Author(s)Ros Clarke
Date 9 March 2023

In the recent proposals from the bishops and the ensuing General Synod debate, one of the more baffling claims was that there is now a distinction between marriage and Holy Matrimony. This, it is suggested, has been the case since 2013, but apparently the bishops have only just noticed it.

In 2013, you may remember, David Cameron unexpectedly brought a bill to Parliament to permit same sex couples to enter into civil marriages. Civil marriages were not a novelty, but they had previously been restricted to opposite sex couples, while same sex couples could enter into civil partnerships. Something certainly changed when the bill passed, but it was not what the bishops seem to think.

Marriage is not just for the church

Genesis 2 establishes the model for all marriages, on the basis of Adam and Eve’s relationship in the Garden, when the narrator comments: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The institution of marriage precedes the fall and it precedes the Abrahamic covenant. Marriage is for all people in all places at all times.

Marriage has never been, therefore, a specifically Christian relationship, any more than the relationships between parents and their children, or between friends, or work colleagues. All of these relationships are common to human experience, even though precise nuances of cultural expectations may differ within them.

But it has long been the case that people who have been married according to the custom of their own culture, state, and/or religion have been recognised as married by both the church and the state. Even when the only way to be married in England was in a Church of England church, people who had been married in other countries were not regarded as unmarried when they came to England. Marriage was marriage.


Recent history of civil marriage

In England, civil marriages were permitted from 1836. This allowed people who were not part of the Church of England to be married somewhere other than Anglican churches. Nonconformist and Roman Catholic churches could apply for registration to perform such ceremonies, and non-religious register’s offices could also host marriage ceremonies. This did not appear to prompt any crisis about the distinction between such marriages and those performed in the Church of England.

Indeed it would have been strange if it had, because non-religious weddings performed in Scotland were well-known to be accepted as real marriages in England. Eloping to Gretna Green – or even more scandalously, abducting a bride and taking her to Gretna Green – depended on this. If you could get across the border, to be married over the blacksmith’s anvil, and then consummate the marriage, then you would be married even when you returned to England. You would not – you could not – be married again in the church.

Marriage was marriage. The legal status of marriage applied, no matter where or how the marriage was performed. Similarly, the church recognised marriages, no matter where or how they had been performed.


What changed in 2013?

In 2005, legislation was introduced to allow same sex couples to enter into civil partnerships. In many respects these were similar to civil marriages, conferring the same legal benefits and obligations. But these were explicitly not marriages, and therefore the question of whether the church recognised them as such did not arise.

But in 2013, the law changed to permit same sex couples to enter into civil marriage on the same basis as opposite sex couples.

This did not prompt the question of whether a civil marriage could be recognised as a marriage by the church: that had always been the case.

It should have prompted the question of whether a civil marriage entered into by a same sex couple could be recognised as a marriage by the church: not because of how and where it was performed, but because of the people involved.

Previously, the church and state definitions of marriage were aligned: both agreed that it involved one man and one woman committing to each other. Since 2013, the church and state definitions of marriage have not been aligned: the church’s position that it is one man and one woman remains unchanged, while the state definition has expanded to include two people of the same sex.


God or the government?

God’s definition of marriage remains unchanged: one man and one woman.

The government’s definition of marriage now includes two people of the same sex.

Opposite sex couples in a civil marriage are not only legally married, but are also married in the eyes of God and his church. They have exactly the same status as those who were married in church. Civil marriage and Holy Matrimony accomplish the same thing. In fact, they are the same thing: they are both marriage (as the marriage services of the BCP and Common Worship both make clear). There is no great divide between the two, as the bishops are suggesting.

Same sex couples in a civil marriage are legally married, but are not married in the eyes of God and his church. Their civil ceremony does not accomplish the same thing as Holy Matrimony because it contains a category error that invalidates it. This is where the divide lies.

It would be helpful if there were some way of distinguishing those who are married in the eyes of God from those who are legally married according to the government definition, rather than God’s definition. But I suspect that any terminological distinction will be strongly resisted and at this point may cause more problems than it solves.

Attempting to make a verbal distinction between marriage and Holy Matrimony where there is no substantive difference, on the other hand, is futile and deceptive. If a couple are married according to God’s definition, they are married, no matter when, where, or how that marriage took place. Holy Matrimony is marriage, even if not all marriages according to the government's definition are marriage.

Why does this matter?

It matters to the many Christians, including Church of England clergy, who are civilly married. It matters that the church continues to recognise their marriages as real marriages in the eyes of God, not only in the eyes of the state.

It matters that we identify the real source of distinction between the two definitions of marriage: God’s and the government’s, so that we can be careful to use appropriate language when descibing these two positions.

It matters because God cares about our sin. Sex outside marriage is sinful, and so we need to know whether we are married – according to God’s definition – or not.