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For if that which was done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.

Monday, 27 May 2013

A Confessional Program

I have a week off work, am at home, and hence have a little bit of time to scribble. After a recent conversation with a friend, I am going to attempt a series of posts on a number of theological headings which I promised. There are three, in this order:

Liturgy
The Blessed Virgin Mary
The See of Peter

I shall start, however, with a post on Scripture and Tradition, because I think that the others will be fruitless without doing this groundwork. I am writing to an imagined audience who are starting from the sound position that Holy Scripture is the ground of truth, the "rule of faith and practice", and there is no point in proceeding unless the audience know where I stand with this. I thought it was worth writing, because I am usually a bit lost for an immediate answer when people ask me what the main reason is for getting into all that liturgy and saints stuff. The apologetic answers I have read thus far, apart from J.H. Newman and Francis de Sales, don't always chime with me.

Twelve Great Feasts

The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware is a pretty useful little book for an introduction to the Eastern Church. There were a number of things I discovered from this book that I must follow up sometime. The origins of much of Russia's and Slavic Christianity, for example, was a ninth century mission of Cyril and Methodius, pattern missionaries in that they produced Slavic liturgical books and scriptural translation. This is something I would like to read up on: the early sixth and seventh century mission led by Saints Columbanus and Comgall in Gaul gave my hometown of Bangor, County Down, and its ancient monastery, its place in history. The other thing I would love to follow up is the legend of Kiev the holy, the golden, the ancient city of Russia sacked by the Mongols. From what I can gather, Kiev is a nation-making story for the Russians, the source of their patriotism and their sense that their nation is holy. I think if one really understood this story one would understand a great deal of Russian patriotism, which - when one thinks of their erstwhile claims to the Ukraine or Georgia - isn't a simple matter of imperialism. One can sense in their literature a national consciousness that is more completely Christian than any other, perhaps more so even than Ireland with the story of its apostle, St Patrick.

The liturgical history is of course fascinating: and one surprising thing was the make-up of the list of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. These are the most important besides Easter. Seven (or eight) are feasts of the Lord, five (or four) of the Theotokos, the bearer of God, as they call the Virgin. (The discrepancy of numbering is because one can reckon Candlemas either as a Marian feast or a Dominical one.) The list is:

The Nativity of the Mother of God (8th September)
The Exaltation of the Honoured and Life-Giving Cross (14th September)
The Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple (21st November)
The Nativity of Christ (25th December)
The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Theophany or Epiphany) (6th January) - the Epiphany, a more ancient feast than Christmas, celebrates three events in which Christ appears revealed to us as God: the coming of the Wise Men, the Baptism and descent of the Spirit, and the Marriage of Cana.
The Meeting of our Lord (Candlemas, or the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple) (2nd February)
The Annunciation of the Mother of God (25th March)
The Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday)
The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ
Pentecost (known in the East as Trinity Sunday) - incidentally, the coming of the Holy Spirit is considered as the completion of the mystery of the Trinity, whilst the Sunday after, our Trinity Sunday, is their All Saints'.
The Transfiguration of Christ (6th August)
The Falling Asleep of the Mother of God (The Dormition) (15th August)

The list is interesting for a Western Christian because of what is in and what is not. I suspect we would have a few saints days thrown in if asked to draw up a list of twelve great feasts, such as Saints Peter and Paul, or All Saints'. But in this list the feasts are almost all concentrated around our Lord's life, and not mainly the deeds of Christ (miracles and what have you) but points of His history which reveal what His life was about. They are events that happened in the actual history of the Incarnate Son, but also invite contemplation as being moments that reveal Who He is. The Transfiguration, for instance, reveals Christ as the divine Son and the Prophet foretold by Moses, and hardly touches upon his narrative history at all. It is interesting as a comparison how significant the Orthodox understand the Transfiguration to be as compared to the West's comparative inattention. I suspect that these feasts have the kind of use that the more modern feasts in the West are meant to have, the Sacred Heart, the Divine Mercy and that class of feasts which consider something about what one could call for convenience the divine affect. I must admit that I prefer the rooting of the contemplation of such mysteries in the life of Christ, and the symbolism that accompanies them in the Orthodox Church. It seems less likely to lose itself in sentimentality and (for a man) rather off-putting effeminate imagery, as well as being on a more fully Christian dogmatic basis because tied in to the Incarnate body of our Lord and his revelation. I'm sure this makes a difference in the life of contemplation and the spirit, too.

