Some comments on the Response from the Church of England to the Government Equalities Office Consultation - by Jean Mayland

The Response states:

The Church of England cannot support the proposal to enable ―  all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony.
Such a move would alter the intrinsic nature of marriage  as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history. Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation.

This opening paragraph of the summary of the arguments in the document rejects  the proposals as 'such a move would alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union  of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history'.

Elsewhere the document speaks of such a change 'diluting the meaning of marriage for everyone'.  Somewhere else the Church of England has said that it would destroy marriage.

The nature of marriage

The document implies that marriage has always been defined in one way  and to change that would be to destroy it. In fact over the centuries the meaning of marriage  has changed frequently - often for the better as I demonstrate below. To add to marriage the right of same sex people to enter it would not be to destroy the concept of marriage but to enlarge and enrich it.

Reference is made to the statement in the second (earlier) creation story in Genesis  that 'Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and the two become one flesh'. In actual fact this was an expression of an ideal rather than something which actually happened.

  • It was the woman who left her family and went to belong to the family of the man.
  • For many years as described in the Old Testament it was legal for a man to marry  more then one wife and polygamy is still found among some African Christians.
  • Women passed from the control of their father to that of their husband and punishments  for sexual misconduct were much worse for women than for men. Compensation for rape  was paid to the man and not the woman.
  • Wives were regarded as workers and providers of children to continue the race.
  • Much of the condemnation of homosexuals lies in the fact that they did not contribute  to the continuation of the race.
  • In fact for much of Christian history women were regarded as 'chattels' or breeding machines  and had no rights.
  • This was as true for England as for other countries e.g.
In 1848 an English woman, a Mrs Dawson, applied for a divorce. Her husband had been openly adulterous, while his private pleasures included flogging her with a horsewhip and brutalising her with a metal-spiked hairbrush. Her petition was refused.1

Other women who had been abused were refused divorce on the grounds that in the Marriage Service they had promised to 'obey'.

  • Until 1870 married woman in England was not allowed to hold her own property. It was the Married Women's Property Act 1870 that allowed women to be legally  the rightful owners of the money they earned and to inherit property. In the marriage service the husband might say 'with all my worldly good I thee endow' but in practice the opposite was true.

1928 Prayer Book

The first attempts to grant women equality and to allow more equal vows  in the Marriage service was the Wedding Service in the 1928 Prayer Book  which gave a woman the choice of omitting the word 'obey'.

Alternative Service Book

In drafting the Marriage Service in this book the Liturgical Commission agreed

  • to add to the service greater note of joy.
  • to change the order of the reasons for marriage in the Preface putting first  life long friendship; second the enjoyment of sexuality as a gift of God; and third  the gift by birth or adoption of children and their upbringing. One of the reasons for this change was the fact that today people live much longer and will have many years together after their children have left home.
  • to stress the equality of the couple by making the Questions and the Vows identical  and dropping the 'giving away' (these latter elements were modified by General Synod to allow both the 'giving away' and the use of the word 'obey').

The Church of England submission actually includes the words of the ASB Preface  which now form the alternative preface in Common Worship except for a few minor changes e.g.  the use of the word 'Bible' instead of 'Scriptures':

The Bible teaches us that marriage is a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace,  a holy mystery in which man and woman becomes one flesh. It is God's purpose that as husband and wife give themselves to each other in love throughout their lives, they shall be united in that love as Christ is united with his Church.
Marriage is given that husband and wife may comfort and help each other,  living faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy. It is given  that with delight and tenderness they may know each other in love and through the joy  of their bodily union may strengthen the union of their hearts and lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children may be born and nurtured in accordance with God's will, to his praise and glory.
In marriage husband and wife belong to one another and they begin a new life  together in the community. It is a way of life that all should honour and it must not be undertaken carelessly, lightly or selfishly but reverently, responsibly and after serious thought.
(Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 of the Alternative Preface to the Marriage Service  in Common Worship: Pastoral Services, p. 136).

In so doing they accept that the meaning and significance of marriage has changed over the centuries.

The proposed change to extend 'marriage' to people of the same sex seems to many  to be a legitimate development and an enrichment of marriage. Some reasons are

  • the general acceptance today of the fact that being homosexual is matter of birth and genes and not of choice;
  • we no longer have a desperate need to encourage the growth in numbers of the human race - in fact the opposite is true;
  • the right of people of the same sex to enjoy the gift of sexuality is recognised by many people - though sadly not the church of England;
  • the desire of people of faith who are people of the same sex to make their life long commitment in the context of worship;
  • the need to make only minimum changes in the marriage service to enable this;
  • same sex couples today have children by in vitro fertilisation and adoption just like heterosexual couples.

Civil Partnership

The document states

We have supported various legal changes in recent years  to remove unjustified discrimination and create greater legal rights for same sex couples  and we welcome that fact that previous legal and material inequities between heterosexual  and same-sex partnerships have now been satisfactorily addressed. To change the nature of marriage for everyone will be divisive and deliver no obvious legal gains given the rights already conferred by civil partnerships. We also believe that imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage would be deeply unwise.

In fact the Bishops in the Lords, with one exception, supported a 'wrecking' amendment to the 'civil partnerships' legislation and the Church of England has consistently opposed  the right of same sex people to have their civil partnership blessed in church as is done by a number of other religious bodies.

At the moment the Church of England does not formally allow any religious element after a civil partnership, even though some clergy offer it. For many faithful same sex couples a merely civil ceremony does not meet their needs.

Secular Marriage and Religious Marriage

The document condemns the State for making changes in marriage ahead of the Religious Bodies  and in its view destroying the nature of marriage.

