The Church of England's official
response to the Government's consultation has rejected the
possibility of same-sex marriage (News, 15 June;
Letters, 22 June). The church document put forward two main
arguments, one from the "intrinsic nature of marriage"; the other
from the idea of "complementarity", which same-sex marriage is said
I would suggest that: 1) these arguments are unhelpful; 2) a
recovery of the ancient understanding of sex and marriage would
help the Church to arrive at a consensus about it in the near
future; and 3) marriage is best understood from the treasury of
Same-sex marriage would, it is said, "alter the intrinsic nature
of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in
human institutions throughout history". But there is no intrinsic
nature of marriage. If there is, how would we recognise it? The
"human institutions" of marriage have also enshrined polygamy, or
rather polygyny - one man, several women. Using this argument, it
seems strange that monogamy is seen as intrinsic to marriage, but
The intrinsic nature of marriage apparently excludes permanence.
Why is the marital union not said to be "lifelong"? Perhaps this is
because ten years ago the Church of England changed its teaching
about divorce and further marriage. It seems that neither monogamy
nor permanence belongs to the "intrinsic nature of marriage", but
heterosexuality does. One wonders why.
Marriage, says the response, "benefits society in many ways, not
only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging
an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes
the possibility of procreation". Procreation, then, is not part of
the intrinsic nature of marriage, either. It is only a
People known to be infertile are not denied marriage in a
Christian Church. The Church of England does not appear to have a
problem offering marriage to fertile couples whose intention is not
to have children. Canon B30(1), which states that marriage is "for
the procreation and nurture of children", can be quietly ignored.
Since having children is optional, same-sex marriage cannot be said
not to be marriage on the grounds that no children can result from
"Complementarity" is a very modern notion. It seems to have been
used first in physics at the beginning of the 20th century. Because
light sometimes appeared to be like waves, and sometimes like
particles, the single phenomenon of light came to be understood as
attracting complementary descriptions.
Pope John Paul II signalled its introduction into theology in
1981, in Familiaris Consortio, but gave it a different
meaning. In the past 35 years, it has become a device, accompanied
by a linguistic status stolen from science, for naturalising
heterosexuality and keeping marriage straight.
Although the bishops at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 voted
that "homosexual practice" was "incompatible with Scripture", it
was becoming more obvious that this interpretation was contested
and lacking in authority. A new exclusive term was already at hand,
adopted to perform a similar task.
It is strange to see Churches at home with the most modern of
notions, while simultaneously neglecting their theological
heritage. Complementarity is mentioned five times in the Church's
response, and yet it is fraught with difficulties. Here are
First, the understanding of complementarity here is
heterogenital. If this clumsy term really must be used in our
theology of marriage, there is a range of types of complementarity
that also deserve a mention - affective, personal, communal, and so
on. Why concentrate only on genitals? Perhaps we must be straight
to enjoy the other types of complementarity.
Second, complementarity converts a tendency into a rule. Many of
us will have no problem about being attracted towards people from
what we have come to call "the opposite sex". But it is sloppy
thinking to confuse "some" or "many" with "all". Many swans are
white, but it does not follow that there are no black swans, or
that God made a mistake in making some swans black, or that black
swans are contrary to nature. Sizeable minorities of people, not
just lesbians and gays, show conclusively, simply by being who they
are, that complementarity does not work for everyone.
The possibility of gay marriage is an open one, which should be
discussed and assessed theologically. The complementarity and
intrinsic- nature arguments foreclose discussion by attempting to
deny the possibility of gay marriage at source. Since "marriage
benefits society in many ways," Christians surely have a duty to
expand these benefits as far as they can.
Ancient peoples did not think of humanity as consisting of two
sexes. There was one sex only, "man". This is where the
sexism of Christian history, liturgy, theology, doctrine, and
hymnody comes from. I was taught as a theological student that
"man" was an inclusive term: that was the traditional doctrine. It
"Man" was thought to exist in a single continuum, from male to
female. Men and women were thought to have the same reproductive
equipment. The vagina was an inverted penis. The womb was "really"
a scrotum. Men were hard; women soft. Men had strength,
rationality, spirituality, superiority, activity. Women were weak,
irrational, carnal, inferior, passive. No wonder ancient male
saints preferred celibacy.
The idea that there are two sexes derives from the 18th century:
it is not biblical. The many advances in the medical sciences, and
especially anatomy, yielded the conclusion that male and female
genitals, and so bodies, were different. One was not simply an
imperfect version of the other.
Genesis 1.27 was regularly understood as referring to the
continuum with masculinity at one end and femininity at the other.
"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created
he him; male and female created he them." To be male was to be more
perfect. Paul believed this. "For a man . . . is the image and
glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man" (1 Corinthians
11.7). In this obsolete, gendered view, marriage will always be a
relation between a superior and an inferior being.
The difficulties of the Churches about sexuality, gender, and
marriage can be explained in part by the loss of understanding of
how these matters were once understood. Neither Church nor world
has room for this ancient and prejudiced theory of gender, any more
than we need the theory of humours that have to be kept in balance
for us to be healthy. The assumption of male perfection and female
misshapenness lies at the root of the belief that only the
individuals at the more perfect end can represent the perfect
The wrongness of men's having sex with men is also explained by
this ancient view. If a man is penetrated, he "feminises" himself.
He compromises the very masculinity on which his likeness to the
male God rests. An acknowledgement of this ancient view and the
havoc it continues to cause would help us to disentangle revelation
from culture, and provide a way out of flawed discussions about the
sex of bishops and the sex lives of gay people.
Christians best understand marriage by means of their
theological traditions. In two recent books, I have described
marriage in six ways. First, it is a "communion of persons", able
to reflect the image of the triune God. Second, it is a gift of
bodies, like the gift of Christ's body to us in the eucharist.
Third, it is a covenant, embodying the covenantal love of Christ
for the Church. Fourth, it is an embodiment of divine love, as two
people promise to love each other as God loves them both. Fifth, it
is a mutual sacramental ministry, which the couple administer to
each other, and which the Church recognises and blesses. Sixth, it
is a unity of body, mind, and heart.
These rich models of marriage develop the marital teachings of
the Christian faith, and resonate more powerfully and spiritually
than dubious appeals to its intrinsic nature, or reference to the
new-fangled and ugly notion of complementarity. Christian marriage
illuminates the deep truths of the faith.
Of course, same-sex couples are just as able to embody these six
models of marriage in their relationships as straight couples are.
If the Church had believed in its teachings about marriage more
rather than less, it could have offered marriage to same-sex
couples inside the Church, instead of being grumpy about civil
partnerships outside. And there would be less ambivalence towards
marriage among lesbian and gay Christians.
Dr Adrian Thatcher is Visiting Professor in the Department
of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter. He is the
author of God, Sex and Gender (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)
and Making Sense of Sex (SPCK, 2012).