Love and marriage are certainly very much in the air in my life at the moment, with three of my friends getting married this year, one in less than two weeks. (Scary biscuits for me, shes MY AGE!) But marriage is certainly one of those issues where feminists and christians tend to fight it out.
For me it goes without saying that the Christian ritual of marriage as we know it today is full of some unspeakable sexism. It all starts when the man asks the woman's father (or a male family member certainly) for 'permission' to marry his daughter. While this (and I thank God for it) is going out of fashion now, asking permission clearly shows that the women is considered to the property of her father, under his control, with no personal freedom or autonomy. It has nothing to do with 'tradition' or 'family value' and everything to do with sexism and controlling women. Women wear a nice sparky ring to show that they are 'taken' whereas this is not essential for men. On the wedding day itself it all gets worse. The women is taken down the aisle by her father and passed on to her husband, passed on to her new owner (this isn't hyperbole, this is really what the symbolism behind this is). The bride wears white, symbolising her virginity, her purity is an essential part of the marriage, not so for her future husband, its almost expected that he will have got in some practise already - the double standard is clear.
And all this is to say nothing of the fact that behind this tradition is the assumption that the couple will be a man and a women not of the same sex. Not to mention the stereotypes perpetuated in the runup to the big day, with women who are obsessed with dresses and flowers and men who are terrified of commitment. Add to this the hen and the stag night, where men objectify women as they always do and women do their level best to follow on, all the while wearing pink t-shirts saying 'up for it'. I don't feel the need to justify to why I object.
And these pieces of sexism and prejudice are not something that should be dismissed as traditional, or not a big deal, because traditions like this affect how we see the world. This sets the scene for how men and women relate to each other in relationships, sets norms which damage both women and men and I firmly believe helps to establish a pattern of power in relationships which plays a part in the high levels of male domestic violence against women. So yes, it is a big deal.
But damaging as these traditons are, I do still hold out some hope for marriage. The way we do marriage in our culture is of course, not some kind of God-ordained ritual, as all cultures throughtout time have done this differently. The bible makes no mention of white dresses and veils, or cake, or even a presiding minister, the understanding of marriage in Jewish culture was different to ours (not to say that it was better, it was as bad, but I don't profess to have good historical understanding so I'll stop here).
If we consider Adam and Eve to be the first married couple (and yes the story might be allegorical and it might be true, I can't really pretend I care that much, the point remains the same), then there was nothing to their marriage but a commitment to lifelong monogomy, which is all that marriage really is. And yes, many argue that Eve was to submit to Adam as our biblical translations render her his 'helper'. Given that the word used in the Hebrew is also the one used to describe how God relates to the people of Israel as their 'helper' its hard to see how this made her his inferior, no matter how much centuries of patriarchial culture have used it to mean this.
So, if all marriage really is at core is this committment to lifelong monogamy (which I do believe is a good thing, even though divorce will inevitably happen in some cases, and for good reasons), then a ceremony can certainly be a good way to celebrate and affirm this. So rather than throwing marriage out of the window, I believe we need to reform marriage, so we can still celebrate our committment to another person before God and other people, but without all the sexist institutions that currently surround marriage.
Certainly there could be vows involved in this ceremony, vows of love and commitment, but nothing suggesting that one partner must submit more than the other (its all about the mutual submission!). There can even be pretty clothes, but no necessity about what these are. And before the day, the two members of the couple can go out with their friends to celebrate this new, important stage in their life, without feeling the need to confirm to outdated stereotypes of how they should be because of their sex.
And of course, this marriage has no need of being sanctioned by the state which has no business in such affairs. What else do you think we can do to redeem marriage?