Will the Church of England Redefine Marriage? I Thought It Already Did

The Church of England is a church, it is said, that prays its doctrine. The 39 Articles of Religion are short and broad compared to the Westminster Confession (one key reason I’m an Anglican rather than a Presbyterian), and the canons are mostly the preserve of a few real ecclesiastical anoraks. If one wants to get the sense of what the Church believes (or at least, believes in theory), then the liturgy is where one ought to look. Lex orandi, lex credendi and all that.

There’s much to commend this approach — after all, in real terms, everyone’s doctrine is revealed most accurately, even if implicitly, by their prayer and worship, rather than by whatever creed or confession to which they give their assent. The Church of England simply starts with that approach.

This has several ramifications for the way in which Anglicans consider the future of the Church in relation to her position on marriage and gender transitioning. Discussions have been ongoing about whether liturgies will be developed or appropriated for same-sex marriages or gender transitioning services for years, and after we’ve all done the homework that the bishops have set us in Living in Love and Faith, we’ll get back together in 2022 to compare notes and chart a way forwards. Perhaps. Many conservatives in the Church are anxious about the possibility of ‘redefining’ marriage, by which they mean the possibility of allowing same-sex couples to marry within the Church. I would suggest, however, that the redefinition of marriage has, in practical, that is to say, liturgical terms, already happened, and has set the stage for same-sex weddings to take place in the near future.

Defining Marriage
While it may be the case that only the 1662 Prayer Book is authoritative and binding on clergy, its subsequent modernisations are widely (perhaps more widely) used. To be clear, I am, on the whole, a fan of Common Worship. It’s true that its most beautiful passages are found where it sticks most closely to the wording of the BCP, but overall, I think it does a very good job (though it was disappointing to see that there was no modernisation of Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea). It is notable, however, the way in which the marriage ceremony has changed since the 1662 BCP, and 2000 CW. Take for example, the explanations of marriage in the BCP and CW.

[Aside: Yes, sometimes I do stay in and compare the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship and make notes on the differences in the text. And yes, I do get out enough, and yes, I am pretty happy with the choices I’ve made in my life. You may also be interested to know that the 2019 BCP produced by the ACNA sticks more closely to the 1662 BCP. Given the discussions here aren’t happening there, neither the ACNA nor their prayer book will be considered further.]

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer gives three purposes for the ordinance of marriage:
DEARLY beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. 

Common Worship doesn’t have so succinct an outline of the purposes for marriage, but perhaps the most comparable section reads as follows:
In the presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
we have come together
to witness the marriage of N and N,
to pray for God’s blessing on them,
to share their joy
and to celebrate their love.
Marriage is a gift of God in creation
through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.
It is given
that as man and woman grow together in love and trust,
they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind,
as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.
The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together
in the delight and tenderness of sexual union
and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.
It is given as the foundation of family life
in which children are [born and] nurtured
and in which each member of the family,
in good times and in bad,
may find strength, companionship and comfort,
and grow to maturity in love.
Marriage is a way of life made holy by God,
and blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ
with those celebrating a wedding at Cana in Galilee.
Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty
which all should uphold and honour.
It enriches society and strengthens community.

The differences are striking, and reveal much about the general shift in the attitude towards sexuality in the Church in general. Let’s take the differences in the order of the BCP’s purposes for marriage.

The 1662 states marriage’s first purpose as being the procreation of children. Children are certainly present in the CW order, but the language is softened so as to make marriage a good place for the bearing of children, without procreation being a purpose of marriage as such. No doubt there were very good pastoral motivations behind this decision to move from a more prescriptive treatment of procreation to descriptive—for the sake of couples who may be unable to have children, for instance, due to infertility or age—but this movement away from marriage as a means towards the fulfilment of the creation mandate loosens the connections between marriage, sex, and procreation. A cord of three strands is not easily broken, but the removal of procreation from the general understanding of marriage has led to the unravelling we see today.

