Saturday, January 16, 2010

Marriage Metamorphosis

In light of what is going on with Proposition 8 in California, a little perspective on the history of marriage is in order. The article I wrote below was originally published in the now defunct Albuquerque Tribune on April 8th, 2004.

As the service nears completion, the priest leads the couple, hand-in-hand, around the lectern. The three find themselves enveloped in the voices of the assembled, who fill the church nave with song.

Slowly, the two raise their heads. Their breath quickens as they anticipate the final pronouncement. After a nod from the priest, they gently kiss. The priest 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 might be a dream of many same-sex couples in the United States, it is based on a type of same-sex union ceremony - one might say marriage ceremony - that was occasionally performed in Europe between at least the fifth century and through the middle ages, if not later.

This ceremony was part of an Orthodox Roman Catholic and Greek 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 the similarities between these early same- and different-sex ceremonies imply 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, the 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 possible that some of these same-sex unions consisted of deep, monogamous, homosexual relationships.

So, it would appear that the intellectual tradition of marriage has not been as unchanging as many believe, including [former] President [George W.] Bush. In proposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Bush said: "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."

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, including religious history, contrary to what he and others might say.

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 tribes within the New World.

The definition of marriage for different-sex couples has not remained constant throughout history. Among U.S. changes: abolishment of laws forbidding interracial marriage. Earlier Christian practice included a prohibition of second marriages and strong discouragement of marital sex beyond what was needed for procreation.

The point is the definition of marriage as an institution and tradition has varied over time and across space. We are born, then live and die; and our traditions, including marriage, change as the generations do.