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by Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University, member of General Synod and vice-chair of its Gender & Sexuality Group

A confession: I find the ‘Church as the bride of Christ’ image deeply unhelpful. Yes, it’s in the Bible and yes, it’s part of the tradition, but… really? I’ve been a bride, and had a very happy day, but this imagery doesn’t help me think about God at all. The idea that Jesus, who as far as we know (Da Vinci Code aside) never married while living among us, is somehow marrying, or going to marry, the Church? What is that about? It doesn’t help that I am very much aware of the long history of arranged marriages, of payment of dowries or bride-price, of a woman being used as a pawn in a game of thrones or as a means of cementing an alliance between families lower down the social order. Brides, historically, haven’t been in a freely-chosen relationship. And the bride of Christ imagery can be highly circular, somehow moving back from the cosmic marriage of Christ and the Church to the individual marriages of human beings, where the gendering of the image can then be used to support the idea that that marriages can only be between people of opposite sexes. I also know that the bride of Christ image can be embraced enthusiastically by men; there’s a long history of men seeing themselves as the ‘brides’, and I wrote about that here.

For me, a far more helpful image of marriage as a deep form of commitment between two people comes from what may sound an improbable source: Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company (1970). For many decades now, theatre has been my main hobby. My tastes are eclectic: Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, new plays… and musicals. Sondheim’s lyrics are perfection, his rhymes clever and his insights into the human condition profound: he wrote that “Nobody goes through life unscathed, and I think if you write about those things, you’re going to touch people.”

Company is about marriage. I saw the recent gender-swapped production, which made the lead character into a woman (Bobbie) rather than a man (Bobby) and changed one couple into a gay couple (opening number here). The changes worked very well, not least in raising the question of whether being a single woman is still more difficult than being a single man; the ticking of the biological clock featured several times. Last week I watched the 2006 revival, available in full on YouTube here.

The basic plot? It’s Bobby’s 35th birthday. He’s at the age when all his friends are married or planning to marry, but he isn’t. Why not? He comes to realise that his friends spend time with him to project the failings of their own relationships on to him. He’s the catalyst in their relationships, and they ‘perform’ their marriages when he is with them. Even in that opening number it’s clear that his friends don’t really know him for himself, as they all use different names for him. His relationships with his girlfriends are no deeper.

Sondheim has explained that it was difficult for him, as a gay man, to write about marriage; in his book Finishing the Hat (2010) he wrote about “The unknown Kingdom of Marriage”. He did in fact marry Jeff Romley, but not until 2017, when Sondheim was in his late 80s. For Company, he found out what marriage was like by asking the songwriter Mary Rodgers. His relationship with her was unusual. In her memoirs, she described how Sondheim’s psychotherapist thought he should have a ‘normal’ relationship, and so Sondheim invited her to move into his New York house as a sort of experimental marriage, but one in which the ‘M’ word was never used. She wrote that they shared a bed and “just lay there… the whole thing was wildly uncomfortable… and yet it kept happening”. The relationship had “All the guilt of sinning with none of the pleasure”. Before this time with Sondheim, Rodgers wrote of relationships that “I was 29. I could hear the party-game music winding down, and all I wanted was a good-enough chair.” And, by the time Sondheim wrote Company, about Bobby reaching 35, Rodgers – with experience of two heterosexual marriages – was a good guide to that unknown kingdom.

In ‘Marry me a little’, which closes the first half of Company, Bobby announces that “I’m ready! I’m ready now!” But the lyrics make it very clear that he isn’t. For example,

Marry me a little,

Do it with a will.

Make a few demands

I’m able to fulfill.

Want me more than others,

Not exclusively.

That’s the way it ought to be…

We’ll look not too deep,

We’ll go not too far.

We won’t have to give up a thing,

We’ll stay who we are.

In the song ‘Getting married today’, delivered at breakneck speed, Bobby’s friend Amy goes into a blind panic on the morning of her wedding:

Remember Paul? You know, the man I’m going to marry

But I’m not, because I wouldn’t ruin anyone

As wonderful as he is.

A wedding. What’s a wedding? It’s a prehistoric ritual

Where everybody promises fidelity forever,

Which is maybe the most horrifying word I ever heard of,

Which is followed by a honeymoon, where suddenly he’ll realize

He’s saddled with a nut, and want to kill me, which he should.

It’s clear here that the problem is Amy’s self-image: she thinks she can never deserve Paul. Each of these songs is a valuable reflection on marriage, commitment and the sense of worth; on the need to be happy with oneself before committing to another person.

While the first half closes with ‘Marry me a little’, the final number of the musical sees Bobby commit much further in the song ‘Being alive’. Here, “what starts as a complaint becomes a prayer” as Bobby ‘gets’ what marriage is really about.

Somebody hold me too close

Somebody hurt me too deep

Somebody sit in my chair

And ruin my sleep

And make me aware

Of being alive

Being alive

Somebody crowd me with love

Somebody force me to care

Somebody make me come through

I’ll always be there

As frightened as you

To help us survive

Being alive

His friends comment throughout the song, telling him for instance that “You’ve got so many reasons for not being with someone, but you haven’t one good reason for being alone” and encouraging him:“Come on, you’re on to something, you’re on to something”.

The profundity of union with another person; the transformation we experience when we prioritise someone else over ourselves. Knowing ourselves as we are known. Why does the Church of England still act as if this can’t be something experienced by people who are of the same sex?

The equal basis of marriage, with neither partner somehow ‘in charge’ by virtue of their sex, has so many advantages over a model in which a bride is traded for her purity and always at her husband’s command. As PCR2 has just reminded us, some theologies of marriage make it difficult to report abuse within the relationship, leading to “a culture of minimising the seriousness of domestic abuse”, because “the attitude towards domestic abuse [is] linked to the belief around the sanctity of marriage”. Of course, abuse can happen in same-sex marriages too, and there may be other reasons for not wanting to report it, but it’s worth stopping to reflect on whether an equal model of marriage is healthier here.

The equal model also says something less obvious to our current debates. If we start to think about the relationship between those of us in the Church of England who believe marriage can only be between people of different sexes, and those of us who believe that it can exist for people who are the same sex, and as we wait for the bishops to decide what to bring to the February 2023 General Synod, are we thinking that We won’t have to give up a thing/ We’ll stay who we are?

Or can we say to each other I’ll always be there/As frightened as you? Perfect love casts out fear: are we capable of dwelling in that love? Can we find a way to be fully alive … together?

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