Article 32 — Of the Marriage of Priests

Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.

The effect of this Article was to put marriage and singleness on the same spiritual plane in the Church of England.

Singleness, which meant a calling not to enter sexual relations which we call “celibacy”, had become the rule for clergy in the mediaeval Roman Catholic Church, and remains the rule there today. But as it appears in the New Testament that those in Christian leadership could be married (1 Timothy 3:1-13) and the Reformation wanted to put Scripture back as the supreme authority for the Church (see Articles 6 and 20), so marriage was to be made possible for the clergy — whose conduct was to be on the same level as “for all other Christian men”.

In this respect the Article is saying there is no difference between clergy and laity, what matters is God’s law and godliness for everyone in the Church, and as far as sex is concerned that means singleness or marriage.

It’s worth noting that the elevation of celibacy for the clergy developed quite early on in the Church’s life. Jesus and Paul were of course celibate, even though in Jewish culture marriage was regarded as normal. As the Church grew into the Gentile world, there were many other kinds of sexual relationships going on (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11) and in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul addresses the challenges of Christian ministry and the call to singleness or marriage. There were good reasons why Christian ministers could be celibate which gradually took hold in the early centuries until it became a badge of special holiness to be single. The new monastic communities expressed this in the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

In welcoming the biblical rebalancing of Article 32, it’s worth us asking whether we haven’t in recovering marriage, lost something of that honouring of the single life. But the Bible does honour marriage, and the Article allows clergy to bear witness to that goodness as much as any other Christian.

But some think that the phrase “at their own discretion” means we can decide what marriage is as well as who we marry. Mike Ovey, in an article from Themelios in 2013 (Colonial Atheism: A Very British Vice) refers to the UK government’s legislation on same sex marriage as in effect saying “marriage belongs to the UK Government. It belongs to it in the sense it has the right to define and shape it. It has the right to name what is and is not marriage.”

That is not how Article 32 sees marriage. For the Article, marriage and singleness are defined and shaped and “named” by God through his law and commandments. The doctrine of marriage assumed by the Article is that set out in the Book of Common Prayer service “The solemnisation of holy matrimony” which includes a beautiful description of marriage as well as this distinction: “For be ye well assured, that so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their matrimony lawful”. Same-sex marriage may be lawful to the state, but that does not make it lawful to God.

God’s law and commandment are the ground of the truth of marriage, and the goal is godliness. The question, unusual to modern ears, as to whether I should marry or stay single, as well as whether it is allowed by God’s law, is: “will marriage or singleness make me more godly?”

Perhaps you think this is all very well, but what about the real challenges of marriage and singleness? Those who formulated this Article were well aware of the challenges facing the married and the single. If you want to see how marriage in the 16th Century fared in comparison with the 21st Century, you may like to read the Homily on Matrimony in the Second Book of Homilies (1571) which includes the following salutary reminder of the pressures,

“we see how wonderfully the devil deludeth and scorneth this state, how few matrimonies there be without chidings, brawlings, tauntings, repentings, bitter cursings, and fightings. Which things whosoever doth commit, they do not consider that it is the instigation of the ghostly enemy, who taketh great delight therein: for else they would with all earnest endeavour strive against these mischiefs, not only with prayer, but also with all possible diligence.”

The remainder of the Homily is devoted to what that prayer and diligence might look like!

Reading the Article today we might pray for Bishops, Priests, and Deacons we know, married and single. We might pray for all, whatever state they are in, whether married or single. We might ask whether we are doing enough to honour those who “vow the estate of the single life.” Perhaps the Prayer Book could have included a service to solemnise that vow, or perhaps the Church should do so now?

Article 32 was very much a reaction to an abuse in the Church in the past. But we could pray for the abuses that threaten the life of the Church today in relation to marriage, praying for the authority and truth of scripture to shape our common life now as then, that in our experience of Christian marriage amongst the ordained and all Christian people, we may be grounded in God’s law and commandments and come to serve better to godliness.


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