Marriage and Infertility

Last fall, one of the frequently asked questions about marriage and gay and lesbian couples was posed during a discussion at Princeton Theological Seminary: If gay and lesbian couples can’t have children then how can they legitimately be married since the primary purpose of marriage is the bearing of children?

At the time, I replied that gay and lesbian couples are just infertile couples and I find God’s Grace in all the ways modern science offers infertile couples so that they may have children these days. A student added that adoption continues to be a good option as well. I was happy to receive that reminder. Afterward, another student came up and thanked me for my response to the question, saying that she had never thought about this challenge to same-gender marriage in this way.

Had there been more time that evening at Princeton, I would have shared another response: The heart of marriage in the protestant tradition is not procreation, but is the love and commitment between the partners.

In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Book of Confessions, the two purposes for marriage are “to commit themselves to a mutually shared life, and to respond to each other in sensitive and lifelong concern (The Confession of 1967, 9.47).” These qualities of marriage stem from the Scriptural understanding of the loving, committed relationship between God and creation.

Society benefits by supporting couples in marriage who love and support each other, regardless of whether or not they have children. This applies to gay and lesbian couples just as much as it does for all other couples.

Society also benefits when loving committed couples provide a caring home for raising children, regardless of whether they are biologically related families or not. I was reminded of this when I read Melanie Thernstrom’s thought-provoking cover article in the New York Time’s Magazine about the long road she and her husband took to becoming parents despite infertility. It is perfectly possible for gay or lesbian couples to have very similar sagas to tell about the forming of their families.

Melanie Thernstrom and her spouse’s drive to raise children arises from the bedrock elements of marriage: their love for, and commitment to, each other. And this holds true for the gay and lesbian couples I know as well. They are earnest and excellent parents, not least because it has been a winding, rarely traveled road to have families for them all.


Reverend Janet

12 Responses
  • Jean Thomas on January 7, 2011

    A very thoughtful commentary, especially the emphasis on the purpose for marriage–commiting to a mutually shared life

  • Janet Edwards on January 7, 2011

    Dear Jean,

    Thanks for your thumbs up here!

    And thank you for highlighting the true hallmark of marriage for me based on my experience and on my reading of Scripture.

    And it sounds like your thoughts arise from your experience as well. it would be a gift to us all to hear a little about that if you are willing to share it with us.

    Peace be with you, Jean, Janet

  • Chuck Hale on January 7, 2011

    Let’s go back to the earliest times, when PROPERTY was the concern (not much has changed, in fact). A man’s property went to his male offspring. This was why his wife could not commit adultery – since then the paternity of the male child would be in question. Note that the man could copulate with an unmarried female, and that was not adultery, even though he was married. In fact, married men used “handmaidens” for sex to produce offspring if their wife wasn’t fertile. The purpose of marriage wasn’t to produce children. The purpose of marriage was to preserve the paternity property connection.

    When Christian couples in their 70’s marry, today, they may have some lingering ideas about morality, but I’m guessing that they are much more concerned about having a tie that will bind them together when the going gets rough – and how the property of each is divided is usually decided before the civil part of the union, pre-nuptials, etc. RESPONSIBILITY is the core value of seniors’ marriages. They don’t need marriage for sex, or companionship, but they do need it for lines of legal responsibility.

    Marriage is one of the building blocks of society. Two people bound together by law, are much more “stable” than two singles. With so many straight couples splitting, I should think society would welcome a gay couple willing to become a building block of society! This isn’t a religious issue as much as simple sociology.

    Conclusion – marriage began as a legal issue, which was later “baptized” by the church, and the church’s participation now is as much legal as it is religious. In fact, “mail order ministers” are performing legal marriages without any real connection with the church. The bottom line is – marriage is about two people making a public, legal commitment to care for each other, and in most cases to assure financial security insofar as possible for the one left after the death of the first.

    I think the Catholic church – to elevate celibacy (marriage with Christ) and to stimulate church growth by births – separated the two and elevated the spiritual intimacy of male and female as something so holy and sacred that they dare not even use a form of birth control, lest the holiness of this sacred act be defiled. I think Protestants have inherited a watered-down sense that maybe there’s something in that, but we’re not sure, and the sense of it is fast fading from Protestant consciousness, too.

