What do we think about marriage? Is it a good thing to be encouraged, or is it past its use-by date? Is it something we hope for ourselves when we meet the right person but would rather bar the participation of others? Is it something you’ve already tried but would not recommend to anyone else?
Sometimes the mistake is made by making reference to “Christian Marriage”, as though there is a single unchanging definition of marriage within the various parts of the Church – which, of course, there isn’t. Indeed, I am as unqualified to discuss marriage in the Roman Catholic Church or the Methodist Church as I am to discuss marriage within Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism. Over many years, however, the Church of England has been discussing and revising what marriage means. Its starting point is a fairly simple definition set out in its Canons (or rules): “. . . marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side. . .” (Canon B 30 Section 1). The Church of England has since 1930 accepted that marriage is not primarily about procreation, and has thus permitted artificial means of contraception where there is “morally sound reasoning for avoiding abstinence”.
From 1837 it has been possible to get married in a Civil Ceremony, although until 1857 a marriage in England and Wales could only be dissolved by either the grant of an annulment from a Church of England Court or by a divorce resulting from a private Act of Parliament. The Church of England continued to insist on the total indissolubility of marriage – and expected its clergy to refuse every request for marriage from somebody who was divorced and whose former spouse was still living – until 2002, when it conceded that “in exceptional circumstances, a divorced person may marry again in church during the lifetime of a former spouse”.
Perhaps at this point the CofE might have thought everything had been settled; but no. In 1971 an Act of Parliament had been passed explicitly banning marriages between same-sex couples in England and Wales, but in 2004 the Civil Partnership Act had been introduced essentially allowing same-sex couples the same legal rights and responsibilities as married couples, whilst making it very clear that marriage was still not possible. At this stage the CofE’s bishops in the House of Lords fought hammer and tongs to block Civil Partnerships, as they did when same-sex Civil Marriages were being discussed last year.
Once again, therefore, we find ourselves in a situation where the CofE’s definition of marriage differs from that allowed by law in England, Wales, and Scotland. Moreover, this has brought into focus a very painful division within the Church of England over the issue of same-sex relationships. On one side there is a view that marriage is an institution biblically defined as being only between a man and a woman, and that same-sex relationships are inherently sinful and against nature. Through study of what the Bible actually does says about intimate human relationships I find myself persuaded to join the opposite side of the argument, and I don’t consider that the oft-quoted biblical texts have anything whatsoever to do with the condemnation of loving and consensual same-sex relationships.
Therefore, at the peak of the “wedding season” I find myself sharing in the joy of all those who are able to have their marriages solemnised within the Roborough Team Ministry’s churches, whilst knowing that there are some whom I must still turn away. Until that time when (or if) the CofE changes its rules once again, what I can do is to continue to offer any couple married in a Civil Ceremony a “Service of Prayer and Dedication”. Some may see this as nothing more than a “sop” or “one step too far”, but thankfully it’s a personal decision that only I can make. Nevertheless, I continue to hope and pray for change and I personally pray that someday soon I will be permitted to celebrate the wonderful sacrament of marriage with all couples.
(adapted from a text by Graham Southgate with permission)