There's a reference in the Guardian to a poll for Catholic Voices (whatever that is; I'm reckoning on it not being progressive or protestant, just a guess) which says that out of 2,000 people polled 70% say "Marriage should continue to be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman".
The Guardian writer comments, a little narkily if you ask me, that this is obviously wrong as 70% of people aren't against divorce.
On one level he makes a fair point - the problem with polls is that you always get the answers you want to. At St Catherine's we needed to show that we had done some research about the use of the church hall, and we put out a questionnaire on this basis. We worked hard at framing the questions in a way that we wouldn't simply be laughed at by the funding bodies for pointless answers: but this is harder than it sounds, because every such poll is sponsored by someone... If Richard Dawkins had written our questionnaire, we may have found that there weren't any older people in Pontypridd, or that people felt the last organisation fit to help them was the church. When we asked, we got the answers we wanted. Crazy.
Actually, I see an awful lot of hope and good in this poll from Catholic Voices, even if what they were in fact doing was something I might not agree with. We'll come back to that. What is good here is this: I complained in my recent blog about the Coalition For Marriage that they were totally silent on the idea of marriage as a commitment for life. Love is for life. So they are. But this Catholic poll brings that back, front and centre.
"Life-long exclusive commitment". Those are beautiful words. Almost impossible in today's ephemeral, throwaway world, but beautiful. We should hold ideals as precious and holy. Catholic Voices (oops, in typing I missed out the 'o' in that word, how Freudian) do everyone a great deal of good by placing such a holy ideal slap bang in the public domain. Love is for life. That's not easy, but great things often are hard, and hard won, and their value comes not from their ease but from the victory of the struggle and the longevity of the experience. Love is for life. People are not throwaway. TV & the films have it all wrong, and sell all the world and you & me terribly, terribly short. We are awfully impoverished by expectations of failure and the concept of the 'next time'. First love should be forever love.
And here's the thing - a poll that says 70% of people get the ideal.
That's fantastic. Wonderful. 70% of people get the ideal. Want it, even, maybe. I bet a fair number of those people themselves are not living it. Have crashed and been burned. The world is not ideal, and yet we as people know what ideals are and still hold them dear. That is the beauty of life.
Because here is where I differ from Catholic Voices. (And this is what I said I'd come back to, earlier.) Their agenda is to be part of the movement that works hard to persuade the Government against going ahead with its agenda to open up marriage to gay people as well as straight people. The 70% for them are saying "no gay people should be married". (That's possible, of course - if you think 70% of people are in fact against divorce.)
But actually, I just don't get that there are different sides here. I don't get why there should be. This is about one place where I can have my cake & eat it. I've spent years of my life preaching everywhere I can about a God who loves people - simply loves people, people without qualification. "For God so loved the world (yep, the world, everyone) that he gave his only Son that whoever (yep, whoever, absolutely anyone who should do this) believes in him should not perish but gain everlasting life".
Of course, the majority see marriage as an ideal that involves a man and a woman and no-one else and lasts for life. Of course this happens - firstly, the majority are straight! That should be their ideal! But face it, in the real world, stuff happens to married people - and then what? Are those marriages unreal? Wrong? Invalid? And when they have broken, and people want to try again, are second marriages not marriages? Or if we are simply afraid of breaking the ideal, are struggling marriages not marriages? And once we have accepted that we can be real as well as ideal, moving away from the majority understanding of what ideal is, are marriages that are between a man and a man also to be excluded because they don't fit the description on the polling card?
Minority situations don't destroy the majority ideal. They don't say - that's wrong. The majority ideal is right. But it's not exactly right for everyone, for all kinds of reasons. And where someone is in the minority, the gracious majority ideal doesn't crush them, sometimes it heals, and sometimes it expands, confidently, because it is so wonderful and will not lose itself - how can it? The minority should never set the ideal - break up; infidelity; transience; or even that the partners should be same sex. That would be stupid. But crushing the experience of the minority and excluding those for whom the ideal is impossible is also, well, not generous.
I am thrilled at this poll; to be able to produce such a great ideal so strongly in our contemporary culture is quite a feat. But ideals must be used to inspire, not to condemn. And where people don't fit, can't fit, the ideal is not questioned, instead it warmly opens its arms and draws others in.
We shouldn't take sides and make people oppose people. Because this isn't about ideas - it's about people opposing people. Real people. People who live and breathe and love and laugh and care and pray and cry and feel - married people, straight people, gay people, parents, children, lonely people, people in and out of love, people who feel valued and who feel walked over time and time again - on every side of every argument. Not ideas. People.
Love bade me welcome...
For life. Exclusive of others. But same sex? If that's you - then come here.
You've been broken in a different relationship, but need to start again? Then, with care and love - a fresh beginning, for your new life. Exclusive of others, with sins forgiven and memories healed, man and wife. If that's you - then come here.
For life. But you strayed; then come back, and seek help, and forgiveness, and learn how to be faithful and faithfully loved once more. If that's you - then come here.
Either that, or we have rules that break people. Ideals that inspire or institutions that kill. Marriage is a gift of God, and his gifts bring life - to everyone who wants them.