‘The Church of England’s Doctrine of Marriage’ - a response to a statement by fourteen bishops*
Updated: Jun 16
A response by Jonathan Tallon Feb 2023
To fully appreciate Jonathan's critique readers are encouraged to read the Bishop's Statement in full. It is linked at the end of the article. But to give some immediate context to Jonathan's comment, I have inserted a few brief extracts from the text as he engages with it. This is necessarily selective. David Runcorn.
Jonathan is Biblical studies tutor at Northern Baptist college and an Anglican priest. He is the author of Affirmative - Why You Can Say Yes to the Bible and Yes to People Who Are LGBTQI+. See also his highly popular Bible and Homosexuality YouTube channel and website (details in Resources)
‘Recently 14 evangelical and Catholic CofE bishops released a seven page statement on marriage (see link below), ahead of the General Synod debate (which was not discussing marriage) and following LLF discussions. I have some issues with it…
Get a coffee, and settle down for another thread.
1. First, the document outlines Christian & secular understandings of marriage. By Christian, they mean Church of England, as outlined in the BCP. They note that the BCP mentions Eph. 5 – the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church – in a couple of places.
2. From this they conclude that the whole marriage service connects together and turns on this analogy of bridegroom and bride with Christ and the Church. I think they’re laying it on a bit thick here but I’m not going to quibble.
3. They then contrast this with a secular understanding of marriage using Charles Taylor’s approach to secularisation, seeing the campaign for same-sex marriage as arising from values of the French Revolution. This is my first issue.
"the movement towards same-sex marriage could be regarded as inevitable in our culture, because of deeply-rooted values we have taken for granted since the eighteenth century ... significantly different in shape and form from Christian understandings of freedom, justice and community, given their increasing detachment from the biblical narrative from which they first emerged." (p2)
4. Their approach slides in the assumption that same-sex marriage is a secular idea, and ‘Christian’ marriage is a separate idea. This is to ignore the Christian calls for same-sex marriage, and the theological work that has been done in this area.
5. And they don’t prove this – they merely assert it. But even so, this isn’t the most problematic part of their statement.
6. Next, the document outlines ‘the meaning of Christian marriage’. I have an issue with this: shouldn’t it be ‘the Christian meaning of marriage’? There is not one marriage for Christians and another for everybody else; marriage is a creation ordinance. But I’m quibbling again.
7. They outline four ‘vital aspects’ of a marriage: The goodness of creation is affirmed; The interdependence of humanity is celebrated; The story of salvation is depicted. Life is generated.
8. But the interdependence of humanity (by which they mean male and female) is not dependent upon marriage – as their example of people who are celibate shows. Interdependence is something that should be visible and celebrated throughout society and the church.
"the Interdependence of Humanity is celebrated. Christian theology has usually
assumed the radical interdependence of male and female. That has not always been enacted in Christian history, especially in the frequent failure to recognise the equality of women, but many strands of scriptural teaching suggest that men need women and women need men." (p3)
9. It is ironic therefore that at least some of the 14 bishops do not believe that women should be either priests or bishops. But that is a different topic. Back to the document.
10. If marriage represents interdependence of people, then same-sex marriage does reflect that. Because it is two people vowing to be interdependent.
11. When it comes to the story of salvation they say marriage depicts three things that are true of Christ and his church as bride.
12. Here, we may pause to note that two people can be of the same gender yet be different. In fact, it would be hard to think of two people who aren’t different. We are all unique; the coming together of any two people will depict difference. You don’t need gender for difference.
"The goal of Creation is intimate union between God and his Creation. It is the ultimate reconciliation, though not the eradication, of difference."
13. Lifelong: I will skate over the fact that these bishops are happy to stay in a church that blesses remarriage after divorce (for the avoidance of doubt, I believe it is possible to be remarried after divorce, but let’s not pretend that the CofE isn’t flexible on ‘lifelong’).
14. Intimacy: this is true for all marriages, including same-sex marriages. This is implied by the document itself later on, when it praises some same-sex relationships.
15. Life is generated: Here, the command to be fruitful appears to be reduced to physical life, dependent upon male and female biology. Except, there is no issue with couples who are unable to have children getting married. So it is clearly not an essential component of marriage.
"As a visible, tangible confirmation and culmination of all this, the sense of creative fruitfulness in the coming together of difference is expressed in a very real and physical way, in that it is only by the joining together of male and female that new life is born and the human race is perpetuated." (p4)
16. Here, we may also pause to note that the NT is weirdly (given the emphasis in the OT) uninterested in procreation or biological inheritance. Miller (2013) had an interesting conference paper on this.
17. The danger of making the possibility of children an essential part of marriage is that you turn Christianity into a fertility cult.
18. Let’s also pause, and consider the metaphor. Marriage is a metaphor for Christ and his bride the church. Except, of course, that spiritual marriage is itself a metaphor for the union between Christ and believers.
19.. Note that in this mystical union, actual gender is immaterial. The church is given a fictive gender as female in the metaphor. But in reality many of us in the church are male. The deeper reality is beyond gender.
20. So to claim that a marriage must be a man and woman in order to reflect the spiritual truth of Christ’s union with us is, frankly, materialistic and not spiritual.
"Every time a man and woman are joined together in the promise of lifelong fidelity, the
goodness of creation is affirmed, the interdependence of humanity is celebrated, the story of salvation is depicted, and life is (potentially) generated. Marriage is thus a sacramental sign of something bigger than itself and that signification depends to a significant degree on sexual difference." (p4)
21. When the document asserts that ‘marriage is thus a sacramental sign of something bigger than itself and that signification depends to a significant degree on sexual difference’ it is massively overreaching.
22. We then move to ‘marriage and the story of scripture’. This has the claim that a same-sex marriage ‘must necessarily lack the capacity for procreation without external agency’. I guess my response is, so what?
"The joining of two people of the same sex in a covenanted union that seeks to deepen Christian faith and life can exemplify a range of virtuous qualities that invite recognition. But it must necessarily lack the capacity for procreation without external agency." p4)
23. This lack is also present in some heterosexual couples. But this point is ignored or skated over. If the ability to procreate is essential, then are childless couples properly married? If it isn’t essential, why single out same-sex couples?
24. We then get a statement which I hope is just carelessly drafted: that any change to the doctrine of marriage as a union between a man and a woman would not only unravel the Scriptural story of salvation, but risk undermining our understanding of the nature of the Church.
"Any change to the doctrine of marriage as a union between a man and a woman would therefore not only unravel the Scriptural story of salvation, but risk undermining our understanding of the nature of the Church as it is derived from Scripture and given to us as a revelatory sign. Marriage is essentially an ecclesial, as well as a human, instrument of unity." (p5)
25. I happen to think that our scriptural story of salvation is rather more robust than that. And so is our understanding of the church.
Summary: the document claims you need biological difference and procreation so that marriage can properly be a metaphor for Christ’s union with us, and that anything that can’t offer this can’t be marriage.
I think they’re wrong.’
The bishop’s statement:
Tallon’s response originally posted here: