Wednesday, 19 February 2014
An error in the House of Bishops Guidance on Same Sex Marriage
An article by Linda Woodhead who writes in a personal capacity.
“There will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.” (House of Bishops, 14th Feb 2014, Appendix, para 9)
“For the first time in the history of the Church of England has the law of the State been brought on one specific point into direct, open, overt contrast with and contradiction of the specific and defined law laid down in the authoritative regulations of the National Church.” (Archbishop Randall Davidson, on the passage of the deceased wife’s sister legislation, Hansard, 1907)
The fact that many in the Church of England contested the recension of the Deceased Wife’s Sister Act (1835) until defeated in 1907 sounds ridiculous to us. And that’s the point. What to contemporary generations seems an unsupportable divergence between the law of the land and the Church’s teaching on marriage (the BCP’s Table of Kindred and Affinity in this case) seems a storm in a teacup for later generations for whom it is established social fact.
The same is true of the Church’s long and deep resistance to the remarriage of divorcees. Princess Margaret’s romance was sacrificed on this altar, and within living memory many clergy who sought remarriage were skewered on it, for it was only in 2002 that Church practice finally came into line with civil law. As Dr Robin Ward reminded me yesterday, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the (1820) trial of Queen Caroline explained to the House of Lords that although Our Lord allowed remarriage after divorce, the British Constitution wisely forbad it.
This is why Archbishop Lang viewed the 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act, which liberalised divorce, as a serious divergence between English law and church teaching on marriage. He explained his decision not to vote for it by saying that he had come to the conclusion “that it was no longer possible to impose the full Christian standard by law on a largely non-Christian population, but that witness to that standard, and consequent disciplinary action towards its own members or persons who sought to be married by its rites, must be left to the church” (JG Lockhart, Cosmo Gordon Lang, p. 235).
So the fact that the House of Bishops’ statement above is in error matters a great deal. It matters because errors of fact should not occur in a statement of such gravity, and it matters because it reveals a wider mindset amongst the bishops and their advisors which is forgetful of the church’s own history and therefore proverbially condemned to repeat it. The bishops are in a false position because they believe that the scale of the challenge which gay marriage presents to the Church is much greater than it really is. The error speaks of an episcopate closed in on itself, trapped in the present, unwilling to accept advice from experts, and acting out of fear.
“The sky is falling in,” said Chicken Licken. “The sky is falling in,” said Archbishop Davidson. “The sky is falling in,” said Archbishop Lang. “The sky is falling in,” said Archbishop Welby. But this time, hardly anyone believed it.
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Wednesday, 19 February 2014 at 4:00pm GMT
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Church of England
Lang went on to say "I could not as a citizen vote against the bill, but that I could not bring myself as a Churchman to vote for it; and I announced that I would not vote" (Lockhart p.235). How different from the stance taken by the bishops in the debates about SSM in the Lords.
"The sky is falling in... but this time, hardly anyone believed it."
Because love is not anything to be afraid of.
The variance actually began in 1858, when English law allowed divorce.
It would be 140 years before the Church of England caught up.
During this period a King Emperor was forced to abdicate because he wanted to marry a divorcee and divorcees were not allowed in the Royal enclosure at Ascot until 1964!
A divorced woman could not be a member of the Mothers union until 1974.
Well spotted Linda. I hadn't noticed that, which slightly embarrasses me as a layman, that none of the bishops had, given that the parallel with DWS has been referenced fairly frequently, is concerning.
"The bishops are in a false position because they believe that the scale of the challenge which gay marriage presents to the Church is much greater than it really is."
They didn't have a load of African churches threatening to pile on the post-colonial guilt over marrying your late wife's sister in the late 19th century, nor over divorce in the early and mid 20th.
Now they do have a load of African churches on their case over same-sex marriage. See how colourful are their robes! See how enthusiastic their praise! How can we possibly function without their friendly smiles, their happy singing and their casual acceptance of the murder of gays? Anyone who disagrees with this is surely racist!
One cannot reason to true results from false premises. In computer science the phrase is GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.
