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Angela Tilby: Truly equal marriage is not possible

18 March 2022

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NOT until next year will the General Synod have to debate issues of sexuality and marriage. Meanwhile, many believe that same-sex marriage in the Church of England is inevitable: 55 per cent, in a recent YouGov poll, were found in favour (News, 4 March).

It is often claimed that the doctrine of the Church of England is found in its liturgy. And this is going to be a problem for those supporting the change: it is one thing to be in favour of equal marriage; it is quite another to find a form of words which enables equal marriage to take place.

The C of E’s doctrine of marriage is in the marriage service, and perhaps particularly in the Preface. There are four versions of this, the BCP original, the revision of 1928 (Series 1), and two versions given in Common Worship.

The modern rites do not speak of marriage as a remedy against sin, but in other respects there is substantial agreement. All assume that marriage is between a man and a woman, that the man and woman are to become husband and wife, that marriage has its origins in the sexual dimorphism of creation, that it resembles the relationship between Christ and his Church, that it was blessed by Christ’s presence at the wedding of Cana, that it is a context in which children are born (with sensitive brackets in one preface to allow for couples who will adopt), and that it was ordained for mutual companionship and comfort.

The issue is whether a new preface would have to be written specifically for same- sex couples, or whether a new preface could be composed to encompass all couples. In either case, this would constitute a change in the Church’s doctrine of marriage for everyone, since all the rites in current use assume that marriage is a state that only applies to “this man” and “this woman”.

Of course, those who hope for change regard these considerations as trivial. But, in the end, you have to actually say something, to name what is going on. I don’t think it would be that difficult for the Church to authorise a rite of blessing for same-sex relationships which would, for all intents and purposes, be a marriage — these are quite widely practised already, either before or after a civil wedding — but the demand is for genuinely equal marriage. Equality in status and equality in dignity may be possible, but equality in wording is impossible; and it is the wording that contains or implies the doctrine.

So, you are back to the paradox. In marriage, as in so many other aspects of life, you can have equality or diversity, but not both. It is pious sentimentality to think that truly “equal marriage” is possible, even if you consider it desirable.

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