The Public Purpose of Marriage

In a recent article entitled ‘Focus on the Public Purpose of Marriage: Protecting Children’, Colleen Carroll Campbell, writes:

‘Battles over same-sex marriage typically turn on arguments about gay rights, judicial activism and views on homosexuality. Absent are answers to a more fundamental question: What is the public purpose of marriage?’

She concludes by asserting that marriage only survives in a culture for as long as a critical mass of the population views it as the socially acceptable context for childbearing and childrearing. When popular support for marriage drops too low and public policy denies the unique value of marriage between a man and a woman as a guarantor of social stability, fewer men and women marry. More children, she argues, are deprived of the presence of their mothers and fathers. Thus marriage ‘no longer serves its civic purpose, which always has been more about defending child welfare than validating adult desires’.

It is only when marriage passes beyond mere consent that it becomes concerned with its real nature as ethical, and so related to matters of family, of kinship, and so of the State. That is why Forsyth argued that we must always bar unions that do not conform to the conditions of the State’s welfare. [I would want to say more here than Forsyth does, especially about the proleptic and prophetic aspects of marriage, and of the life of the church as the foretaste of the kingdom, a life in which all relationship are re-defined]. While it is a lot more, marriage is no less than a social act. The social form, therefore, is not indifferent. Forsyth avers, ‘It is part of the substance. It is a piece of social morality, i.e. of social existence. It is bound up with the safety, honour, and welfare of society’.

Thus what mere civil marriages betray is any sense that the relationship concerns more than the two selves. Forsyth is worth recounting here: ‘If anything is ethical on that universal scale, it has already begun to be more than ethical. On that wide scale, and on such an intimate subject, it becomes also deep and sacred, it becomes religious. Even if you own no more than the religion of Humanity that is so. You cannot treat human society as one whole without your ethic becoming religious. Even the Positivists, since they worship Humanity, treat marriage in their religious ritual as a sacrament. And I do not wonder that the Roman Church treats it so. I do not agree with that Church in so doing, for reasons which would be misplaced here. All I do say is that the more one ponders the solemn implicates and slow effects of marriage, moral and spiritual, the more one feels that it has something sacramental in its nature. It may be less than a church sacrament, but it is a moral; it is certainly more than a contract … If not a sacrament, it is a means of grace; and, like every means of grace, it sweetens or hardens according as it is used’.

What Forsyth betrays here in an appreciation that a merely social view of marriage is quite inadequate, even if humanity be all we have in view. Sorry Colleen, but marriage calls for more than social sanction and exists for more (though not less) than ‘defending child welfare’. Marriage calls for divine sanctification (if life do so at all) and exists to bear witness to divine blessing, and to the divine life itself. Forsyth again: ‘If [marriage] means so much for the soul and for society, that is really because it belongs to the Kingdom of God, to the will of the God Who ordered society and its destiny. If it is organic to the structure of society, it is vital to the purpose of God. It is a union which reflects a union deep in the eternal nature of a triune God Himself’.

[There is much that Forsyth fails to say about marriage, and not all that he says will – or should – fly with us today. He was, as we are, a person of his age and who was responding to the pressing questions of his age, and must be read in light of such. This, however, is not to let him off the hook so much as it is to encourage reading beyond the boundaries of his corpus.]

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