    They tell a joke about an “old folks home” where a new, elderly gentleman, joined. He was introduced with the inclusion of the fact that he had murdered his first three wives. Whereupon a woman spoke up, enthusiastically, “You mean you’re SINGLE?” Most elderly men who become widowers find themselves surrounded by women pushing themselves forward in hopes of matrimony. For sex – I don’t think so. For companionship – maybe. For legal ties of responsibility in case of illness, etc.? Yes – I think that’s the main reason and the rest is whipped cream.

    Every year the number of couples having children without benefit of marriage – grows.
    Every year the number of single people choosing to have children by various means – grows.
    Property no longer passes from father to son. Property inheritance issues are nill, but legal responsibility is still valid. Marriage establishes legal responsibility. That’s what it’s all about.
    Remember “Tevye” in Fiddler on the Roof – Asks his wife, “Do you love me?” She replies: Do I love you?
    With our daughters getting married
    And this trouble in the town
    You’re upset, you’re worn out
    Go inside, go lie down!
    Maybe it’s indigestion.
    She goes on to list all the things she has done for him – and he’s asking about love.
    Of course love matters.
    When two people are each other’s best friend and would lay down their life for each other and when a kiss brings tears of joy – that’s love. They may even be married.

  • Janet Edwards on January 7, 2011

    Dear Chuck,

    Thanks for contributing your knowledge and perspective on marriage, Chuck! I hope others are inspired to comment on your expansion beyond my thoughts.

    i am intrigued by your emphasis on responsibility as the key to marriage, especially marriage of those well beyond child bearing. Is the responsibility your are speaking of the same as the “mutually shared life” and “sensitive and lifelong concern” lifted up in The Confession of 1967?

    A concern about the loss of clarity about marriage on the part of the church seems to undergird your comments here. I share that concern. I hope our ruminations here help us, together, come to a renewed conception of the value and meaning of marriage.

    Peace, Janet

  • Chuck Hale on January 7, 2011

    Janet, by now I’m sure you’ve learned that I’m a rebel with ideas not quite in synch with the teachings of the church – even the confessions. I try to get into the heads of seniors (somehow I seem to know quite a few) to find out how they feel about marriage. You ask: Is the responsibility your are speaking of the same as the “mutually shared life” and “sensitive and lifelong concern” lifted up in The Confession of 1967? Yes, I believe that is why couples marry – because they would not enter the risk of this kind of commitment unless they believed that the person they are making this commitment to is one they want to share their life with from here on.

    Seniors (of my generation) have been raised with the idea that sex outside of marriage is a sin, and two people who live together and might be having sex – “ought” to be married. The truth is, the ones I know don’t want to be viewed by their friends and neighbors as sinners, although they question the validity of that idea. They may or may not be in love. Some are. Some aren’t. Seniors who find a youthful kind of ecstatic love in old age are a joy to behold, but I’ll guess that many more seniors get married without a joyful love, but rather a sense that this is someone they are comfortable with and they want to have their companionship tied down with a legal connection and a church blessing. And the comfortable friendship they have – grows into a love which isn’t the youthful variety of high emotion – but rather – comfortable devotion.

    Remember, these seniors are living with the fact that their own children are, in many cases, living in relationships outside of marriage, even having children and proudly teaching the kids to call the grandparents by the familiar “pop pop” or whatever. And they are seeing their grandchildren choosing to be single – but adopting or having children without benefit of a visible father or mother. And they are confronting their lesbian daughters pairing up with other lesbians to raise the child or children either or both conceived in prior marriages. Today’s seniors are dealing with a world that lives by a different standard than the one they were raised with – and these seniors are questioning whether all that “stuff” about sex outside of marriage being sinful – was really God’s truth. They grew up with black/white marriages condemned in the law as “miscegenation” and now a Supreme Court Justice who is black has a wife who is white. My own grandkids have moved way beyond any of these relatively common examples – and so it goes. These are the realities which are changing the minds and beliefs of today’s seniors as they consider whether to “tie the knot” again.

