Friday, May 6, 2011

Mary Hunt on Royal Wedding: Theologically, "Stabilizing for the Status Quo"

As with everything she writes, Mary Hunt's recent commentary at Religion Dispatches on the royal wedding is well worth reading.  Hunt's take: in key respects, the symbolism woven into the recent wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was "stabilizing for the status quo," in a theological sense.  And more's the pity.

Hunt notes that Kate's father gave her in marriage by giving her hand to the priest solemnizing the marriage, who then gave her hand to William.  When the marriage ceremony ended, the presider pronounced William and Kate "man and wife"--not husband and wife.  And the entire ceremony relied heavily on patriarchal rhetoric identifying God as father, ruler, and king.

The puzzle here, Hunt points out, is that while increasing numbers of young people (the royal couple included) ignore the stipulations of churches about premarital liaisons and about many aspects of gender behavior, people still commonly opt for marriage ceremonies that reinforce patriarchal assumptions which couples presumably otherwise reject: 

Young people who live together for years before they marry, women who hold responsible positions in the world, even some same-sex couples fall into the traps set by patriarchal religions. Somehow, despite any other modern or postmodern ways of behaving, when it comes to a wedding they want the old model. And they get it when uncritical clergy repeat the ancient formulas without any connection to the way women with men, women with women, and men with men conduct their lives before and after the ceremony.

This makes clear just how irrelevant religion is to most people. Yet they instrumentalize it for marriages (not to mention funerals and burials) without apology. I don’t blame them. If religious leaders don’t do our part to show new ways of celebrating that are more congruent with reality—new language, symbols, and gestures—what options do they have?

These are points well worth making, it seems to me.  When it comes to thinking about gender and gender roles, there's a cultivated archaism in much of our social behavior that is apparent in few other aspects of our cultural lives today.  And in this discrete area, we deliberately and willingly resort to religious warrants to prop up gender assumptions long since exploded in many areas of our society and our own practice.

This is, of course, precisely why Austen Ivereigh wanted to point to the power of this particular liturgical ceremony to remind us that traditional marriage is all about one man marrying one woman--even if the man marrying the woman happens to have lived with her without benefit of marriage prior to the wedding.  Or to have impregnated her.  Or several hers.

It's all about issuing symbolic reminders, backed by religious warrant, of who counts in our society and who doesn't.  Of who's on top and who's on bottom.  And of who should stay on bottom and not get out of her place.

In a symbolic way, weddings still very frequently enact governing presuppositions of our society that have everything to do with heterosexual male power and control, and which those intent on using religious symbols to shore up such male domination of women and gay men do not want to see getting out of their hands.  Hence the perfervid praise of this ceremony in some male heterosexist quarters, in the Catholic church and other churches in which men have much invested in maintaining male heterosexual power and control.  

And hence Mary Hunt's questions, from a feminist theological perspective, which need to be asked.  They need to be asked, that is, by anyone who does not take for granted that someone born with a penis happens because of that biological chance to be born as well with entitlement not given by birth to anyone born without a penis.  Or by anyone who does not take for granted that God has a penis, metaphorically speaking, and that God therefore shares the concern of some of God's male cheerleaders to keep those with a penis on top in our world and in our communities of faith.

Assuming, that is, that they use their penises in the natural and divinely ordained way.

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