I commend someone reading something like Watkins late 19th century history of Christian marriage to see just how very much teaching has changed. How many, for instance, know that for one brief time it was a capital offense for a Christian to marry a Jew? And for far longer generally forbidden for a Christian to marry a non-Christian. Not being entirely sure where English Church and Civil law stand on that topic, I do wonder when the relative rules changed, as this may be another "discontinuity..."
As has already been mentioned here, in the time of Archbishop Davidson's seeming capitulation to the exigencies of England Law, the likes of today's Gafcon threats of dissociation, on Sola Scriptura grounds, had not yet been stirred up by certain Western fundamentalists.
The Church of England must not held held in thrall by its spiritual children - especially on matters of prejudice and institutional injustice.
It is true that the Established Church of England at times has long held to a position different to that of Parliament and has often eventually changed its mind. However, this does not mean that it always will do so, or should do so. In my view, too many, on either side, in the Church and in some circles in our society, are obsessed with the issue of homosexuality (on the part of some people with a homosexual orientation notably in Uganda justifiably so). But "discrimination" in itself is a neutral word. As a liberal C.of E. parson (indeed agnostic, christologically unitarian, though culturally deeply conservative), I myself discriminate between civil unions (hetero or homosexual)- which indeed I think can be blessed, and the sacrament of marriage. These to me are obviously not the same in every respect. And it is simply untrue if not offensive to describe those who take my position as homophobic. Those who do so are not helping their cause or the cause of rational debate. There are Anglicans who would strongly disagree with my position but, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, I believe our Church should be roomier and broad enough for us all.
Slight aside, I was inspired by a comment Peter Ould made on his blog to look up the pension situation. If I've understood it correctly, the CofE will be obliged to provide survivors pensions to same sex spouses of clergy.
So the only action the church may be able to take regarding clergy who marry someone of the same sex is to give their spouse pension rights...
I can't agree with Interested Observer nor with Fr Ron that Gafcon makes the situation unique. Pressures on Victorian and early 20thC divines were just as great, they just came from different sources.
And, of course, there is precedent for a bishop in Africa excommunicating a CofE bishop - Weston of Zanzibar in 1915.
If I live long enough, will someone of this church society wake me up when the Anglicans are understanding that principles promoted by bishops then reversed becomes a sin by the bishops. Or is this democracy gone mad by the church's bishops? I think it unlikely that I will believe the Anglican church's bishops on anything they promote again.
(Former Head of large Anglican church school)
Good to see Professor Woodhead still stirring things up just like she was in College. She has a first class theological mind and the bishops would do well to pay attention.
The claim that somewhat differing criteria for who can enter into a marriage covenant alters "the general understanding and definition of marriage" seems to me ridiculous. A slight divergence in the table of prohibited degrees is about as significant as a slight divergence in age at which one may enter into marriage.
A better case can be made for saying that the understanding of marriage changes once one allows the remarriage of divorcees although even this is debatable, as long as divorce is considered an unnatural end to marriage, signalling the failure of a marriage rather than an alternative version of it.
It is easy to see how the bishops seem to be stuck in a bit of a predicament but the reality of the case is in the truth of creation. Each of us are individuals and as individuals we each have a different feeling toward many things including sexual orientation but we each as individuals gay or straight deserve equality.
Divorce, the breaking of one's vows before God and his people, is still the result of and is a sin. "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning." Mt 19:8 That we have an increasing "hardness of heart" in our modern culture in all sorts of ways does not negate God's law, standards or holy purpose. That we fail it increasingly is all too obvious. That we praise and bless it is even worse and to our own harm. That secular laws allow people to do what God rebukes has always been. But he gives us a choice as to which law we will submit to. As for me and my house...
Gay and straight couples are "obviously not the same in every respect" -- but that is not what gay marriage advocates are saying. Equality is not identity; just as young fertile couples and elderly sterile ones enjoy equality before the law without being the same in every respect.
How many marriages did the founder of the Church of England have?
Homophobia is the fear of homosexuality - the *unreasonable* fear.
The fear is there. While it may be used in the pejorative, the simple fact is that those who oppose "practicing" homosexuals in the church do so because they *fear* the results of acceptance, whether to the church or their souls or both.
That fear is unreasonable.