Before getting into some of the ways in which this has affected the church in general, and then particularly the conservative evangelical wing of which I find myself a part, it may be worth considering why we might be given to think that procreation is one of the reasons for marriage anyway. The root of it is that procreation was the first obligation put upon the human race: ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,’ the Lord commanded (Gen 1:28). There are those who argue that this command is no longer and obligation for Christians, having been superseded by the Great Commission. I am personally unpersuaded that this obligation could be lifted from humanity before the return of Christ. I would suggest the burden of proof is on those who say that humanity ought to be in control of its own numbers, and would have every right to let ourselves, the stewards of creation, die out before our master’s return if we so desired. It is true that the Great Commission adds a spiritual dimension and acts as a new covenant transposition of this command (as well as providing a way in which the unmarried or infertile may fulfil the command, demonstrating the new covenant’s superiority), but this is to harmonise with the command of Genesis, not to negate it. (Consider also that the ageing and shrinking populations of the developed nations are causes for demographic concern, not celebration.) We may confer with the Westminster Confession of Faith at this point as well, which supplements the thought of Genesis 1:28 with Malachi 2:15, in which the Lord says that he was seeking Godly offspring through the marriages of the covenant people. Again, I see no reason why, given the ways in which the New Testament speaks of children, we ought to suppose that this ought no longer be a priority within a marriage between Christian believers. The burden of proof is on those who think that God would not be concerned that the Church fill the world with Christian children. The new covenant gives more options and benefits for the single and infertile (and the married for that matter), but does not remove the obligation of bearing children from those who are married and able, nor has the Church ever believed this to be the case.

Set in this Biblical and historical context, it does seem as though the understanding of the nature and purpose of marriage has subtly, though fundamentally changed. Those on the liturgical commission involved in producing Common Worship (and its predecessor the 1980 Alternative Service Book, if I remember correctly) may not have predicted the arguments engulfing the Church today. As a result, their work may have ended up being more of a reflection of the views in the Church and society, rather than the thing that shaped those views. Liturgy forms the Church, but the Church also forms the liturgy, and who knows what influences may have crept in, and who knows where they came from? Either way, those who live in the world as it is in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries are given a script from the Church and the culture that minimises the role of procreation in marriage. Those in churches that use these liturgies will find worldly assumptions about marriage supplemented by these liturgies, but not fundamentally challenged.

It isn’t just in the house of bishops or broad church, Common Worship-using Anglicans, however, who have changed their understanding of marriage. Many, perhaps most, low church conservative evangelicals have all but removed children from their understanding of marriage. To illustrate this anecdotally, I was taken aback a few months ago while having lunch and discussing life with a Roman Catholic friend. While discussing our vocational plans and hopes for the next couple of years, he asked me (with a refreshing bluntness that is hard to find amongst my evangelical brethren) if I had intentions of starting a family at some point. The phrasing fascinated me, as it occurred to me as I reflected on his question later that afternoon that I had been asked before by evangelicals whether I had any intention of getting married, but never had a Protestant asked me if I intend to start a family. In the Protestant imagination (at least in the circles that I move in), marriage and procreation are easily separable, such that one may desire marriage without really giving much thought as to whether one desires children. In a society where the use of contraception is not only possible, or even permissible, but assumed, one can consider marriage without children, and so the definition of marriage and the purpose of sex is radically altered. By comparison, the Roman Catholic Church does not even consider a union to be a marriage in the sacramental sense if there is no intention to bear children.

This is a significant change in the mindset of evangelicals, and one which I believe requires remedy and repentance. The separation of marriage from procreation in the mindset of modern Christians represents a separation of the divinely ordained context of sexuality (i.e. marriage), and the biological purpose of sexuality (i.e. procreation). It need hardly be remarked that both of these purposes find their origin in God’s design. For many conservative evangelicals, operating with a biblicist hermeneutic, and without much reflection on nature as a key part of ethical reasoning, there is no sexual ethic beyond ‘make sure you get married before you do anything.’

There are two unfortunate consequences of this sexual ethic. Firstly, removing procreation from the purpose of marriage creates the context in which same-sex marriage becomes intelligible. If procreation is not even one, let alone the, purpose of marriage, then unions which could not under any circumstances be naturally procreative could also be considered to be marriages (heterosexual couples who are past the age of childbearing, or who are infertile, do not fall into the same category — their union, in other circumstances of time or health, could be naturally procreative).

