by Rosalind Lund
from Signs of the Times No. 50 - Jul 2013
In Jesus' time under the Romans, marriage was understood to be a monogamous arrangement and its main purpose was to produce legitimate children who would be citizens of the Empire. For the union to be legitimate it had to have legal and moral consent and both parties had to have the consent of their fathers. A woman's property remained her own and divorce was a relatively easy matter, but the woman would be able to retain her dowry as this might be important for her in finding a subsequent husband.
Jewish law at the time of Jesus said that once the couple had agreed to marriage, i.e. had become betrothed, then that was legally binding and unless there was adultery, the couple would wait until the young man had prepared a room for them at his father's house.
In both cases ceremonies were public and that public element made them complete in the eyes of the law. The married state was considered to be the norm and there was an awareness that the lot of widows was often unhappy as there was not always an opportunity to marry again. However, we learn from the Bible that a brother would be expected to marry his deceased brother's widow if he was in a position to do so, both to protect her and the children and also to keep the dowry in the family.
Marriage was not necessarily or even likely to be romantic, but rather an arrangement between families which ensured proper inheritance of goods and land.
By the time Christianity had become the accepted religion of the Roman Empire, it had largely adopted the Roman understanding of marriage although divorce was not approved and was soon to become impossible - you had to find grounds for annulment instead. Another difference was that celibacy came to be looked on with approval and the monastic or eremitic life became a popular choice and alternative to marriage.
In the Middle Ages the marriage or betrothal frequently took place at the church door or porch, completed afterwards with a nuptial mass inside the church. But it was the church door ceremony that was binding. As time went on the various impediments to marriage (consanguinity and affinity) became ever more complicated and in addition to having banns read publicly in church to notify any interested parties of the planned marriage, the clergy were expected to do some investigations of their own to ensure that marriages were legitimate. The sort of discussions which took place before Henry VIII's divorce were not uncommon when a man wanted to have a new wife. It was usually possible to annul the first marriage by discovering that in fact it should never have taken place at all because of some impediment being present (eg the couple were too closely related in some way).
The Reformation brought about some changes in the way marriage was looked at and Protestants in particular saw marriage as purely secular (i.e. not a sacrament) and so should be performed by a Justice of the Peace. This continued in the United States where marriages by mutual consent (common law marriages) continued to be legal until the 1970s. Such marriages were made illegal in Britain in 1753, but many couples, especially those with no property, continued to live as husband and wife without formal ceremony until very recently. In fact it is only now being made clear that such so called 'common law marriages' have no basis in law at all.
In Britain therefore, from the Middle Ages until the 18th century, marriage was seen as a public and civic contract to protect inheritance and the upbringing of children. Women's rights became increasingly less important and romantic love was not really considered. Indeed it was not until 1870 with the passing of the Married Women's Property Act that women were seen as other than the property first of their father and then of their husband with rights to their own earnings and property - a situation that improved further with the passing of subsequent acts.During this period romantic love began to be seen as an essential part of marriage with the resulting increased emphasis on feelings of love in the Christian marriage service.
Does the emphasis on love in a church wedding make that marriage more Christian than the secular emphasis on love which also comes in a register office wedding where all mention of God is banned? What makes a marriage 'Christian marriage' rather than just marriage?
It seems that before the Reformation the most convenient public place to solemnize marriage was the church porch. Only later did the inside of the church become the place where the marriage ceremony took place. For a brief while the Reformers preferred secular marriage, but after the Restoration marriage was restored to the church building and the Church of England in particular had responsibility for running the business on behalf of the state. It was still very much a legal affair.
The result is that the churches in some countries have got confused and think there is something specifically Christian about marriage in church and they want to hang on to it. This is not universally the case and in many countries marriage is secular and is followed by a church blessing where the couple request it.
In any case, by the 20th century society in general was looking at marriage as something good for the whole of society. It is nowadays generally accepted that marriage is one of the best ways of helping families provide sufficient stability for the nurturing and upbringing of children. But it also provides support mechanisms for couples regardless of whether there are children to consider and there is no doubt that elderly couples are generally happier than elderly singles.
The word to recognise and celebrate a couple joining together is marriage. But many heterosexual couples who marry in a register office would prefer to call the ceremony simply a civil ceremony or partnership ceremony because they don't want to have their relationship tainted with religious connotations. In a secular society this is hardly surprising and not unreasonable.
So, if we no longer see marriage as solely the preserve of the churches and a good, but not necessarily Christian institution, what are the elements that we value in the 21st century? Modern young couples mostly live together first and only marry when they are convinced they belong together and that they want to set up their own home together and have a family together. Where they do choose marriage, it is because they want to make a public statement of their loving commitment to one another and they believe that this public statement will actually help them through the hard times as well as the happy times. For some a public statement in church with God's blessing and in front of family and friends is right, while others feel no need of religious ceremony.
But marriage has never just been about children and has always been at least as much about mutual support and ensuring the proper inheritance of property, and so it is today.
If marriage is such a public good and something without religious connotations, why should it be denied to committed gay couples? They may well want to have a family - quite a number have adopted children as a couple - and they certainly value the importance of lifetime commitment. Marriage is that public commitment and it should be equally open to heterosexual couples and same sex couples.
Mutual and loving commitment is recognised as the crucial element which binds a family together for the upbringing of children and for mutual support during hard times. This is what as Christians we surely celebrate at church weddings. As a Church we stand by the couple and pray for them in their lives together. It is hard to see how we can deny this prayerful support to same-sex couples who ask for it.
The churches appear to have got fixated on marriage as being a 'Christian' word which is not appropriate in the secular setting. However, as I have tried to show, this is far from the case and in fact we find that gay couples who have celebrated their relationship in a civil partnership ceremony actually consider themselves to be married.
Given that originally marriage was a secular and legal arrangement which just happened to take place in church, it seems both appropriate and fitting that the churches should recognise that the word belongs to the public celebration of commitment between couples of any sexuality. And the Church should be glad that gay people want to be part of the Christian community and celebrate their love in church.