Friday, July 22, 2005

What God has joined together . . .

My son’s baseball team won its playoff game Tuesday night, so he had another one on Wednesday. It started at 6:15. I had a marriage clearness committee meeting to attend at 7, so I drove to the ball field immediately after work, hoping to catch the first couple of innings perhaps before I had to go to my meeting.

Because I love my son, and especially because his team played so exceptionally well on Tuesday and had a good chance of winning again, I really wanted to stay for the game and had more than half a mind to call the couple at whose home we were meeting to tell them that a family-related conflict had arisen after our meeting was scheduled and I wouldn’t be able to attend the meeting.

I walked from the bleachers to the car intending to call them with that message, but when I got there and turned the phone on, I started to weigh the choices. On the one hand, I was worried that I’d only be a half-hearted participant at the committee meeting if I went there and that it wouldn’t be helpful or fair for the couple to have only half of my already limited talents. On the other, I felt the tug of responsibility, of the commitment I’ve made to the couple and the rest of the committee to complete this work and the knowledge of how my particular perspective was needed.

I’ve been trying to be more attentive to my initial feelings about things, a la Blink , but in this case I let my superego control and went to the meeting.

I’m glad I did.

* * * * *
This has been a delightful clearness process, with a solid young couple and a committed, intelligent, thoughtful, and loving clearness committee, though not without its challenges.

One of the challenges has been trying to articulate what it means to be married after the manner of Friends, or under the care of the meeting. It’s a challenge in part because the couple has been attending meeting regularly for only about one and two years respectively and they haven’t had much time to observe Friends’ marriages and haven’t attended a Friends wedding yet. Which means that part of the committee’s work is to educate them what a Quaker marriage (and wedding) is.

This, to me, has been the bigger challenge, mainly because I don’t know whether those of us on the committee are necessarily in agreement as to the answer to the questions or, perhaps more precisely, how to talk about it (even though I served on the marriage committees of two of the other four members of the committee).

But it has forced me to try to articulate what I think marriage means in a way that I don’t think I have since I was married sixteen years ago. Here’s how I’d say it now. I invite comments from Friends.

Marriage is a covenant made between and in the presence of two adults, the Living God, and the church (i.e., a meeting of Friends) in which the marrying adults promise, with Divine Assistance, to be loving and faithful marriage partners to each other as long as they both shall live, and the life that is lived under that covenant.
To unpack this a little:

A covenant. . . A covenant is a solemn, binding promise between two or more parties to be in a particular relationship – “I will be your God and you will be my People.” Here's a technical, definition, found in the foreward to Doug Gwyn's The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism, quoting political scientist Daniel Elazar:
A covenant is a morally-informed agreement or pact between people or parties having an independent and sufficiently equal status, based upon voluntary consent and established by mtual oaths or promises witnessed by the relevant higher authority. A covenant provides for joint action or obligation to achieve defined ends (limited or comprehensive) under conditions of mutual respect with protect the individual integrities of all the parties to it. Every covenant involves consenting, promising, and agreeing. Most are meant to be of unlimited duration, if not perpetual.
A covenant differs from a contract (i.e., a civil marriage) in that a contract simply creates duties and remedies – enforceable by law – and defines the parties to the contract solely in terms of those duties. The covenantal promise to be a marriage partner – to be loving and faithful to each other for life – can’t be broken down into discrete duties with consequences for violation; the covenant defines the entire relationship. Loss of the relationship is punishment enough for breaking the covenant; no amount of damages or compensation can restore it.

. . . made between and in the presence of two adults . . . . The promises are made between the people, directly, without the necessary mediation of priest or magistrate. The legal recognition of a marriage may be required to enjoy the legal protections and privileges offered by the state, but those benefits are obtained after the fact by the ministerial act of registering the marriage with the state. The state’s recognition or approval plays no part in a spiritual marriage.

