Monday 19 March 2012

Can you change marriage ?

When the Government published its much awaited consultation on same-sex marriage last Thursday, the battle lines had already been clearly drawn.

On one side are the Prime Minister, gay pressure groups, and the majority of MP’s in parliament  who, according to all calculations, would back such a measure in a free vote.
On the other, ranks of church leaders from a range of denominations who have denounced the proposed ‘re-definition’ of marriage as, in varying degrees, grotesque, dictatorial, and shameful.

A common assertion among the latter is that you simply can’t change marriage.  Marriage is what marriage is, and no-one has the power to alter it – not government, nor church nor equality activists.   According  to the Archbishop of York, it is not "the role of the state to define what marriage is.  It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are."
The Archbishop is undeniably right of course, when he points to our current understanding of marriage as "a relationship between a man and a woman" but what he fails to acknowledge is that definitions, understandings and laws relating to marriage have been constantly changing through human history, biblical history, and church history.

If we go back to the Bible, we find that for the bulk of biblical history, marriage was polygamous with many wives equating to male power & success.  Neither the Gospels nor the Epistles ever put a formal end to this model of marriage and yet it is one which few would advocate today - our understanding has changed dramatically from the examples of scripture.
In pre-Enlightenment times marriage was more about property than about love, with political order and social standing high on the agenda for budding brides, grooms and their families.

In the Prayer Book the reasons for marriage are clear - first for procreation of children, then as a remedy against sin, and then finally for the mutual 'help and comfort' of the couple – little about love here.   Brides were ‘given away’ from one man to another. Marriage between family members which were forbidden, included a prohibition on marrying your wife’s sister after her death.  This came from a mistaken understanding of consanguinity – that because you became one flesh with your wife, so you shared the same family blood with her sister.  So strong was this belief that when an act of Parliament finally legalised such marriages in 1907, clergy were permitted to refuse to conduct them - an interesting parallel in today's debates about same-sex marriage.
Today’s theology of marriage can be found more in the modern marriage service of Common Worship than in the Prayer Book.  Here we find the Prayer Book introduction substantially re-ordered and changed.  Marriage is first and foremost about enabling two people to be 'united with one another in heart, body and mind' as they 'grow together in love and trust'.  Then it is for the 'delight and tenderness of sexual union' within 'joyful commitment to the end of their lives' and after all that, it is the 'foundation of family life in which children are [born] and nurtured'. Even here, the square brackets reveal a changing recognition of more complex realities in the raising of children.

So when those opposed to same-sex marriage claim that you can’t just change marriage, it is a selective view of history at best because clearly it has been changed time and time again.  The real issue must be about the substance of marriage and whether same-sex relationships can be embraced within that essence.
Many people in the church and wider society have recognized the marks of marriage in committed  same-sex relationships around them.  Bishop Nicholas Holtam referred to these recently when he said, “I think same-sex couples that I know who have formed a partnership have in many respects a relationship which is similar to a marriage and which I now think of as marriage.

Indeed, when David Cameron asserts that he supports same-sex marriage because "society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other", he is echoing the modern marriage service when it affirms that marriage "enriches society and strengthens community."
And there are several pointers within Scripture which might direct us towards an understanding of marriage which is not dependent on gender difference.

When God sought to provide a suitable companion for Adam in the Garden of Eden, he said “It is not good for the man to be alone”.  Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people exhibit the same yearning as Adam.  Just because they find that the person who completes them is of the same sex, that does not abrogate the need which God meets in the creation of another human being to complete Adam’s yearning for a suitable companion in life.
In imagery of the Church as the Bride of Christ (often quoted as a justification for opposing same-sex marriage) we easily forget that the Church comprises both women and men who will, in some sense be a bride to Christ as part of His Church.

In Galatians, Paul calls us to a radical new reality in Christ as gender becomes irrelevant in Christ who enables us all to be born again into a new creation.
As the Government consultation begins, we need to grapple with these issues.  We need to engage in theological debate and prayerful reflection, rather than knee-jerk reactions claiming eternal authority for an institution which is incapable of change.