Secondly, it makes the evangelical resistance to same-sex marriage seem arbitrary, rooted not in the given ordering of creation, but in a command that might equally have not been given. God ordained marriage, so some think, for one man and one woman, but for no particular reason, and he might just as well have said it was for two men, or two women, or any number in any conceivable combination. This position obeys Scripture — well and good — but without much thought as the underlying reasons why God should have given commandments in the way that he did. The lack of engagement with what any GCSE biologist could tell you — that sex is ordered towards procreation, and so ordered toward the fulfilling the creation mandate — means that sex, even within marriage, becomes far more recreational than procreational. A deeper, and more comprehensive account of evangelical sexual ethics is needed if we are not to be heard as saying that the only rule for Christian sexual ethics is to wait until you’re married to have sex, but then you may do whatever you like. When this becomes the rule, it is no surprise that same-sex attracted brothers and sisters perceive this double standard in evangelical sexual ethics: there’s no real reason why sex should be for us and not you, but God said so, and that’s how it is.

The Living in Love and Faith book explores these themes in chapter 3 (pp. 23-37, see esp. 28-30), and they are discussed in one of the conversations on pp. 381-387. The book is more of a survey than an argument, so doesn’t do much beyond laying out some of the issues. I’m glad to see that there is a recognition in the book of how things have changed already, but I fear that this will form a precedent for continuing change, rather than a wake up call to reevaluate whether we were right in the changes we’ve made so far. Going backwards may be progress here.

The second difference is perhaps more striking, and more concerning, in that Common Worship totally does away with the idea that marriage is given in order to curb sexual sin. In fact, Common Worship’s biggest blind spot to my mind is that it seems to do away with the idea of sexual sin altogether. Take comparable portions of the Litany, or General Supplication, for example.

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vain-glory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From fornication, and all other deadly sin; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death,
Good Lord, deliver us.

and Common Worship:
From all evil and mischief;
from pride, vanity and hypocrisy;
from envy, hatred and malice;
and from all evil intent,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From sloth, worldliness and love of money;
from hardness of heart
and contempt for your word and your laws,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From sins of body and mind;
from the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From famine and disaster;
from violence, murder and dying unprepared,
Good Lord, deliver us.

That’s not to say that the prayers of Common Worship are not good, so far as they go, but the softening of ‘fornication’ to ‘sins of body’ represents a squeamishness in speaking of any expressions of sexuality as being sinful, which opens the door for a rejection of holding the conviction at all. Some people think the church does nothing but talk about sex. Common Worship seems to do nothing but avoid talking about it.

This too is a subtle redefinition of marriage, as it shifts the purpose of the service for which marriage is designed, namely, the service of God and our neighbour. Firstly, it changes the way in which marriage is given to help us serve God. I’m sure few would suggest that marriage is for serving oneself, but the Common Worship order gives little shape to what the Lord requires of us: in this particular instance, holiness. If no serious consideration is given to what sexual activity may be judged moral and what immoral, then there is no idea what marriage is given to guard against. The 1662 recognised the power of sexuality, and so named it as an area in which we need the Spirit’s empowering to fight sin, and was unashamed in saying that marriage was given as a remedy against sexual sin. By avoiding talking about it at all, those who were steeped only in language and imagination of Common Worship might not realise that there is such a category as sexual immorality, and that some actions and desires are only licit within marriage.

Secondly, this removal has changed the way in which marriage is given to serve society. The Common Worship service affirms that marriage enriches and strengthens society, and, to give credit where it is due, this line is true, fitting, and appropriately and increasingly counter-cultural in a society that sees marriage as patriarchal, outdated, or perhaps just pointless. The 1662 BCP hints a little more at what sort of good marriage offers society, particularly the society of the church (which was the vast majority of society in 1662), in its statement that marriage enables those who do not have the gift of continency to remain undefiled members of the church. The idea here is that fornication and sexual immorality are bad for the church, and some remedy needs to be given to prevent sin destroying God’s household.

In losing the idea of holiness being a necessity for Christians, and being the way in which we are called to live and serve God, marriage must inevitably be ordered inwards, as husband and wife serving each other, rather than God and the world. Of course, husband and wife are to serve each other (and that is the subject of the next section), but this must be put in the context of serving God and the world in holiness in order to ensure that a couple’s service of each other does not become self-indulgence.

Mutual Society and the Living Picture
The third reason given by the BCP becomes the dominant idea in Common Worship, that of mutual society and comfort. This is the purpose of marriage that dominates modern society, and indeed the church as well. This may be the result of our imaginations being soaked far more in romantic novels and films than in Scripture and tradition.