While historically the marriage covenant has been understood to be between a woman and a man, I do not understand why this should be considered to be an essential requirement. New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth. While there may be some reasonable way to distinguish some subtle distinction between a same-sex and different-sex union, I don’t see any compelling reason to do so; whatever distinction there may be is without practical difference, as far as I can tell. I do still understand the marriage covenant – or, at least, one that I am able to participate in and witness – to be limited to two people.

. . . the Living God . . . What God has joined, let no man break asunder. The Living God is both a witness and a party to a marriage covenant, the transcendent authority to which the other parties look to for absolute faithfulness and certainty. As a witness, God’s presence serves as the most potent reminder of the seriousness of the promises being made; you don’t make promises in front of God for light and transient reasons. In this sense, marriage is as close to an oath that Quakers come, I think.

As a party, the Living God assists the parties in keeping their promises. The marriage promise to be loving and faithful to each other is made – and can honestly be made, in view of human frailty – only “with Divine Assistance.” The Living God therefore becomes an active -- and absolutely faithful -- partner in the marriage, available for consultation, consolation, direction, the fair arbiter and witness to which a disputing couple can turn when they're tied up in knots. (I’m indebted to Kenneth Boulding for this insight. He once wrote that a young man considering asking a woman to marry him usually asks “Does she love me?”, but that the more important question is, “Does she love God?”)

. . . and the church. . . A covenant must be made in public. It is witnessed by others in order to help remind the parties of the promises they made, of the relationship they created. The witnesses therefore become parties to the covenant themselves by assuming the duty of remembering and reminding. In a meeting where there are many married couples, this web of interrelationship strengthens the entire meeting’s bonds of mutuality and accountability. This is the sense in which I understand a marriage “under the care of the meeting” to be most meaningful.

(The making of a covenants classically also includes a tangible, visible sign as a reminder – a ring, a rainbow, wine & bread, a signed treaty, circumcision, etc. – but I think Friends would not view a tangible symbol as a necessary element of a marriage, though I do think that the signed marriage certificate psychologically serves this function.)

. . . in which the marrying adults promise, with Divine Assistance, to be loving and faithful marriage partners to each other as long as they both shall live. . . This, I think, is the hardest part of the definition, because it is so malleable and begs rather than answers the questioin: What does being a “loving and faithful marriage partner” mean? It obviously relates to a wide range of human activity: sex; division of labor; children and child-rearing; economics; politics; vocation and career, etc. Is there some distinctly Quaker or Christian or Godly answer to what "loving and faithful" means in each of these contexts? Is it up to each couple to negotiate for themselves?

While there are some easy answers at the margins (being faithful precludes sexual relationships with others; being loving precludes domination or violence towards each other), I think I have to accept that each married couple largely negotiates these things for themselves, guided with Divine Assistance. What being a “marriage partner” (f.k.a. “spouse”) means to any individual or couple is so loaded with spoken and unspoken assumptions, informed by culture, experience, etc. that helping the couple give voice to their assumptions and sort through these questions is one of the most important functions a marriage clearness committee can perform.

(Nowadays, some try to put meat on the bones of what being “loving and faithful marriage partners” means by addressing it in their public vows – to support each other, to be honest and forthright, to honor differences, to give time to be alone, to work together for social justice, etc. I don’t understand why they feel the need to do this in their vows (though I did this in my first, failed marriage); perhaps there are particular issues that each wants to be able to remind the other of (“you promised to give me my own space. . .”); perhaps they want to personalize the familiar pattern of vows from the Book of Common Prayer’s beautiful formulation: “To love, comfort, honor and keep for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. And forsaking all others, be faithful so long as we both shall live.” But as a witness to such vows, they usually sound idiosyncratic to me, personal to the couple and difficult for me to remind them of if occasion arises. I have never heard any that improve on the traditional, direct, and elegant “In the presence of God and these Friends, I take thee to be my partner, promising, with Divine Assistance, to be unto thee a loving and faithful partner as long as we both shall live.”)

