In his article in yesterday’s Church Times entitled ‘Everything hinges on three words,’ Andrew Davison focuses his criticism of the House of Bishops new report Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations on the difference between paragraphs 18 and 26 of the report.
He notes that in paragraph 18 the report says that there was ‘little support for changing the Church’s teaching on marriage as expressed in Canon B.30’ whereas in paragraph 26 the report proposes no change the Churches law or to its ‘doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships.’ According to Dr Davison the bishops went wrong by adding the three words ‘and sexual relationships’ to paragraph 26. In his view they ought to have stuck to saying there would be no change to the Church’s law and teaching on marriage, but allowed for the possibility of a change in its view on what is permissible in terms of sexual relationships.
The problem with this argument is that you cannot detach the Church’s existing law and teaching with regard to marriage from its teaching about sexual relationships. They go together. This can be seen if we go back to what is said in Canon B.30. This Canon forms part of the Church of England’s law, but in terms of its form it is a statement of the Church of England’s teaching about the nature marriage. The Canon declares:
‘The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.’
These words declare not only what marriage is, but what it is for. Following a tradition going back to St. Augustine they affirm that there are three causes why marriage exists, and that the second of these is ‘the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections.’ The ‘natural instincts and affections’ referred to here are the desire for sexual relationships that human beings possess and what the Canon says is that this desire needs to be hallowed, that is to say, to be expressed in a way that is consistent with living a holy life. Marriage between one man and one woman is the way that this takes place. Sexual desire finds a holy expression when it takes place in this context.
This point is expanded slightly in the 1999 House of Bishops teaching document Marriage. This document sees marriage as a relationship ‘in which a man and a woman may learn love together over the course of their lives’ and further states:
‘Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively. The three blessings that belong to marriage are traditionally described as the procreation and nurture of children, the hallowing of natural instincts and affections, and the mutual society, help and comfort which each affords the prosperity and adversity.’
This statement makes explicit the point which is implicit in the Canon, which is that because it is in marriage that the expression of sexual desire is hallowed it follows that sexual intercourse belong solely within marriage. All sexual intercourse outside marriage is not hallowed and is therefore illegitimate.
Canon B.30 further declares that the Church of England’s teaching about marriage can also be found in the Book of Common Prayer.
‘The teaching of our Lord affirmed by the Church of England is affirmed and maintained in the Form and Solemnisation of Matrimony contained in the Book of Common Prayer.’
If we turn to the Book of Common Prayer we find that it too sees marriage as something that takes place between a man and a woman and that it too lists three causes for marriage. The second of these causes is that marriage was
‘… was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.’
The point that is being made here, building on the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7, is that sex outside marriage is the sin known as fornication and that therefore those who have not been given by God the ability to restrain themselves from giving physical expression to their sexual desires should, if they are able to do so, enter into marriage in order they may channel their desires in a godly and disciplined way so that they can keep ourselves ‘undefiled members of Christ’s body.’
The homily ‘Of the State of Matrimony’ in the Second Book of Homilies, which is another key authorised Church of England statement about marriage, expands the point made in the Book of Common Prayer about marriage being a ‘remedy for sin.’ It says ‘The word of Almighty God doth testify and declare ‘ that marriage:
‘…. is instituted of God, to the intent that man and woman should live lawfully in a perpetual friendly fellowship, to bring forth fruit, and to avoid fornication: by which means, a good conscience might be preserved on both parties in bridling the corrupt inclinations of the flesh, within the limits of honesty; for God hath straitly forbidden all whoredom and uncleanness, and hath from time to time taken grievous punishments of this inordinate lust, as all stories and ages hath declared.’
What these four documents show is that it is simply not possible to separate the Church of England’s teaching about sexual relationships from its teaching about marriage. This is because according to the Church of England a central part of the purpose of marriage is to provide a context within which people may engage in sexual relationships in a way that negatively avoids sin and positively accords with the demands of holiness.
In taking this view of the link between sexual relationships and marriage the Church of England is not being idiosyncratic. On the contrary it is affirming what the Christian Church has taught always and everywhere, which is, in the words of C S Lewis, that the ‘Christian rule’ is ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or total abstinence.’
In seeking to separate the issue of sexual relationships from the issue of the nature of marriage, Dr Davison is thus not only rejecting the teaching of the Church of England, but the teaching of the whole of the Catholic Church. Given that he would describe himself as being in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England this is a surprisingly un-Anglican and un-Catholic thing to do.
M B Davie 11.2.17