Does Marriage Need Defending?

A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Allison Barrett
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 1 February 2004

Reading: "Traditional 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 support.

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 more."

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 probably referring.

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 together."

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 have.

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 horrors.

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.


Closing Words

May each of us love with all our hearts
May we support and protect each other in the commitments of our lives
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.