The list is also surprising because of the inclusion of the feast of Mary's presentation in the Temple, 21st November. It is a feast of which I had scarcely heard before but which I have discovered is on the Roman calendar. The Marian feasts in the list are a mirror of a number of the Dominical feasts: both Mary and our Lord have a Nativity, a Presentation in the Temple, and then a central feast common to both (the Annunciation of the Theotokos is also our Lord's conception). The final two Marian feasts are the Presentation of Christ, which is also her ritual purification according to Jewish law, and in which she has the Passion foretold, the sword that will "pierce your own soul also"; and the Dormition, which in a manner mirrors the Ascension of Christ.

The feast of Mary's presentation celebrates a tradition in the ancient Protoevangelium of James (circa 200) that Mary was brought by her parents, the long-barren Anna and Joachim, to the Temple at the age of three - in a similar way to the giving of Samuel by his mother Hannah in the Old Testament. She remained there until the age of twelve when she was given to her guardian Joseph, her parents having died a few years earlier. Although this isn't a matter of faith or dogma with the Orthodox, it is an interesting tie-in to another ancient tradition that Mary was a consecrated virgin attached to the Temple, a devoted role mentioned in the Torah. Such girls could be married legally, but remained consecrated to the Temple service.

Although the Orthodox have no dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the story behind this feast carries the notion of the sanctification and giving over to God of the Theotokos from before the awakening of her own will and consciousness. Apparently the feast is an ancient one in the East, and made its way via the monasteries of southern Italy and eventually to Rome in the fourteenth century, and was surpressed for a time in the sixteenth. Thus in contrast to the Orthodox, it has never been more than peripheral in the Latin Church. I know there were many other currents in the development of the dogma, but perhaps the absence of this tradition had something to do with the concentration of the later medieval Western theologians on the conception of the Virgin specifically.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Hymen io Hymen

I have noted that there are very few poems about marriage, and even more worth noting, not so many about weddings either. This is a little strange, when one considers the endless wash of poems, good, bad and indifferent, about love.

One towering nuptial poem, a piece of lyrical mastery, is Edmund Spenser's Epithalamion. It is typically Spenserian in its running together of pagan and Christian imagery, but it is obvious that the paganism is mythological whilst the Christianity supplies the moral fibre and feel of the poem (see the description of the moral grace of the bride in the tenth stanza, for example). I think that this is Spenser's lyrical gift at its most free and joyous, and yet concentrated. And how about this for a spectacular juxtaposition, from the chaste and holy nuptials at the altar to the feast with Bacchus and drunken walls sweating wine:

Behold, whiles she before the altar stands,
Hearing the holy priest that to her speakes,
And blesseth her with his two happy hands,
How the red roses flush up in her cheekes,
And the pure snow, with goodly vermill stayne
Like crimsin dyde in grayne:
That even th' Angels, which continually
About the sacred Altare doe remaine,
Forget their service and about her fly,
Ofte peeping in her face, that seems more fayre,
The more they on it stare.
But her sad eyes, still fastened on the ground,
Are governed with goodly modesty,
That suffers not one looke to glaunce awry,
Which may let in a little thought unsownd.
Why blush ye, love, to give to me your hand,
The pledge of all our band!
Sing, ye sweet Angels, Alleluya sing,
That all the woods may answere, and your eccho ring.

Now al is done: bring home the bride againe;
Bring home the triumph of our victory:
Bring home with you the glory of her gaine;
With joyance bring her and with jollity.
Never had man more joyfull day then this,
Whom heaven would heape with blis,
Make feast therefore now all this live-long day;
This day for ever to me holy is.
Poure out the wine without restraint or stay,
Poure not by cups, but by the belly full,
Poure out to all that wull,
And sprinkle all the postes and wals with wine,
That they may sweat, and drunken be withall.
Crowne ye God Bacchus with a coronall,
And Hymen also crowne with wreathes of vine;
And let the Graces daunce unto the rest,
For they can doo it best:
The whiles the maydens doe theyr carroll sing,
To which the woods shall answer, and theyr eccho ring.


