Enlarging marriage

by Michael Sadgrove

The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, who before his retirement was Dean of Durham, has long supported equal marriage in the Church. We are very grateful to him for writing this excellent article for the Equal Campaign, demonstrating that our case is ‘built on a solid theological and ethical foundation’.

Michael Sadgrove
The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, Dean Emeritus of Durham

What is the intellectual basis of equal marriage as we campaign for its adoption in the Church of England?

As far as the law is concerned, many people are content to argue for equal marriage on the basis of human rights. Discrimination of any kind subverts the principles of justice, equality and inclusion. So in marriage, as in everything else, citizens should be treated in the same way, without distinction. The same goes for civil partnerships. Both should be open to all, regardless of their sexual orientation. And this is the direction of travel across the entire nation, including Northern Ireland following this week’s welcome vote in Parliament to bring marriage law there into line with the rest of the UK.

The exemptions provided under the equal-marriage legislation for religious institutions, including the Church of England, are in my view extremely unfortunate. Churches should be beacons of equality and inclusion, not obstacles to it. I do not remember that the Church of England’s governing body, the General Synod, was consulted on this point. But I did hear bishops and others comment as follows:

The equal-marriage legislation is established purely on rights-based assumptions, not on theology or ethics. Its premise is utilitarian, ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ rather than any rigorous study of what marriage really means. The church should therefore protect the theological principles on which marriage is founded in the Christian tradition. Human rights don’t come into it.

The common idea that a rights-based ethics is sub-theological needs challenging. I want to argue that its origins lie in the Hebrew Bible, whose teaching that we must love our neighbour as ourselves is affirmed by Jesus as the second of the two great commandments. That teaching itself goes back to the equality that belongs to human beings in creation. It is the divine image in humanity that is the theological basis for treating all people equally and affirming that all have the same rights before God and one another. I think there is a good case for claiming that the emphasis in the gospels is on defending other people’s rights rather than my own. That seems to me to be the thrust of the prophets’ call for justice. But it’s telling that the Enlightenment principles of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, and of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ emerged in Christian civilisations that had been schooled in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

If the idea of an ‘inclusive church’ in which equal marriage, the ordination of women and a Christianity that transcends differences of ethnicity, culture, sexuality, education and class flows out of Enlightenment principles, that is theological enough for me. At the same time, it’s important that we should examine the individual aspects of inclusive Christianity so as to understand how they sit in relation to one another and to the tradition as a whole. Let me explore equal marriage in this way.

Those who oppose equal marriage often do so on the grounds that marriage is heterosexual by definition, the union of a man and woman. This is of course how it has traditionally been understood. The Bible does not know of same-sex marriage (though it does recognise at least one covenanted same-sex relationship, that of David and Jonathan [1 Samuel 18.1–3], though the text is reticent as to the exact nature of their friendship).

But the question of whether heterosexuality is of the essence of marriage can’t be answered by appealing to the history of the institution. It all depends on whether by definition it is intrinsically capable or incapable of being ‘enlarged’ in its scope. At first sight, the Bible appears to rule this out according to the aetiology of marriage in the creation story where the man recognises the woman as ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ and ‘leaves his father and his mother, and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Genesis 2.18–25).

But what if the point of this story is not to make a statement about gender complementarity so much as about the union of two human beings in a covenant of loyalty and fidelity? In the Hebrew Bible, ‘flesh of our flesh’ is synonymous with the closest of relationships that it is possible to have, whether through kinship or affinity. ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.’ The answer to his loneliness is the companionship of another. And it is to this ‘other’ that the pledge of faithfulness is made. The complementarity of the relationship is, I believe, not, or not only, a matter of gender. It’s about reaching out across the gap that separates every human being from the ‘other’ and recognising in that chosen ‘other’ the deepest possible answer to his or her need of intimacy.

