Saturday, September 24, 2011

Traditional Marriage

If you wander the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, you'll probably run into a group of men dressed in white, with bells strapped to their shins, dancing while waving handkerchiefs or clashing sticks. They are Morris dancers.

I am also a Morris dancer. Morris dancing is an old tradition, but we hedge a bit on exactly how old it is. Passers-by ask, "where does this come from?" and "when is this supposed to be?" The answer they want to hear is "It’s from England, and it’s veeeerrry old," but the answer I want to give is "it’s from here and now,” because we perform in what we folky types call a "living tradition."

A living tradition is passed down over time, but we expect change in its patterns. We celebrate freshness within the old forms we love. Think of bluegrass, or ballet, or French cooking: in each case, there’s a reverence given to old ways of doing things, and a sense of joy when a new variation on an old theme is introduced.

What's the opposite of a living tradition? A fossilized, hidebound tradition? It isn’t simply conservatism—people find real life in many conservative traditions, where in each presentation of an ancient unalterable text or ritual, the devotee hears something deep and vital. A tradition truly dies when it becomes separated from life—when it is empty of meaning for its participants, when it holds together a group that exists for no good reason. Or when it has become a lie.

Marriage is (or ought to be) a living tradition.

Marriage may be grounded in seemingly unchanging forms, and in words that have been said for a very long time. But the world itself and what it means to live in the world are constantly changing, and so does marriage. What it means to be a husband or a wife is different for me and my wife than it was for our parents, and their marriages were different from those of their parents.

My religious community, the Society of Friends (Quakers) has a strong sense of tradition. If our ideas seem odd to outsiders, it’s not because they are new. From their founding, Quakers rejected the idea of ordained ministers acting as intermediaries between people and God. Quaker weddings had no officiant standing between the couple and that that joined them. We still have no officiants today, and we can honestly say we marry the same way Quakers have been marrying for almost 400 years.

And yet, things do change. We no longer "disown” members who marry non-Quakers, as Friends Meetings used to do. We marry couples who have been living together unmarried, which would have appalled our forebears. And we marry same-gender couples. My congregation, Twin Cities Friends Meeting, has been doing so for 25 years.

This is the witness I want to bear as a member of this congregation: Recognizing marriage between two people of the same sex does not undercut traditional marriage. My opposite-sex marriage (also under care of this Meeting) is strengthened by the same living tradition under which my friends' same-sex weddings are celebrated, and by the examples of those marriages.

The idea that marriage must be protected from change is a lie. The implication that my friends’ same-sex marriages are not legitimate is a lie. And the suggestion that we are corrupted by the growth and change in our living traditions is not just a lie. It is a lie that, if followed, ends in the death of those traditions.

Those who believe these lies need to ask themselves: Is your sense of marriage’s fragility bound up in a tradition to which you no longer fully subscribe? Look to the strength and life in the tradition of marriage and welcome same-sex couples. Don’t just reject the proposed Constitutional amendment. Legalize same-sex marriage. Do it now.

1 comment:

Hystery said...

This is a really thoughtful way of approaching the issue of marriage, tradition, and cultural change. I find the living tradition illustration very useful.