Being something of a favourite of mine, I was very excited to find this fascinating piece lately:

http://www.outriderspoetryproject.com/uploads/4/6/1/4/4614234/structure_and_ceremony.pdf

about the structure of the poem as a whole. I am very keen to get hold of the book with the essay Short Time's Endless Monument by the Professor Hieatt mentioned in the article, who seems to have been one of the first moderns to catch on to the temporal and ritual symbolism of the poem (it has 24 stanzas for the 24 hours, 365 long lines, and the altar is the centrepoint of the 12th and 13th stanzas and about which the poem is structured symetrically). And it makes a deal of sense that the most Platonist of the Elizabethan poets would have symbolic number and time deep in the very fabric of his poetry. One might see the pursuit of this kind of thing by the poet as a game, but it isn't really if the numerology enters into the meaning itself and augments and deepens it. Spenser's numerology isn't (according to Professor Hieatt) merely ingenious or cryptic, but the result of "a pursuit of an integral meaning, integrally expressed, below the surface of discourse".

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Marriage and St Paul

A brief digression is in order before returning to the main purpose of this third and final post about marriage, in addition to the previous posts The Definition of Marriage and Nature and Sign.

Hugh of St Victor, one of the monks of the Abbey of St Victor in Paris, a broad river for the thought of the middle ages before Aristotle was re-discovered in the West and universities were born, a place where theology was taught by men of prayer and men of the Psalms, said this in his De Sacramentis Fidei: "Habet autem omnis aqua ex naturali qualitate similitudinem quamdam cum gratia Spiritus Sancti... et ex hac ingenita qualitate omnis aqua spiritalem gratiam representare habuit, priusquam etiam illam ex superaddita institutione significavit." Here is C.S. Lewis on this passage (ch.2 of the Allegory of Love): "For Hugo, the material element in the Christian ritual is no mere concession to our sensuous weakness and has nothing arbitrary about it. [There is] a pre-existing similitudo between the material element and the spiritual reality. Water, ex naturali qualitate [from the kind of thing it is by nature] was an image of the grace of the Holy Spirit even before the sacrament of baptism was ordained."

As an aside, when I first read these words, Hugh via Lewis, I was excited but didn't get the point completely. It set me thinking, however, and meditating, and I think will do all my livelong days. Here (as I think) is the golden key to the spiritual unity of both Christian Platonism and Romanticism. There are truths meeting here in a kind of gracious dance, each a pattern ruling the movement of the whole: creation completed through the sacraments; nature, the very elements and things of creation, bearing the stamp of God's making; the descent of God into matter through the Word and in the Spirit in both creation and the sacraments; and nature a symbol of which God is the foundational meaning and reality.

As mentioned, this post is the conclusion of several on marriage. The reason for introducing Hugh of St Victor is that if marriage as traditionally understood is a sacrament, then penetrating to its "nature" is to approach its sacramental significance. To understand it nature is to see that which, as an image of its divine originator, it represents. And, qua sacrament, to enter into sacramental marriage is to be a part of the divine life which marriage communicates. Thus (and this is a task which I can't undertake, but which I shall try to give a "bullet point" schema of how I think it might be undertaken) I shall attempt to point up the ways in which the diverse ends of marriage lead up to and require a sacramental symbolism as their unifying source and ultimate end, their Alpha and Omega.

The objection to this mode of proceeding is that I am taking the traditional definition of marriage and running with it as a working definition throughout the process of argument, so of course any conclusions are going to rubber-stamp this original definition as the "right" one. This isn't completely fair: I think if one is sensitive to the subjective "phenomena" of marriage as well as its "objective" aspects, one can defend the use of the working definition and rule out the inclusion of e.g. bigamy on the grounds that it fails to add anything worthwhile and merely takes away from the good ends of marriage that bigamy "piggy-backs" on. All changes to the definition of marriage are in a sense parasitic on the traditional notion in the first place. They simply want to get rid of some bit of the traditional formula (such as: between a man and a woman) and keep most of the rest. But part of my point is that altering the formula pulls out a thread that unravels the whole picture, which is a unity by being a sacramental picture; and part of one's judgment of the success of my argument is whether it is a persuasive explanation of how marriage as sacrament is the best account of the traditional formula, and why a change to the formula would take away its sacramental character and therefore both its foundation and purpose.

