Shine A Light

Marriage: one man and one woman?

The Church of England currently rules out public blessings to same-sex marriages. A theologian explores the terrain.

Charlotte Methuen
12 April 2013

This week the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission published a statement on marriage. (PDF) It makes the case that marriage is between one man and one woman.  Traditionally this has been true in England for a long time, and the Commission (made up of bishops, clergy and laity who advise the church on doctrine) was asked to offer a theological justification for the Church of England’s current position.  But is this the way marriage has always been conceived?  And does it have to be? 

Jacob worked for his future father-in-law for seven years for Rachel, was tricked into marrying (or at least lying with!) her sister Leah, and then served another seven years to marry Rachel.  That is a bigamous marriage.  This remains a popular story in Sunday school; if people know their Old Testament at all they are likely to know it.  Well known too are David and Solomon and their many wives and concubines.  Marriage in the Old Testament is certainly not simply monogamous.

Moreover, the Old Testament – and particularly the legal codes in the Pentateuch – does not offer a model of marriage as companionship, but a model in which a marriageable woman is viewed largely as the property of her father to be passed to her husband.  Jacob is said to have worked for or served for both his wives.  Deuteronomy 22:28-29 instructs that a man who rapes a young woman who is not engaged to another man shall marry her.  Exodus 22.16-17 covers the case when a young woman has been seduced by an older man:  he must either marry her or pay her father her bride price. 

Family honour is important here, as is the regulation of inheritance, but it is also clear that the marriage of a young woman involves a financial negotiation between the husband and the father.  Exodus 21:7-11 lays out a husband’s responsibilities to his first wife if he wishes to take a second wife.  What is being depicted in these codes is not obviously monogamous.  It is nothing like a modern Western understanding of marriage as a relationship between two equals.  It is, however, part of the biblical understanding of marriage and has to some extent shaped Christian understanding of marriage.

In contrast, Christianity does seem to have inherited an understanding of marriage as monogamous.  The gospels, the letters of Paul and the household codes included in the New Testament all present a monogamous understanding of marriage.  The household codes (Ephesians 5:22-25, Colossians 3:18-4:1, Titus 2:1-10, and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7) offer a view of marriage which is clearly hierarchical: the wife is said to be rightly subordinate to her husband, although a husband is also reminded of his duty to love his wife.  The understanding that the submission of women to men forms was part of a correct understanding of marriage persists through much of Christian history.  Much of the contemporary discussion of headship is based on precisely these texts.  They have been a strong influence on Christian understandings both of marriage and of the role of women, and the two have frequently been intertwined.

The early Church knew marriage, but marriage was not a Christian institution: Greek, Roman and Jewish marriage practices all influenced developing Christian approaches to and understandings of marriage.  The legal aspects of marriage would long remain a civil affair.  In the tenth century, and perhaps even afterwards, marriages were entered into not in church but outside the church door.  Priests seem to have become involved in the course of the twelfth century, but it was not until the thirteenth century that a priest was held to preside over the ceremony and thus in some sense to “solemnize” matrimony (to use a later term), although it was still recognised that it was the couple who made the marriage before God.  Legally couples might still marry through mutual agreement without the involvement of a priest; their marriage would be recognised by the church.

The early Church developed a theology of marriage, often based on exegesis of Ephesians 5:332 and other passages presenting marriage as a model for the relationship between the church and God, or Christ, but doubtless also because marriage was such an important social and societal institution.  Christian understandings of marriage emphasised the need for both partners to consent freely to the marriage.  The Church came to define marriage as insoluble except by death (based on Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:7-9), and the Western Church introduced restrictions on marriage on the basis of consanguinity (blood relations), affinity (in-laws), and spiritual affinity (godparents).  These later became a money-spinner for popes and bishops, who charged large sums of money to those who wished to get round them (such as Henry VIII in his marriage to Catherine of Aragon).  Increasingly marriage came to be seen as having a profound religious significance, and even to be understood as a means by which God might offer grace.  It was included in the definitive list of seven sacraments articulated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

However, marriage was not the only form of life recognised for Christians.  Paul’s letters, and especially 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, witness to ambiguity in the assessment of marriage:  was it not wiser to remain celibate?  The tension between the valuing of marriage and the valuing of celibacy, heightened from the fourth century by the popularity of asceticism, forms the background for much of Christian writing about marriage in late antiquity and in the medieval period.  Augustine believed that marriage would have existed in paradise, but that sexual intercourse would have been a rational process, governed and controlled by reason.  For Augustine, the lack of control in sex since the Fall was the means by which sin was transmitted.  Marriage was necessary in the fallen world, and the proper place for sexual intercourse, but it was also the means of passing on original sin.   Jerome wrote to the young Christian virgin Eustochius about “the drawbacks of marriage, such as pregnancy, the crying of infants, the torture caused by a rival, the cares of household management, and all those fancied blessings which death at last cuts short.”  Virginity, he thought, was better.

The perception that marriage was second best, and in particular that sex was inherently sinful, coloured the Church’s attitudes towards marriage throughout the medieval period.  This may have been difficult for both men and women, but it tended to be women who wrote about it.  Birgid of Sweden and her husband, Ulf Gudmarsson, were an upper-class couple who were expected by their families to have children in order to safeguard their inheritance, but who believed strongly that their true vocation as Christians was to celibacy (“the marriage that is honourable and the bed undefiled” as Jerome had put it).  They had eight children, but still preferred to live a celibate marriage when they could.

