Redefining Marriage – for the better!

Redefining Marriage” was the theme of the 2014 conference of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality (CSCS), where theologian Adrian Thatcher was the keynote speaker. His address, with the title of the conference theme “Redefining Marriage” may be read in full at his website “Applied Theology”

We all remember the miserable weather last winter, right up to the closing days of February, when powerful winds combined with rain to cause major disruptions to travel of all kinds. On Saturday 25th I braved the weather and train delays to make my way from South West Surrey to Birmingham, to attend the annual conference of the CSCS, on the theme “Redefining Marriage?”. The keynote speaker, Professor Adrian Thatcher, had a far more arduous journey, coming up from as far as Exeter, where the weather had been most severe, and rail disruptions included not only simple delays, but also lines closed and trains rerouted. Before the scheduled date, there had been some concerns that he might be simply unable to attend, but he brushed them aside, assuring us that he had found and planned a viable route – one that might take six hours, but which would get him there and back. By the end of the day, I was delighted that he and I had both put up with the difficulties, and made our way for what turned out to be a most stimulating and enjoyable conference.

Keynote address

In his address, Professor Thatcher effectively and engagingly refuted the often-heard refrain from the opponents of same-sex marriage, that marriage has always been defined by God as an indissoluble bond between one man and one woman, for the purposes of procreation, and simply cannot be redefined by human law.

In recounting the changing nature and forms of marriage throughout Christian history, he covered ground that is familiar, and also some that is less so. There’s no need to repeat the detail of that – read the outline of his talk at his blog.

On the spot, however, talking to the slides he included some details not in his published text. Among these, I particularly enjoyed a diagram based on the medieval  penitentials, which listed all the circumstances where sexual intercourse was not permitted, even within marriage.

These included a prohibition on sexual intercourse during the solemn seasons of Lent and Advent, and also during Easter week and Whitsun week, on feast days, fast days, Sundays, Fridays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Those restrictions alone leave just 110 of the days in the year when intercourse is permissible, for anyone. Family circumstances could impose further restrictions. Sex was also prohibited with wives who were menstruating, pregnant, or nursing.

Even during the appropriate times when marital intercourse was permitted, there where further restrictions on how it was to be conducted – only in darkness, and fully clothed. Oddest of all was the restriction (but one easily managed) that sexual intercourse was absolutely prohibited in church. I also appreciated his discussion of marriage as a process, not an event, which was for many centuries seen as preceded by a formal betrothal and beginning with a private contract and cohabitation, with the wedding following later, as merely a public celebration of what had already been concluded earlier. In that understanding of marriage, the term “premarital sex” is a misnomer. It should more accurately be referred to as “pre-ceremonial” sex. (Similarly, as Lawler and Salzman note in “The Sexual Person”, the phrase “cohabitation before marriage” made no sense at all: the marriage was understood as beginning with cohabitation.

Moving on from an historical account, Professor Thatcher proceeded to reflect on what we can learn from this history about what is central to our theological understanding of marriage, which he presented as a series of eight “pictures of marriage”:

● a union of heart, body and mind, in “one flesh”
● a committed covenant between two people
● an image of the “New Covenant” between Christ
and the church
● a mutual gift of bodies, one to another
● a sacrament of mutuality
● a sign of the coming Kingdom
● a “communion of persons” (analogous to the
communion of three persons in one Trinity)
● an example of ascetic discipline

None of these necessarily excludes same-sex couples.

Panel Discussion

After lunch, I joined Professor Thatcher and others for a panel discussion on the nature of love, sex and marriage. A good summary of this discussion, minuted by our secretary Jane Fraser, may be read at the CSCS website ).

In my own contribution, I began by noting Mark Jordan’s observation in his wonderful book, “Blessing Same-Sex Unions”, that in modern weddings, the most important celebrant is no longer the priest, but is now the wedding planner, attended by his/her secular acolytes, the caterer the florist and the photographer. I also referred to the patriarchal nature of the wedding, as symbolized by the standard practice of the father of the bride (or other male relative) “giving her away” to the groom, an echo of more ancient practice where “giving away” the woman from one man to another, is precisely what happened.

The responses, from other panellists and from the floor, were fascinating, noting that an additional part of the symbolism, equally valid today, is of uniting two families. One panellist pointed out that although this practice of “giving away” is customary, it is not required in Church of England regulations, which leave substantial latitude. Someone else reported on an example of a lesbian wedding, where both brides wanted to experience the custom, so they were both walked down the aisle, by their two fathers. More poignant, was the observation that while brides and their fathers alike often report on the joy of the experience, the mothers are left weeping in the pews, with no part of their own to play in either the church ceremony or the reception. (Not reported on, but which I have read elsewhere, is the example of two gay men who chose to be accompanied to the altar by their two mothers).

Referring to the anomaly of the traditional, virginal white bridal dress even for weddings where the couple have been cohabiting for years, one observation from the floor objected that we were misunderstanding the point of the white. This was not to represent virginity, as popularly believed, but to ensure that the bride would colour co-ordinate with the rest of the large kitchen appliances!

The essential point about the wedding ceremony, is that it has become ossified by custom into practices which are no longer relevant as they stand – but fresh perspectives from same-sex couples help us to redefine them, for the better.

Beyond the extensive discussion on weddings, the panel also spoke of many other important considerations about marriage. As Christians, we need to be more mindful of the earlier understanding of marriage as a process, and restore the value of cohabitation before the wedding. In the modern world, where circumstances are so radically different to those of biblical times, we need to think more deeply about issues like polyamory, “open” relationships, and (consensual) BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism) relationships.

● Terry Weldon

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