Saturday, February 25, 2006

Marriage Metamorphosis

A version of this commentary appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune on April 8, 2004.

As the service nears completion, the priest leads the couple, hand-in-hand, around the lectern. The three find themselves warmly enveloped in the voices of the assembled that fill the church nave with song. Upon the hymn’s conclusion, the priest recites a prayer for the couple and ends with the traditional closing of:


Ever so slowly, the two raise their heads – each one’s gaze penetrating to the very soul of the other. The rise and fall of their chests slightly quicken, anticipating the final pronouncement. After a nod from the priest, they lightly, gently, kiss, bathing each one’s face with the soft breath of the other. Then with an almost parental air about him, the priest joyfully presents the couple to those assembled, reciting Psalm 133:1:

“Behold how good and sweet it is for brothers to live as one.”
And with that, the union of the two men is complete.


While the above narrative may be a dream of many same-sex couples in the United States, it is actually based on a type of same-sex union ceremony, one might even say marriage ceremony, that was occasionally performed in Europe from at least the fifth century through the middle ages, if not later [1, 2, 3].

This ceremony was part of a Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox institution that combined the idea of a spiritual companionship with the desire of some Church members to bond with people of the same sex. These “brother-making” rituals were recorded in perhaps hundreds of Church liturgies. And within the Church’s stored collections of liturgies, they were typically placed immediately following those of different-sex ceremonies.

John Boswell, a medieval historian, has argued that the strong similarities between these early same- and different-sex ceremonies imply that both were seen as a form of marriage. But other scholars limit their view of these same-sex ceremonies to formal Church recognitions of very deep bonds of platonic friendship.

However, these ceremonies were often performed between monks and missionaries, and the same-sex, tightly knit environments of schools, monasteries, and nunneries helped foster a degree of intimacy. It is quite possible that some of these same-sex unions consisted of deep, monogamous, homosexual relationships.

Therefore, it would appear that the intellectual tradition of marriage has not been as unchanging as many would have us believe, including the President. While proposing the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on February 24, he stated the following. “After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence, and millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization.”

Yes, the institution of marriage has primarily been centered on the union of a man and woman for the obvious reason of propagation of the species. But it certainly hasn’t been limited to this over the course of human history, contrary to what the President and others may think. Socially acceptable “marriages” between same-sex couples have been a part of many cultures, including, but not limited to, Ancient Rome, Hellenic Greece, the Yuan and Ming dynasties of China, several African cultures, and many Native American groups throughout the New World [4,5,6].

Neither has the definition of marriage between different-sex couples remained constant throughout history. In fact recent changes include the abolishment of laws forbidding interracial marriage, still on the books in some US states well into the twentieth century [7]. Earlier Christian differences included the institutional forbiddance of second marriages and the strong discouragement of marital sex beyond what was needed for procreation [8].

So not only did Christianity limit acceptable sex to marriage, but even marital recreational sex was strongly discouraged. Can you imagine going to confession? “Yes Father, I know all of the signs of her being with child are there and have been for several months, but surely God doesn’t want us to take any chances.”

The point is that the definition of marriage as an institution and intellectual tradition has varied over time and across space, specific to the culture and time period in question. Down through the ages philosophical treatises, religious texts, codes of law, etc., have been modified, reinterpreted, and completely changed to keep up with society’s changing social and cultural norms. We humans are born, live, and then die; and intellectual traditions, including marriage, change as the generations do.

Think of a flowing river. It picks up water from its tributaries and may split downstream into two or more channels. Over time, its course may change and its banks may widen or narrow. Intellectual traditions are the same, flowing between people across time and space, changing direction, widening and narrowing as they add or discard various elements.

The changing nature of marriage as an intellectual tradition over humanity’s history means that one cannot appeal to some ideal definition of marriage etched in stone as an argument against same-sex marriages. Whatever decisions are made regarding such unions, they will have to be based on the current understanding of our past, and the current social, cultural, and political world we live in.


[1] John Boswell. 1994. Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Villard, New York.

[2] William N. Eskridge, Jr. 1996. The Case for Same-Sex Marriage. Free Press.

[3] 1996. Social and Cultural History of Marriage.

[4] John Boswell. 1994. Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Villard, New York.

[5] William N. Eskridge, Jr. 1996. The Case for Same-Sex Marriage. Free Press.

[6] 1996. Social and Cultural History of Marriage.

[7] Katherine Ellinghaus. 2002. Margins of Acceptability: Class, Education, and Interracial Marriage in Australia and North America. Frontiers 23 (3):55-75.

[8] David G. Hunter. 2003. Augustine and the Making of Marriage in Roman North Africa. Journal of Early Christian Studies 11:1, 63–85.

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