In my blog post last week I suggested that Canon B30 of the Canons of the Church of England ‘tells us what the Church of England understands marriage to be and on this basis it is clear that Jeremy Pemberton is not married regardless of what the state may say. The state may say that black is white but that does not make it so.’
This blog post attracted by far the largest number of comments that any of my blog posts has ever attracted and a number of these comments were very critical of my suggestion that Mr Pemberton was not in fact married. In this post I want to explain further why I think that what the state says cannot determine what marriage is and hence who is and who is not married.
I want to begin by inviting you to consider a famous quotation from George Orwell’s novel 1984: ‘War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.’ In the novel these words are the slogan of the ruling party of Airstrip 1, as Great Britain has become, and they reflect the corruption of language, and consequently the corruption of thought, in the society which that party has created.
If we ask what Orwell thinks is wrong with this slogan the answer is that each of its three parts contains an internal contradiction. This is because war is not peace, freedom is not slavery and ignorance is not strength, whatever the government may say to the contrary. What the slogan says is therefore untrue.
Underlying Orwell’s objection is a particular view of what language is for. He stands in a tradition of thought which says that the purpose of language is to enable human beings to accurately describe reality. This means that language is used properly when it is used truthfully.
St Thomas Aquinas helpfully describes truth as ‘the correspondence of a thing to the intellect’ (veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus). In other words, we have understood a thing truthfully if our understanding of it corresponds to how it actually is. In a similar fashion we have spoken truthfully to the extent that what we say about something corresponds to how it actually is.
We can see this in practice if we consider two accounts of the use of language from the Book of Genesis.
In the first, from Genesis 2:19, Adam names the living creatures that God has made ‘and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.’ What is described here is an act of truth telling. Like God, Adam knows the true nature, ‘the name,’ of things. He is therefore not just arbitrarily assigning words to the birds and the animals, he is using words to declare truthfully what they are.
In the second, from Genesis 3:4, the serpent who is tempting Eve declares that if she eats of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the Garden ‘you will not die.’ This is an untruthful use of language because what the serpent says does not correspond with reality. Eating the fruit of this tree does bring about death as the subsequent story in Genesis makes clear.
If we apply all this to the specific issue of the use of the word ‘marriage,’ we now have situation in this country where the British Parliament has declared that a union between two people of the same sex is marriage. The question this situation raises is whether this declaration is a truthful use of language.
The orthodox Christian answer to this question has to be ‘no.’
The reason for this is, in the first instance, because marriage is something that was created not by the Church, nor by the state, but by God Himself. It is this view of marriage that is reflected in the famous opening words of the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer which state that marriage is:
‘An honourable estate instituted by God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church: which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and the first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of St. Paul to be honourable among all men.’
According to these words, marriage is a state of life God instituted at creation. It is this state of life which was ‘adorned and beautified’ by Christ’s presence at the wedding at Cana and is this state of life which Hebrews 13:4 (here attributed to St. Paul) says is something that should be held in honour by everyone.
This view of what marriage is in line with what Jesus himself says in what he teaches about the origins of marriage in Matthew 19:3-6 and in the parallel text in Mark 10:6-9. If we take the version of his teaching in Matthew we find it reads as follows:
‘And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’
Here we find Jesus responding to the contemporary Jewish debate about divorce by pointing the Pharisees to the fundamental nature of marriage and he does this by going back to the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. There, he says, is where you find out about the nature of marriage because it is there that you read about what marriage was intended to be when God created it. Marriage, that is to say, is defined by God’s creative intention as recorded for us in the Book of Genesis
And if we do go back to the Book of Genesis to find God’s creative intention, we find, as Jesus declares, that marriage involves a relationship between a man and a woman, reflecting God’s creation of human beings as male and female. In Genesis 2:18-24 what is described is a union between two people of the opposite sex and this is then seen as the foundation for all subsequent marriage: ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.’ (Genesis 2:24).
It has been argued that Genesis does not rule out an additional form of marriage between two people of the same sex, but there is nothing in Scripture to support this idea. On the contrary, sexual relationships between people of the same sex are seen as a rejection of the order put in place by God at creation (which is what St. Paul means in Romans 1:26-27 when he says that they are ‘contrary to nature’).
If marriage is indeed part of the created order, and if it is indeed the fact that God has ordained that marriage shall involve two people of the opposite sex, then anything that Parliament says to the contrary can be of no effect. Parliament can do many things, but it cannot change the fundamental nature of the created order. An Act of Parliament can no more make marriage a relationship between two people of the same sex than it can create square triangles, suspend the law of gravity or bring it about that henceforth H2O and H2S04 are both water.
If we stop to think about it the very idea that human beings can challenge what God has established is laughable. That is why in Psalm 2:4 we are told that God’s response to the attempt of the ‘kings of the earth’ to challenge his authority is indeed laughter. ‘He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.’ However, the Psalm also goes on to warn that defying God attracts not only laughter but judgement. In the end no rebellion against God (including trying to change the meaning of marriage) can permanently succeed. God will in his own time and his own way bring it to nothing.
All this means that the truthful use of language means saying that marriage is a relationship between two people of the opposite sex. It follows therefore that a relationship between two people of the same sex is not marriage and that as a consequence those in such a relationship are not married.
As those who are called to speak the truth Christians have to be prepared to follow the example of Orwell’s hero Winston Smith by challenging the distortion of language by those with political power. This means that they should try as far as possible to avoid any use of language that colludes with the idea that two people of the same sex are married.
War is not peace, freedom is not slavery, ignorance is not strength and a relationship between two people of the same sex is not marriage.