Disagreeing about Marriage

As you might possibly be aware by now, especially if you’re a member of the Church of England, there has been some fuss about the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage over the past few days.

That guidance was published on February 15th, and was followed by a flash flood of reaction from all sides.  If you want to explore those reactions, get your waders on and head over to the  Thinking Anglicans blog, where they’ve been collecting links.

In amongst all this, there has been one very specific bit of fuss which has been dominating my Twitter feed , because it involves quite a few of my friends and colleagues.

It arose in this way.  The Pastoral Guidance contains the following paragraph:

9. The Government’s legislation, nevertheless, secured large majorities in both Houses of Parliament on free votes and the first same sex marriages in England are expected to take place in March. From then there will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.

This prompted Linda Woodhead and others to raise a question about whether this was historically accurate.  After all, they said (quite rightly) haven’t civil law and church teaching diverged before?  There was a divergence over the question of marriage to a deceased wife’s sister, and again over the remarriage of divorcees.  Doesn’t that make the Guidance’s claim inaccurate?

Linda raised the question first on Twitter, then in email correspondence (for which see here and here), and finally in a formal letter, signed by 24 academics, including several heavyweight church historians.  And the raising of these questions, and the Church’s response, have generated a torrent of comment and discussion.


Mutual Incomprehension

The more I have thought about these exchanges, the more it has seemed to me that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension at the heart of them.

Of course, you should immediately distrust me when I say something like that, because it involves me pretending to an airy overview, as if I can see more clearly and truly than all those poor saps down in the trenches – and because it might allow me to adopt an avuncular neutrality that refuses to make judgments about the actual arguments and evidence involved.  So let me say immediately that I am broadly with the 24 who signed Linda’s letter.  I think that paragraph 9 of the Bishops’ Guidance will continue to be misleading unless replaced with a more carefully qualified statement. And I think that it does matter, and that it would have been far, far better had there been a quick and cheerful admission of inadequate drafting, and the promise of a speedy revision.

I am  more interested, however, in trying to understand why such a speedy resolution of the issue didn’t happen, and why (if I am right) it was always unlikely to happen.  And, as I say, I begin to suspect that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension here – and the more I think about it, the more revealing I think it is.


Criticising the bishops

On the one hand, there is incomprehension from the side of the letter-writers as to how the House of Bishops could say what they said, and then fail to see that it needed revising once the error was pointed out.

To provide some context to this, look back to the ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England‘, published in June 2012, and note two things about it.

First, one of the fundamental criticisms of the proposed legislation made in that response was that civil and religious law are not separate institutions (‘The consultation paper wrongly implies that there are two categories of marriage, “civil” and “religious”‘), and that the legislation will have the effect of ‘introducing such a distinction for the first time.’  This claim is made in one of only two bold paragraphs in the central section of the response, ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’.  It has undeniably been, therefore, presented as a central argument in the Church’s response to this whole issue.

Second, note that in the opening of that section, the response states that ‘In common with almost all other Churches, the Church of England holds, as a matter of doctrine and derived from the teaching of Christ himself, that marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman.’  The word ‘lifelong’ appears right there in the general definition of marriage used in the report.

Now to Linda, to the twenty-four signatories of the letter, and to me, it seems perfectly clear from an examination of the relevant legal history that there has at times in the past been some kind of distinction between civil and religious law relating to marriage, and that when this has had to do with the remarriage of divorcees it  has had at least something to do with lifelong nature of marriage – and therefore with the ‘the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’.  It therefore seems perfectly clear (a) that anyone who wants to say that there has been no divergence in the past ‘between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’ is going to need to qualify that statement quite carefully, if it is not to be misleading, and (b) that this is not a peripheral issue, but has to do with the strength of one of the pillars used to support the Church’s public response to the same-sex marriage issue.

If this is where you are coming from, the refusal to admit that there’s any problem with the wording of the Guidance, and the willingness to portray those making the criticism as mischief-makers seeking to score a cheap point for ideological reasons – well, that is bound to look like unjustifiable and brittle defensiveness, a form of leadership by bluster that refuses to take serious responsibility for the accuracy of what it says.  It is hard to see it as anything else.


Criticising the critics

There is, however, another side to this story.  I think that at least some of the response to this criticism  really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism of the Guidance looks like a wilful missing of the point – an attempt to create a fuss about a detail for the sake of calling into doubt an argument that does not materially depend on that detail.  I think it really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism looks like deliberate mischief-making which is itself barely honest or at least lacking in integrity.