It is, of course, true that marriage is given for this reason. We may relate this purpose to the meaning of marriage that is made stated in both liturgies, that it signifies the mystical union between Christ and his church, which is the deepest, fullest, and most permanent relationship of fellowship and love. Both liturgical forms do well to draw attention to this purpose, and to lose this dimension, such that marriage becomes a contract coldly entered for the sake of producing legitimate heirs, would be a mistake, and a distortion of the Biblical picture.

At the same time, to focus solely on this dimension could easily lead to a forgetfulness of the fact that marriage is intended to serve God, as humanity is intended to serve God, and that part of that service is oriented towards the created order, to filling the earth and ruling it. The BCP is clear in its assertion that marriage is not to be undertaken to satisfy man’s carnal lusts and appetites, and indeed it is not even given purely to satisfy the higher and more noble desires of companionship. By keeping the several purposes and the theological picture of marriage all in place, it can be rightly understood as a gift to be stewarded in the Lord’s service, and so subject to his intentions. The picture is beautiful, but we mustn’t let the metaphor trump the other reasons, or we make ourselves vulnerable to the picture being redrawn to say the same things in sinful ways. We’ll turn now to the mistakes conservative evangelicals have made, how those mistakes may be exploited, and how the case may have been made more robustly.

How Evangelicals Responded, and Why it Won’t Make a Difference
The Church of England’s Evangelical Council, in its half hour counterpoint to the LLF material, The Beautiful Story, says much about the Ephesians 5 picture of marriage as representing the union between Christ and the Church. Whether it was a conscious choice or not (I’m guessing not), it basically follows the Common Worship definition of marriage. To give credit where it’s due, it has some good parts. Unfortunately, it won’t work in terms of actually persuading revisionists to resist the possibility of permitting same-sex marriage.

The primary reason for this is that too little attention has been paid to the created order, which is vindicated by the resurrection of Christ, rather than done away with. The LLF conversations are taking place in a culture that is caught between two positions on creation. On the one hand, it is uneasy with the givenness of creation, and sees bodies as important for displaying our identity, but not for understanding it. The body is at best a canvas on which to display the ‘inner self’, and at worst the body is something to be overcome in order that the ‘inner self’ may be set free. On the other hand, creation (or at least what people take to be creation) is accepted and affirmed without notion of alteration. People are ‘born this way’, and any criticism is a direct criticism of God’s creative action. The basic events of the gospel story ought to call both of these perspectives into question: creation is not overcome by the cross and resurrection, but reaffirmed, and yet we find it faulty and need of redemption through the cross and resurrection. We can only understand our creation in light of the resurrection, and our morality in terms of creation and resurrection.

This is why evangelical talk of ‘unity in diversity’ must reaffirm the goodness and givenness of creation, as redeemed and vindicated through the resurrection, rather than talking about diversity in ways that can be interpreted in terms of ‘expressing the inner self’. The revisionists in the Church of England have diversity as a key part of their vision as well, more so than most conservatives, but when bodies cease to form any significant part of our given identity, diversity can be pursued in marriage in other ways. Let’s say marriage is all about unity and diversity: what sort of diversity really counts? If a man and woman are very similar in terms of ethnicity, temperament, socioeconomic background, interests, can we say that there is sufficient diversity for marriage? Could two women from different ethnic and economic backgrounds sufficiently clear the bar of diversity needed to render their marriage an appropriate picture of Christ and the Church? The logic becomes more suspect when the Trinity is invoked as the basis of all this (see the CEEC video at 7:36-8:18; 8:53): the diversity in the persons of the Trinity is supposedly the basis of marriage, and yet Father and Son are both described in male terms. So what is the nature of the diversity required? An age gap, or different ‘functions’ in the relationship? If the Trinity going to be our basis for arguing that there must be diversity in marriage, then how can you argue that sex or gender is the non-negotiable criterion of diversity in a marriage? Frankly, the appeals to the Trinity as the source of unity and diversity strike me as a real theological howler, and I cannot believe that the line survived into the final cut. This theological angle works far better for the revisionists, should they choose to take advantage of it.

