Marriage as a religious act

I received an interesting and thoughtful comment via email on a sermon titled “Marriage as a Religious Act” which I recently posted on my main Web site. I realized that this sermon relates to some issues you, dear readers, and I have addressed on this blog — most importantly, the sexual revolution within Unitarian Universalism, and the theological basis (if any) for marriage in our tradition. Since this is something we have talked about here, and since I greatly value the comments I get from you, I decided to post this sermon and see what you might have to say about it. The sermon beging below the fold.

Marriage as a Religious Act

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains, Grass Valley, California, at 11:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2013 Daniel Harper.

Reading: — “Splendid and much sought after is love…”

Splendid to us and much sought after is the sweet smell of love, established in the time of the ancients, guided by the voices of the prophets, and sanctified by the words of the teachers: because of all beautiful things of the earth, love is the most excellent. (Same Sex Unions, John Boswell, p. 292)

Sermon — “Marriage as a Religious Act”

I’d like to speak with you this morning about marriage as a religious act. But in order to do that, I think I had better back up and first tell you a little bit about the sexual revolution as it occurred within Unitarian Universalism. I am not a historian, so this will not be history; rather, this will be the story of the sexual revolution as I happened to have heard other Unitarian Universalists tell it.

And I’ll begin with my mother and her twin sister. My mother’s family belonged to the Salem, Massachusetts, Unitarian church. In 1942, they went off to college in Boston, a women’s college that prepared young women to become teachers; in those days, young women could become teachers, or secretaries, or nurses, or housekeepers, though eventually they were expected to become wives. Being Unitarians, they went to First Church in Boston, not too far away. First Church was quite progressive for the day, and offered sex ed classes to college students. They were twins and split everything up, and my aunt was the one who went to the sex ed classes. She told me that the other students teased her when she went, but as soon as she came back they clustered into the room she shared with my mother, and wanted to know everything she had learned. This is the earliest example I know of sexuality education for unmarried persons within Unitarianism; that these classes took place outside the family, and long before marriage, represents a change in society’s understanding of sexuality.

Now we move forward to the 1950s, and turn to the Universalist side of our heritage (remember that the Unitarians and Universalists didn’t merge until 1961). I have heard it told that Kenneth Patton, the Universalist minister at the revolutionary Charles Street Meetinghouse in Boston, apparently conducted same sex union or marriage ceremonies there in the 1950s; but it was not the sort of thing that could be made public, not in those days, so we know little more than that such ceremonies probably took place. Obviously, this represents the beginnings of a change in the way we Unitarian Universalists understood marriage.

Beginning int the 1960s, Unitarian Universalist women began seriously questioning the gender roles established for them. My family belonged to the Concord, Massachusetts, Unitarian Universalist church, and sometime in the early 1960s my father was invited to become an usher, which was considered a man’s job. My mother was invited to join the Flower Committee, and the way I remember her telling the story, she tried to remain polite but had no interest in arranging flowers. By the end of the decade, she was serving as an usher with my father — and I remember it was a big change when women became ushers. These small changes in gender roles at church helped us begin to question the larger gender roles associated with marriage.

As we moved into the later 1960s, there was a lot more sexual freedom in wider society; partly due to changing social values, but also due to the growing availability and legalization of inexpensive and effective contraception. In many ways the growth of sexual freedom was good, but it also had its dark side. Within Unitarian Universalism, there were too many ministers who decided that growing sexual freedom meant they could have sex with women in their congregation. I later heard stories about Unitarian Universalist ministers who allegedly had sex with women in their congregations during the 1960s; in one of these stories, the people in the congregation knew a woman’s marriage was going to break up when she went to pastoral counseling sessions with their minister. These are not pleasant stories to tell, but they help show how we Unitarian Universalists were questioning the meaning of marriage. And the way I have been told some of these stories, violation of trust by ministers helped galvanize some of the early feminists. So it is not surprising that some women who had witnessed clergy sexual misconduct in their congregations in the late 1960s became leaders in the Women and Religion movement in the 1970s.

During the 1960s, we Unitarian Universalists remained ambivalent on the subject of gay rights. In 1969, the same year as the Stonewall riots, James Stoll was the first Unitarian Universalist minister to come out as gay, but after coming out he never served in a Unitarian Universalist congregation again. At the same time, we published About Your Sexuality, a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for early adolescents, which taught that homosexuality was perfectly normal. So we accepted homosexuality as normal, but we weren’t quite ready to let openly gay men or lesbians serve as our ministers. Needless to say, it remained controversial through the 1960s for a congregation to endorse same sex marriages.

