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Body and bridegroom

17 June 2016

Bernice Martin on the theology of marriage, earthly and mystical

“Let all be set forth so that all may be healed”: so said the French writer Émile Zola, but the authorities in Victorian England did not agree. His image on the cover of Zola and the Victorians: Censorship in the age of hypocrisy, by Eileen Horne (Maclehose Press, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-0-85705-518-7), illustrates her theme, although Zola was to flourish while his British publisher, Henry Vizetelly, was financially ruined, and sentenced to hard labour under obscenity law

“Let all be set forth so that all may be healed”: so said the French writer Émile Zola, but the authorities in Victorian England di...

Thinking Again about Marriage: Key theological questions
John Bradbury and Susannah Cornwall, editors
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50


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.

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