    Those that are comfortable financially and in a home they love – many times find a companion of the opposite sex (or same sex) who is similarly comfortable. I know two gay men who chose to remain closeted, live in separate homes, but were together as much as they could arrange. One got sick and died. His partner died, I believe, of a broken heart, two years later. Gay or straight, they decide to have a friendship (how they settle the sex issue is known only to them) and be a couple – but not marry and not live together. In other cases, financial needs make it necessary for a couple to merge their assets and live together. If they feel they have the prospect of having a comfortable relationship with one another – they may choose to marry – setting this into a legal framework of mutual responsibility. Those who have been previously married know the joys and pitfalls of a marriage commitment. They may have been happily married and lost their mate by illness. Or they may have been previously married and chose to be divorced. In either case – they will view the prospect of another marriage through the lens of their prior experience. I can think of several men who lost their first wife through illness, married again, expecting happiness and discovered it was a wrong choice – and divorced #2. Now they have “girl friends” but probably won’t tie a knot, again. Their second experience was too painful to risk again. I know of men who divorced their first wife, had an unhappy second marriage and divorce – and are now blissfully happy with their third and probably final, wife. They are actually enjoying real love for the first time!!

    I hope my ramblings spoke to your questions.

  • Janet Edwards on January 8, 2011

    Dear Chuck,

    You have very much spoken to the question and to a dynamic of our times that has a deep, strong influence upon us all but is rarely articulated. We do not want to acknowledge these shifts in meaning around marriage and relationships. We all suffer from this denial.

    You outline very well the complications faced by seniors in their effort to engage in loving, committed relationships which may or may not be marriage because love and commitment are not the defining qualities of marriage right now. The civil license or the church register or the years of being together or even the divorce decree are more likely to be the defining elements of a “marriage.”

    I have begun to see that “relationship” has become the more usable word in these times than “marriage” and I mourn that indication of the loss of meaning for “marriage.”
    Much of what I say arises from my desire to root “marriage” again in the deep soil of love and commitment.

    Thanks for the rich perspective you are sharing with us all. Peace, Janet

  • Chuck Hale on January 8, 2011

    As I wrote my piece, it occurred to me that the age of the persons makes a huge difference in how they view marriage. Two young people are optimistic, have high energy, and intend to conquer the world. They “click” with one another, perhaps live together, perhaps start a family, and then decide that this is real – so they get married. Life goes on. They age. They deal with crises – unemployment – infidelity – illness – and they mature at different rates and to different levels. Their individual outlooks “mature” as their life progresses. Today’s mobile society creates an open scenario quite different from the past, when roles were defined and futures predictable – at least much more than they are, now.

    The couple reaches mid-life. They are not only older, seeing life from a very different perspective than they did when they were in their 20’s or even early 30’s. Very possibly their goals and interests have not only changed, but taken them in different directions, so they have less and less in common. Their mid-life crisis begs the question, “Do I want to spend the rest of my life with this person – or have we moved so far apart that we should make it official, cut the ties, and move on in new directions? This scenario seldom existed 50 years ago, but it is today’s world.

    If the couple stays together and lives to their 60’s and either death or divorce separate them, the future has a very different picture. They are on the downhill side of life. They know there is an end-time approaching, and each year it seems to move closer more rapidly. Finances become a huge issue because a person too old to work will still need housing, food, etc. Optimism is now greatly tempered by experience and one realizes that some choices can’t be reversed, anymore. There is insecurity and a sense that illness as well as an uncertain economy make the next decades a source of uneasiness.

    How one views the prospect of marriage and what it means to them – is going to be a product of this evolving “maturity” and experience. “Marriage” is many different things and the definition, itself, must be interpreted by where one is in life’s journey. “Marriage” isn’t just one thing. It is many things.

    I have also pointed out, on Facebook, that in addition to the age issues mentioned above, there are the cultural issues of change – and now the added cultural issues of immigrants coming to our country – and our churches – with still other ideas of marriage.

    As Adam said to Eve, as they left the Garden, “My dear, we’re in a time of transition.”

  • Chuck Hale on January 9, 2011

    Obviously, my mind continues to ruminate on this subject of marriage. My last post reflected on the difference which comes from our stage of life approach to the choices we make. Young people see life and commitment very differently than late middle-age folk.

    This brought me to the realization that we have undergone a sexual revolution, so pervasive that a generation or two behind me cannot fully appreciate the depth of it, and the implications for marriage – and standards of morality.