The sexual revolution seemed to me to accelerate in the 1970s, perhaps because I was in my teens in those years. You began to hear about Unitarian Universalist congregations sponsoring same sex union ceremonies. The feminist movement accelerated, and we began to sing hymns that had de-genderized language for the first time. These were all positive developments.

On the negative side, I later learned that during the 1970s many Unitarian Universalists experimented with so-called “open marriage,” where you could sleep with whomever you wanted and still stay married. Sometimes this was called “wife swapping” instead of “open marriage,” which gives you a sense of how sexist this was. In many congregations, there were even adult education classes in open marriage (at which the mind boggles). While I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and too many people got hurt by some of these 1970s-era experiments in redefining marriage.

Not surprisingly, this strand of the sexual revolution played out in parts of our youth movement as well. My own Unitarian Universalist youth group was pretty much squeaky clean. But in some youth groups and in some district youth programs there was a good deal of sexual activity, which mostly followed the sexual example being set by some Unitarian Universalist adults. Thus I have heard about adult youth advisors who were sleeping with teens (and of course this was mostly male advisors sleeping with girls), just like ministers were doing with congregants. And I’ve heard about teenagers having lots of sex with each other at youth events, though when you talk with women who went through this as girls, they may tell you that it was rooted in sexist assumptions and sometimes it felt like sexual harassment and/or date rape. Again, I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but too many people, especially girls, got hurt.

Yet despite all this, in other ways we Unitarian Universalists made positive progress in rethinking marriage. One of the most important things we did was to change our thinking about gender roles in marriage. By the 1980s, I would say all Unitarian Universalists understood women and men to be equal partners in a marriage, and while plenty of marriages stuck with the old gender roles to a greater or lesser degree, we held up equality as an ideal. Also by the 1980s, we recognized that you could have committed, serious, long-term relationships without getting married; my current partner and I got together in 1989, and I felt no stigma from anyone in my Unitarian Universalist church because we were not married.

The 1980s was also the decade when I would say we had the most conflict about same sex unions and same sex marriages in our congregations. I know several ministers who got into real trouble in that decade for officiating at same sex marriages, and more than one Unitarian Universalist congregation got embroiled in serious internal conflict about whether or not they should affirm same sex marriages. By the end of the 1980s, I think the tide had turned. The conflicts continued — I myself witnessed one particularly nasty little conflict as late as 2002 — but increasingly we became comfortable with same sex marriages. Indeed many of us became active in advocating for the legalization of same sex marriages outside our own faith communities.

So that’s a very subjective telling of the story of how the sexual revolution moved through Unitarian Universalism, told from a very subjective perspective. This sexual revolution changed our views on a great many things, including sexuality, gender roles, and (of course) marriage. And I would like to point out three major consequences of this sexual revolution:

First major consequence: Feminism has become the norm for Unitarian Universalists. We firmly believe that women and girls are just as good as men and boys, and if you don’t feel that way, you are probably not going to feel comfortable among us. Because we believe that women are the equals of men, we have fundamentally changed the way we think of marriage between a man and a woman. In the bad old days, when a woman got married, she knew she was going to be subservient to the man; she would even give up her own name, and she would become, for example, Mr. John Smith.

But once we figured out that women and men are equal, that did away with the old gender roles, and we no longer thought there had to be one dominant partner in a marriage, and that dominant partner was going to be a man. And that helped open up the possibility that a marriage didn’t always have to consist of a man and a woman.

Second major consequence: We Unitarian Universalists now openly affirm that sex is pleasurable. We know that sex is an important part of human experience. We emphatically do not believe that sex is bad, or “dirty.” Furthermore, we have no problems accepting new scientific advances, and so we have been perfectly willing to adopt new advances like oral contraceptives, and other new and more effective contraceptives. And the new contraceptives have meant that we don’t have to worry nearly as much as we used to about unintended pregnancies, which means that we have come of the purely pleasurable aspects of sex and sexuality. In these views, we are quite different from some other religious traditions.

Because of this, we don’t believe that marriage is primarily for the sake of reproduction. We think sex within marriage can serve to strengthen the relationship between the two partners. And that has opened us up to the possibility that a marriage does not have to be defined as a biological man and a biological woman whose main purpose is to have biological children together.

The third major consequence of the sexual revolution for Unitarian Universalists: We discovered that stable partnerships are best. During the 1970s, many Unitarian Universalists experimented with various kinds of open marriages, partner swapping, and the like. Viewed from a purely pragmatic vantage point, these experiments had more negative consequences than positive consequences; too many people got hurt (and too many of the people who got hurt were women, legal minors, and/or people in less powerful social positions). On this very pragmatic basis, we learned that stable partnerships generally cause fewer problems. At the same time, we are also quite clear that it is a good idea to end partnerships that are going badly; but we now know that we don’t want to end relationships on a whim, and that we have to consider how ending a relationships will affect children, partners, relatives, and others.