The role of the Established Church is not simply to act as a line of last defense, but to guide our nation in examining our understanding of God and society.  Marriage is not an immovable object - the question is what direction should it take today?


  1. Thank you for this careful examination of what the understanding of marriage is among many (most?) people in our time. And how the modern definition of marriage in Common Worship differs from the BCP version.

    1. Thank you for commenting. Those opposed to even talking about same-sex marriage are fond of quoting from the BCP marriage service (which very few people use today) but seem less keen to quote from the current Common Worship service.

  2. Also thanks for this, Benny. I think you look rationally at how our understanding of marriage, far from being fixed, has changed over time. Our marriage is my husband's second marriage (he is widowed.) I've been reading recently how Tertullian and St Augustine both would not have considered it a marriage as they believed that "the union of the man and woman...can no way be dissolved by the death of one of them" (Augustine.)!
    I am slightly amazed by those who complain that gay marriage will usher in polygamous marriages - and yet the reality that many heterosexuals tend to have several sexual partners before settling down does not seem to feature. The hypothetical evils of polygamy are dwelt on but the reality of serial monogamy hardly raises an eyebrow, even if conservatives don't agree with it.
    People are entitled to say that they consider marriage as a heterosexual matter (I don't agree) but there is not always a lot of logic applied.

    1. Thanks Suem - I am particularly interested in Augustine's view of your marriage!

      The polygamy argument is a version of the 'Thin end of the wedge' argument, and I like this quote from the Times Newspaper in 1907. “I find it hard to believe that any person of Christian feeling or even civilized instincts can wish to inflict the sort of insult that would be involved in using our churches and our services for carrying out what is in our conviction only an act of sexual vice.” The issue in question was whether a widower could marry his dead wife's sister - as above!

      The controversy lead many to express fear as to where it would lead. There is a Church Times article on it which its very helpful (but you need to be a subscriber to access it). Here is a quote from it...

      'If men could marry their deceased wife’s sister at will, it was asked, then where did that leave the Established Church — its laws, its Prayer Book, and its Table of Kindred and Affinity?

      'If this were not bad enough, they continued, where did it leave marriage? If this change were allowed, then what else would follow? Conservative critics argued that it would be the thin end of the wedge. Once men could marry their dead wife’s sister, what was to stop them wanting to wed other members of the family? This injunction, its defenders believed, was all that stood in the way of a sort of incestuous anarchy. It was absolutely necessary, wrote one, to protect the laws of marriage and chastity, which were defended by this “great moral safeguard”.'

      If you do subscibe to the CT, the link is...

  3. I am finding this whole argument that you cannot change marriage completely confusing.
    Even if our understanding of marriage had never changed, who says it cannot be changed now?

    What do we mean when we say it is from God? How do we know? And even if it were true, does that a priori imply that God wouldn't want it to be changed now?

    And why is it so hard for people to accept that in the civil sphere, religious ideas of what "God" might want don't count because the rules are made by elected MPs who may be Christians or Muslims or Pagans or Budhists or Humanists or nothing in particular?

    Whether someone thinks that they don't have a right (legal? moral? universal?) to change the definition of marriage is quite irrelevant, because within the context of our parliamentary democracy they simply DO have that right.

    Where does this idea come from that the human belief of what the Christian God might or might not have instituted is binding to everyone who does not believe in the Christian God?

    1. Hi Erica.

      I think it depends on how God is perceived. Conservatives tend to emphasize the 'unchanging God' who continually calls us back to 'his ways'. Progressive Christians tend to emphasize the 'pilgrim journey' where we discover God, and who has a dynamic relationship with his/her creation rather than a static one.

      But both groups need to recognise the increasingly secular environment in which the church exists.

    2. That's true, Benny, but then they have to make that argument in the context of previous changes of our understanding of God - the good old slavery issue is yet again the prime example - and why it does not apply to marriage.

      Simply stating that it doesn't is not enough.