    I’m thinking of a young wife in the 1950’s who was beginning to show her pregnancy, and confessed that she didn’t want to be seen in public – “because everyone will know what I’ve been doing.”

    I’m thinking of college curfew hours for women. Guys delivered their dates to the dorm or sorority house, driving into the parking lot a half hour or so before the girls had to go tearing into the dorm before the housemother closed the door. For some reason, all the cars in the parking lot were actively “bouncing”, before “virginal” girls then rushed through the doors, past the waiting housemother. I doubt there are very many curfew hours, anymore.

    Decorating the cars of newlyweds before their “getaway” frequently had the sign on the back: “Cleveland today – Hot Springs tonight” – meaning, supposedly – Hot Springs, Arkansas. No? Right. The couple was not heading for Arkansas. They were heading for the “marital bed.”

    Words and expressions have disappeared from our language. “Winchester Cathedral” known for its “shotgun weddings.” Bastards. Homes for unwed mothers. Girls taking several-months-long visits to an aunt in Arizona. Brides debating whether to wear a veil over their face, coming down the isle, or having it off the face as they walk down the isle.
    Clothing styles. High school and college men’s swim teams practiced in the nude. Men’s basketball shorts were short. Women wore girdles so their buns wouldn’t bounce, and dresses were styled to minimize “bust” size. Ministers counseled couples for marriage, including the explanation of what they should expect on their first sexual experience. If memory serves me correctly, a recent Surgeon General of the United States was fired for making a positive reference to masturbation. Both boys and girls were instructed “not to touch yourself down there.” Young men and young women could share a double bed if necessary, because homosexuality did not exist in decent people. And of course, pictures of nude people were illegal to publish. It was the era of “French Postcards.” When women went to work in the WWII war industry they wore “trousers” or “slacks”. “Pants” were the exclusive territory of males, and the dominant power in the home was described as the person (male or female) who “wore the pants” in the family. The oldest still living can tell of couples carefully having intercourse without undressing. And the “missionary position” was the only way decent people copulated within marriage.

    Now superimpose today’s standards on these quaint expressions of sexuality, and realize that these ideas are still present in the minds and hearts of people in their 70’s and 80’s, and anything other, is sort of basically immoral. Temper it a bit and you will describe the minds and hearts of those in their 50’s and 60’s.

    Marriage used to be (technically) the entrance to the world of sexual expression. Even though America is prudish by most Western standards, we have still moved light-years from these quaint ideas. And marriage has moved, also, because “sex and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.”

  • Chuck Hale on January 9, 2011

    Hello, out there!
    I seem to be having a conversation with myself.

  • Janet Edwards on January 10, 2011

    Dear Chuck,

    I venture to suspect that your frank run through the revolution experienced in the past 60 years, well within the life time of most in the church right now, has caused us all to pause, remember and reflect. You certainly did that for me. Like others and yourself, I have stories I could tell.

    But more important, you prompted this question for me: what nourishing word does the church and Scripture have in the midst of this rushing stream of change? Surely it can not be a wrenching requirement to go into screeching reverse to a time that really never was of Lake Woebegone virtue and innocence.

    My own answer is apparent in my repeated return to love and commitment arising from the covenants between God and creation, God and Israel and Christ and the church as these are depicted in Scripture and made real in my life.

    But I am interested in your answer and those of others who might chime in.

    THANKS, Chuck, for your willingness to share. Peace be with you, Janet

  • Chuck Hale on January 11, 2011

    It should be obvious that there isn’t a quick and easy answer to your statement:

    “My own answer is apparent in my repeated return to love and commitment arising from the covenants between God and creation, God and Israel and Christ and the church as these are depicted in Scripture and made real in my life.”

    Our (Presbyterian) church has not articulated a theology of sex and marriage which has effectively resonated with our people where they were actually living. The disconnect is as great as the gulf between the cultures of Central Africa and Manhattan. I would say that the Lake Woebegone illustration describes how Presbyterians regard the church’s positions on sex and marriage – a beautiful never-never land where all the children are above average. The fact is that the realities of sex and marriage are strictly forbidden as topics of discussion in our churches, so we can’t tie a meaningful theology to something which is off limits for discussion. Is Onan the last word on masturbation? Is celibacy the only acceptable form of chastity? In what contexts can Christians accept pornography? Could we have a Presbyterian nudist camp? What would we say to a young person who wants to paint a picture of Christ with multiple earrings, tattoos and perhaps other piercing jewelry? We allow Christ to be pictured in the cultures of Asia and Africa. Why not the cultures of the ghetto?

