The Most Rev Philip Freier, Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne and Primate of Australia has published an essay in the Australian newspaper the Age on the future of the church’s partnership with the state in marriage.
In Australia the church inherited this role from the English system which had an established church with legal privileges that did not apply in Australia but were long-assumed in the mono-cultural colonies. Church and state seemed natural allies in this cause.It might be time to make sanctioning legal marriage a matter purely for the state.
But Australia is vastly more diverse today, and the church’s influence has waned through a variety of causes. It will never again have the same dominant position as society’s conscience and moral guardian. Christian advocates must accept that we are one voice among many, even though it is often a voice of considerable wisdom and experience.
That being so, it might be thought anomalous that the church remains the state’s representative when it comes to performing marriage, that ministers of religion (along with civil celebrants) act on behalf of the state by performing a legal ceremony that is recognised and legitimised by the state.
Interestingly, he also suggests that marriage contracts could be completed online;
It might be time to make sanctioning legal marriage a matter purely for the state. Perhaps the people who register marriages should simply be public servants who attest to the bona fides of the parties to the marriage. Marriage could be made more accessible by online registration and processing.
The Archbishop goes further in saying that marriage in the Christian context would likely continue as always without the State or Church needing to compromise its views.
Traditional church weddings could still be held in this way, along with ceremonies in the backyard or on surfboards at sea, as now, but they would be separate celebrations from the state-sanctioned legal approval.
For Christians, of course, holy matrimony includes a particular understanding of what the pair are committing themselves to which goes well beyond what is legislated. The church’s traditional understanding of marriage certainly agrees with the 2004 amendment that is now so controversial: “Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”
But Christians go further. We believe that marriage is ordained by God, that the vows have a particularly sacred character because they are explicitly made before God, and that the closeness and intensity of loving sexual relationships which are proper only within marriage teach us something of God’s love. (Sadly, we have to recognise that Christians are not much better than the wider population at maintaining this commitment till death – Christians divorce at much the same rate as non-Christians.)
It is no longer reasonable for us to expect that the state’s approach will be as prescriptive and demanding as the Christian understanding, but nor is it reasonable for the state to expect Christians to give up their comprehensive and long-standing view.
Of course, many Christians (& Anglicans) believe that marriage equality is in accord with Christian values, as exampled in the actions of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church in the United States. Though the Archbishop doesn’t address this specifically, it seems likely that making such a change will not be bulwark against reform efforts within the church.