One may obviously choose to see all this as silly, and marriage as a flawed social institution with no ultimate moral foundation and which can be changed at will by political force. The only purpose this argument will serve to such a mindset is as prophetic judgment: do not undo the fabric of the world, or you may live to see its falling masonry crush you and your children; do not smash the mirror in which we appear in the image of God.

The first thing I want to clear out of the way is the notion of courtly love. Romantic attachment historically hasn't been, and for most people still isn't, what marriage is about. Courtly love and chivalry (much as they are ennobling ideals) have only been around since the twelfth century, carried to their poetic height by Dante's love for Beatrice, the archetypal "high lady" for whom love draws one upward to God from the dark wood; and have been enshrined as an almost sine qua non of true love leading to marriage in Western Europe since the invention of the novel. It is the final development that, I think, is sentimental in a bad way and causes confusion. I don't think it exaggerated to say that many people see romantic involvement as the authentic sign of love and (even worse) its absence as a reason for divorce. Rubbish. I don't mean that chivalry and romantic love cannot form part of marriage, but that the universal phenomena of marriage are not this.

The normal experience of marriage is quite a different one.

For the woman, it means giving up her bodily independence to another solely, her domestic world becoming circumscribed by the life of her husband, and her own family life (that of her parents) being submerged and in a sense forsaken. "Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father's house; so shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him" says the Psalmist rather more poetically. St Paul's advice is for the woman to love her husband as the Church should love Christ: all of these elements are there from the forsaking of the world, to the bodily union to one alone, and the devotion to another's will. I think that this comes more easily to some women than others, and some women no doubt actively resist elements of this description (perhaps with very good reason), but I would tentatively suggest that these phenomena - whether welcomed or resisted - will be recognised by a married woman.

For the man, it means devoting his own body to another solely, humbling himself to cherishing that woman alone, and entering into the practical concerns of the daily life of his wife, and continual sacrifice for her. St Paul again: loving his wife as Christ loved the Church. Now it will seem a proud and monstrously chauvinist thing to say that the man must "humble" himself to the woman's body and domestic concerns, but this isn't a point about the undesirable woman, or the her petty household cares. It is a point about how the two complement each other, and the position the man is likely to find himself in with his wife. For example, someone defending marriage will get most laughs if he says that monogamy is "natural" to humans, especially men. Faithfulness to one woman doesn't come naturally, in that sense of the word natural. But marriage demands such faithfulness, and that involves a kind of pulling the man down from an ideal height, surveying womankind in its alluring beauty as mating potential, into a very real and concrete and (potentially) mundane physical relation. In fact, I think fidelity is less likely to make a man consider a woman as an object, because he is sharing board and bed with the selfsame woman whose personhood he cannot escape. Allied to this, is the truth behind the well worn caricature of the husband and wife, she pulling him out of the pub where he is pontificating with his mates, to fix the blocked sink. Women are in general less concerned about the theoretical and more with the practical, and it is "humbling" in this sense for the man to serve his wife in this faithfully and willingly.

Thus, when St Paul is talking about how the husband and wife should behave with each other, he hasn't forgotten his words about the sacramental reality of the marriage: for the marriage is a sacrament of Christ and the Church (when, of course, the pair are incorporated by baptism into that body). Neither has he forgotten the phenomenal reality of what being a husband or wife is like: for the "natural" facts of marriage are, if Hugh of St Victor is right, exist as an image and participation in the sacrament itself. It shouldn't surprise us if "natural" phenomena anticipate the life of grace.

