Speech given at General Synod on Thursday 9 Feb 2023
As a historian, I want to challenge this idea that we have heard repeatedly expressed, that the church has always had one fixed doctrine of marriage.
Our debates today are part of a very long and ongoing tradition of debate about our relationship to sex, sexuality, and different patterns of relationship and family.
In the scriptures, we see three, not two, gender identities: male, female and eunuch. And there is much debate about how that last category might map onto the categories that we speak of today.
In the early church, marriage did not mean sex per se, but the socio-economic status of being a householder. Slaves could not get married. And there were serious debates about whether Christians should marry at all, since it involved participating in civil society.
For most of Christian history, we had no marriage service. For elite families, marriage was primarily concerned with property, inheritance and alliances. In the medieval period the church began a programme of reform, which involved greatly annoying the aristocracy all over Europe by insisting on the radical notion that the couple at the heart of these alliances should both give their consent – hence the ‘I will’ and ‘I do’ vows in the marriage liturgy that developed.
‘Man’ and ‘woman’ was often a misnomer. Child marriages were common at this elite level, as political alliances were cemented. And at the popular level, practices such as betrothal, handfasting and ‘bundling’ were commonplace, all socially sanctioned and sometimes liturgical ceremonies which celebrated the commencement of pre-marital sexual intimacy, rarely condemned by the church.
In the nineteenth century there were protracted legal debates about whether women counted legally as ‘persons’. Until the Married Women’s Property Act, married women could not legally own property in their own right. (My own mother in law tells me indignantly that as a married woman in the 1970s she couldn’t buy a sofa on hire purchase without her husband’s signature).
Theologians and church dignitaries frequently weighed in on all sides of these debates. Legally, the view that we are all ‘people’ won the day – and the 1938 report of the first Doctrine Commission in the Church of England spoke of marriage as being between ‘two Christian persons’.
So as a historian – no, the church has not taught consistently for 2000 years that all sex outside of marriage is a sin, and has not had one unified doctrine of marriage for all that time.
One of our pastoral principles is to pay attention to power. So let us be honest that for most of our history, discussions about marriage have not been about sex per se, but about power.
Jesus himself said that whilst we start from the Scriptures, ‘the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth’. So we shouldn’t be surprised or afraid to see doctrine develop and change as we learn more about the world and one another. It took the church 300 years to develop the doctrine of the Trinity, so lets not be dismayed that as we are learning more now about sex and sexuality, we are having this debate.
Thank you very much for this Miranda. I hope people listened properly. Well said and love from Jenny StandageReplyDelete
Refreshing reading your article as I just finished Margaret Farley's book Just Love. Both so insightfulReplyDelete
Most helpful speech of all Synod, thankyou.ReplyDelete
Thank you MirandaReplyDelete
Well said 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻ReplyDelete
Really superb. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Thank you for sharing that. A very interesting perspective that I hadn’t thought about before.ReplyDelete
Really a powerful speech! Congrats!ReplyDelete
Thank you for this. I also think that there is something about protecting women through marriage previously. Also child mortality and procreation had an impact on marriage - the fact we now have birth control/women in work can now impact the time in which we marry.ReplyDelete
Thank you. The C of E exhibits historical amnesia only too often. In this century the marriage to a deceased wife's sister, the acceptance in the teeth of RC and Orthodox Christendom of contraception, re marriage after divorce have all modified our understanding of marriage and has affected the marriages of far more people than the Synodical proposals.ReplyDelete
And let's remember also that in this country marital rape was legal until v recently. As the majority of marriages were church ones then that implicitly was acceptable as part of Christian marriageReplyDelete
As a theologian I couldn’t agree more. Well said Miranda, well said. 👋ReplyDelete
Excellent comments. The myth of a consistent "doctrine of marriage" is a considerable obstacle to the work of the church. Few "doctrines" have had so much ambiguity down through history; even the question about what constituted the marriage (consent vs consummation) was actively debated in relatively modern times. Thankful for small steps of progress towards a better understanding.ReplyDelete
Brilliant and thoughtful. Thank you.ReplyDelete
I was meaning to write to thank you for your contribution and now I'm using this 'comments' section for your speech.ReplyDelete
Total sense, and important things to say, given the general vacuum/ assumptions about 'traditional' marriage, even though it kept being referred to throughout, as if there was clarity about it.
In one sense, what you said/ write is obvious, and obviously true; in another sense, an awful lot of people don't realise it, so it can't be obvious. Hence what you said was vital.
Why did you wait so long to say this? The Anglican communion has been openly struggling with this for almost 20 years!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Miranda for your historical perspective. Marriage is not a sacrament which is 'necessary to salvation'. Otherwise, every Christian would need to partake of it. Nor is it taken into eternal life. As you say, Jesus described 'eunuch' as an example of non-procreational humanity - of which he, himself, was an obvious representative. One cannot ignore the eunuch who was so: 'from his/her mother's womb'. Sounds a lot like a possible partner in a non-procreational relationship to me (gay?) And then, there was another description of a marriage, referred to in the Scriptures as the Marriage of The Lamb. Certainly, no gender limitation there.ReplyDelete
So right, Miranda. There was also the period when priests were in such short supply after the Black Death that people got married 'without benefit of clergy', ie just lived together publicly. And a large proportion of 'biblical' marriages are polygamous!ReplyDelete
As an historian I really appreciate your challenging the myth concerning the Church and marriage. God bless you! This was something the Living in Love and Faith History Group were not able to do, apparently because when it came to the crunch Theology trumped History, and some of the important ideas of the historians were ignored. I'm grateful too for your comment about what the Church did do for marriage when it began to engage with it in the Middle Ages, which I was not aware of. One resource people may find useful is the Library of Living in Love and Faith, which can be accessed simply by signing up for an account. It includes specially written essays which are sometimes quite readable.ReplyDelete