An Imperfect Union

When Church & State Marry

At this moment in our culture, it is hard to talk about same-sex marriage without making a fool of oneself—hard to talk about it without appearing either to defend what looks like a form of bigotry or to endorse same-sex marriage as an unalloyed and obvious social advance. Both of these positions ignore so much.

For most of its history, marriage has been about the melding of families (it’s still  about this, as married couples often learn after the fact) and the protection of women and children, not, or not primarily, about romantic feelings. The easy dismissal of the definition of marriage as an institution necessarily involving both male and female—sometimes one male and many females or, much more rarely, vice-versa—is a problem. This has been a basic part of our understanding of marriage until so recently that the reaction against those who would dispense with it is understandable.

But in some ways we Christians have, by acquiescing to the coercive nature of law, painted ourselves into this corner. Until the ninth century Orthodoxy did not have a separate liturgy for marriage. People married according to the custom of their country. The empires, East and West, made the church responsible for the legality of marriage and its dissolution, and the distinction between marriage as a sacrament and as a legal contract was blurred. To this day we haven’t gotten over this confusion.

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.