriage has been about many things, probably the
least of them love and mutual choice. It has been about money,
land, politics and patriarchy, virginity and virtue, power,
oppression and possession. Do we really want to defend "traditional
marriage?" No Mr. Harper, we do not. We wish for something
much more ennobling, much more worthy of the human spirit. We
wish for Love. We believe that Love is and should be the heart
of all we do.
Love has not always been a part of traditional marriage, but
it has always been a part of the human heart. Long before the
church or state intervened, people have been choosing partners
of the same gender or opposite genders – and everything in between
– for love and friendship, for soul-mates and sexual joy, for
raising families and sharing lives, for commitment that stretches
over the course of our lives and beyond. Love is too powerful
a force to be contained in any human institution, and in fact,
it has not been contained, and continues to spill over the sides
of any vessel that tries to contain it – church, state, family,
society, you name it. Love is the glue that holds all of the
relationships worth having in this world together. It is the
dearest word we know, God’s other name, we are told. The injustice
of denying any member of our human family an equal right to
Love is beyond my comprehension. To do so in the name of religion
makes a mockery of religion, a word which means "to bind
What I truly cannot understand is what anyone has to fear from
other people choosing love and lifetime commitment. Am I missing
something? What is so hard to understand about love and commitment
making a good pair? Isn’t that what we’ve been told all along?
There are a million songs about it…. Love and marriage, go together
like a horse and carriage… You can’t have one without the other!
The support that society gives and receives to those who make
this kind of commitment is huge, from financial incentives to
social acceptance, from career advancement to family and community
support. A just society would offer this to all. And a society
based on real human values would put Love at the centre of all
we do. I believe that the role of churches such as ours is to
point the way to a world that is better than the one we presently
Mr. Harper, I do not feel that my heterosexual marriage needs
defending. I do not feel that my marriage needs defending because
it is already incredibly safe and secure in the unquestioning
mainstream of society. I have the support and acceptance of
the world in being in a heterosexual marriage, without even
having to earn it. I am listed as my spouse’s "next of
kin" and can visit him in the hospital if he gets sick,
or receive his benefits if he dies. I was able to tell my family
of our love and decision to marry and receive unconditional
enthusiasm and wholehearted support from them. I have at least
the possibility of becoming a parent without having to prove
my worthiness to do so to any team of doctors, social workers
or psychiatrists. I am not in danger of losing my job because
of who I love. And I can walk down the street holding hands
with my spouse without fear of getting beaten to within an inch
of my life.
None of these things are a given for someone who loves a person
of the same gender, and many of them are things that they experience
on a daily basis. A colleague of mine told me this story. A
parishioner who had been part of a same sex couple for over
20 years became very ill, both mentally and physically. Without
his partner knowing anything about what was happening; he disappeared
one night, and was not seen again by a loving partner of 20
years for several months. Because and only because their marriage
(which my colleague had conducted himself) was not seen as legal,
we he prevented from loving and supporting his partner through
this time. We need to offer protection against these kinds of
I once knew a single teacher in his 50s who was planning on
marrying a friend when he retired, just so that if something
happened to him, someone would get all his pension. Perhaps
he has the right to do that, but why should a friend, simply
because she’s female, inherit his money, while loving and committed
same-sex partners of 40 or 50 years be denied or have to fight
to receive medical benefits, life insurance, dental care and
drug plans freely offered to other spouses? It’s not right.
I speak to you today on this issue because it is a justice
issue, perhaps the justice issue, of our times, and it is an
issue for communities of straights and gays, like ours, to speak
out on. Too often people think that people of colour should
be leading the fight against racism, that women’s groups should
stop domestic violence, that the poor should be concerned about
homelessness. It is up to all of us, but especially to those
who have privilege accorded us by mere chance to speak out on
behalf of all our brothers and sisters, to ally ourselves with
others so that the injustice may be seen more clearly.
So no, Mr. Harper, I will not be joining you in the fight to
"defend" traditional marriage. I will be opposing
you in the fight to defend love and decency, fairness and
equality for all Canadians who love and wish to make of their
love a covenant before God or Goddess, their country or religious
community. I will be standing proudly beside my gay, lesbian,
bisexual or transgendered sisters and brothers and say… We hold
out love. We Hold Out Love.
And as religious people, in the words of our prayer this morning:
"We pray with all our heart and soul that someday soon,
The people of the world will learn to see with new eyes what
is truly important,
That what unites us is greater than what divides us,
That we are more similar that we are different,
That we are equal, none greater and none less than the holiest
we can imagine
We pray with all our heart and soul that from this day forward,
We will see each other truly; not through the fogged lens of
fear and prejudice,
But through the clear eyes of love, the steady gaze of acceptance,
the warm regard of respect.
We pray for a day when each person’s soul will be what matters,
The outward form it takes of little consequence, save to make
us a diverse and interesting world.
And let us work with all our might for the day when love is
the highest value,
And the shining heart of all we do.
Surely, when this day comes, we will have made heaven on earth.
So may it be.
May each of us love with all our hearts
May we support and protect each other in the commitments of
May this community be a beacon of light guiding the way
And may Love be the only thing that matters.
So may it be. Amen.