I’m suggesting that the essence of marriage is the vow of covenanted fidelity. The ceremony, by being contracted before witnesses, affirms the vow and gives it a public character. That makes it the proper business of society. And since modern marriage rites affirm that the primary purpose of marriage is companionate, then enlarging it so as to see it as a union of ‘others’, whatever their gender, is not at all to compromise its intrinsic nature. On the contrary, it could be argued that equal marriage was always the destiny of this public institution, laying bare its essential character as a companionate publicly covenanted union in which the begetting of children, traditionally its primary purpose, may, but need not necessarily, play a part.

Christian theology and practice are in fact familiar with this idea of ‘enlargement’. In the lifetimes of many of us, the Church of England has found it possible to permit the solemnisation of marriages where either or both of the parties is divorced and has a partner still living. If like me you believe that the life-vow is fundamental to the meaning of marriage, then this was actually a very big step for the church to make. This is because the remarriage of divorced people directly raises the status of the vow that lay at the heart of the previous marriage. This isn’t the place to rehearse those difficult arguments. I am simply saying that the church has found a way of acknowledging both that a vow is a vow, and that as facts on the ground, marriages break down and are dissolved. What was unthinkable only a couple of generations ago has happened. The Church of England ‘enlarged’ its understanding of marriage – in some tension with the teaching of St Mark’s Gospel, some might say – so as to allow divorced people to solemnise second or subsequent marriages. And it did this all the while continuing to affirm the sanctity of the marriage vow, including the pledge of lifelong fidelity.

Equal marriage, then, challenges the church to continue this process of what I’m calling ‘enlargement’. Indeed, because it does not call into question the character of the lifelong vow of marriage but affirms the fundamental meaning of the covenant, it is, to me at least, less problematic than the remarriage of divorcees. Which is why I am puzzled that the leadership of the Church of England apparently regards it as subverting marriage rather than, as I see it, placing a massive vote of confidence in it.

What I am calling ‘enlargement’ is simply one more example of how since earliest times the boundaries of Christian understanding have been stretched both by circumstances and by the inner logic of its own theology. The New Testament debates about circumcision are the template here. One reading of them is to say that the early expansion of the church into the Gentile world of the Roman Empire urgently demanded a renegotiation of circumcision as a rite of passage into the covenant community. I conjecture that this force of circumstance came first, this pressure for the inclusion of Gentiles into the church. Subsequent theological reflection led to the recognition that this was not only allowable, but required by the logic of a message that proclaimed itself to be good news for all. Where a universal gospel is proclaimed, inclusion is the only possible theological response.

Which brings me back to where I began, with the love command in the Bible. Universalism and inclusion are ultimately about love: God’s love for all his creatures and for all humanity; and how our love as human beings for one another reflects this. So the tendency of Christian thought and practice to ‘enlarge’ its thought and practice is, I think, a necessary consequence of working out what this truly means in contexts and circumstances so different from those in which the command to love was first given. When difficult (which usually means untested) ethical choices have to be made, situation ethics asks: what is the loving thing to do here? And while the church may often struggle to answer that question well, taking a long time and following many a false trail in the process, it is at least being true to its best self when it recognises where that question comes from. If discernment follows the theological direction of travel enshrined in its charter texts that embody the love command, then we can be hopeful of an outcome that is not only good in itself but has the integrity that comes when a genuine exploration has been undertaken.

I’d like to think that the Church of England’s current process ‘Living in Love and Faith’ is a genuine exploration of this kind. Is it capable of contemplating ‘enlargement’ when it comes to same-sex relationships and equal marriage? And if so, will our churches one day not only acknowledge but celebrate what is true for so many of our Christian brothers and sisters, that to love a person of the same sex is to find the ‘bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh’ that Genesis speaks about? And will it not only affirm the goodness of loving same-sex relationships among both laity and clergy, but solemnise them publicly?

I have no hesitation in saying that that day will come. It would be foolish to imagine that it will happen very soon. The forces of aggressive conservatism in both religion and politics will make sure that this ground continues to be contested for a while yet. Nevertheless, in the arena of personal and social ethics, history is on the side of generosity and inclusion. That is why the Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England will be successful in the end. This article has, I hope, demonstrated that the Campaign is a principled one because its case is built on a solid theological and ethical foundation. Which is why we have every reason for hope.

Michael Sadgrove
July 2019