by Jonathan Clatworthy, 12 April 2013

This is a response to the document Men and Women in Marriage by the Church of England's Faith and Order Commission,  published on 10 April 2013. The accompanying press release makes clear its purpose, that 'public forms of blessing belong to marriage alone', so there should not be public blessings of gay partnerships.

Much of the document is a general account of the purpose of marriage, and is to be commended. As such it is timely. Over the past 60 years the Church's earlier restrictive teaching about marriage, partnerships and sexual relationships has been rejected and then forgotten by British society at large, which now openly tolerates a wider range of relationships and often expresses moral indignation at those who disapprove of gay partnerships or single parents. However a complete free-for-all is also unsatisfactory. Most people need some guidance, and the experience of the ages does reveal that some types of relationship are more satisfactory than others. For the Church to revisit its teaching on marriage with the positive aim of offering pastoral guidance on relationships is much needed.

Sadly, Men and Women in Marriage does not perform this role. Instead it aims to rescue as much as it can from earlier restrictive teaching, offering minimal concessions to alternatives. It does this by appealing to natural law to affirm the role of marriage but then departing from natural law to define it very tightly and to treat marriage so defined as the 'norm' (§§48, 49).

Positive accounts of marriage

Encouragingly, it offers a positive account of marriage. Marriage is not treated  as inferior to celibacy or as a concession to lust. Noting the Book of Common Prayer's  description of it as a 'remedy for sin' (§36) it interprets the phrase to refer also to non-sexual sins.

It is also to be commended for approaching the nature of marriage from the perspective  of natural law. Rather than beginning with a doctrinal theory appealing to a special revelation  about God's intentions for marriage, and then seeking to impose it on people's real relationships,  it aims instead to begin with actual relationships and derive moral judgements from them:

Christians have spoken of God's 'faithfulness' to his creation, as they have found in it  a structure of intelligibility capable of being appreciated by all, a 'natural law' (§9; see also §27).

This gives it a tone of empirical realism. The underlying concern is to recognise and encourage  what makes for good relationships, not to impose onto intimate relationships additional moral demands derived from some other agenda.

The flexibility and supportiveness of marriage depend on an integration of its various elements, for it is a thread woven of many strands: it satisfies the needs of youth, assists the cooperative venture of parenthood, strengthens the role of memory in old age, and so on. What is important is the way these strands are spun together to give the thread a strength that is more than the sum of its parts (§16. See also §§41 & 44).

Restrictions

These positive aspects of the document to be welcomed. However the document also appeals  to special revelation to impose alien norms. An introductory statement establishes the restrictive aim of the document by citing earlier documents.

In 2005 the Bishops stated the Church of England's position in these words: 'marriage is a creation ordinance, a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace. Marriage, defined as a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman, is central to the stability and health of human society. It continues to provide the best context for the raising of children' (§2).

This quotation is from Civil Partnerships: A Pastoral Statement from the House of Bishops, 2005, §2. A footnote also cites Canon B30, stating 'according to our Lord's teaching' that marriage 'is in its nature a union permanent and life-long, for better for worse, till death do them part, of one man with one woman'. Later we are told that marriage 'is undertaken for the full length of a couple's life. And it is an exclusive commitment of one man and one woman' (§17). Similarly,

When we marry, we commit the procreative power of our own sex to an exclusive relation with a life-partner of the opposite sex. We open ourselves to parenthood in and through the partnership we enjoy as a couple, and that may be true even of a couple who, for whatever reasons, have no prospect of actually having children (§21).

Thus marriage is restricted to partnerships which contain all these features: they are between a man and a woman, lifelong, exclusive and legally sanctioned. One type of marriage is to be the only legitimate model for all marriages. Clearly, these statements are not simply derived from empirical observation of actual marriages. They describe the nature of many marriages, but there are also many marriages and partnerships which are not of this type. The document has appealed to natural law to argue that one type of marriage is best for many people, and has then imposed a non-natural demand that this type of marriage is the only legitimate one.