Another way of stating all this is that we know that sexual relationships have can have lasting consequences. This makes us more likely to believe same sex marriage is a good thing: we think it’s a good idea to have public ceremonies in which the partners express their commitment to each other, no matter what the gender of the partners may be.

 

To review these three results of the sexual revolution in Unitarian Universalism: (1) Feminism is the norm for Unitarian Universalism, and that means we don’t put people into strict gender roles. (2) Sex is good and pleasant parts of the human experience, and it exists for more than the purposes of reproduction. (3) We have come to find out that stable partnerships are best. Thus it is not at all surprising that we Unitarian Universalists are more willing to accept same sex marriage than quite a few other religious groups in the United States.

So we have looked at how our Unitarian Universalist views on sex, sexuality, and gender have changed as a result of the sexual revolution; and we have looked at three consequences of the sexual revolution. To wind up this discussion on Unitarian Universalist views of marriage, let’s take a look at what happens when two people get married in our tradition.

When you have a Unitarian Universalist wedding, there are three essential parts which are required: the intention, the vows, and the proclamation; that is, there is a statement that the people getting married really do mean to get married, then the people getting married exchange promises to one another, and finally, there is a statement that these two are now married. Everything else can get dropped from a Unitarian Universalist wedding ceremony.

Why are these three parts essential? They are essential because from our point of view, a marriage is a covenant between the partners in the marriage. In order to have a covenant, the parties to the covenant have to go into it freely and willingly — this is why we have the intention, to show that the parties to the marriage are entering into it freely and willingly. And in order to have a covenant, the parties involved have to exchange promises to one another — this is why we have the vows, for they are the exchange of promises between the people getting married. Finally, in our tradition a covenant should be witnessed by others in the wider community, and the wider community recognizes that you are married — this is why we have the proclamation.

Interestingly, a marriage ceremony in our tradition is not absolutely required; marriage is not a sacrament, nor is it mandated by religious law. In this, our tradition has some small similarity to the first thousand years of the Christian tradition, insofar as during the first thousand years of Christianity there was no religious imperative to get married, and marriage was a flexible matter; indeed, there were even same-sex Christian marriages throughout the medieval period.

But the institution of marriage has changed enormously over the centuries: medieval marriage was very different from Renaissance marriage, which was in turn different from Victorian marriage, which is turn was different from mid-twentieth century marriage, which in its turn is quite different from marriage today. Marriage has always been an evolving institution; it continues to evolve today; and our great grandchildren may look back on what we consider progressive and think of us as quaint, alien, and old-fashioned.

To conclude, then, when we look at what UU religious marriages are today, we find that marriage is a covenant into which two people enter, promising each other their love and support. That covenant is recognized by a wider community, and ideally we hope that marriages will remain stable for as long as possible. We believe that sex is good and pleasurable and need not be limited to biological reproduction. And we do not think married couples should be restricted to mid-twentieth century gender roles.

Now let me leave you with this final important reminder: I have only been talking about religious marriage as it exists within our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I have not been talking about legal marriage, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. And the sad truth is that while we Unitarian Universalists recognize religious marriages for same sex couples, in the state of California those religious ceremonies do not result in legal marriages; whereas when we recognize opposite-sex religious marriages, those marriages are recognized as legal by the state. But I have done what I set out to do, which was to talk with you about marriage as a religious act.

Notes:

Unitarian Universalist history: Except where I have permission to retell someone’s recollections of the sexual revolution, or where I heard stories told in public, I have changed details to protect anonymity; these stories come from Unitarian Universalists who lived in the Northeast, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast. (As an aside, regarding legalization of contraception, it is worth noting that at least through 2012 it remained technically illegal to sell contraceptives to unmarried persons in Massachusetts, the state in which I was raised as a UU.)

History of marriage: For same sex marriages in the Western world prior to the Renaissance, see Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell (New York: Willard Books, 1994); for a brief look at the history of marriage from the Reformation through the Enlightenment, see “Reformed and Enlightened Church” by Jane Shaw, in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

Theological grounding: Part of the theological grounding of this sermon comes from “Sex and Secularization” by Linda Woodhead, in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), in its description of how Christian denominations try to regulate private life in a secularized world. Also useful in understanding how religions react to the secularization of society is Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (Abingdon, 1989), though I have serious disagreements with Hauerwas and Willimon.

2 thoughts on “Marriage as a religious act”

  1. Huh.

    I appreciate that you posted this, because, to be honest, I had no idea of the rather colorful history of marriage and sexuality in UUism. A few things make more sense to me now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve : *
23 + 13 =