A far better approach would have been to hold the diversity issue together with the created order. By itself, the appeal to the goodness of diversity in marriage cannot support the weight of an argument against same-sex unions. By appealing to the internal life of the Trinity (which the online debates of 2016 should have warned us all against), evangelicals may have shot themselves in the foot. The necessary diversity must be located in the distinction between creator and creation, heaven and earth, Christ and church, bridegroom and bride: this is terrain is far more theologically safe, and far better illuminated by the Scriptures. The way of holding together the good diversity of marriage with the goodness of the created order is clearly by emphasising procreation as an intended purpose of marriage: the purpose of diversity—dare we say complementarity?—is that it is creative. It is not good for the man to be alone because he cannot fulfil the creation mandate himself. Fertility is the point at which nature continues to trump ideology — no matter how diversity or identity or love is defined, conceptualised, or pursued, nature only permits male and female to fulfil the creation mandate, and only together. I know that in this essay I seem to have talked about little besides procreation, but it is the great missing link in the evangelical definition of marriage and theology of sexuality, and its absence is baffling. Not once in The Beautiful Story is procreation mentioned as a part of its theology of sex, and yet it is the only thing that makes a substantial difference between heterosexual and homosexual intercourse. Everything said about complementarity, or diversity, or self-giving, or love, or intimacy can work in principle for anyone. Only a vision of sexuality that is ordered towards family life affirms the purpose of God in creation, and orders sexuality away from simply being about pleasure.

The Beautiful Story won’t work to convince anyone, because it has no arguments to marshal that can’t be used by their opponents. It doesn’t challenge any modern assumptions about marriage (or singleness, or gender in ministry — which I’ll follow up in a separate post), and so comes across as reactionary and shallow. It’s playing the match away from home, and while their arguments might work in churches that already agree with their conclusions, those tactics don’t work on a cold night in Stoke. As far as it goes, it’s a nice video, but there’s no chance it’ll make a blind bit of difference in the direction of the conversation. If anything, it might just show that evangelicals have no intention of reconsidering any of their own views in the Living in Love and Faith process, even where they have lost touch with Scripture and the tradition, and introduced some highly questionable theology.

We Need Deeper Foundations
The conversation about the ‘redefinition of marriage’ has mostly been focussed around legislation and liturgy relating to same-sex marriage. This is obviously necessary, but one can easily miss the wood for the trees by not going back to the first principles of what marriage is anyway. The thesis of this essay is that marriage has already been redefined in the liturgy. When the minister performs a wedding according to Common Worship, he is declaring marriage to be something different to a minister performing a wedding according to the Book of Common Prayer. The consequence of these liturgical observations as they relate to same-sex couples is being seen around us: once marriage becomes (in the popular imagination and most commonly used liturgical forms) more about romantic feelings of love and companionship than about procreation and chastity according to a biblical sexual ethic, it becomes very difficult for the average person in the pew (and perhaps even many of the church’s clergy) to see why marriage should not be extended to same-sex couples who feel the same love, and hold the same desires for companionship. The problem is not simply the erosion of Biblical authority in these discussions, but also the eroding of a Biblical imagination in many Christians, even evangelicals who uphold the Bible’s authority, and are currently opposing the introduction of same-sex marriage in the Church of England.

We conservative evangelicals need a deeper understanding of what marriage is in order to help people to understand not just that the Scriptures do not permit same-sex marriage, but also why they do not, and why, despite what civil laws and popular consent may say, Christians cannot accept the term of ‘marriage’ as a valid term for same-sex partnerships. We may find in that process that there we were wrong at points in our teaching on marriage, sex, and relationships.

Will the Church of England Continue to Revise its Teaching? More Likely than Not
To return to the titular question, will the Church of England formally and drastically revise its teaching on marriage and gender (in as much as they can ‘redefine’ something that they have no authority to alter)? I believe so, but perhaps not immediately or all at once in 2022.

Of course, it may not happen at all. The Lord may return before 2022. There may be a national revival. The woke movement, which the progressive wing of the church follows a few years behind (though it is closing the gap), may implode as a result of its own internal incoherencies, leaving no script for the liberal clergy to follow.

From my vantage point, however, it appears that the foundational assumptions of what marriage is for, the assumptions of both liberal and conservative clergy, make same-sex marriage a natural and logically intelligible move. Until the evangelical wing of the Church recovers a more fully-orbed picture of marriage, given to us in Scripture, nature, and the tradition, its arguments against same-sex marriage will be ineffective. What is more, they will fail to undo the redefinitions of marriage that have already taken place for the rest of us.

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