Until recently the definition of a Christian marriage was roughly ‘the voluntary union, for life, of one man to one woman’. This began to collapse about a hundred years ago when it became possible, at least outside the Catholic Church, to have a full divorce from someone and then legally marry another person. This change undermined ‘for life’, though that is still preserved in the ‘until death us do part’ phrase in the wedding service. Furthermore, same sex marriages of a man to a man or a woman to a woman, are becoming widely accepted. So what is left of marriage?
As anthropologists analysed marriage in different societies, they soon realized that the western Christian concept did not work well outside a particular area of the world. An obvious weakness was that marriage elsewhere was sometimes between one man and several women, or one woman and several men. Furthermore, marriage was often not for life or even for a long time at all, for it was very easy to divorce and re-marry.
Some surprising types of ‘marriage’ emerged. People were found to be marrying someone of the same sex or even dead people, as in the Nuer case. They were marrying someone (a high status person who gave them a position in society) and then never seeing him again, but living and having children by someone else. People even ‘married’ parts of another person, a friend’s arm or little finger, a rock or a tree, as a way of establishing property and other rights.
So the definition of marriage became longer and longer to try and encompass all these variations until it finally became just too complicated. It was better to look at marriage as a bundle of rights and obligations people establish in each other; as sexual partners, as bearers of children, as co-workers in the home, as earners of money outside the home.
Once these rights are considered as distinct, it is easy to see how they might be held as a clump by one person, or by different people. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, a woman was traditionally parcelled out between various people. Her sexuality, the children she bears and partial rights to her domestic services belong to her husband and his wider family. Some of her domestic services in certain circumstances belong to the family group she was born into. Her economic power and resources belong to her. The famous trading women of west African markets reflect this division since they keep their own earnings.
If we look at marriage in this way, we can see that same-sex marriage makes sense. Recently I read of a case in India where a young man married his ancient grand-mother so that he could look after her more easily. Some people might even think it would be a cunning strategy to ensure the happiness of their loved cat or dog, and evade inheritance tax, if they married the little creature.