In actual fact three religious bodies: Unitarians, Quakers and Liberal Jews, petitioned the state for the right to celebrate the marriages of same sex persons  in religious buildings.

The Church of England seems almost to imply that religious bodies have the sole right  to change the nature of marriage and civil authorities have no right to do so.

This division into religious and non religious is troubling. It might please evangelicals  who want to draw a deep line between the genuinely religious and the dangerous secularists outside.  In the view of many others church boundaries are much more open. As Roger Scruton wrote about the Church of England in a recent supplement in The Times 'at the same time through its quiet but sacramental presence it has helped the ordinary embarrassed person to find a way back to God'.

As far as marriage in the Church of England is concerned it is not just for the 'religious'  however defined, but for all. As the preface of both ASB and Common Worship Marriage services  say 'marriage is a gift of God in creation'.

Moreover we should always remember that neither Church nor State actually 'marry' the couple.  A couple marry each other by stating their commitment. This is ratified in law by the state and by Church of England clergy as Registrars and in the latter case blessed by the church but NOT performed by the Church.

The truth of this is often masked as the couple repeat their vows after the priest  but this is to assist memory and not to give the priest the right to 'make' the marriage.

Secular Marriage came before Civil Marriage

In virtually all human societies some form of civil or family marriage came before any religious  elements were added. Many of our marriage customs are of pre-Christian origin. For example the price paid to the bride's father to compensate him for the loss of a valuable worker was later given by him in whole or in part to his daughter and was finally symbolized by the ring. The original purpose of having bridesmaids dressed up in festival clothes seems to have been to deceive demons about the identity of the bride. The custom of the husband's lifting of the bride over the threshold, not yet quite obsolete, is the last remnant of marriage by capture.2

In the Old Testament period betrothal was considered the first stage of marriage.  The actual wedding consisted of a procession bringing the bride, a marriage feast and the entry  of the pair into the bridal chamber. No religious ceremony is mentioned. Not until the late Middle Ages did the presence of a Rabbi become obligatory at a Jewish wedding.

There is no evidence to indicate what exactly took place when two Christians married  in the very early church. In Tertullian's time (c. AD 160-220) marriage was blessed at the Eucharist  but the actual marrying was a private ceremony. The first description of a Church rite is found in chapter 3 of the 'Response to the Bulgarians' by Pope Nicholas, written in AD 866. He mentions two categories of acts. The first consists of the betrothal which included consent by the parents and the couple, the delivery of the ring by the bridegroom to the bride and the delivery of the dowry by written document in the presence of witnesses. The couple were now married and various ceremonies followed later. The couple went to church, made offerings, received a blessing and a 'heavenly veil' and the left the church with crowns on their heads.

Western marriage rites developed from this basis and in the Sarum Marriage Service there are two parts. The first part conducted in English consisted of consent, troth and the giving of a ring. It sometimes took place in the church porch. The second part was in Latin and was always held in the Church building. It consisted of blessing, the saying of psalms and prayers and eventually nuptial mass.

The 1549, 1552 and 1662 services followed the same pattern except that the whole service took place in church and a long exhortation was added at the beginning.

The marriage service in ASB followed the traditional historic structure of preface -  final charge, mutual taking, vows, giving and receiving of a ring and blessing followed by  reading and prayers and an address which could if desired form the first part of the Ministry of the Word.

Common Worship sets the first part of the service as Ministry of the Word, with provision  for a Communion Service. The only provision for the traditional pattern is by rubric. In the view  of many this not only breaks with the tradition of centuries but makes the service much less 'user friendly' to people today.

The matter is clear. Secular marriage came before marriage which contained  any religious elements. The ceremony of marriages - both civil and religious has changed  over the centuries. Often the changes have been made by the secular bodies first (i.e. equality for the couple). In proposing changes concerning the marriage of same sex couples the Government is following in the footsteps of secular powers through the ages and in the view of many of us reflecting more accurately the will of society than the church.

Legal Issues

The Government has said that it will not legislate to allow same sex marriages in places of religious worship. The Church of England response claims that if some religious bodies  did claim the right to solemnize same sex marriages with religious forms then all other religious bodies will be obliged to do the same and clergy who refused could be taken to court under the human rights legislation. In response many lawyers have said this is nonsense. One example is the comment by David Pannick QC in an article  in The Times

It is clear beyond argument that no human rights court would compel religious authorities to conduct a marriage service for two men or two women in breach of its own doctrines.3

If a religious body did decide that such marriages could be celebrated in religious buildings then clergy would still be free to refuse as some Church of England clergy still refuse to marry in church any couple where one party has been divorced.

Another state church - The Lutheran Church of Denmark - has recently been enabled by the Danish Parliament to celebrate same sex marriages in church with suitable provision for clergy who do not wish to do this. The Church of England is in Communion  with the Church of Denmark through the Porvoo agreement!


Many Christian people who oppose the change do so on the grounds of semantics.  They think the word marriage has always meant the union of a man with a woman -  as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be!

They are correct in thinking that it has meant the union of male and female but quite frankly  not always one female. They believe that it is wrong to change the meaning of a word but the meaning has changed over the centuries.

Semantics cannot control our thinking. Words change their meaning and the word 'marriage' is open to change renewal and expansion. As the Home Secretary has said 'if marriage is good it is good for everyone'.  


  1. Rosalind Wiles The women's history of the world.
  2. Examples taken from W K Lowther Clarke,  'The Solemnization of Matrimony' in WK Lowther Clarke & C Harris (ed) Liturgy and Worship 1932.
  3. Article in the Legal Section of The Times for Thursday July 21st 2012 'Why the Church of England is wrong over same-sex marriage' by David Pannick QC.

Jean Mayland is a retired priest and former Co-ordinating Secretary and  Assistant General Secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.