The fundamental assumption that marriage was a relationship of inequality between men and women persisted: even Thomas Aquinas’s argument for equality was for “an unequal relationship between equals”.  Assumptions about the respective place of men and women in marriage were related to Aristotelian-Galenic biological understandings of sexual differentiation which persisted well into the early-modern period.  The rational, warm male was opposed to the emotional, cold female (for Aristotle, truly masculine men could be identified by the fact that their intellect heat had burned the hair off their heads, causing baldness).  In procreation, the creative principle was held to be contributed by the sperm (interestingly discovered and identified long before the egg, even though it is so much more smaller) which took root in the fertile “soil” offered by the woman’s womb.  The active principle was contributed by the male; the female’s role was passive: she provided a nurturing body in which the baby could grow.  This biological understanding of procreation defined the proper role for men and women:  men were active, engaged in public life; women were passive, nurturing, with a focus on the private.

The Protestant Reformation accorded marriage a new importance.  Luther was deeply critical of the privileging of celibacy, and particularly of the hypocrisy of a church which required clerical celibacy but turned a blind eye to the living arrangements of priests (except to fine them when a child was born).  Although he affirmed that the tasks of caring for the children should be shared by both parents, even if men who shared in this task were accused of being effeminate, Luther believed that a woman’s true vocation lay in marriage, in her companionship with and obedience to her husband, and the bearing and bringing up of children.  Women who died in childbirth, Luther thought, were truly following Christ.  The obedience of a wife to her husband, the subordination of women to men, were in his eyes part of the natural order given under the law, to which marriage belonged.  The gospel transcended this order and in questions of salvation, men and women stood equal before God.

The prospect of dying in childbirth – probably the most common cause of death for adult women until the modern period – must have been one reason why celibacy was attractive to some women.  The closure of convents as a consequence of the Reformation left many women no option other than marriage.  The wife as helpmeet, as director of the household and teacher of the children – as materfamilias alongside, but subordinate to, the paterfamilias – became the model for the Protestant household, although this pattern can only ever have been possible for families of the middling sort and nobility.

As industrialisation took hold, the difference between the lives of the working poor, in which men and women – and often also children – had to work to survive, and those of the middle and upper classes in which women could remain at home, became more pronounced.  The Protestant (perhaps by now Western Christian?) ideal of the role of the woman helped to generate the image of the “Angel in the House” which became widely established during the nineteenth century.  This tended (and often still tends) to identify women as more nurturing and caring, and more religious, and in general as a civilising influence on men.  This rhetoric underpinned the ideal of women in the nineteenth century, but also underlay many of the arguments for women’s suffrage.  Should not the civilising influence of women be able to make itself felt in the running of society?

The nineteenth century saw changes in the status of married women, and in particular in England the granting to them of the right to hold property.  The continuing emphasis on the subordination of women to men, however, also brought with it – and in some circles continues to bring with it – the expectation that a woman must accept the behaviour of her husband, even if he is violent.  Studies of domestic violence have consistently discovered pastors and clergy who are likely to tell a woman who seeks help about an abusive relationship that she should be obedient to her husband, and submit to such treatment, whilst trying to redeem her husband through her loving behaviour (compare 1 Peter 33:1-2; this is what Augustine’s mother Monica is said to have done to reform her husband Patricius).

In the last fifty years, contraception has radically changed the context of marriage, particularly for women.  It has become possible to separate sexual fulfilment from procreation.  Modern fertility methods also mean that for some parents procreation has become detached from sexual intercourse (although not – yet – from the need to have contributions from both one man and [at least] one woman).  Many families exist in which for one reason or another the children are not biologically or genetically the offspring of their nurturing parent(s).  Adoptive children, step-families and single-parented families have long been integrated into society, and amongst the parents in my own generation a significant proportion have children born after sperm donation, whether anonymous or not, or with the help of techniques including IVF, artificial insemination, and surrogacy.  Some of the parents of these families are heterosexual couples, sometimes multiple couples after divorce or separation; some are gay couples, sometimes parenting as two mothers in one relationship and two fathers in another; some are single parents.  From my own observation, the “constellation” of the parents makes little difference to the well-being of the children; what matters is the quality of the relationships between the parents and the child(ren).

Marriage has not always been a good institution for women.  In particular, Christian conceptions of marriage have transmitted problematic expectations about the role of women and about relationships between men and women which continue to shape expectations of women today.  I recognise that the Faith and Order Commission’s document offers one theological justification for the Church of England’s current position on marriage, but I cannot see marriage simply and uncritically as part of the “goods” of creation.

Marriage is always rooted in the social context in which it is experienced, and subject to the norms and expectations of that context.  Increasingly I find myself convinced that one of the flaws of our current conception of marriage may be precisely the emphasis on “one man and one woman”, which seems consistently to imply expectations about the role of women and men which tend to be biologically determinist and which reach beyond the question of who is biologically capable of bearing children.  From my observation of couples around me, I would judge that the joys and pains of long-term relationships between two people of the same sex seem no different from those of two people of different sexes.  Indeed, long-term relationships between two men or between two women sometimes seem less fraught, perhaps precisely because the couple is not having to negotiate centuries of expectation of how men and women should relate to one another. 

Marriage, as the Church of England (among other religious bodies) has been pointing out, has been between men and women, and in the Christian tradition between one man and one woman. But it seems to me that extending the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples might in fact be a redemptive step. For it might allow the institution of marriage to transcend the profound inequalities between men and women which have too often shaped it.

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