Marriage & Civil Partnerships

In the Old Testament 'marriage' (Genesis 2:24) is strictly a property arrangement whereby a man selects a bride which his parent or he secures (Judges 14:3). A man may have more than one wife (Genesis 29:21-28) and obtaining a 'wife' is permissible through kidnap and near rape (Judges 21) or as part of the distribution of spoils after a battle (Judges 5:30). Except in dynastic matters there seems to be little distinction between wives and concubines (Judges 19) and there are no references to religiously-based marriage ceremonies in the Bible (John 2), significant in a religious milieu that was scrupulous in its delineation of family and worship law.

Jesus sets aside Moses' dispensation on divorce (Mark 10:8; Matthew 5:31-32; 19:5-6)  and makes the authoritative statement on marriage repeated by Paul (1 Corinthians 6:16).

Until the 18th Century marriage in Christendom was primarily an instrument for securing property, whether a kingdom or inherited land. It was immensely important for dynastic stability and so the married state was highly regulated which explains the Papal Bulls on Henry VIII's marriage and divorce.  This was not a matter of sexual morality but of drawing a line which could not be crossed as divorce might become a precedent and destroy the predictability of matrimonial arrangements.

The marriage of the poor and a strong sexual ethic are relatively  modern: the Middle Ages was, by and large, relaxed about sexual conduct except where this concerned the clergy or the aristocracy; monogamy was voluntarily customary and near universal. The great change took place in sexual mores in Europe during the 16th Century when explorers imported sexually transmitted diseases from the Americas, the effect of which was greatly heightened by the Puritan sexual ethic.

By the middle of the 18th Century, couples without property were often blessed at the church's lych-gate but Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act (1753) obliged all couples committed to living together to be married by a properly certified person, in almost all cases by a Church of England clergyman in a church. The zenith of the church marriage spans some 200 years from 1800 to 2000.

Marriage is regarded in the Catholic tradition as a Sacrament which means that it is: "an outward sign of inward grace" or a physical manifestation of inner truth. The joining of hands and the giving of rings in itself brings about a joining of the couple in a lifelong bond.

The sanctity of marriage, so long associated with property, began to be questioned as women obtained property rights (Married Women's Property Act 1882, where a married woman was accorded the same right to her property as an unmarried woman); and it was further eroded by cheap and reliable contraception (prophylaxis condoms in the 1920s; the birth control pill in the 1960s) and divorce legislation (Wilson Act 1969).

From a biological perspective, it is largely accepted that whereas females want a stable, monogamous relationship for rearing children, males have an urge to propagate as widely as possible; the social purpose of marriage is, therefore, in part, to restrain male adultery which brings us back to the Jewish Law whose purpose was to protect male property rights in women against adulterous intruders.

As prosperity increased in the 18th and 19th centuries the idea of the realisability of romantic love percolated 'down' the social classes. It was not that people who lived together out of necessity to procreate and rear children did not love each other but that was, in the Middle Ages, largely a piece of collateral good fortune. By the early 20th Century all social classes in Western Europe and North America, with the exception of those with massive property, put the priority of "love" above any other consideration in their approach to marriage.

It is also argued that marriage was created at a time when people were expected to procreate in their teens and die before forty. Re-marriage is a result of increased longevity; and marriages are now frequently contracted by people who could not naturally procreate.

The Church of England was slow to recognise the New Testament's commendation of marriage and was equally slow to 'modernise' its status in the 20th Century - "Love, honour and obey" were remarkably persistent, based on Saint Paul's idea of marriage (Ephesians 5:22), not based on anything Jesus said.

The Church of England now allows divorce and re-marriage in church, although the situation of ordained clergy is somewhat more nuanced.

All the foregoing having been said, it seems obvious from anthropological studies that there is a strong human drive to procreate and to rear children in a stable environment but that this is more difficult when there is: less restraint on male propagation because almost all women are no longer 'tied into' property relationships; and when a single mother can achieve a considerable degree of financial stability at least through work and benefits.

It is also clear that the mundane necessity of the survival of the race has been socially complemented over time by the notion of romantic love which is a convenient entry point for a discussion of homosexuality which is, at its best, an exemplar of romantic love. There are strong indications that there is some kind of parallel between homosexuality and wealth just as there is an inverse relationship between fertility and wealth. As the survival of the race becomes less problematic, the romantic/erotic drive persists but need not, necessarily, find its outlet in procreation. In other words, homosexuality, like infertility (and cancer), may simply be a biological response to high child survival rates, vastly improved nutrition and longevity.

Many Christians, however, believe that homosexuality is the sinful exercise of a sexual preference that can be either given up through moral determination or can be 'cured' through therapy (Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26-27). The debate is not helped by massive ignorance on the part of most people who involve themselves in it. If homosexuality is a nature-generated phenomenon, as opposed to a preference, it is part of God's creation. On the other hand, there is much in reports on homosexual eroticism which indicates a high degree of promiscuity and self indulgence, highlighted in the spread of HIV/AIDs in California in the mid 1980s. It is this account which frequently colours our view of homosexuality; and it is that kind of conduct among 'pagans' which coloured the attitude of the authors of Leviticus, who abhorred male temple prostitutes, and Saint Paul, who came into contact with Greek, upper class culture which permitted homosexuality but which did not consider it to be an alternative to heterosexual marriage. In many ways the current 'stereotyping' of homosexuals reflects the earlier stereotyping of women as either saints or whores which our society has largely overcome.

So, to summarise so far:

Legally, in the United Kingdom, marriages can be:

Civil Partnerships between same sex couples can be:

The current Government proposals are designed to allow religious elements to be contained in a Civil Partnership ceremony and to allow such ceremonies to take place in consenting churches under arrangements agreed by such churches, i.e., anything from a full "marriage" ceremony or a blessing, to simply allowing the civil ceremony to take place in a church building. Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews sanction such ceremonies in their buildings.

The issue of blessing gay couples is one of the two 'presenting issues', along  with the ordination of gay clergy, splitting the Anglican Communion.

Viewed from a slightly unorthodox angle, we might think of Jewish and Medieval aristocratic and dynastic marriages as civil partnerships because 'love' was not central to the transaction; which leads to the question of whether a marriage can simply be an enforced heterosexual arrangement. If not, if love is essential, we would have to rule out most phenomena called marriages at their inception. We might ask in this context whether a marriage with a pre-nuptial agreement is really a marriage in the love sense or whether it is simply a property arrangement.

Which leads to the question of what we do about relationships where love has died. The Church has proved sympathetic to this problem, ranking the prospect of starting again over some rigid rule that a marriage must be for life which would reduce it to an enforced social arrangement.

If love is the essence of our form of marriage, does that loving relationship have to be heterosexual, or sexual at all. Whether or not we accept one or other etiology of homosexuality, would it be possible to say that the exercise of a romantic/erotic preference with the intention of living in a stable, faithful relationship constitutes marriage? And if we maintain that "Marriage is a gift from God", to what extent is it for us to tell God what the rules are? True, the Bible did not permit homosexuality but  it did not permit many other modes of conduct which we now accept, such as IVF.

Perhaps the best way of thinking about the problem is to forget the word "marriage” and to think about the kinds of commitment that we think the Church should celebrate, under-write and uphold, either in Sacrament or in a form of blessing.

KC ii/xi