. . . and the life that is lived under that covenant. I think Friends often confuse "marriage" with "wedding." A lot of people have complained that our meetings don't spend nearly the energy in supporting the marriages under their care as they do the weddings.

To me, this fact reflects something else I've noticed, that "belonging to" a meeting is a lot like being married to the meeting, and that a person seeking to become a formal member of the meeting should receive the same energy and attention, be asked the same hard questions, we give to marrying couples. If we were as certain that members of our meeting share a common understanding of what membership means as we are that couples agree as to what marriage means to them, we'd have stronger meetings -- and stronger marriages, I'd bet.

* * * * *

Whew. It feels weird to be thinking aloud like this; I already disagree with half of what I've written (well, some of it, anyway), but I have to bring this session to a close.

What I really want to know is, how do you (or your meeting) define "marriage"? How do you share that definition and hold each other accountable to it? Have you participated in a marriage clearness process where the couple's relationship to each other or to the meeting was such that you couldn't approve the marriage?


Liz Opp said...

Two comments, Friend Paul.

First, regarding this statement (and maybe it is one with which you find yourself already disagreeing, based on your closing words!):

Nowadays, some try to put meat on the bones of what being “loving and faithful marriage partners” means by addressing it in their public vows – to support each other, to be honest and forthright, ...etc. I don’t understand why they feel the need to do this in their vows...

I would say that Jeanne and I have the affirmations that we do because they hold power for us, given how our relationship, with Divine assistance, had transformed us prior to [and since!] our wedding. Had I used the traditional statement that you lift up here, it would have been an empty form for me, a form without life or power—for me.

And I don't worry about remembering what other couples have said to each other at their weddings. I will simply ask them, if I am supporting them during troubled times: What commitments did you make to each other during your wedding?

The other thing I wish to comment on is your choice to post something with which you already found yourself disagreeing!

My guess is you've thought through this dilemma—to post or not to post—so I don't expect a reply. Just keep on walkin' forward and all shall be well.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Paul L said...

I think I was being a little self-deprecating. I don't really disagree with what I wrote. I meant that I could have refined ti to have been more clear, and brief.

And of course, if traditional forms don't hold meaning or power one musn't use them. I think I was just lamenting that so many people these days seem to me to be abandoning old forms rather than finding the meaning in them.

But that may be an ideosyncracy of my late early middle-age: More and more I'm understanding the wisdom of the proverb "There's nothing new under the sun" and appreciating that almost every thing that seems new has been done or said before. And not necessarily as well.

Yet even the old forms were new once and trampled on someone else's treasured tradition. So there you are.

(Reminds me of a favorite William Hamilton cartoon in The New Yorker showing a couple in an antique shop with the woman saying, "Do you realize this is the second time people got tired of Art Deco?")

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Paul,
Great post. When Julie and I applied for clearness to marriage we took it quite seriously and challenged the committee to take it quite seriously (I think they were more nervous about the questions we'd ask them than vice versa!)

You wrote: A lot of people have complained that our meetings don't spend nearly the energy in supporting the marriages under their care as they do the weddings.

This is so very true and it was one of the things we challenged our committee on. We wanted to have follow-up oversight meetings. We did have one at about the one-year mark but that will surely be it (Julie has since left Friends and couldn't even get "our" Meeting to schedule a clearness meeting around that decision).

I don't know of any meetings that seriously consider holding the ongoing marriage under their care. The marriages are generally treated as private affairs and sadly only come under the Meeting's attention again when divorce is imminent (and by that point) usually unavoidable.

I'm not sure just what an ongoing process would look like. I'm not sure it should be just another modern liberal Quaker process. Perhaps the whole context would have to be different: we'd have to be in a seriously inter-related covenanted community where we would have the trust and expectations that our community does have responsiblity for that which the world calls private. Maybe it wouldn't work--maybe I'm too much of an idealist!

Thanks again, I'm enjoying your blog.
Your friend,