Church Teaching & General Understanding of Marriage

Church teaching and the general understanding of marriage

The debate keeps going and I’m afraid that if I don’t blog about it I’ll be the only person who didn’t.


It all began with the House of Bishops publishing a statement on 15th February. It accepted that opinions on gay marriage differ, but insisted that

 the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.

In an appendix it states that when the first gay marriages take place

there will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.

Professor Linda Woodhead disagreed. Her argument is brief and worth reading in full, but basically claims that such differences have happened in the past: on permission to marry a deceased wife’s sister in 1907, and on the 1937 Act liberalising divorce.

Lots of people have commented, either in support of Woodhead or against her. For defendants of the bishops, ‘It’s all about gender’, as Mike Higton puts it.

To me, the House of Bishops’ claim is a typical example of a stance just too common to require any alternative explanation. ‘Conservatives’, of both the campaigning and the fence-sitting types, love to think that the way things were in their childhood was the way they always had been, all the way back to the beginning. This, for example, is what the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission did last April with their unpopular Men and Women in Marriage; but it is so common that we can all think of examples, not just in matters of religion. I very much doubt that the House of Bishops considered the Acts of 1907 or 1937 and judged that they did not invalidate the statement; they just assumed that the current change is the first such change ever.

They contrast ‘the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’ with ‘the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law’. I think they mean two things: that the Church’s doctrine of marriage will diverge both from the legal definition and from ‘the general understanding of marriage in England’. (I am not sure; they might have meant ‘the general understanding of marriage in England as enshrined in law’, in which case ‘general understanding’ is only adding emphasis, not making an additional claim.) This post leaves aside the question of legal definition and focuses on the ‘general understanding’.

To judge whether the bishops are right we need an account of what this general understanding is, independently of the legal definition.

I think there are majority expectations, to which minority groups add other expectations. The obvious majority expectations are that those married to each other live together and have a sexual relationship with each other. Neither of these features are obligatory: husbands and wives often live apart because of their jobs, and they rarely divorce each other simply because a sexual relationship is no longer possible or desired.

Additional expectations vary between cultures and subcultures. In most of the Bible men could have more than one wife and were also permitted sex with prostitutes and slave girls. In some cultures divorce has been permitted, in others not. In some marriage is only recognised after a public ceremony, in others a private ceremony suffices. Arranged marriages are accepted in some cultures but not others. In some, sadly, marriage entitles the husband to beat his wife.

Within this mixture of views the idea that marriage includes same-sex partnerships is gaining ground. The bishops are therefore right to conclude that their view is increasingly diverging from the general understanding. If we simply focus on the union of male and female and ignore the other variables, and if they can also show that there have been no gay marriages in the past, we may conclude that gay marriage is an unparalleled change. However this leaves us asking how they justify focusing on this one variable as though it was different in kind from the others. Why is it that gay marriage is a ‘first time… divergence’ while permitting divorce and forbidding polygamy were not? Why does this one change make such a clean break with the past while the others did not? The bishops’ choice of criterion looks to me like special pleading, motivated by the controversies of the present age rather than any realistic assessment of the general understanding of marriage now or in the past.

I suggest that it is more historically realistic, and more constructive in the present situation, to accept that ‘the general understanding of marriage’ changes over time, and at present it is changing to include gay marriages. If this puts ‘the general understanding of marriage’ at odds with the bishops’ understanding of marriage, no new problem is created. For those who believe gay marriages are morally wrong, they are wrong anyway – whatever the bishops say. For those who believe they are not morally wrong, it’s time for the bishops to change their teaching. Fear not. It has happened many times in the past and will continue to happen in the future.

About Jonathan Clatworthy

Retired Church of England parish priest, university chaplain & tutor in philosophy & ethics. I help run Modern Church, which promotes liberal theology, and write books.


Thank to Jonathan Clatworthy, for putting his position so clearly. It must by now be obvious to the House of Bishops in the Church of England that their contention- that same-sex marriage would be a first departure from the traditional understanding of Christian Marriage – is wrong. There have been other divergences from what was once the dogmatic understanding of the composition of true marriage. In an age where a growing number of young people (my own daughter and her partner and baby are part of this new ethos) are disillusioned about the permanence, and the implied gender subordination of the female partner, in marriage, they prefer to not enter into it – believing that their relationship is only as strong as the ongoing commitment they are able to make to it. Perhaps this is more honest than being culturally expected to make promises that they may find themselves unable to fulfil, later on in their relationship.

Since the Church of England allowed the acceptance of divorce and re-marriage into its conduct guide-lines; the ‘old order’ of the institution of marriage no longer exists – either for clergy of the Church or the faithful laity. Pragmatism is not necessarily anti-Christian, and honesty before God is preferable to a suspicion of Church hypocrisy that the world is able to discern and challenge.

In the link below, which contains a message from the Bishop of Dorking to the Guildford Diocesan Synod – on the H.o.B. Statement – we can see how hard-pressed the bishops felt at having to make an immediate response to the Pilling Report:

“This is a holding statement on the part of the House of Bishops in a new situation. It reflects our history and our teaching. Yet the longer conversation goes on. We were aware that in the past the Church has had to come to terms with understanding changes in society. “’s%20Sermons/01%2003%2014%20Diocesan%20Synod%20Same%20Sex%20Marriage.pdf

The fact that the Bishop of Dorking sees this as a ‘holding statement’ only, on the Church’s eventual position, might give hope for a more eirenic outcome in this issue.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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2 Responses to Church Teaching & General Understanding of Marriage

  1. murraysmallbone says:

    In further witness of the “changing order” of marriage;I offer my own life experience.
    I have known personally many long standing gay partnerships in Australia,Europe and the U.K.;all of this decades before even civil partnerships existed.
    In my own life I spent the majority of my adult life in a same sex partnership only abbreviated by the death of my partner.
    So once again God does bless commitment from one person to another person.
    Need more be said !!.Some would say an example of “Faithfulness”.
    I can only say to the HoB;:please speak to people of the “other”, and with prayer and discernment you will discover that such people are not “the other”,but rather living lives changed and blessed.

    Jesu mercy. Mary pray.

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