by Nathan A. Paxton
When asked, what I usually tell people is that my (now-)husband was the one who wanted to get married. I didn’t want to get married, but he did, and so we did.
Ever since I came out of the closet more than a decade and a half ago, marriage hasn’t really been much on my mind. When I found myself in a long-term relationship, one that was clearly permanent, that the two of us had decided was permanent, that everyone around us knew was permanent, I still didn’t want to be married, for several reasons.
First of all, I was happy with things as they were. We loved one another, we were committed to one another, we had a whole life together. What more would marriage bring? I didn’t see how it would increase our love, our commitment, our legitimacy, or our life. He said, “But I want to stand up in church and make promises to you in front of other people. To me it won’t be legitimate until we have the public proclamation and blessing.”
My husband was and is a Roman Catholic who attends Mass weekly, and who thinks the Roman Church is wrong on “gay issues.” He is theologically quite educated (Ph.D.), and he doesn’t want to be an Episcopalian—both because he can’t quite believe Protestantism gets Christianity better and because of Anglicanism’s historic connection to the kingdom and the power of England and America. He comes to church with me sometimes, just as I go to his, and he receives Eucharist with me.
I did not want to be married because many weddings—including several I have been to—often become self-fetishizing festivals of conspicuous consumption. I have no illusions that same-sex couples are any different than opposite-sex couples in this respect. I was not interested in participating what I’ve heard more than a few people call the “wedding-industrial complex.” When Massachusetts regularized marriage in 2004, one friend’s response to the news report was “Crate and Barrel rejoices!” Tina Fey similarly joked that gay (male) wedding receptions would set new heights of indulgence, with “ice-sculpture Davids peeing mojitos and passing out parrots as party favors.” This consumption mindset pervades many of the weddings I have been to. I have seen people who were not particularly into church get married in a particular church because it provided a pretty setting. I have attended weddings where the ceremony seemed rushed to get to the real business of having a party (this among both regular church folk and non-churchy people). For my part, I didn’t want to be associated with all the bad taste, bad liturgy, bad manners, and bad philosophy of contemporary weddings.
I didn’t want to get married, not just because I find weddings problematic but because I find marriage itself troubling in several ways. Marriage has both civil and religious aspects, and it bothers me that these are conjoined in one act. I cannot easily think of another circumstance in which we allow—and largely limit to—ministers, priests, and pastors a state legal power that is otherwise carried out by county clerks, judges, and ship captains. Certainly there are exceptions—I’ve performed a couple of marriages and one was under a special one-day, one-time delegation of authority from the county clerk—but that, to my mind, proves the rule. As Anglicans, we should be specially aware of the danger that can inhere in making our clergy ministerial extensions of the State, given that our origin—in the popular telling—comes from the crisis brought on through the overlap of civil and spiritual authorities in marriage.
I didn’t want to get married because “gay marriage” seemed like a consolation prize from a guilty society. I’ve written elsewhere about the hollowing out of a generation of my gay forebears because of AIDS. Hundreds of thousands of us died while church, family, and country turned aside, abandoning us to the pit, leaving us to rely on only each other. In light of the 1980s and ’90s for gay men, “allowing” us to be married seemed like an act of ameliorating guilt, an apology prize for our mass martyrdom to the greater society’s indifference.
I didn’t want to marry, because marriage is a domesticating act in a world that needs revolutionary love. Love may make a family, as the saying goes, but family has not proven loving for many LGBT people. My own family was not very accepting when I came out in the late ’90s (although they have gotten better; it helps when your spouse/partner/beloved is an easier person to get along with than you are). I’ve seen many of my LGBT friends disowned by and denied of their families of origin. Gay people call each other “family” because sometimes we are the only family many of us have. “Family” strikes me as idolatrous, frankly. Americans spend a lot of time and effort shoehorning each other into the form of family, but for many people family has proven dangerous. Given our experience of it, it still strikes me that so many LGBT people seem to have jumped on the bandwagon of marriage and family so easily and quickly.