Other types of partnership are presented as inferior to this one. On the polygamy  in the Bible it speaks of 'compromise':

compromises have been accepted especially over exogamy and monogamy,  but these compromises have tended to be of limited scope. It is possible to exaggerate  the cultural relativity of marriage-forms. Many differences there have been, but they hardly amount to a significant challenge to these structural foundations (§19).

On remarriage after divorce it is a matter of 'pastoral support':

the Church does not treat questions of what is possible in hard circumstances  or exceptional conditions as simply closed. They require pastoral wisdom. In opting a decade ago for a provision for marriage after divorce, for example, the Church of England maintained the principles 'that marriage is an unconditional commitment for life' and 'that a further marriage after a divorce is an exceptional act'. In this context it sought to offer pastoral support to those who 'with great honesty and circumspection' approached a further marriage (§§47-48).

Despite these concessions the norm is to be upheld:

The meaning of such pastoral accommodations can be misunderstood, as though  the Church were solving pastoral difficulties by redefining marriage from the ground up, which it cannot do. What it can do is devise accommodations for specific conditions, bearing witness in special ways to the abiding importance of the norm. Well-designed accommodations proclaim the form of life given by God's creative goodness and bring those in difficult positions into closer approximation to it. They mark the point where teaching and pastoral care coincide (§49).

Conflicts and omissions

Mentioning biblical polygamy and remarriage after divorce can hardly be an attempt to engage with current issues. Quite clearly it is an attempt to reinterpret the past Christian tradition to justify its current policy. It is a defensive ploy. Such an attempt is bound to fail. Christian accounts of marriage have varied over time, and have usually echoed the attitudes of society in general. For most of the Church's history it has had a much more practical focus; often marriage has primarily been a matter of who owns the woman, who is responsible for providing for the woman and the children, and who inherits the property.

The confused alternation between appeals to natural law and special revelation are well illustrated by the paragraph reminding us of the Church's official position on gay marriages:

It has seemed to some that the disagreement over same-sex marriage  is a disagreement over mere names. But names govern how we think, and how we think governs what we learn to appreciate. When marriage is spoken of unclearly or misleadingly, it distorts the way couples try to conduct their relationship and makes for frustration and disappointment. The reality of marriage between one man and one woman will not disappear as the result of any legislative change, for God has given this gift, and it will remain part of our created human endowment. But the disciplines of living in it may become more difficult to acquire, and the path to fulfilment, in marriage and in other relationships, more difficult to find (§50).

This paragraph invites us to believe that using the word 'marriage' of gay partnerships  'distorts the way couples try to conduct their relationship and makes for frustration  and disappointment', and makes 'the path to fulfilment, in marriage and in other relationships,  more difficult to find'. To defend these claims one would have to conduct social surveys  to establish that the use of terms like 'gay marriage' has a harmful effect on heterosexual marriages.  Needless to say there have been no such findings; but the document does not engage at all  with social studies despite their relevance to the topic.

The overall thrust of the document, then, reveals an intention to exclude.  Marriage is only for those making a lifelong commitment, only for  exclusive relationships, only after weddings and only between  a man and a woman. This last condition appears to be the main reason for the publication of the document, with its concern to oppose gay marriages; but as so often happens with those determined to set up barriers, they exclude more than they intend. The document depends heavily on the binary differences between, and complementarity of, the male and female genders, without showing any awareness that these are contested concepts. The failure to address this issue is significant in any case, but is especially significant with regard to people with a transgender or intersex condition. There has been much research in this area and it has been explored in theological studies (Susannah Cornwall, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ, London: Equinox, 2010;  also Adrian Thatcher's Making Sense of Sex, London: SPCK, 2012). One is left  with the impression that, in order to reject gay marriages, the document has drawn  a veil over people who are not heterosexual males or females.

Natural law

I now turn to the underlying conceptual issues in Men and Women in Marriage. Central to its argument is the appeal to a marriage norm derived from natural law.

