• ‘Traditional’ marriage is not just outdated, it simply doesn’t exist.
The rhetoric of ‘traditional’ marriage so prominent in current debates about marriage equality misrepresents the rich history of the evolution of marriage, making marriage equality seem more revolutionary than it actually is.
Melanie Heyworth

9 Mar 2016 - 12:17 PM  UPDATED 10 Mar 2016 - 10:38 AM

If you listen to the many politicians who have thwarted attempts to introduce marriage equality in Australia over the past decade or so, you would be left with the opinion that marriage has existed throughout history in a kind of stasis. In 2004 the then Prime Minister, John Howard, actively changed the Marriage Act in order to clarify what we all already ‘knew’, and to confirm that apparently unquestionable definition of a marriage as between a man and a woman. Howard’s rhetoric championed ‘traditional’ marriage as a ‘bedrock institution’ of Australian society.

Howard’s ideations have been repeated by subsequent politicians and lobbyists to defend a continued reticence to endorse marriage equality.  Until recently that is. In 2012 when he gave the Michael Kirby Lecture on ‘Reflections on Gay Marriage’, Malcolm Turnbull offered a concise analysis of that Howardian sense of ‘traditional’ marriage: it is outdated, and, in the face of social developments, a nonsense. Turnbull’s lecture is insightful, but it misses a key point. The rhetoric of ‘traditional’ marriage suggests that marriage is – and has been – an inert institution. But ‘traditional’ marriage is not just outdated, it simply doesn’t exist.

As a marriage historian, I can say categorically that if you search for a single, universal and constant definition of marriage you will fail. Rather, marriage has evolved in response to social, political and religious pressures for thousands of years. Admittedly, evolution was a slower process in, say, ninth-century Anglo-Saxon England than in today’s information-saturated, hyper-connected, inherently diverse world. But this idea that marriage is somehow a constant, a binding and unifying tradition that defines us, is erroneous. Along with other social institutions, marriage – what it means, its purpose, and its relevance – has fluctuated dramatically with the ebb and flow of social history.

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And this is my point: marriage equality is evolution, not revolution, man.

When Pope Gregory the Great sent a Christian mission to England towards the close of the sixth century, the Anglo-Saxons considered marriage to be a secular, contractual agreement between families, which cemented bloodlines and inheritance, and more closely mimicked a financial transaction than a celebration of a personal bond. It is likely that marriage depended more on cohabitation than on legal status, that divorce was possible, and that consummation legitimised the marriage.

The Christian missionaries to Anglo-Saxon England had inherited a somewhat confused marital philosophy, but the indissolubility of the marital bond was a firmly articulated principle, and stood in stark contrast to the Anglo-Saxon idea of divorce. The story of how marriage changed – evolved – from that initial Anglo-Saxon position to embrace a Christian ethos is both lengthy and involved, but in summary: it did eventually happen.

Back to twenty-first century Australia. I find it interesting that despite the deeply Christian rhetoric about marriage in our country, the institution that we idealise echoes Anglo-Saxon secular marriage more closely than it does Christian marriage. For example, in Australia according to the ABS, one out of three marriages ends in divorce, and nearly seventy-five per cent of marriages are performed by a civil celebrant rather than a religious minister. The maxim that a mortgage is a good as a marriage is very Germanic in essence. In some areas, then, marriage has evolved full-circle.

But ‘traditional’ marriage is not just outdated, it simply doesn’t exist.

In other areas we have happily not returned to our Germanic roots. Take, for instance, the issue of consent. In Australia the idea that we enter into marriage as two consenting adults, voluntarily, is a legal necessity. And yet, at least until the eleventh century the consent of the bride and groom was not necessary, and the issue of whether consent or consummation validated a legally binding marriage plagued Christian theologians for centuries. Think about it: for eleven hundred years, personal consent was not an inalienable cornerstone of marriage.

My point is subtle but significant: we take consent as a basic marital reality, but it was not always so. It is not as ‘traditional’ as we might assume. To retell how consent conquered consummation is to tell a story of an evolution. Marriage equality is no more an alien concept to us, than consent was an alien concept to the Anglo-Saxons when it was first introduced. But just as the Anglo-Saxons came to accept consent as a reflection of their increasingly Christianised society, so too, we are obliged to accept marriage equality as a reflection of our increasingly sexually diverse society.

If we are to talk about the derivation of our thinking on marriage, we must also acknowledge that the Christian Church, the marital ideology of which is often cited in conversations about marriage equality, has spent more of its history than not deciding on its orthodox position on marriage. The Church did not agree on this position until the Council of Trent in CE 1545-1563. For more than fifteen hundred years marriage was on an evolutionary journey, it was changing, being debated, being questioned, being reframed and reformed.

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And then, in response to the profound, unprecedented and meteoric social changes of the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council entered into that evolutionary process by redefining marriage yet again. In Vatican II, for probably the first time, the Church promoted the interpersonal experience of loving marriage, and downplayed that late medieval ideology of marriage as an institutional, canonical contract. But it would be wrong to characterise Vatican II as an ideological revolution. The most revolutionary direction taken then was that, for the first time in history, it treated marriage as a worthy and virtuous Christian good, rather than the very distant cousin of chastity. Evolution not revolution.

But it is not just the Church to which we should turn to look at just how marriage has evolved in response to social attitudes. Consider anti-miscegenation laws, which criminalised inter-racial marriages in as varied contexts as Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and North America. Clearly the impetus for the implementation of anti-miscegenation laws depend on the context in which they were enacted, but outlawing inter-racial marriages illustrates starkly how marriage has been used to regulate society, and how society in turn regulates and manipulates marriage to reflect its priorities, its expectations, its desires. Today, forbidding inter-racial marriages is not just anathema but an assault on the very essence of our social identity: marriage as an institution evolved to repeal such obsolete segregation to reflect changing norms. I challenge you to contemplate how marriage equality is any different.

I’m not implying that same sex marriage has any historical basis: the Anglo-Saxons, the Tudors, the Victorians (and everyone in between) did indeed assume marriage to be between a man and a woman. But then, they also considered marriage to be about heirs and inheritance, or about curbing sexuality, or about preventing racial connexion.

Marriage may well be a bedrock institution of modern society, but it has never been – and should not be held in that regard now – a fixed foundation that resists social pressure for change.

What I am saying, then, is probably not a knock-out blow, but it is more than mere semantics. If we are to debate marriage equality meaningfully, we need to acknowledge that marriage has changed across history, perhaps incrementally but undoubtedly profoundly. Change is a constitutive element of marriage: to speak of it in any other way is to misrepresent its rich and diverse history. The question to ask then is simply: is this particular change one that reflects our society? Does it rightly continue the evolution of marriage as an institution that serves our communities?

To objectors I would say that the institution of the family (as much as it even relates to marriage in our contemporary world) will not fail with another step in the evolution of marriage, any more than it failed when consummation evolved into consent, or when issues of inheritance became less important than issues of affection, or when the principle of segregation was overtaken by the principle of – dare I say it – equality.

Marriage equality is no revolution, it is merely a continuance of the evolution that has characterised an institution for millennia. Marriage may well be a bedrock institution of modern society, but it has never been – and should not be held in that regard now – a fixed foundation that resists social pressure for change.