To get the clue to this, look back again at the Church’s ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation’ – which I assume can be taken to represent the views of at least some of those responsible for the current Pastoral Guidance.  The section on ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’ is the heart of the report, and before it gets to the two brief paragraphs on civil and religious marriage and their possible divergence, it has thirteen paragraphs that make a rather different point.  The centre-piece of this part of the Response is the other paragraph that is put in bold, paragraph 13:

We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.

My suggestion – which I can only make very sketchily here, but will fill out in a subsequent post – is that, for at least some of those who have rejected Linda’s criticism, this is the central issue, and its centrality is so obvious, so luminously blatant, that to pretend that other aspects of the Church’s definition of marriage might be as central – especially issues about which there has been all sorts of complex and detailed disagreement for as long as we’ve been a church – can only be deliberate obfuscation, akin to the claim that the whole structure of the Bishops’ argument should be called into doubt because there is a misplaced semicolon in a footnote somewhere.

In other words, I think I can see that, for someone who inhabits the views set out in that Response to the government consultation, the criticism that Linda and her colleagues made, and that I like them would like to see taken seriously, must look like such a stark case of missing the point that it can only be a deliberate missing of the point.


Where next?

I have already said that I’m not a neutral observer on this.  I fall quite firmly into the former camp.  I think the Guidance contained an error, the error mattered, and that the document should be revised.  I think that the response to the criticism has been a damaging PR own goal.  But I think that very fact gives me an obligation to try to understand the point of view from which this could genuinely and obviously look like irrelevant mischief-making.  I’ve only gestured towards that understanding below; doing the job properly is going to take a bit more time.

So, in the next post, I plan to dig a bit more deeply into that 2012 ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England’.  It’s not the only document I need to examine, but it’s not, I think, a bad place to start.  And I’m going to look a bit harder at what it says about the complementarity of men and women, because that, I think, is the issue right at the heart of our current disagreements.

12 Thoughts on “Disagreeing about Marriage

  1. David Shepherd on March 2, 2014 at 11:41 am said:

    While I might firmly belong to the traditionalist camp, but not for traditionalist reasons, I can see the validity of your points.

    One point that I’d make is that complementarity is in respect of the definition of marriage, not in respect of their function as individuals. As you quote:

    ‘We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.

    I would suggest that it is important to distinguish complementarity from subsidiarity. The former holds that there is a fundamental relationship between men and women in which their fundamental differences improve or enhance each other’s qualities.

    Complementarity does not mean that they cannot subsist independently of each other. It only means that their differences improve on each other. Unless the HoB have issued a list of stereotypical differences, I personally cannot find fault with it. All it appears to suggest is that both sexes are enhanced by the gift of sexual differentiation.

    Their issue is that same-sex marriage allows for the exclusion of this enhancement from the social and legal definition of marriage, thereby diluting the meaning of marriage for everyone.

    Now, that’s where the debate should really lie. How does removing the mutual enhancement of sexual differentiation dilute the meaning of marriage for everyone? Is there a convergence on the social or legal meaning of marriage that is undermined by dispensing with the gender of the parties involved?

    For instance, beyond just the couple, if we look at the rebuttable marital presumption of paternity, could this without dilution of its current legal purpose become a gender-neutral marriage concept?

  2. Mike Higton on March 2, 2014 at 12:41 pm said:

    Difference matters. And one of the kinds of difference that matters is sexual difference. And yes, I do think we are called to the (difficult, constantly renewed) task of acknowledging difference, including sexual differences, and discovering ways in which our ways of registering those differences can allow them to be mutually enhancing rather than letting them be a source of exclusion and oppression. But the map of sexual difference is not a map with two distinct territories: it is much messier than that, at every level from the chromosomal to the cultural – and I think that the language of complementarianism obscures that fact.

    I have not, however, made that case in either of these posts. My point is in some ways simpler, and I hope less controversial. It is simply that there is at least a debate to be had here, and I don’t think we’ve been having it.

    • David Shepherd on March 2, 2014 at 2:03 pm said:

      ‘the language of complementarianism obscures that fact’.

      You may be right, but I look forward to future post that debate the proposition.

      Yes, gender goes beyond crudely assigning binary identities. It’s not a map of two territories. Yet, we also simplify nationality when we know it’s much more complex than our current legal models allow. The point is that both nationality, marriage and even gender create broad categories of identity that serve public policy. They are not mere affirmations of how I self-identify.

      It will eventually boil down to why a legal identity comprised of the binary components of a child’s origin should be privileged by the State as a matter of public policy. That simplification called marriage is impinged upon, but still distinct from the debate about whether gender should only ever be viewed in reductive binary terms.

