On Friday, a friend gave me a copy of a fascinating document, Men and Women in Marriage, a report by the Church of Engalnd’s Faith and Order Commission, which is aimed at informing debate over family relationships in the UK. (As the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill makes its way through Parliament, many religious organizations in the UK are reviewing their formal teaching on this subject.)
As a historian who has published quite a bit on the history of Christian marriage over the years, I was surprised by what the document includes, and what it leaves out.
Most surprisingly, the document does not actually define marriage. What separated marriage from a civil partnership conferring a family relationship in legal terms? In the Roman and Jewish law which supplies the context for understanding New Testament writings (New Testament authors wrote in a context where some of their readers were answerable to Jewish law and others to Roman law, so both must be taken into account), marriage was first and foremost a relationship designed to confer legitimacy on a man’s children by one (or in the Jewish case more than one) woman, and to give the child’s mother and/or other care-takers a legal claim to demand protection and resources from the father. So in ancient terms, modern heterosexual marriages not aimed at reproduction would be perceived as representing failure or fraud.
It was not until the fifth century that Christian writers such as Augustine began to defend marraige against the fourth-century theology of virginity as the only perfect expression of the Christian life. With this, came the idea of Christian marriage as a spritual discipline, which had value even if the partners did not intend to have children. (For more, see Chapter Four, ‘Such Trustful Partnership’, of my The Fall of the Roman Household.) So what is a ‘marriage’, as opposed to a ‘partnership’? It is as difficult to know what the difference means now as what it meant two thousand years ago.
In the 1990s, scholars maintained a heated debate about how the ancient and medieval Churches understood same-sex emotional and sexual intimacy. Most controversial are the adelphophilia liturgies of the ancient and medieval churches which were made famous by the Yale Professor and Catholic activist John Boswell in the 1990s. Scholars still argue whether these liturgies should be understood as ‘same-sex unions’ or ‘blood brotherhood rituals’. (In a justly famous review of Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Brent D. Shaw argued for the latter interpretation.) Whatever their precise meaning, it is clear is that they offered a frame-work for blessing a pledge of affection and loyalty made between two men.
Strangely, another difficulty in understanding the New Testament and early Christian sources is that they reflect an understanding of male and female biology that was very different to our own – women’s ‘inferiority’ was understood to reflect the teachings of ancient biology, which saw women’s sexual organs as a defective or undeveloped version of their male counterparts, and women as developmentally arrested men, rather than as developmentally complete members of a different sexual type. A recent article by Jane Shaw in the Church Times, Men, Women, and Difference, explores how an understanding of this context might inform our reading of biblical arguments about what is ‘according to nature’ or ‘against nature’.
The Men and Women in Marriage document seems to reflect still another history, the anger of African Christians (most of them men I suspect) over having been ordered to give up polygamy by Christian missionaries a century ago. At least some African clergy feel that offering support to the men and women on either side of the Atlantic who want to sacralize their same-sex partnerships would somehow be Britain’s final insult to the African church.
I can’t claim to be certain, theologically speaking, how historical insights should inform the modern debate. But for my own part, I’m on the side of the kids. When so many children are growing up in one-parent homes, why would anyone make it harder for two people to establish a stable, permanent bond between the parents of a loving family? Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)