There are good people on both sides of the current debate over letting homosexual couples get married -- and good people in between who aren't sure just where they stand. And may never be. Lots of them are all in favor of according homosexuals all the financial benefits that go with marriage, and the social and legal standing, too. From pension and inheritance rights to hospital visitation privileges. It's only right -- and about time. And they want to do the decent thing.
Yet many of these same people, fair-minded as they are, balk at granting homosexual couples a marriage license. They may not be able to say exactly why they draw the line at the word marriage. Which is why so many of them have embraced civil unions as a fair compromise; they envision it as marriage with all the benefits, just not the name.
Why won't they cross that last line, go that last step? They may say something about custom and tradition, or even mention religious scruples, but it's all very vague. You get the feeling they're still struggling with the question, that their opinion on this matter hasn't matured. They must sound uncertain and unconvincing even to themselves. They want to do the right thing by their fellow man -- and woman -- whatever the sexual proclivities involved, but they can't bring themselves to extend marriage to homosexual unions.
Why is that? Maybe because they realize somewhere in the back of their minds that a word is more than just a word, that it can carry all kinds of connotations and values with it, a whole history. Certainly a word like marriage does. Because it's not just a word. Marriage is an institution hallowed not only by the church but by time and custom and the whole culture we're part of and rely on, whether we realize it or not.
In the words of the old Book of Common Prayer, marriage is an honorable estate "and therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God."
Yes, we can change the formal definition of marriage, and wave it over any personal arrangement we prefer, whether homosexual marriage or polygamy or you name it, but that doesn't mean our new definition will retain its old meaning and significance.