It may seem odd not to talk about children as part of the natural phenomena of marriage, but then a marriage is blessed but not created by children. There are a lot of things that flow from the notion of giving one's body to another from the sacramental idea of marriage, and that touch very closely upon the whole question around contraception etc. What I wish to get to, however, is some foundational unifying idea behind the traditional idea of marriage, and children are not a necessary part of that idea. What is necessary, from the angle I am coming, is the kind of complementarity that reaches down into the bodily union, not only for the purposes of procreation, but that images the love of Christ and the Church. Part of the argument rests on the fact that in marriage, the body becomes the other person and the other person becomes the body. The man is no longer merely thinking of an ideal woman, nor is he taking a whore about whom he cares nothing, but loving and making love to a person; the woman is accepting into her native independence of body and soul, an ordering will and bodily union. The image of marriage evokes the descent from heaven to earth, the incarnation of Christ, and His Passion, and the buying or redeeming of the Church from the world, and its giving itself up to His Lordship and the giving of His Body. This descent and union of mind and matter, of one with another, cannot be reproduced in "same-sex" relations in the same way. It is only by divorcing the person and their body that one can put such relations on the same footing as marriage. But then one has lost the sacramental significance of marriage altogether.

A rough summary of the position would be: St Paul's teaching on marriage as a sacrament gives him a moral theology of marriage, which throws into relief its lived-out phenomena. The traditional idea of marriage fit St Paul's pattern, but other versions of marriage do not, and there really isn't any unifying idea of marriage outside the sacramental idea we meet in the letter to the Ephesians. "Natural marriage" (I here refer to the canon law definition which means marriage between the unbaptised) is still a sign or symbol of the sacrament of marriage; it is a lot better for the world if it doesn't fiddle around with the definition of what this is, and that not only for pragmatic reasons: else the world will have lost a spilling over of the life of grace into its imagination. That is what worries me most about the current plans to redefine marriage in Britain. An imagination without truth, especially a collective imagination, is a diabolical thing and can do diabolical things.

Finally, two brief comments.

To return to an earlier mention of romantic love: it is in the context of the love of Christ for the Church that one finds the most fruitful use of the ideals of chivalry and courtly love: in the forsaking of physical force and power to win over the lady by love, and in the ideal of serving the beloved. I know this isn't the trajectory of Dante and his use of the notion of courtly love, and I am firmly persuaded that his version of love purifying the soul is, in another discourse, tremendously important. But anyone can see that it isn't a description of the path one follows in marriage or even a flourishing courtship. And I say that as one of the few people who seem to believe that Dante isn't writing about Beatrice as an ideal or an abstraction.

I am not learned enough in the classics or ancient pre-Christian civilisations to say what the marriage symbolism generally was. But I think I am not entirely wrong in saying that some of the meaning had a cosmic significance, probably agrarian, the fruitful meeting of Sun-god and Earth-goddess. Frazer's Golden Bough records a few native ceremonies with similar significance, but perhaps these were mainly about the fertility of the marriage, rather than the couple themselves. There is plenty of material in the Old Testament of course, of the marriage between the Lord God and his people Israel, particularly in the prophets, and there is no doubt that this is what one finds transposed into the New Testament, St Paul, and the final chapters of Revelation. And can one in this spirit "re-mythologise" nature as (ultimately, in the redeemed people) the Bride in the marriage feast? Perhaps one meets this spirit towards nature breaking out most dramatically in St Francis, in his immediate feeling for things: is there not in his brotherly love a sense that every created thing is called to the marriage supper of the Lamb?

Friday, 3 May 2013

Nature and Sign

At the close of the previous post I wrote that a natural law account of morality, and marriage specifically, didn't satisfy me: but this is not because of what natural law accounts say, or even a criticism of the notion of natural law. The lack of satisfaction, for me, comes where most theories of natural law stop.

I would draw attention first to the Pauline account of the "law written on the heart", invoked in Romans against idolatry and depravity resulting from the pagan temple cults, specifically linked to sins "contrary to nature"; and one bunch of people on the criminal list are those "without natural affection". It seems to me that there is a parallel being drawn here between (1) a loss of reverence for God as Creator, One who is invisible but yet whose power and divinity are known through His creation, and (2) a loss of "natural" behaviour and understanding. The second passage I wish to pick up on is in St Paul's letter to Ephesus, where he describes marital union as two becoming one flesh, but then says that he is speaking a great mystery: he is speaking (primarily, I think one may understand) about Christ and the Church. It is with these two little seeds sown that I return to the topic of natural law.

