Executive officer of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne
David Schütz reflects on the Interfaith Symposium on Marriage held recently in Melbourne.
AT THIS point in history, marriage is a hot-button issue in Western societies all over the world. In Britain, Europe, North and South America, New Zealand and Australia the definition of marriage is being questioned and rewritten by law makers and popular opinion.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote:
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’ (The Thing, 1929)
Applying Chesterton’s advice to the question of ‘marriage reform’ today, before we start tinkering with this ancient institution, we may want to ask ourselves, ‘what is marriage in our society?’
Answering this question is not as straightforward as it once might have been. Australia is one of the most multicultural countries on the planet (one in four Australians was born overseas). And yet, marriage law in Australia owes a great deal to the particular heritage of Great Britain and to Anglicanism in particular. This can be seen in two particular legal aspects of marriage in this country that many of us tend to take for granted: first, that it is usually contracted by the giving and receiving of vows; and, second, that ‘ministers of religion’ can contract legally binding marriages using the rituals of their faith community. This pattern has been reproduced all over the world in countries colonised by the British, but is by no means universal. Even in ‘Christian’ Europe, most countries require a civil ceremony in addition to the religious rite.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has some interesting comments to make on the matter of the institution of marriage at §1603. It says: ‘The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator.’ On the other hand marriage is also a ‘human institution’ (although not ‘purely’ so) which has undergone many variations ‘in different cultures, social structures, and spiritual attitudes’. Still ‘the greatness of the matrimonial union’ can be seen in that it ‘exists in all cultures’ and retains many ‘common and permanent characteristics’ in all cultures.
Our multicultural Australian society is a perfect setting in which to explore in real life these cultural and spiritual variations and common and permanent characteristics. This was the intention and aim of the Interfaith Symposium on Marriage hosted by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne over three days from 29 September to 2 October this year.
With the generous assistance of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, the Victorian Council of Churches, the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, the Islamic Council of Victoria, the Buddhist Council of Victoria, the Hindu Foundation of Australia, the Sikh Interfaith Council of Victoria, and Australian Catholic University, we put together a program that featured 36 speakers and panellists from a variety of religious backgrounds.
The program aimed to provide participants with knowledge and insight into how each religious tradition understands the institution of marriage, prepares for and celebrates weddings, and supports married couples through the many joys and difficulties of life. Presentations included: the meaning of the marriage rites as practised by the different faith traditions; the legal, ethical, and pastoral aspects of marriage; and the lived experience of married couples and families in the various spiritual communities.
Over three days we learned many lessons. We learned that Buddhism has no set approach to marriage, but that Asian marriage rites vary according to the culture in which they are celebrated—often with the inclusion of a tea ceremony offered to the parents of the bride and groom. We learned that the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist ceremonies, especially in and around India, were very similar. We learned that the Eastern Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim ceremonies have no exchange of vows, but are often (especially in the Muslim case) determined upon the making of a marriage contract.
In our session on the care of marriages, Denis Lacey from CatholicCare presented on marriage enrichment, Muslim psychologist Monique Toohey spoke on her experience as a marriage counsellor, and Jewish psychologist Kalman Rubin told us about his role in marriage mediation at the Family Law Court.
We were also graced with an enthralling panel of married couples from Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Latter Day Saints traditions, who (under the moderation of Matthew MacDonald from the Marriage, Life and Family Office of the Archdiocese) freely shared with us their experiences of courtship, marriage, childbirth and parenting in the heart of their religious communities.
Yet another session—which I believe to have been a unique occasion in Australia—brought together Fr Tony Kerin EV (Tribunal of the Catholic Church, Victoria & Tasmania), Rabbi Meir Kluwgant (Beth Din) and Sheikh Abdinur Weli (Sharia) speaking on the role of religious courts in divorce and remarriage. And, yes, we also had a session looking at faith perspectives on the proposals to alter the marriage laws to allow ‘same-sex marriage’, with Rabbi Adam Stein (Jewish), Chelsea Pietsch (Lutheran) and Mo Elleissy (Muslim) bringing different reactions, together with good humour and thoughtful reflection.
Among those who attended the symposium were six civil celebrants, who brought their own unique perspectives on the celebration of marriage in Australian society. We greatly benefited from their participation, as they are in touch with the great mass of Australians who no longer closely identify with any specifically religious tradition. One of these celebrants, Ange Kenos JP, commented after the event:
As a civil celebrant I was delighted and honoured to play my own very small part and I believe that the various clergy present left with a better understanding of what I do in my own role. It is multifaith communications and interrelations such as this which prove that the Catholic Church is not still in the Dark Ages but a force within the modern world.
Overall, the symposium highlighted the truth of the insights of the Catechism. As a human institution, marriage is understood and celebrated in a vast variety of ways in our multicultural, multifaith society. Yet at the same time there are deep commonalities: each celebrates the way in which a man and a woman come to form a new family unit, and has a social and spiritual role to play in the community.
In Chesterton’s terms, the Interfaith Symposium on Marriage was a valuable chance to ‘go away and think’ about marriage as it exists in Australia today, before we begin to consider what its future may be.