Claims that it makes are demonstrably misinformed and incorrect. Being factually erroneous reinforces questioning the under-girding conviction that marriage has come to us unchanged in the last 2,000 years. In particular, with changes to practices around divorce and remarriage, and the near-ubiquitous acceptance of gender equality and the interchangeability of roles for genders, swathes of biblical material traditionally associated with marriage are now quietly no longer used, or their plain reading is abandoned.
Most cogently, Professor Linda Woodhead in her article An error in the House of Bishops Guidance on Same Sex Marriage, demonstrates that the bishops are incorrect in claiming that there is now “for the first time, a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer”.
As one is caught up short by such erroneous claims by the bishops we pause to look at other parts of our marriage rites that have changed to see if there have been incremental changes that may have blindsided people and prevented them seeing the trajectory of the developments in the way that the bishops are.
The approach to divorce and remarriage is an obvious shift, certainly here in New Zealand. But I also want to reflect on the understanding of women and men as equal (with roles interchangeable between men and women) as a presumed set of lenses that we bring to marriage and its rites. Certainly, if you hold to men and women differing in nature, if you affirm male headship in family and church, this post will be meaningless to you – let us acknowledge there is consistency and integrity in your position. Read no further. Go out and have a coffee with a friend.
For those continuing reading, the Book of Common Prayer 1662 marriage rite had,
we are gathered together …to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony… signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church
In that BCP rite the priest expounded what it declared as the Biblical teaching on marriage:
Saint Paul, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, the fifth Chapter, doth give this commandment to all married men; Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, …
Hear also what Saint Peter, the Apostle of Christ, who was himself a married man, saith unto them that are married; Ye husbands, dwell with your wives according to knowledge; giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, …Now likewise, ye wives, hear and learn your duties toward your husbands, even as it is plainly set forth in holy Scripture.
Saint Paul, in the aforenamed Epistle to the Ephesians, teacheth you thus; Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church: and he is the Saviour of the body. Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. And again he saith, Let the wife see that she reverence her husband.
And in his Epistle to the Colossians, Saint Paul giveth you this short lesson; Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.
Saint Peter also doth instruct you very well, thus saying; Ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands;…
In the BCP rite the wife then promised to “obey [her husband], and serve him”.
We could no longer use such a rite with integrity with most contemporary couples, and if a couple arrived seeking to use this rite, most clergy would be concerned and carefully talk through the relationship of such a couple.
By the 1928 marriage rite, wives obeying their husband had gone, and with it the biblical submit-and-subject wording. In only one prayer was the allusion retained that in marriage “is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church”. [In the CofE Common Worship rite that becomes, "they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church" or "they shall be united in that love as Christ is united with his Church"].
Because the union of Christ and His church is an unbreakable union, Marriage-is-like-Christ-and-His-church imagery comes together with marriage-is-indissoluble. Furthermore inevitably with the inequality of Christ and His Church, this image comes with an inequality between husband and wife, and a distinction of their roles.
New Zealand Anglicanism shifted from a firmly-held “marriage cannot be dissolved” to “a couple when getting married should intend to stay together”. ALL references to Marriage-is-like-Christ-and-His-church imagery were completely removed from the three different rites available for getting married in the 1989 New Zealand Prayer Book. Even the Church of England’s own Common Worship rite has removed all but the tiniest single vestigial allusion (quoted above) to what was clearly once a dominant biblical paradigm for marriage.
What once again is clear when those who say the debates are not sourced in prejudice about homosexuality, but are about integrity to scripture and tradition, is that whilst a sea change has occurred in the understanding of marriage, they have only begun to register an issue when the direction heads towards committed same-sex couples.
In the discussion about whether gender difference is essential to marriage it is clear where the inner logic of the trajectory of Christian marriage changes leads, and that the Church of England bishops’ statement is on the wrong side of that trajectory.