Most Christian theories of marriage leaning upon ideas of natural law will say something like: marriage is not a solely Christian idea, but is consonant with human nature, how children are conceived and nurtured, the nourishing of the love of a man for a woman, the good of the community etc. Marriage thus understood stands independently of revelation. The underlying notion is that there is a foundational natural law, in some way present in created reality through the will of the Creator, that is superior to all "positive law", or law specific to certain circumstances, and by which positive law is to be judged. It isn't too much to say that in Aquinas, and certainly in Hooker, natural law is seen as in some respect above even Holy Scripture (an instance of positive law, given historically and in particular circumstances). Take the example of the Torah's permission of divorce, or the Patriarchs' polygamy: these are cases in which the natural law - for natural law in marriage read sworn lifelong monogamy - gives one a logic of judgment to discern the rightness or wrongness of such practices.

Liberal political theory, from Hobbes and Locke onwards, has seen our conceptions shift to a very different theory of law - free individuals enter into a social contract, and even when natural law is acknowledged to some extent, it becomes an obligation on one's (private) conscience, rather than a divinely ordered and obligatory basis of law transmitted and reflected in ancient customs. It is a short and easy way from here to the idea that common consent, via the state, creates valid law: and if this is accepted, on what foundation can the argument against a new definition of marriage rest?

One can return to natural law definitions, and explain why marriage serves both the common good, the good of the sexes in union, the basic human community, and children: but unless one uncovers the basis of natural law itself (divine order in creation, mediated through custom), according to liberal political understanding of law one will simply be expressing a point of view, and because it is not the point of view in power, or in vogue, it will be quite simply ignored. I am not saying that explaining the difference between natural law theory and a liberal theory of law would change anything, and in fact I think it would raise more antagonism rather than produce legislation sympathetic to the Christian tradition. But it would at least serve as a prophetic witness, a proclamation of the Lordship of the Creator over law and creation, which is surely what the church should be announcing rather than merely stating what it thinks the law on marriage should be, and why it is a good thing. (I should say that this has come across clearly in some, but by no means all, Christian public pronouncements on this subject.)

This brings me back to my original contention, that natural law theory by itself is an insufficient theory by which to defend marriage and more generally moral precepts, which I now appear to have gone back on, to say that what is needed is actually an explanation of the foundation of natural law theory. But I want to say a little more than that, for the reason that it is by no means obvious what the grounding of the natural law argument is for marriage specifically: is it ancient custom? the good of the spouses? children? all of the above? It seems to me that these little threads can be picked out of the pattern one by one. There is an argument in each case that each of these goods is not something necessarily unique to marriage; and even if one wished to make a cumulative case and say that a marriage (ideally) achieves all of these goods simultaneously in a way that no other custom or institution does, one has still produced only a collectively pragmatic, rather than a unifying and principled, rationale for marriage's unique status.

What I therefore want to say is something that I find difficult to formulate, but which points out the symbolic significance (and ultimately sacramental meaning) of marriage as its ultimate and unique foundation. Return for a moment to the idea of the foundation of natural law in "created order". If this order is somehow a reflection of the divine nature, and man the Imago Dei, then marriage is not simply a command but a command to be like God, and not simply a command to be like God but to participate in God's life (and hence His joy) through that likeness.

My claim is that the two passages from St Paul with which I began this post, both hint at the notion that male and female sexual complementarity, lifelong monogamy, the union in one flesh which makes children, the nourishing of children, the formation of a basic human community etc., all find their point of unity in the fact that marriage is a sacramental participation in the love and union of Christ and the Church. This may seem to take us a long way from natural law into revelation. I shall try to explain in the next post why I don't think it does, where St Paul's teaching seems to back up what I am trying to say, and why the notion of a male God embracing a female cosmos in a nuptial union is in fact a natural idea.