As someone who professionally studies institutions, I’m relatively convinced that institutions—legal, political, economic, or social—tend to change the people inside of them more than people change the institution. I don’t really buy the idea, from the right or from the left, that including LGBT people in marriage will change marriage for ill or good respectively, either by taking away its essential and necessarily heterosexual character or by showing how what matters most in marriage is love. Marriage will change us more than we will change it: it is more likely to domesticate us, to tame us, to de-radicalize us.
Without marriage, we (LGBT people, yes, but people more broadly) could serve as witnesses to what transforming love looks like without family. Love without marriage—without the support of law, state, and politics—looks to me like the Jesus of the Gospels.
Jesus seemed pretty suspicious of family, so far as I can tell. About the nicest thing he seemed able to say about it was to tell his Beloved Disciple to take care of his mother (whom he calls “woman” most of the time). Much of the rest of the time, he thinks it inconsequential (“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother…”) or actively disparages it (“I have not come to bring peace but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother… a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother… or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…”).
In all of this, marriage has become conflated with love. In a choice between the two, love is the right choice, and the Highest Love, such as that for which we look to Jesus for an example, has little to do with “Marriage.” In turning love into marriage, we can more easily forget, ignore, and call impossible the love of a Martin Luther King Jr., a Dorothy Day, or an Oscar Romero.
Just this morning as I write, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of universal gay marriage. According to Justice Kennedy and my Facebook feed, we have “finally” have our love affirmed as equally good enough in every jurisdiction in the country. To me, at least sometimes, it is not whether my love for my husband (or anyone else’s) is good enough for marriage—it is whether marriage is good enough for love.
Today the Court declared:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it ennobles the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. …[M]arriage embodies love that may endure even past death. …these men and women…ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The constitution grants them that right.”
Today is also the anniversary of the Lawrence (2003) and Windsor (2012) decisions. It is also the day after my fourth wedding anniversary. So in spite of my desire to remain unmarried, for the reasons above, I did so choose.
Many of the problematic aspects of marriage and weddings are easy enough to iron out.
When we got married, Brian and I separated our wedding into two parts, so we could separate God from government. In the first part, we stood on the steps of Trinity Church, Copley Square, in Boston, as a friend of ours performed a civil marriage ceremony for us. She officiated, signed our license, and “made us legal.” Then we went inside the church to have our marriage blessed by God and God’s people (and given our friends, God’s people included a lot of non-Christians that day).
Brian and I spent more time on liturgy than on the party. We ordered off-the-shelf cakes on Monday for a Saturday wedding. But we spent hours on the ceremonies, choosing readings, writing vows, striving for a Christian liturgy open and accessible to non-Christians. Since so much of the Prayer Book matrimonial liturgy assumes a male-female pairing, we couldn’t use much of it. With no ready off-the-shelf solutions, we had and got to work out a liturgy (with our officiant) that satisfied all of these desires. But we also had to think through what the words meant. In most liturgy, since we hear it over and over again, there is time for the language to seep in. But most of us attend few enough weddings that we are more likely to imbibe Cranmer’s words in a movie wedding than in worship.
As for what Jesus would do, or what he would have his church do, I don’t know. I don’t know that having been married has changed how I view my life together with Brian in the day to day. Friends and strangers are broadly supportive and happy for us. But I wonder if in not having to push love against a cultural tide if we aren’t just a little further removed from Jesus’s command regarding the least of these. Because let’s be honest, as a white male academic, I don’t have to do lots of pushing back against society. To really live as one of Jesus’s people in the world, however, I had better be pushing back against structural violence, on behalf of and in sympathy with the least among us. Otherwise, like Eagleton said, I do have some explaining to do.
Maybe that’s what being married has done for me. It was easy enough, complacent even, to use the inability to marry, as my “way” of “understanding” Gospel disenfranchisement. But it really wasn’t that hard. Marriage removed my excuse for not trying harder to know what it really means to be the hands, arms, legs, and faces of Christ in the world. If we are to love as he loved us, it certainly takes something different than marriage to do that. For some of us, the passage to that love may be through marriage, just as for others it may not. Marriage may not be good enough for love, but love made marriage good enough for me and is helping make me good enough for love.
Nathan A. Paxton is a writer and academic in Washington DC. He has been ordained specifically to marry people and thus prefers being called “The Revd. Dr.” at weddings.