There's been a lot of conversations happening recently about marriage and the meaning thereof. Some of which have been irritating handwringing about the death of "traditional marriage" (check out those scare quotes), some of which have been notably happier (I have some friends getting married in California tomorrow).
And people rant and rail about religious marriage and civil marriage and who owns marriage.
Here's the deep dark secret:
If you read this, you own marriage. (Even if you don't read this, you own marriage.) You're entitled to the concept. It's yours to grant and receive, without requiring an intermediary. It's a basic, human thing: that people will form partnerships, unify families, set up house together, and do so in the context of the awareness and connection with their communities. That's what marriage is.
If you're living somewhere with a legal system deriving from English law, you're living somewhere where ordinary people owned marriage unquestionedly until about 1200. Right around then, organised religion decided it wanted in on a good thing, possibly for reasons of regulation of sexual morality, possibly because peasants were beginning to hold property and thus actually be interesting to people with authority. And even given that, the exclusive control of the Church over marriage in England began in 1753 and ended in 1837. (Credit for this trivia goes to someone's summary of the situation, drawn in part from the book 1215 - The Year of Magna Carta by Danziger & Gillingham.)
Here in Massachusetts, those well-known godless liberal atheists the Puritans wrote the local ordinances explicitly declaring marriage a secular matter because their God was not to be polluted with something so ... worldly.
Goodridge vs. the Department of Public Health noted this:
We begin by considering the nature of civil marriage itself. Simply put, the government creates civil marriage. In Massachusetts, civil marriage is, and since pre-Colonial days has been, precisely what its name implies: a wholly secular institution.
As did Nancy S. Taylor, preaching from the United Church of Christ:
If it had been up to our Puritan forebears, however, we wouldn't be here today. We wouldn't be having this conversation. Puritan clergy wanted nothing to do with marriage and, indeed, it wasn't until nearly a century after the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, that anyone in the colonies was married with benefit of clergy. Puritan pastor John Robinson described marriage as "a civil thing" in part because it had to with such profane matters as property and inheritance, but more importantly, because there was, in his estimation, no biblical precedent for the church's involvement in it.
There's an interesting thing to be had a little later on in that sermon, now:
Our forebears felt it was important to populate this new land with "hands to tame the wilderness." Yet, they disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church that the sole or highest purpose of marriage was procreation. Roman Catholics hung their bishops' mitres on God's orders that the first humans "be fruitful and multiply". (Gen. 1.28) In the colonies, on the other hand, our forebears hung their Pilgrim hats on God's observation that, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him." (Gen. 2.18)
Now maybe it's that I'm a damn Yankee down in the blood and bone, with the much-diluted blood of Puritans running in my veins and my ancestors rolling in their graves to look at the likes of me, but I'm so very down with that. The essence of marriage is partnership.
I wrote about that a while ago, though not in so many words.
Partnership is the heart of marriage, the communion of shared creative power. And while a lot of marriages include that creative power to make children, that's not its essential thing.
The thing that the partners to a marriage are creating, first and foremost, is their lives.
And people can form that kind of partnership without marriage, without standing up in front of their communities and saying, "We are together, we are doing this work together," and accepting what comes of that. I've got an uncle down the Cape who's been with his partner longer than I've been alive, without what gets called the benefit of marriage.
But the act of saying it with witnesses is marriage: an act of community, acknowledgement, and declaration that there is a social tie between the private place thus formed and the rest of the world.
Back to Goodridge:
In a real sense, there are three partners to every civil marriage: two willing spouses and an approving State.
The "approving State" in civil marriage is the stand-in for the community, substituting for making that public declaration by whatever other local standards might exist. The community is always the third partner.
This is why so many people would accept "civil unions" and not tolerate "marriage" of same-sex couples -- because "civil unions" are not the thing that the community owns and has to fess up to. That's why the word matters.
In my religious beliefs, a marriage is a contract between families, not a matter of theological concern. Brehon law recognised ten degrees of marriage, depending on what was appropriate to the situation of the people involved. I think about these things a lot, not just because of the need to construct contracts around relationships in various forms.
But right now, I say to G and D, mazel tov and may you have joy in each other. And the same to George Takei and Brad Altman. And to all the people who will be celebrating their creative bonds to each each other in the eyes of their communities and the State of California.