By Ken Cuthbertson
On Sunday afternoon, 25 March 2012, Doug Calderwood and Ken Cuthbertson were legally married in a private ceremony at Niagara Falls, NY. A minister of the United Church of Christ presided at the ceremony performed “in the context of Christian worship.” Doug and Ken have been life-partners for over twenty-five years. Doug is a PCUSA elder, and holds a M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary. Ken is a PCUSA minister, ordained for almost 30 years, who teaches religious studies, accompanies people as a spiritual director and retreat leader, and serves as Parish Associate in a local congregation.
The occasion of our marriage has been a long time coming, and something we never really expected to happen. When marriage laws began to change in the states several years ago it seemed like it would take years for it to reach New Mexico, where we live, and at the time we were not particularly inclined to go looking for it. Then came California, and the rising push for marriage equality, legal domestic partnerships, and civil unions across the country. In New Mexico we twice came within one vote in the State Senate of passing a domestic partnership law that would have granted “all the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage as defined by NM statute.” But then the Roman Catholic hierarchy and conservative Christian groups began a major push-back effort that made it much harder for certain senators to continue their support. Meanwhile several new states passed laws permitting full civil marriage for same-gender couples… including New York State, last summer.
It was during the time that the domestic partnership law was being debated in New Mexico that we seriously began to ponder the possibility of finally… after twenty or so years together… having a civil ceremony and a religious blessing of our relationship. As hopes in New Mexico faded, we began to think about what we might do “when” (not, “if”) full marriage is reinstated in California. It would be easy enough to hop on a plane to San Francisco and have a couple of family members meet us there. But as that has dragged on, we began to consider other options such as New York, whose law took effect in the summer of 2011. So when we began to think about how we might mark our twenty-fifth anniversary as committed life-partners I said, “What if we go to New York and get married?”
The progress toward civil marriage is going surprisingly fast. But there is another process going on, the religious one. Several years ago the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s task force on the “Peace, Unity, and Purity” of the church noted that although the long struggle in the denomination had been over ordination, perhaps we should first deal with the issue of how the church regards same-gender unions. That struck a chord. And while in 2011 the PCUSA moved to remove the restrictions against the ordination of ministers, elders, and deacons who are engaged in same-gender partnerships, the marriage issue remains unresolved.
Over our years together we have talked from time to time about at least having a public blessing ceremony. But we never did. In our early years there were issues with both of our families, and we did not feel right about proceeding without including them. Nor, at the time, did we feel like we had a specific church community that would be supportive. So, we went on with our life together, sans ceremony. Now, although some of the family issues remain, we feel like we have enough support (or, at least, acceptance) from that direction, and we have the supportive faith community. We are gratified and deeply appreciative that the minister and session of the church where we worship have responded so positively, and that so many members of the congregation have been enthusiastic in their congratulations.
Without doubt the initial impetus toward marriage has come from a desire to secure for ourselves, as best we can, the rights, responsibilities, and protections offered by civil marriage. At this point much remains to be done. The federal “Defense of Marriage Act” still bars same-gender couples from over 1,000 legal protections enjoyed by heterosexual couples. And even though we will be legally and fully married in the eyes of the State of New York, that marriage will only be recognized in the states that choose to do so. In some states our “marriage” will only be seen as equivalent to a domestic partnership or civil union as defined by their laws. And in places like Kansas, where both of our families are from, state laws and even the state constitution forbid any recognition of our marriage. (New Mexico is in an ambiguous situation, in which our Attorney General has ruled that nothing in current NM law prohibits the recognition of valid same-gender marriages in other states, but that ruling has yet to be tested in the courts.)
Over the years we have done what we can legally to protect the life we share. We have secured the various wills, legal powers of attorney, health-care powers of attorney, and so on that offer us some protections. But those protections are far from what is provided simply by a marriage license and certificate. We have designated, as possible, each other as beneficiaries on our finances, insurance, pensions, and so on. But as “unmarried” partners even those arrangements will not protect us from higher taxation and the denial of shared benefits under Social Security and such things. (Next year the Presbyterian Church will be extending health and pension benefits to same-gender spouses or partners of church employees who have been legally united in marriage, a domestic partnership, or a civil union.) The hope is that as current trends continue, within a few years all the protections and benefits accorded via civil marriage will be recognized for same-gender spouses as well as heterosexually married couples.
But this is not just a matter of legal rights and protections. The eloquent arguments offered by lawyers Ted Olsen and David Boies in the lawsuit to overturn California’s Proposition 8, and the equally praiseworthy ruling by Federal Judge Vaughan Walker in the case, make clear that what is at stake is not just legal equality of rights, but social equality. As a socio-cultural institution marriage is the way our society recognizes the commitment of two people to share their lives and fortunes together, and it is how we define the most basic and essential family unit.
Doug and I are very lucky. Both of us had strong well-grounded families in which our fathers and mothers were best friends as well as spouses. My parents were married for nearly fifty-four years before their deaths, just six months apart. His parents will soon celebrate their fifty-sixth wedding anniversary. Both couples shared their working lives as well as their home lives, my parents as farmers and his as Presbyterian missionaries.