    I’m going to guess that such questions push so many buttons that meaningful – even civil – discussions will be nearly impossible – in the church – now. Perhaps some day. My point is that these are real issues and they trouble many people – but “my” church just can’t go there. But if it can’t go there, how can we have a theology which deals with real life?

  • Chuck Hale on January 12, 2011

    After last evening’s posting, I ran across the Rev. John M. Buchanan’s “Editor’s Desk” in the January 11th copy of “Christian Century.” Dr. Buchanan’s piece discusses Douglas John Hall’s critique of institutional religion . In 1976 he wrote: “What most people hear from the churches, is a positiveness that is phony and ridiculous: a bright and happy message that has all the depth of a singing commercial.” Buchanan notes: “He wrote those words before the emergence of market-based mega-churches or the prosperity gospel industry.

    I believe the shrinking of our congregations has forced pastors and churches to do anything possible to counteract this shrinkage. Our national PCUSA theme is “Grow the Church Deep and Wide”. Grow. Grow. Grow. Get out there and merchandise. I’ve said it elsewhere: the gospel I hear preached today is uniformly “God (or Jesus) loves you and we’re praying for you.” There is no mention of the negative effects of not following the first and second commandment – except by rabid fundamentalists, and we don’t want to be in their camp.

    My Mother was raised as an Augustana Lutheran. I can still remember the day, early in my Junior High days, when I came home and reported that a girl in our school was pregnant. My mother’s loud reply: “She sinned.” Now I don’t necessarily agree with Mom’s theology at that point, but the fact is, she gave a very spontaneous theological response to a human condition. In my ministry I have said, many times, that ex-Lutherans make the best Presbyterians. Why? Because if they (in previous decades) gone through Lutheran Catechism training they are far more theologically savvy than the typical Presbyterian. In fact, the past 50 years of my ministry has seen the church turn away from serious theology and either love Jesus, or share people’s pain with Clinton.

    My charge is that we’ve become Docetic. We’ve taken the humanity out of Jesus, someone who healed the sick and was a friend of sinners – but who also drove the money-changers out of the temple and called the religious leaders by nasty names. He was both priest and prophet – but we’ve changed the spelling of prophet from a “ph” to an “f”. We’re desperate for GROWTH. No discouraging words will be accepted from our pulpits. And this goes for the liberal as well as the conservative churches. We tailor our message to fit the requests of our audience (word chosen deliberately). Are our people liberal? Then we’re champions of all the liberal causes. Are our people traditional? Then we support all the traditional values. Our Jesus is a commodity designed to attract the religious consumer. And today’s consumer of religion assumes that this is as it ought to be – and has no theological foundation from which to demand other values – other theologies. We’re running scared and are shaping our message to do everything we can to stem the tide flowing out of our churches.

    “I’m a single mother, unemployed, with three children, one of whom needs surgery and I cannot find financial help. How will Jesus feel about it if I “turn a trick or tricks to pay for my child’s surgery?”

    “I’m a gay teen boy, and I’ve found another gay teen boy. We would like to “mess around”. Is Jesus OK with that?

    Lenore Skanazy, in today’s Wall Street Journal Opinion column, has a piece headed: “Eek! A Male!” She goes on to discuss today’s focus on pedophilia, such that teachers are afraid to touch students in any way – even to position their fingers on a keyboard. The author goes on to cite other examples of our fixation on males as pedophiles. Indeed, that potato is so hot that it cannot be part of a rational discussion in the most open-minded of gay communities.

    My point is simply that we have, in fact, slipped into the Docetic heresy of taking the carnal out of Jesus and out of theology in general.

    Janet – the answers to the questions you raise and the yearning you express – require that we take a long hard look at the balance of our theology, admitting that the panic of losing members has forced the church into an other-worldly Jesus and God – which will not risk offending today’s religious consumer. To answer your questions we need to do some serious theology – particularly how we have emasculated Jesus for popular consumption.

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