Natural law theory is as old as history. There are many examples in the Bible;  perhaps the best known is Romans 1:18-21. Since the Reformation it has characterised a difference between Roman Catholics, who maintain it, and many Protestants who seek to replace it by deriving moral norms from the Bible alone.

From early in its history Roman Catholic natural law theory was heavily influenced  by Plato's theory of forms. Plato believed that for each type of physical thing there was an ideal non-physical exemplar in the eternal realm of the forms. Thus there is an ideal form of horse, and each physically existent horse is a more or less imperfect expression of it.

Roman Catholic natural law theory extended this idea to develop moral rules. If the form  of the human being is an exemplar of a perfect person, then it would seem that if we all achieved perfection we would be identical to each other. Although this idea has rarely been overtly argued, it has produced an expectation that human behaviour should be uniform. For example, it has often been argued that the genital organs are designed by God to produce babies so alternative uses, in homosexual activity or masturbation, are contrary to natural law.

Since the nineteenth century an alternative account of natural law has become common.  The main influence was at first evolutionary theory, which argued that diversity is essential to every living species. Today the ubiquity of diversity, and its essential role in the preservation of every species, is so well established that it no longer needs to be justified by any evolutionary theory: if we were too similar to each other, a change that killed one of us might kill all of us. We are necessarily different and behave in different ways.

Men and Women in Marriage resists this conclusion. It describes what it considers the norm for marriage and, as noted above, addresses alternatives  in terms of 'compromise' or 'pastoral support'.

Norms

There are different types of norm.

Statistical norms describe most members of a group. Most adult humans  are heterosexuals in long-term or lifelong relationships, though according to some surveys most sometimes cheat on their partners. Statistical norms tell us what we are like, not what God is calling us to become. Any realistic morality of marriage must however be realistic about them; God cannot expect us to behave in ways which are completely alien to our natures. Persistent deviations from statistical norms must also be taken into account, to avoid a tyranny of the majority.

Biological norms describe behaviour in the light of survival mechanisms  in given environments. In this sense heterosexual activity to produce offspring  is the biological norm. If marriage is defined in this way it is the biological norm, though what counts is the sexual activity and care for the young; weddings are irrelevant. Infidelity and promiscuity are part of the biological norm, even if statistically only practised by a minority. Deviations from this norm include gay and lesbian sexuality, masturbation, celibacy and sexual activity by women past childbearing age. Researchers study these activities as they occur not only in humans but also in other species. Such research characteristically aims to establish not the moral status of these actions but what caused them to evolve. Typically the expectation is that when these activities are regularly performed by a minority of a population, there must be some reason why the population as a whole derives some benefit.

Moral norms state that some kinds of behaviour are right and others wrong. Opponents of natural law morality have often argued that moral norms should have nothing to do with statistical or biological norms. They may claim for example that marriage belongs to a 'fallen' state, unintended by God, and that God's moral commands tell us to resist our natural impulses. Men and Women in Marriage rightly rejects this approach and accepts that moral norms are properly derived from human experience. Once this is accepted, however, the evidence of human experience weighs heavily against a Platonising uniformity and in favour of diversity related to statistical and biological norms. For most adults heterosexual marriage is a blessing; for some it is misery. What is right for most people is not right for everybody. What is best for any one minority is usually best judged by that minority, not by church leaders by virtue of their office.

Summary

Well-informed public reflection on the nature of marriage, and what makes for good  and bad relationships, is much needed. Men and Women in Marriage sets out to offer it,  but is hindered by a determination to rescue as much as it can from older Church teaching  which has been widely rejected for being too restrictive. Its conclusions depend on  an inconsistency. On the one hand it proposes to base its teaching on natural law derived  from experience; on the other hand it refuses to acknowledge a central feature of experience, that no one type of relationship works well for everyone.

One is left suspecting that the Faith and Order Commission had an impossible task.  It is as though differences of opinion in the Church's leadership made it impossible for a coherent and convincing position to gain sufficient support, so the document was tailored to avoid institutional conflict. Perhaps the way forward in future is to acknowledge the disagreements and let the competing views be published and debated on their merits.


Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and (at the time of writing) was Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.