The Past, Present and Future of Christian Marriage.

This is my panel contribution to the Open Conversation in Chester Cathedral on Saturday 22nd October 2016 as part of the Sexuality and Anglican Identities project of the University of Chester:

We are in 1988. In Zaire. It is Sunday morning. It is very hot and there is no air-con. Church is full – there is no other entertainment in Zaire on a Sunday. Besides which, church is a very important community activity and a place where boys can meet girls and vice versa, so there are social and sexual reasons for being there as well.

The congregation sits on low benches, roughly segregated by gender, there is all the usual coming and going. Church takes hours and so people are always moving in and out. But on the back row of the men’s side are a group of middle-aged men who are both part of the assembly but have an air of distance from it.  They are the men who have never “completed” their traditional marriages by having a marriage ceremony in church. This may be because their wife’s family refused to allow such a ceremony until all the agreed dowry was paid, and these men couldn’t afford the cattle or the goats or whatever the normal form of dowry transaction was for that people group, or it might be because they were not sure about their wife’s fertility and put off making what everyone knows is the ultimate commitment of vows in church. A traditional marriage can be more easily broken and she can be sent back to her family if the children are not forthcoming.

The consequence of their not having completed their “marriage” by wedding in church is that they are not regarded as having Christian marriages, and therefore all of them are excommunicate. They are looked down on by the people who have had the “proper” church wedding. Their wives are not allowed to join the Mothers’ Union. In some poorer parishes the “not properly married” vastly outnumber the “properly married”. Some of these men are fine Christian men, faithful in every way – but with a marriage that is, in the eyes of the Anglican Church of what is now the D R Congo, defective in form. Some of their “marriages” are partnerships of deep and committed loving. But they aren’t parcelled up in the right way for the church. And for this they are denied the means of grace. This explains why there is a slightly wistful and detached air to this group of men on the back row.

This is certainly one very sad and angering Past and Present of Christian marriage. The most powerful critic of this system – and it was and I believe still is a system that prevailed in a number of mainstream African churches – was the late great Adrian Hastings, formerly Professor of Theology of Leeds, in his book Christian Marriage in Africa, 1973. He was my MA supervisor in Leeds, and an utterly inspiring teacher. Adrian brought down the wrath of the RC church upon his own head by choosing to marry Anne Spence, a former Anglican religious, in 1979. He was never removed from the priesthood, and to the end of his life infuriated his ecclesiastical superiors by insisting on celebrating Mass in homes in Leeds. His marriage was another ‘irregular’ marriage.

I was the first Anglican priest to marry his same-sex partner when it became legal in England and Wales to do so in March 2014. Our marriage was a civil marriage for a number of reasons. My husband is an atheist and he might not have wanted a wedding in church under any circumstances. I say, might not have, advisedly. If the Church of England wasn’t such an institutionally homophobic institution then I think there were circumstances under which we might have had a church wedding, and under which he might have been happy to do that. But that is hypothetical – a hypothetical Future, perhaps.

But I believe I currently hold one other unique marital record for Church of England clergy – I am the only clergy person in England, as far as I know, to have been married to both a woman and a man. I was married first in 1979 and remained married to my wife for a couple of weeks shy of thirty years. Our church marriage service was a fairly standard Series Three eucharistic/marriage liturgy (Series Three was the experimental liturgy that predated the Alternative Service Book 1980), we were an apparently ordinary cisgendered heterosexual couple. Unusually, the marriage was in South India, and was registered in the Registers of the Diocese of South Karnataka. The marriage service included vows and intentions that buttressed what was for a long time a very creative partnership in all kinds of ways; emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and socially in the raising of a large family. It foundered on realities that we had been too young and too fearful to address years before.

And now is now. I have brought to read to you the card that sits in our bedroom and which we look at frequently. It is the card that records the vows that my husband and I made to each other the day we married. It took some persuading to get the civil registrar to allow us to use them. But we were able to assure her that in the form that we wanted to use them they would be completely unacceptable in a Church of England liturgy, and therefore were not religious texts. When I read them to you, you will see why:

I promise:
To have and to hold you
From this day forward.
For better, for worse,
For richer, for poorer,
In sickness and in health,
To love and to cherish,
Till death us do part,
And this is my sloemn vow.

Are vows like these what goes to make a marriage Christian? Is this the Future? Of course in some ways, it is the Past. We have not done anything very novel. We have simply done what couples have been doing since time immemorial – committing ourselves to each other unreservedly. We have taken vows and made a very open-ended covenant with each other – frankly, in the full knowledge that much of our lives are already past. We have plighted our troth. For those who have never lived through the pain of divorce, the vows of second marriages may be looked at with some disdain – or they can be seen as a determination to try again to live up to a high calling.

Then again, our marriage is not just a gay dream of coupledom. It is not a selfish, privatised affair, the fruit of a pick-and-mix secular society, just between the two of us. We have adult children and responsibilities connected with them, and we support one another in living up to these. We take seriously our affinity, the relations from our own families to whom we are both now connected by this marriage. We are not going to have more children, so we are no different in that sense from a late middle-aged heterosexual couple who marry. We contribute to our community, and I dare say, are strengthened to do that by the support we offer to each other.

But we have done it in a very specific late-modern context. It is that context that allows us, thank God, as a gay couple, to be married. And it is that context that has churches struggling to decide how to treat people like me. At the moment they treat me badly. I now understand how the African back row felt – that wistful sense of being there but not being there as well. I am not denied the sacraments – but I am denied a ministry, possibly for the rest of my life.

As someone who, very unusually, has seen marriage from two sides, I want to say to you that it is ever old and ever new. What I have now is just as much a marriage as ever was my first marriage. It is not the union of sameness. Complementarians simply don’t understand the fundamental difference that there is between any one human being and all others, whatever their gender. The mystery of two becoming one is not effaced or obscured by gender similarity.

I am as deeply committed to marriage as I ever have been. I think that good marriages add much to the richness of social capital for us all. In thinking about the present and the future, what I hope for is simple. It is to be treated the same as any other married person by the church.

My marriage is treated under the law the same as anyone else’s. But not by the church. When it is treated the same by the church, then we Christians will be able to find out together, in an exploration and a journey that the Spirit of God will lead, what the richness of the future of Christian marriage will look like. Manipulating a future for Christian marriage is probably something we shouldn’t try to do. What we can do is create the conditions for it to become something good for all.

Until then, we do two rather tragic and unnecessary things. We astonish and disgust our fellow-citizens by our discriminatory behaviour. We are not the DRC where treating people unequally is not unusual. There, the church’s action does not jar by comparison with other more general social attitudes. Here, we repel. If we want the goods of Christian marriage to be something accessed by the widest possible range of people then we do have to think how we get over that problem. And, as an established church, we have an obligation in this regard to the society in which we are set. Developments in the inculturation of Christianity in England cannot be avoided or delayed by appeals to a wider Communion if we are to hope for its survival.

But secondly, we hurt ourselves internally. We impair our communion, in every church where LGBTI people feel that they cannot be themselves, or where they know that if they married they would be disapproved of or pushed out. We impair our communion in just the same way as the Congolese church did by its attitude to the unmarried “marrieds”. That is why we LGBTI people have to keep asking for more, asking for change, asking for justice – not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the health of the Body of Christ. We have to keep reminding ourselves that, in the grace and the economy of God,  we are G.A.Y. – we are Good As You – and so, I dare to say, are our marriages.