Why would it be offensive and untrue to characterize a position which advocates unequal treatment of same-sex couples as homophobic? Separate but equal is wrong. All similarly situated people should be treated alike, as in many dioceses of the Episcopal Church. But the Episcopal Church has had ten years to deal with marriage equality, whereas England has yet to allow same-sex couples to marry.
Gary Paul Gilbert
It would seem to me that those who are obsessed with the issue of homosexuality are those who are insecure in their own heterosexuality.
"How many marriages did the founder of the Church of England have?"
As far as we know - NONE. The gospels seem to suggest that Jesus was celibate although he did approve of life long marriage and his premier miracle was performed at a wedding at Cana in Galilee when The Lord turned water into wine.
I agree with John Bunyan. That is, I disagree with him on virtually everything until:
'And it is simply untrue if not offensive to describe those who take my position as homophobic. Those who do so are not helping their cause or the cause of rational debate. There are Anglicans who would strongly disagree with my position but, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, I believe our Church should be roomier and broad enough for us all.'
I did think Welby was trying to promote the last clause at Synod. Perhaps it was a 'marker' put down in the expectation that the 'pastoral letter' couldn't hold? Anyway, as I frequently say, no one can be coerced here, but - equally - liberals should not be coerced either.
If Canon John Bunyan wants not to be seen as a homophobe, I suggests he starts arguing that those who disagree with him are not penalised by the Church of England. Gay marriage opponents made much of the need to respect their conscientious objection last year. That must cut both ways, surely?
As an agnostic unitarian his views diverge from Church teaching more seriously and on more central issues than a clergyman facing discipline or a barred potential ordinand in a same-sex marriage. I rejoice, as a credally orthodox, Trinitarian, Anglican Catholic, that our Church makes space for his gifts as a priest. Of course, if the increasing dominance of fundamentalist Evangelicals in the House of Bishops means there may not be space for people like him for much longer either.
He might, in that context, consider viewing this as a "first they came for the queers" moment.
Linda Woodhead is obviously wrong on the deceased wife's sister, as the statements make clear: the comparison is between "general understanding and definition" and "a specific point" of law.
The comparison with divorce is much closer, but arguably the change was over the definition of adultery, rather than marriage per se. Is it the case that someone who marries with a former spouse still living is ipso facto guilty of adultery? Does adultery relate only to a current spouse?
Admittedly it's a fine point, and Church teaching and the civil law have always danced around each other. But the change of "general definition" involved in same sex marriage does seem much greater, and truly substantial, this time. Not only changing from "one man and one woman," but also removing the requirement of sexual fidelity (adultery not included in the law).
Whether we should worry about the change, and say that it should not be made ,or welcome it with open arms, does not change the fact that it is a change - and, I suggest, a fairly unprecedented one. So it's hardly going to be surprising if the Church takes time to think it through. 72 years on deceased wife's sister; 65 years on divorce ... anything less than 58 on same sex marriage would be progress!
Father David, you seem to be unaware that the Church of England was founded by King Henry VIII, who married six times. How can you have become a priest when you lack such basic historical knowledge?
While it would be pure cheek of my part, as a Quaker, to comment on the substance of an internal matter for Church of England, I’m not sure that the statement by House of Bishops “is in error”.
That part of the statement quoted by Professor Woodhead is about what it says it’s about: “the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law”. Archbishop Davidson, however, was commenting on “the law of the State” in relation to whom one could legally marry, not on the definition of marriage itself.
The Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act 1907 did not change the definition of marriage: it removed a particular bar in the Table of Kindred and Affinity. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, on the other hand, certainly does change the definition: see Schedule 3 Part 1 (Interpretation of existing England and Wales legislation): “1(1) In existing England and Wales legislation—(a) a reference to marriage is to be read as including a reference to marriage of a same sex couple…”.
So I think it’s splitting hairs to suggest that the statement by House of Bishops “is in error” in that particular respect, whatever other criticisms one might have of it (though, as noted above, that’s emphatically none of my business).
Cranmer is blogging today about how few bishops signed a letter challenging Cameron's policy on welfare, and complaining of the real poverty they are seeing in their dioceses. 26 signed it, not all members of the House of Bishops.
