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Light rather than heat in a topical debate

25 April 2014

Bernice Martin finds two books strong on history and realism


Doing the legal stuff in the 1950s: a couple in the vestry with the parish priest, unaware, perhaps, that they are at an "unusual" moment in family history

Doing the legal stuff in the 1950s: a couple in the vestry with the parish priest, unaware, perhaps, that they are at an "unusual" moment in family ...

More Places at the Table: Legal and biblical perspectives on modern family life
J. W. Rogerson and Imogen Clout
FeedARead £9.99

Legally Married: Love and law in the UK and the US
Scot Peterson and Iain McLean Edinburgh University Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT366 )

THESE two books are invaluable contributions to debates about marriage and family life in this country, especially since the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013. Between them they provide the historical, biblical, legal, and social background so urgently needed and so often absent or woefully sketchy in contributions to these debates. These books are precisely what is needed as a resource for the "facilitated conversations" proposed by the Pilling report.

Both pairs of authors write to clarify rather than to add yet more heat to these debates. More Places at the Table is designed for congregations and study groups that are grappling with what might be understood today as Christian marriage, Christian family, and Christian parenthood, and chapters end with points for discussion, and occasional suggestions for further reading.

John Rogerson, an Anglican priest, is an Old Testament scholar, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield and Emeritus Canon of Sheffield Cathedral, while his co-author, Imogen Clout, who has served as Sheffield Diocesan Lay Development Officer, is a family solicitor and family mediator, as well as an Anglican Reader and a Methodist member of the congregation at her church, which is an Anglican-Methodist partnership. Theirs isa wise and eminently readablebook.

They mainly divide the chapters between their respective areas of expertise, but also contribute two jointly written final chapters on using the Bible today and on how the Church's customs and ceremonies, including new liturgies, can provide an effective welcome for all kinds of families. Those many parish priests who still see it as their vocation to provide the Church's Occasional Offices to all comers - often couples wanting a spiritual anchor for their "reconstituted" and adoptive families, and people with little or no experience of liturgy, but hungry for a sense of meaning "beyond" the mundane - will find these chapters stimulating and, perhaps, inspiring.

The book puts current patterns of marriage and family life into a wider perspective than clichéd laments about family disintegration. The authors argue that there is a misleading idealisation of the "stable" nuclear family of the 1950s, (an unusual "moment" in family history), and a sentimentalised image of the Holy Family which elides Jesus's radical proclamation that brothers and sisters in faith are more "family" than blood relatives, and his uncompromising demand that disciples must be prepared to give up wife, parents and possessions.

Christian ideals of "family" often draw on highly selective biblical reading that occludes the polygamy customary in the Old Testament, or claims the patriarchal podesta of marriage and family in the Roman, including the Jewish, world as distinctively "Christian", or sacralise and universalise the Pauline elevation of chastity above marriage and procreation from a period when many early Christians believed that they were already in the Last Days. Indeed, as Rogerson and Clout remark, there is remarkably little in the teaching of Jesus which concerns marriage and family, and that puts into question the prominence that some Christians have given to marriage as "sacrament", to historically specific models of family, and to issues of sexuality as primary foci of moral teaching and church discipline.

Rather than follow anachronistic models, Rogerson and Clout begin from where we actually are today. They summarise the legal structure of marriage, the legal definitions of parental "rights" and responsibility, and the varieties of currently existing families and households. Their title, More Places at the Table, underlines their hospitable views and their foregrounding of relationships of love, responsibility, and mutual care. They write: "The churches should approach the changes happening in contemporary society not with a thou-shalt-not attitude, but seeking to see how they might be helped to be structures of grace."

Legally Married is a tougher read, as useful to specialists in law as to Christians trying to make sense of the issue. The authors are Oxford academics, Scot Peterson, an American lawyer, and Iain McLean, a Scottish historian and political scientist. Their book is a review of the legal history of marriage in Britain and the United States, including its political and social context. They offer illuminating comparisons with Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, and Canada, and conclude with chapters on policy, and on the issues raised for religious freedom in pluralist societies by the legalisation of same-sex marriage. They offer a set of useful models of how to reconcile universal citizen rights and the rights of church communities.

The authors view the notion of some immemorial unity of Church and State over marriage as an untenable myth both before and after marriage problems led King Henry VIII to nationalise the Church and break with the papacy. One persistent theme is that the State has always led and the Churches have followed: Peterson and McLean chart points at which the two have been at odds over marriage law, and emphasise the difference between control of the form and of the content ofmarriage.

When they eventually come to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which extended divorce to the affluent middle classes (in terms that privileged men above women), the authors comment that this is the first Bill argued on strong religious grounds. Previously, the driving force of state action was to preserve and consolidate the property of the élite. For most of British history up to the high Victorian period, the unions of the poor were of little significance to either Church or State, and often took informal or customary forms.

Another theme is the persistent differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK, even since the 1707 Act of Union. It stems not only from the divided political history of the two nations, but from their different religious composition. This connects with the struggle of Dissenting Churches against the privilege of the Established Church, including its monopoly of marriage registration. Even here, politics and class have fuelled the struggles more powerfully than religious disagreements.

Peterson and McLean offer bracing realism rather than wishful thinking as a basis for thinking through contemporary issues. Both books reviewed here deserve a wide readership both inside and outside the Churches.

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.

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