Holy matrimony?

Janet Backman believes the Church of England should step away from the legal aspect of marriage altogether

In a book review in the February edition of NEW DIRECTIONS, Bishop Martyn Jarrett explained clearly and elegantly that in the sacramental economy, Form and Matter matter. Pizza and coke cannot replace bread and wine in the Eucharist. Gender-neutral titles for the Trinity will not suffice in Holy Baptism. In the sacraments, God works through physical things, and the given-ness of these things is a crucial part of the nature of the sacrament.

Where Bishop Jarrett differed from the author of the book under review was in suggesting that Form and Matter matter in ordination too: and the given nature of ordination in the ancient Churches of East and West is that it is men who are the physical matter in and through which the sacrament takes place. The Anglo-Catholic position has always been that a single part of the universal Church does not have the authority to unilaterally change the given-ness of the form and matter of ordination without consensus from the rest of the Church. Thus the ordination of women is an error.


Precisely the same argument applies to gay marriage. The position of the ancient Churches of East and West has always been that marriage is a sacrament performed and lived by a man and a woman. And so it is surely illogical for anyone who regards him or herself as a Catholic to suggest that a single part of the universal Church has the authority to change the given­ness of the form and matter of marriage without consensus from the rest of the Church. To argue that the Church of England has the power to unilaterally change the form and matter of the sacrament of marriage but not other sacraments is inconsistent, to say the least.

As an aside, it is worth noting that Nicholas Turner, in January’s NEW DIRECTIONS, made the point that in fact the state is not asking the Church to change anything, as the legislation specifically distinguishes between the new civil marriage and the Church’s sacramental marriage. But this distinction is not recognized in most of the popular commentary – especially that which has flourished on the internet. It has been recognized by the House of Bishops, and yet their analysis both of how we got to this point and where we go from here has won

them few friends.

Finding the good news

To argue that marriage is by definition undertaken by a man and a woman is not homophobic, any more than to be opposed to the ordination of women is misogynistic. Yet in each case, opponents run the very real risk of having their arguments ignored as they are tarred with the brush of bigotry. It is therefore our responsibility to find the good news in all of this – to make it clear to people that we are not simply the recalcitrant children at the back of the class, pulling faces and making silly noises in response to everything the teacher says. Once again, the parallels with the ordination of women debate are striking: the catholic word should be yes, echoing Our Lady, but all too often we seem to be constantly saying no.

Divorced from reality

Where almost all of the commentary on the debate seems to be agreed – for good reason – is in suggesting that the leadership of the Church has allowed itself to become so divorced from the reality of most people’s lives with regard to sexual ethics as to have lost the moral right to declaim on the subject at all. To a certain extent, this is not the fault of Church leaders. In the modern western world, ethics begins with what ‘I’ feel ‘I’ have the right to have. The idea that there should be any sense of given­ness in doctrine or ethics from an authoritarian third party (in this instance the Church) is – consciously or otherwise – rejected as a relic from an outdated patriarchal age.

And yet at the same time, the House of Bishops in particular has allowed itself to come to be seen as constantly wavering: neither completely committed to the traditional teaching of the Church like the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, but at the same time always three steps behind the latest secular and liberal thinking.

The way forward

What is the way forward? To a certain extent, in a society dominated by the ethics of ‘I’, this is an impossible question to answer objectively. My personal opinion is that the Church needs to acknowledge the fact that sex outside of marriage can be both beautiful and holy, providing it takes place within the framework of a loving and stable partnership; and that if it did so, it would be better placed to be heard when it condemned what is sinful and harmful about promiscuous or abusive sexual relationships. It would also be better placed to defend the traditional understanding of marriage as the ideal place for physical union to take place, without condemning per se other forms of relationship – be they gay or straight. I also think that if the Church had been quicker to embrace a positive attitude to civil partnerships, then it may have been better placed to resist gay marriage. To say that gay relationships can be God-given and God-blessed, but that they are nonetheless intrinsically diifferent to marriage, would have been a far better position than that which the House of Bishops now somewhat shiftily occupies.

A novel solution

The problem with that position is that I have to acknowledge that it is purely my own private opinion, ultimately rooted in the ethics of ‘I’. It differs from the traditional teaching of the Church, and so in one sense has no more right to be adopted than any of the other myriad ideas floating around. What it does do, however, is to maintain the traditional understanding of the sacramental economy, on which so much of Anglo-Catholicism has been and is based.

Is there, then, a better way forward? There is, but it involves a radicalism of the sort to which the Church of England is not normally well disposed.
The way forward is for the Church of England to withdraw altogether from the business of legally solemnizing and
registering marriages, and to move to a system whereby the state alone performs those functions for all marriages. Couples who are genuinely Christians can then perform the sacramental part of the marriage in church.

Radical change

This is not a panacea. There would still be difficult questions to answer, such as precisely -which couples could ‘marry’ in church, and/or what kind of relationships the Church would wish to bless. But to step away from the legal side of marriage altogether would remove many of the perceived inequalities and hypocrisies for which the Church is currently being criticized. It would also have the added benefit of restoring to holy matrimony the didactic element of the sacrament, so that when a genuinely Christian man and woman choose to make vows before God and in the presence of his people, they show to the congregation and the wider Church something of the love and the unity which exists within the Holy Trinity, and between Christ and his bride the Church.
To step away from the legal aspects of marriage would be a radical change for the Church of England and our position in society. But in its rush to embrace equal marriage, the government has shown what an irrelevance it considers the Church to be. It is time for us to return the compliment, and withdraw from conducting the state’s business. The fact that doing so might allow us to regain control of our own debate, as well as to restore to the sacrament of holy matrimony the full extent of its beauty and its holiness, is the icing on the cake. ND