Suffice to say at this point, that I hope I have given some idea of what I mean by a sacramental and Neoplatonic notion of morality being needed to make morality coherent, going beyond the usual natural law theory which sees the end and purpose of ethics as human flourishing. One needs, I believe, some account of how the moral precept or principle points towards, symbolises and participates in the Creator.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Definition of Marriage

Amidst all of the various statements from churchmen opposing the change in the legal definition of marriage, I have noticed the difficulty there has been in communicating to the world at large not only what Christians think marriage isn't, but also what it is.

One could classify these attempts as follows.

(1) Prudential consideration of consequences.

One can't predict the long-term damage to children, society etc. that this kind of change will bring about, especially when research studies point towards a married father and mother as the most stable setting for children. Very well: but here the battle has been lost long ago, and in the Church as well as in society at large. What about the changes to the law in the last 40 years, with no-fault divorce? What of widespread cohabitation, with its destabilising effect upon children and the idea of the sanctity of conjugal relations? What of the use of artificial means of contraception and what this has done to perceptions of the use of one's body? Surely here what we are witnessing is another blow to marriage among many, which although it will likely affect a very few directly (I'm not denying that symbolically, it is a huge shift) has been preceded by blow upon blow, and which most "mainstream" religious denominations have said or done little about? And, as with all such consequential arguments, when the opposing ideology perceives themselves to be on the moral high ground, they are quite simply ignored.

(2) Pointing out of incoherence.

A lot of the arguments for the change in the legal definition of marriage have been attacked as incoherent: for example, the Bishop of Aberdeen pointed out that the argument that "they love each other, so they are entitled to marry" would work equally well for allowing incest. True: but it was inevitably misrepresented in the press as "Bishop says homosexuality as bad as incest". One will simply fail to communicate one's message, especially when it is a logical message, if the press are illogical.

(3) The "natural" purpose of marriage.

Here we get into reasons for marriage (one of the "natural" ends of marriage being consummation open to procreation, and therefore necessarily between a man and woman). But I think that the notion of "natural" as in "natural law" has so lost its meaning for most people in the English-speaking world as to be misleading. Equally puzzling for them is the related notion of complementarity between man and woman. There is a divorce of body, personality and the psyche in modernity that means such arguments lack cogency. I think this is partly due to a weakness in the whole natural law account of "human flourishing" as the end of human activity. More on that presently.

(4) Divine command.

Interestingly, even liberal churchmen are being forced to say the unthinkable and mention the uncompromising words of Jesus or (even worse) St Paul, in their explanation of the meaning of marriage. This is sometimes a falling back on the last defences, though, a fear that the churches will be coerced into allowing the newly defined marriages to be performed in their buildings, by their clergy. Oh no: we are Christians and Jesus said this and that. As such, these arguments aren't likely to be aimed at persuading the hearers if the audience is a non-Christian public, they are more of a plea for tolerance. When they are sincerely meant by more traditional churchmen to smite the consciences of their hearers, of course they aren't reported in the popular press unless to point out their fundamentalist bigotry, usually backed up by an opinion from an ultra-liberal cleric talking about how terrible it is to misappropriate Jesus and St Paul in this way.

*****

So all in all, I would say that there isn't (apart from valiant but largely hopeless attempts to explain natural law to the general public) any clear, positive exposition of marriage getting through. I suppose large numbers of Christians opposing the change are still in shock at the pace of the change, the apparent sudden intolerance of what 15 years ago would have been "normal" belief, and the hostility towards their attempted explanations of what marriage is about. I don't know how this can be tackled: I think that the whole notion of marriage is so eroded, even among nominal Christians, that the public argument was lost before it started.

My question is a different one than the question of successfully presenting an argument in the press. What is the underlying significance and end of marriage? Partly because it is such a many sided, an all-encompassing thing, it is (a point made by G.K. Chesterton) easy to attack from any angle, but difficult to defend. What I shall try to present in the next post is a sacramental and Neoplatonic idea of what marriage is about; and I don't think that the account of marriage is complete or convincing without such an explanation. This fits into an instinct that I have more generally, that natural law accounts of morality do not go far enough: one needs to explain the transcendent significance of moral acts to make sense of them. I haven't been able to formulate this view very clearly yet into a coherent theory, but I shall try to give some idea of what I am driving at in the next post.