Marriage and the Church

No, the doctrine of marriage is not fixed

Speech given at the General Synod of the Church of England on Thursday, 9 February 2023, by Rev. Dr. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who is Acting Archdeacon of Liverpool & Team Rector of Saint Luke’s in the City Parish, Liverpool – and author of The Essential History of Christianity.

As a historian, I want to challenge this idea that we have heard repeatedly expressed, that the church has always had one fixed doctrine of marriage.

Our debates today are part of a very long and ongoing tradition of debate about our relationship to sex, sexuality, and different patterns of relationship and family.
In the scriptures, we see three, not two, gender identities: male, female and eunuch. And there is much debate about how that last category might map onto the categories that we speak of today.

In the early church, marriage did not mean sex per se, but the socio-economic status of being a householder. Slaves could not get married. And there were serious debates about whether Christians should marry at all, since it involved participating in civil society.

For most of Christian history, we had no marriage service. For elite families, marriage was primarily concerned with property, inheritance and alliances. In the medieval period the church began a programme of reform, which involved greatly annoying the aristocracy all over Europe by insisting on the radical notion that the couple at the heart of these alliances should both give their consent – hence the ‘I will’ and ‘I do’ vows in the marriage liturgy that developed.

‘Man’ and ‘woman’ was often a misnomer. Child marriages were common at this elite level, as political alliances were cemented. And at the popular level, practices such as betrothal, handfasting and ‘bundling’ were commonplace, all socially sanctioned and sometimes liturgical ceremonies which celebrated the commencement of pre-marital sexual intimacy, rarely condemned by the church.

In the nineteenth century there were protracted legal debates about whether women counted legally as ‘persons’. Until the Married Women’s Property Act, married women could not legally own property in their own right. (My own mother in law tells me indignantly that as a married woman in the 1970s she couldn’t buy a sofa on hire purchase without her husband’s signature).

Theologians and church dignitaries frequently weighed in on all sides of these debates. Legally, the view that we are all ‘people’ won the day – and the 1938 report of the first Doctrine Commission in the Church of England spoke of marriage as being between ‘two Christian persons’.

So as a historian – no, the church has not taught consistently for 2000 years that all sex outside of marriage is a sin, and has not had one unified doctrine of marriage for all that time.

One of our pastoral principles is to pay attention to power. So let us be honest that for most of our history, discussions about marriage have not been about sex per se, but about power.

Jesus himself said that whilst we start from the Scriptures, ‘the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth’. So we shouldn’t be surprised or afraid to see doctrine develop and change as we learn more about the world and one another. It took the church 300 years to develop the doctrine of the Trinity, so lets not be dismayed that as we are learning more now about sex and sexuality, we are having this debate.

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