But the same bishops are all available to sign a statement from the house of bishops putting the boot in on gay marriage.
Clearly, justice, poverty and helping your neighbour is not important to the House of Bishops, barely half of whom could be bothered to sign a letter on the topic, but all of whom are up for keeping gays in their place. Keep on the with important stuff, lads?
In response to Frank Cranmer, change from understanding marriage as an indissoluble bond is a change in the general understanding of marriage.
In response to Bernard Randall, allowing same sex marriage is only a "truly substantial" change in the definition and understanding of marriage if one believes that the difference between men and women is "truly substantial." I do not, on what I believe are good theological and empirical grounds. The bishops have assumed, not addressed, this fundamental issue. It is another way in which they are unwittingly captive to a particular and characteristically modern way of thinking. Christian history and tradition offer great variety on this point.
All good members of the English Church would deny that it was 'founded by Henry VIII'. David's response to this suggestion was a classic deadpan reply, not an ignorance of history.
What Henry VIII did was to declare that the Bishop of Rome had no jurisdiction in England -- no appeals should go from the English courts to Rome, for example, even in matrimonial matters -- and to remove the requirement that English bishops and clergy should regard the Bishop of Rome as their superior.
What he did not do is to create a new English Church; he made arguably minor adjustments to the existing Ecclesia Anglicana, which traces itself back to the seventh century.
The Church of England is part of the one Church and regarding Jesus of Nazareth as its founder. Augustine of Canterbury can be regarded as the primary apostle to the English, but of course others brought Christianity to these islands before his time and they too played their part in establishing the English Church.
After the break with Rome under Henry VIII, the English Church was reconciled to Rome under Mary I (even in Roman eyes the Church of England was not a creation of her father, but rather a separate branch), before a subsequent Bishop of Rome excommunicated her successor, sealing the rift.
Simon and David are supported, to take just one example, by Magna Carta, which declared long before Henry dispensed with the Pope: "FIRST, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable."
The Church of England existed pre-reformation, all that Henry did was alter the governance arrangements.
I wasn't meaning "substantial" in the technical philosophical sense, but rather to indicate "very significant." Perhaps I should have chosen my words more carefully.
In any case, I'm not sure it matters whether the difference between men and women is truly substantial, since the substance of the definition of marriage is in question. I don't see how it can be wrong to assert that the definition of marriage, at least in our own culture and up to the past few years (which is what the bishops are talking about), has had "one man and one woman" as an essential (that is, substantial) element. It may very well be that we (by which I mean society) come to agree that the definition of marriage should really be "one human and one human," but we aren't there yet. So I'll maintain that the Bishops are, at least on this formal point, correct.
And that's not to address the matter of sexual fidelity as part of the formal definition. Again, at least prima facie, this seems a substantial change in the definition.
And, to throw the cat among the pigeons, if it is a modern way of thinking to suppose that male and female are substantially different, does that make it wrong ipso facto? And if so, then presumably the modern way of thinking that homosexuality is not a disorder is also wrong.
Such reasoning is patently absurd, is it not?
There are undoubtedly fundamental issues to address, but it doesn't seem to me reasonable to criticize a holding position statement by the bishops on the grounds of failing to do that. That's what the facilitated discussions are going to have to grapple with.
it does not appear to be significant that not all the bishops signed. Nick Baines comments:
“First, it has been suggested that if only 27 signed the letter, then 74 did not: draw your conclusions. Well, the 74 were probably not approached – not because there was selective ideological bias involved, but simply because in such cases only a number of bishops is usually approached for signature. I was not approached, but would have signed, had I been asked to do so. In similar cases where my signature has been added to a letter, most other bishops weren't approached. Many bishops aren't online most of the time, many are slow to respond to requests, and some refuse to sign anything on principle. No conspiracy here – and probably no fine strategic organisation – but, as usual, a bit random.”
Thanks to Linda Woodhead for clear thinking.
Can someone enlighten me and maybe some others as to whether all the Bishops in the House of Bishops (something over 40 I think?) actually see and have to sign/approve these statements before they are issued?
And who actually writes these things?