Our parents and our church taught us to value marriage. Our desire to get married shows what a good job our families and congregations did in our Christian formation. (And that, I think, is perhaps the biggest irony in the current debate over same-gender marriage in the church.) The models we grew up with showed us how to love, honor, cherish, support and comfort one another. And they showed us how to turn that shared love outward to family, friends, church, and community.
We have shared our lives day by day, hour by hour, for over twenty-five years. Together have gone through the deaths of my parents and brother, Doug’s heart attack and major surgeries, the birth of two daughters and the death of one, major surgeries and health challenges for both of Doug’s parents, and much more. We have gone through the buying and selling of one home, and the buying of another. We have bought furniture and appliances. Day by day and week by week we attend to paying our taxes and bills, buying groceries, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and gardening. Almost every Sunday we are to be found sitting in our usual pew at church together, and at various times serving on the church session, and in the common life of the presbytery. Yet, all the foregoing notwithstanding, after all these years we still find various family members who introduce us when we visit as one or the other’s “friend” rather than life-partner. Thankfully it remains truer than ever that we are best friends. But we are more than that. We are a couple, we are a family, and we are (finally) spouses.
So what about the religious views of marriage? The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and a vast constituency of conservative evangelical Protestant Christians, insist on the “between a man and a woman” definition of marriage, often coupling it (pun intended) with the aspect of reproductive sex and childrearing. Most, if not all, insist that this modality is the intention of the Creator, if not of the essence of creation itself as a reflection of the very divine essence of Being itself.
A more modernist and humanistic approach to marriage looks to the evolution of life, and of the socio-cultural modalities of civilization, and notes that perhaps the divine imprimatur may be not so much inherent as assigned, and more assumed than discerned. Certainly the social institution of marriage has manifested in many and various ways across the millennia, with women assigned a secondary and “proprietary” role (both as “property” and as hierarchically subordinate to the “proprietorship” of the husband) in the relationship. That much is clear from a plain reading of the biblical texts ranging from Adam and Eve, to Judah and Tamar, to Solomon and his harem, and onwards. Only in the last half century or so has the view become dominant, primarily in western Euro-American culture, that “marriage” is a fully mutual consensual union of equals, with the issue of reproduction and childrearing being integrally related but not the primary factor.
Coming at the issue as a mainline progressive Christian, who is gay, but also deeply committed to looking at things from a scripture-honoring perspective, I would note several things:
1. While the Bible forbids particular homosexual activities (rape, idolatry, prostitution, etc.) in several instances, it never actually speaks to same-gender mutual, consensual, sexual relationships. (And, by the way, rape, idolatry, and prostitution are also equally forbidden for heterosexuals.)
2. On the other hand, the Bible strongly affirms affectional relationships (see #5, below) between persons of the same gender. But (again) does not speak to the sexual aspect of such relationships.
3. The emphasis of both Jesus and Paul concerning morality and ethics was on “love” and on just and caring relationships in the community, not on ritual “purity” or “clean” vs. “unclean” behaviors.
4. In the second creation story (Garden of Eden) it is said to be “not good” for the man to be alone, and the focus is on the creation of a “companion” and “helper” for the first human, not on procreation and reproduction. Human companionship lies at the essential core of the “good” in marriage.
5. Various biblical accounts of same-gender relationships (the covenantal relationship of Jonathan and David, the affirmations of Ruth to Naomi, etc.) remarkably resemble egalitarian “marriage” as our society has come to understand it.
6. The progress of revelatory understanding about God and the extent of God’s realm is repeatedly shown to be directed away from exclusive categorizations toward inclusivity and the breaking down of divisive barriers between people. (See Isaiah 56, Acts 10, Galatians 3:28, etc.)
7. Although specific gender roles are noted according to the socio-cultural norms of the times, the basic underlying teaching concerning Christian marriage in the New Testament is about mutual submission, mutual esteem, and love, undertaken out of reverence for Christ. (Eph. 5:21, etc.)
8. The vows and promises of the historic Christian marriage covenant – “to love, honor, and cherish, to have and to hold, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live” – are neither gender-specific nor gender-exclusive. They are simply about how two people relate to one another. (And nowadays most couples omit the woman’s archaic “obey” vow.)
The core “meaning” of Christian marriage thus seems to be pretty consistent with the modern socio-cultural expectation of a mutual consensual union of equals, grounded in love, mutual esteem, and a commitment to sharing the journey of life together. The one distinctively Christian aspect being the undertaking to do this “out of reverence for Christ.”
If that is the essence of how we understand marriage, then it seems to me that there is no good reason to restrict it to heterosexual couples in either the civil or religious context. Equality, mutual consent, love, esteem, and intention are not gender-specific. And neither is reverence for Christ. The word and the institution are the means by which our society recognizes and affirms that type of committed covenantal relationship. If that type of relationship occurs between persons of the same gender as it does between heterosexuals – and it DOES – then we need to recognize and admit that they are married. And, as Christians, if we truly believe that “Love is of God, and anyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (I John 4:7), then we also need to admit that these marriages are something sacred to be blessed and honored in God’s Name.
And that is what my husband and I did on March 25, 2012. After twenty-five years of living the reality, we made it all official and legal, and we at last had our marriage blessed in God’s name by a minister of the church. For some that is a blasphemy. For us it is the grace of God, and we are somewhat amazed at how deeply moved we have been by the experience.