Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Not That Kind of Relationship Either

Our buddies at the Standing Committee of Liturgy and Music, aka the Foxes Guarding the Henhouse, have a blog. And today we have, filed under the heading of "Resources for Same-Sex Blessings", we have a little discourse on being Called into Relationship. Long-time readers will know that I have a particular loathing for the word "relationship" when applied to sexuality. It tends to a sort of spineless, precious vacuity. For me, living in relationship means, in practice, working out who cleans up youngest's child's potty accidents and other moments of deeper intimacy still. It lacks the rosy sociological hues that adorn the word in isolation. But here we are, and the first phrase in the referenced post is "falling in love", and at the end of the first paragraph we find talk of "deciding to enter into a lifelong commitment with someone".

It is all so very indefinite. Younger folk may not realize that the 1979 BCP spells out in fair detail just exactly the covenant of marriage entails, in contrast to previous books: husband and wife are united into a family for mutual joy, for mutual aid and comfort, and for the procreation and raising of the next generation. People in the past, of course, had lots of other reasons for marriage beyond falling in love, or indeed fulfilling any of these three purposes. And people these days, falling love, are often wont to keep the escape hatch from Relationship wide open by avoiding or minimizing commitment.

But the reality of marriage for the Episcopal classes is a lot more complex. Well-educated people are, in fact, getting married at close to traditional rates. Which is to say, more of them are in marriages at any given time: the divorce rate, on a per-marriage basis, is still very high, though it has dropped from its early 1980s peak. People in the lower, uneducated classes are the ones avoiding marriage: over 60% of mothers who have not graduated from high school are unmarried, and graduating from high school only pushes that rate down to 40%. Marriage is conspicuously delayed: the age at which 60% of the population is married has risen from 25 to 30, and there is no age at which the ratio reaches the historic peak of 80%. (One should keep in mind that the proportion of religious celibates was once much higher as well.)

And yet we are told that "a lifelong committed relationship with another person is a vocation", with the implication that it isn't for everyone. Well, OK, except that it would appear, what with the getting pregnant and all, that it is the vocation for the majority. It may not be normative, but it is normal. I would guess that it is still the case that over 80% of the population has children, in which case that same 80% should either be committed to abstinence, or be committed to life with the other parent, modulo various family-breaking and wrecking facts such as death, abuse, or gross infidelity. Conversely, the statement that "culturally, marriage has instead become a rite of passage into adulthood" is flatly and utterly wrong. That may have been true in 1960, when 80% of the population was married before age 25; it isn't even vaguely true now. Maybe sex is that rite of passage, or perhaps drinking, or having a child; getting married, though, is something which these days which these days tends to wait until people have been adults for some time.

And of course, the background of all of this is same-sex "relationships". OK, well, let's call the same sex marriages, in the interest of full equality. So, do we have any statistics on the unions that are now being performed in a few states? Well, Canada has some data, and among other info they report that the age upon first marriage is 13% higher for same sex than for heterosexual marriages, with the average age for lesbian marriages was 41.6 (it was higher for gay males). One can safely say that the need to marry in order to have children is not a factor; nor, one dares to suggest, do they first sample the joys of sex and companionship at such an age. No, forty is the traditional age at which the wear of time begins to make itself felt. Now this number is no doubt elevated because many elderly couples have not heretofore been able to avail themselves of the facilities of the law, but still, the age difference is striking.

The use of vocation as a category here, therefore, is suspect. One gathers that perhaps people increasingly see marriage as a sort of social tool: a means of creating the expectation of approval for a sexual state, or a way to pry benefits out of employers and the state. But they do not couple (so to speak) sex with marriage. On the contrary, they are still "guided" by the church's injunction to keep sex within the boundary of marriage; and on the one hand, they rebel against this as a burden, and on the other, they brandish marriage as a demand for societal approval of the sex they are having. If the choices are marriage or continence, well, people are not choosing the latter. And the church is having a very hard time telling them that they need to choose the latter.

Indeed, the sense I get is that, with all the panic about how this church is aging into irrelevancy, the obvious answer-- that Episcopalians needs to get married, have kids, and raise them in the church-- simply isn't on the table. If we're going to talk about this in terms of vocation, then we need to talk about that vocation the way the Roman Catholics do: that people should think first in terms of finding a mate and producing offspring. The continued obsession with homosexuality is an irrelevant sideshow to this, yet we keep getting musings such as that which I've quoted in which the childless union is, by omission, made the norm, and having children is treated (again by omission) as an unusual opinion instead of as the core case. There is so much talk of "covenantal life" in the passage that one might think that discussion concerns whether one should own a house under the sway of a homeowner's association (which is indeed not for everyone). People don't get married for so abstract a reason, and life in marriage is anything but that abstract. Talk of same sex unions and marriages needs to step up to the same level of anti-abstraction.


Bill Dilworth said...

I agree with most of what you say, except for your analysis of the ages of gay couples getting married. As you note, some people may have gotten married earlier, given the chance. My partner and I have been together for 20 years; we would have made it legal long ago if we had ever lived in a jurisdiction that offered that option. But there hasn't been much societal pressure for gay couples to enter into non-legally binding marriages, either. Unlike my straight peers, I didn't grow up with the Church (*any* Church) telling me to save it for my wedding night. Instead, the message has always been, until very recently, one of lifeling prohibition of any sex I was likely to engage in. Maybe gay people need time getting used to the idea of gay marriage.

There's also the subject of economics, for people of all sorts and conditions. "Settling down" and raising children takes a certain amount of capital. Add that to the fact that people do not seem willing to settle for the sort of very modest middle class lifestyle my parents did when they got married, and I think it makes for higher marriage ages all around.

As far as the Church is concerned, though, I almost wish we could let it drop. Not only do I dread the prospect of ECUSA becoming the "gay Church," but I'm tired of being part of the cause du jour. The ugly truth of the matter, though, is that the only reason that I can be a member of an Episcopal parish without pretending to be a heterosexual bachelor or being grudgingly tolerated on the margins is because of the corps of gay activists and their allies. The choice was never between a benign ignoring of homosexuality on the one hand, and the obsessive attention of today on the other. Before being "welcoming" became trendy, most parishes were pretty unfriendly places for gay people.

C. Wingate said...

I'm am somewhat with you on the age at marriage statistics: obviously opening the gates is going to produce a rush at first of older people. That said, the whole "we need to wait until we get better established before we get married and have children" thinking (which BTW is not new: there was a medieval tendency towards later marriage outside the uppermost classes for precisely that reason) is surely less likely to figure in homosexual marriages. It's also possible that, once the novelty of being able to do it at all wears off, there will be diminishing interest in same sex legal unions.

The one thing I am sure of, though, is that there are very few people out there saying "Oh, darling, let's run away and enter into a covenantal relationship!"

Bill Dilworth said...

The disconnect between language and real life isn't limited to liturgies slapped together by the SCLM. I recall going to the Roman Catholic wedding of two friends years ago. The liturgy seemed so focused on invoking the mystical relationship between Christ and his Church-Bride that if an alien had been monitoring the ceremony he might have come away with the idea that the bride and groom were merely engaging in some complex, overdressed metaphor on ecclesiology rather than getting married.