  3. Hi Mike,
    I’ve been following this one with at best mild interest (not being an Anglican, or under the jurisdiction of English law on marriage), and with a deal of sadness at the tone of the debate.

    You say: ‘ it seems perfectly clear from an examination of the relevant legal history that there has at times in the past been some kind of distinction between civil and religious law relating to marriage, and that when this has had to do with the remarriage of divorcees it has had at least something to do with lifelong nature of marriage’

    I’ve not seen any evidence in what I’ve read that there has ever been a ‘distinction between civil and religious law … to do with the remarriage of divorcees’; I probably just missed the decisive reference/intervention, but I’ve read around the history of marriage law before now and this doesn’t ring any bells, so I’m interested in the point, if not the debate it is currently being used in; could you point me to something on this issue? Thanks!

  4. Mike Higton on March 2, 2014 at 5:16 pm said:

    Steve – see the discussion by Scot Peterson at http://scotmpeterson.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/generalizations-just-so-stories-and-marriage-law-and-doctrine/

    It seems to me, in the light of that analysis, that the right answer to the question, ‘Has there ever been a distinction between civil and religious law relating to marriage’, is, ‘Well, it’s a bit complicated.’ And to the further question, ‘Has that ever touched on the definition of marriage’, the correct answer is ‘Well, in a way, yes…’ Some rather more precise wording, though, might allow one to say ‘No’ in answer to both questions.

    • Yes, I read that; it seems at best muddy. He seems to conflate the claim ‘divorce was only possible under civil law in restrictive and expensive circumstances’ with the claim ‘remarriage after divorce was restricted to rich people *by the church*’ which would appear to be just wrong. (Imagine an immigrant, legally divorced in his country of origin, applying to a parish priest to marry; would he have been prevented from so doing because he was not a nobleman?) So I read the answers to your questions here to be ‘no’ and ‘no’.

      Even on your reading, though ‘it’s a bit complicated’ and ‘in a way, yes,’ hardly makes the bishops’ statement a straightforward falsehood, as it is being presented. As I say, I have no dog in this fight (I mean, if the argument is ‘establishment makes Christian ethics very difficult for Anglicans’ I’m generally on-side, and have been fairly vocal on the point in the past…) but I really don’t understand the sheer venom on display…

      Anyway, thanks…

      • Mike Higton on March 2, 2014 at 7:14 pm said:

        I was really, really not trying to carry on the debate in the terms in which it has been had so far – and if that’s the impression I’ve given, I’ve cocked up. I toyed with simply refusing to state my own opinion on that specific matter, but (rightly or wrongly) felt uncomfortable adopting the ‘wise neutrality’ position, when I did actually have an opinion, and one that affected my wider diagnosis. My reading of the materials thrown into the ring so far does make me think that a better reaction from the CofE would have been to issue a quick and cheerful clarification. I’m happy to carry a discussion about that specific question on by e-mail, if you’re interested, but I’m not going to do it here – because my whole hope in writing these two posts was to grab at least a little bit of the attention away from the legal history tit-for-tat, and (by a couple of steps) shift it towards the debate I’d rather we were having – a genuinely important debate, I think, and one where I think it is still possible that we might do some work to clarify our options, and to clarify the kinds of disagreement that are possible within the Body of Christ.

        • Yeah, I did get that(…) – but you were here (I think?) attempting to explain the current state of that current debate, and I’m not sure your diagnosis does, adequately, on one side. As I say, not my fight; I’ll leave it there.

  5. An thoughtful piece which genuinely seeks to listen – a sad rarity. Many thanks! I do not think that the permission -under some circumstances- of a second marriage necessarily involves a re-definition of marriage as anything other than life-long and the experience of the Orthodox churches seems to me to confirm this.

    The Deceased Wife’s Sister Act has a better claim to having changed the definition of marriage and the church’s compliance with it required a change in Canon Law. But the House of Bishops did not claim that there never has been a divergence in the precsie legal definition of marriage. It talks about the “general understanding and definition of marriage.”

    From what I know none of the many changes in our experience of marriage over the years and our shifts in understanding of its nature has required a re-writing of Canon B30. On this basis alone the House of Bishops’ statement seem defensible, as obviously Canon B30 would have to be changed, if the church were to align its understanding of marriage with that of the new law.

    This is not to say that there is not another way of interpreting history, only that the characterisation of the disagreement as one between simple “truth” and “falsehood” says more about the stregnth of feelings than the strength of arguments involved.

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