Wednesday, June 05, 2013


With one or two exceptions, I've avoided blogging on same-sex marriage. The bishops of the CofE in the Lords have issued a statement today saying that they'll 'constructively engage' in trying to make the same-sex marriage bill as good as it can be, and seem to have accepted that it will become law.

I was struck by this part of the statement:  it is crucial that marriage as newly defined is equipped to carry within it as many as possible of the virtues of the understanding of marriage it will replace.

This recognises that the passage of the bill will introduce a new definition of marriage. As it currently stands, that definition does not include a notion of sexual fidelity (the flipside of having no definition of adultery), of the complimentarity of the sexes, of procreation within marriage, or of consummation. It is therefore significantly different to what I signed up to on my wedding day nearly 17 years ago, and to the churches stated teaching on marriage, which in turn is reflected in our wedding liturgies. 

Two questions:
Firstly: if the Same-Sex Marriage Act definition of marriage becomes the 'official' definition, do we need to coin another term to signify committed relationships which include the above elements? One tweeter yesterday suggested 'Holy Matrimony', which has pedigree, but sounds a bit 1662. It also misses out the fact that none of the above 4 elements are specifically religious.

Secondly: if clergy are to continue as 'clerk in holy orders', and to act as registrars for marriage, what is our legal status now that the state definition of marriage has changed? In presiding at, and registering, a marriage, I'm already doing something which goes by the same name as a civil marriage ceremony, isn't the same, but has sufficient overlap to be ok. If the new definition of marriage leaves out 'the virtues of the understanding of marriage it will replace', then at what point do civil and church marriage become two separate-but-related, rather than overlapping, things? In other countries civil and church weddings are kept separate, and  maybe it's time to reckon with that here as well. As Jonathan Chaplin puts it:

I don’t literally mean that I was married twice on the same day but only that my marriage was solemnized in two successive ceremonies. Here I want to argue that the great advantage of this two-step arrangement is that it puts on clear display the quite distinct roles of church and government in the public recognition of marriage, to the benefit of both. It affirms both roles while avoiding a blurring of their complementary objectives. It also protects the proper freedom of both church and government to operate on their own understandings of marriage. It is a model I wish to commend to the Church of England – indeed to all churches. I also want to argue the more specific point that the longstanding expectation that Anglican parish churches will marry any legally eligible resident has now become a burden from which the Church of England should seek to extricate itself. These two reforms would be mutually reinforcing in working towards the goal of liberating the church to witness better to the truth it professes about marriage. (In fact, if the first were achieved, the second would follow automatically.)

What would the impact be? We've got more church weddings this year than at any time since I joined this church, and I love the fact that the CofE is open to anyone in the parish who wants to be married here. It's a great chance to explore spiritual and relationship questions with people, and I also think we offer a much better marriage preparation and support package. Simply as a service to families and to the community, I wouldn't want to see that lost. 


  1. "This recognises that the passage of the bill will introduce a new definition of marriage. As it currently stands, that definition does not include a notion of sexual fidelity (the flipside of having no definition of adultery), of the complimentarity of the sexes, of procreation within marriage, or of consummation."

    Is it actually known that the bill will include a definition of marriage? Has such a draft definition actually been shared with the public? And at present, is there actually a definition of marriage in law? Or is it just enshrined in the church marriage liturgy and civil wedding standard form of words?

  2. Good questions: I think if it did have an 'official' definition of marriage that would lead to endless debate over whether it got it right or not. We're working with implicit definitions most of the time.

    If, as the Bishop of Salisbury put it, relationships that are 'stable, faithful, adult and loving' can be recognised through marriage, then that simplicity might be attractive, but the devil is in the detail. Have we actually worked out what we think marriage is, or have we just been looking for a definition that includes the people we want to include, because the greater inclusion makes up for whatever else is lost in the process?

  3. So if we already have an implicit definition, isn't it just a case of changing "a woman and a man" to "two people"? And possibly modifying the bit about children, to place less emphasis on producing them and more on raising them? Is there any need to change anything else?

  4. I think that the separation of civil marriage from a Religious Ceremony is workable, but when wedding couples are already making complicated arrangements for weddings, does another layer of a civil ceremony contribute to their experience and expectation of what is potentially the most important commitment that the couple will make in their life.

    I was married in a Register Officer and waited 20 years to have that marriage blessed and recognised by the Church. Yes, I was legally married, but was I married in the eyes of God?

    My spouse thought not, but as I wasn't a Christian when we married, I disagreed and was quite happy with the status quo. Only after I was received into the church did I come to see her perspective - so we had our Wedding Blessed in a renewal of wedding vows service.

    I now think of marriage as a Sacrament and a gift from God, which overlays the union of two committed individuals for life, which might or might not result in procreation. In our case it hasn't, but that doesn't invalidate our marriage as both a civil marriage and as a Sacramental Union in the eyes of God.

    I don't see that the proposed legislation will change that for us, although it might effect the views of couples coming to be married in the church in the future, depending on the final version of the bill that passes into law. And at the draft stage, I can't see anything in the draft bill that will change the status of existing hetrosexual marriages.