Thinking Again about Marriage: Key theological questions
John Bradbury and Susannah Cornwall, editors
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THE book Thinking Again about Marriage is the fruit of a four-year conversation between Christian theologians from several traditions. Rachel Muers explains in her lucid afterword: “These essays start from marriage as the crossing point, the node or knot, of numerous strands of theology and anthropology — and work outwards from it in order better to understand the network of connections around it.”
Certain themes recur. First, sexuality and marriage are not the central preoccupation of the Gospels. Jesus repudiates the claims of the natural family in favour of those who “do the work of the kingdom”; in the wilderness, the devil does not entice him with sexual seductions but with invitations to worldly power.
Three centuries on, when St Anthony fends off florid sexual temptations in the Egyptian desert, sexual and family morality has taken central position in the moral code of Christian communities, and celibacy is valued above marriage as an anticipation of the eschaton.
Because a Christian theology of sexuality, marriage, and family is not self-evident from the Gospels or even from the practices of an Early Church expecting the imminent end of time, theologians have to draw on the whole of scripture, and on historical “tradition” variously inflected, as templates for quotidian Christian living “in the mean time” before the eschaton. How to apply the precedent of tradition and scripture, especially how to use “discernment” among so disparate a set of models, is addressed by several contributors, notably Ben Fulford on scripture, and Mike Higton on history, tradition, and doctrine in the Church’s teaching on marriage.
What Christian marriage is preoccupies contributors. Cogent reviews of the history of Christian marriage, by Charlotte Methuen, and of marriage in English law, by Augur Pearce, clarify the background. Christian marriage has always been an evolving set of practices rather than demonstrated a timeless “essence”. This perception surfaces again in an imaginative chapter by Frances Clemson, “Taking Time over Marriage”, and pervades the historical chapters and John Bradbury’s insights on marriage as a vocation.
A related theme is the way in which the marriage of two individuals exists not just for itself but within a network in the Christian community and as, perhaps, a metaphor or anticipation of the relation of the soul to Christ, “the heavenly bridegroom”. This is eloquently expounded by Julie Gittoes in her chapter on marriage liturgy, while the fluidity of gender images in ascetic mysticism features in Raphael Cadenhead’s discussion of Gregory of Nyssa.
The theology of creation troubles contributors, particularly the extent to which a principle of strict sexual complementarity underpins the two creation narratives in Genesis. This principle implicitly shapes both the 2012 response of the Church of England to the introduction of same-sex marriage and the 2013 report of the Archbishops’ Council Men and Women in Marriage, and has a pervasive influence on church thinking and practice, as Higton shows.
Our task, he argues, is not to assume that we know what the blueprint of created nature is, but to discover the possibilities of godly growth open to us in what Susannah Cornwall calls “our sexuate bodies”. Christian theologians must take account of new forms of knowledge, including the biological and psychological construction of sex and gender rather than take for granted a contingent and culturally specific binary model.
A theologically subtle understanding of sexual desire and its spiritual correlates marks many of these chapters, notably a nuanced discussion by Brett Gray of Rowan William’s celebrated essay “The Body’s Grace”.
All the chapters in this book repay reading, but the whole adds up to more than its parts and is a rich resource for current debates.
Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.