The Court of Arches, by the Dean, Sir Lewis Dibdin, had no doubt that the 1907 Act changed the definition of marriage and created (to quote the recent House of Bishops Pastoral) "a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer."
We know this because, in his definitive ruling in Banister v Thompson  Probate 362, he said:
"The recent Act seems to recognise a distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical aspects of marriage, and to alter the law as to the one without purporting to affect the law as to the other."
Therefore, the House of Bishops was wrong to say this is the first time and Linda Woodhead is right to say it isn't.
Really, it doesn't reflect well on us that we don't know or won't recognise our own history.
Dibdin was, by the way, a very interesting man, and no-one could have been more expert in church law, marriage law, church governance and everything that makes his judgment essential reading than he was. The account of his life in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is well worth a read.
Linda Woodhead is exactly right to note that the allowance for a second marriage of one with a living spouse constitutes a "substantial" change in the teaching. It is a matter specifically addressed by "the founder" (and not only of the Church of England.) It is a key element of the "doctrine of marriage" upon which the Pastoral Guidance lays no little stress.
The notion that there is a "substantial" difference between men and women (rather than a biological difference) flies in the face of the teaching that the human substance of the man Jesus derived entirely from the woman Mary. That is doctrine. Traditionally only men and women have been allowed to marry. That is discipline.
In response to Linda Woodhead, we seem to be slightly at cross-purposes. The Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act 1907 was not about "change from understanding marriage as an indissoluble bond": it was about whether or not one could marry one's deceased wife's sister. So I still don't see that the distinction that you appear to draw between the paragraph you quote from the House of Bishops' Statement and the statement from Randall Davidson are inimical.
I assumed that your objection to the Bishop's phraseology was the use of the words "for the first time" - in which I can't see a problem. Or is it more basic than that?
Badman and others – thanks for v interesting examples and discussion.
Bernard, as you know there are several elements to the Church’s teaching on marriage. In BCP’s version, e.g. ‘remedy against sin,’ symbol of the ‘spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church,’ ‘mutual society, help and comfort.’ Procreation is important, but NB the BCP knows not essential as it has that note to omit a part for women past child-bearing. Of course between one man and woman another element.
Various elements of this teaching (I would not call it “A doctrine”) have changed over time. For Anglicans, indissolubility dropped after long process of debate and dispute, and ‘remedy against sin’ dropped de facto. So far from clear that changing one element (man and woman) constitutes a “substantial change,” and not true that it is more substantial than any change made before.
I was trying to explain (obviously not very well) why the bishops think it IS such a substantial and unprecedented change. My suggestion was - because they have forgotten the past that they are captive to the present. It’s the captivity I am criticising, not the present. I am arguing that they should (AS ANGLICANS for goodness sake) be more familiar with history and the range of Christian and Anglican positions so that they can make a more informed decision about the present.
This applies not only to their understanding of marriage (much more complex and historically variable than they allow), but also their understanding of what it is to be human.
Tobias Haller makes a good point about the significance of the fact that the human substance of the man Jesus derived entirely from the woman Mary. As Peter Brown in his studies of the early church, and Thomas Lacquer in his wonderful “Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud” remind us, our way of thinking as male and female as a sort of biological dyad is the product of modern science + modern nuclear family.
Previously, Aristotle’s view prevailed: there is just one human substance and men are just a bit more “cooked” in the womb than women – but for many Christian traditions, women through asceticism can become male/”men of God”. (Perhaps we are now moving towards a third position, different from both of these.)
It seems to me (in Pilling also) that the bishops take for granted the “men are from mars, women are from venus” view. And if you start there - thinking that gender difference is substantial and God-given - then you are bound to think that gay marriage is very big deal, totally changing marriage. But you don’t have to start there, and most Christians didn’t.
thank you, that's a very useful reference. Still not sure that a "distinction" in the law between two kinds of marriage is the same as a "divergence" in the general definition which covers all marriages.
the allowance of a second marriage certainly changes the teaching about marriage. Is that the same as changing the definition of marriage? I'm genuinely not sure - this may be something of a discipline vs doctrine distinction itself.
Part of the problem is that "substantial" has a range of meanings, from "of ontological nature" through "makes a real difference to how we think about things" to "easy to notice." I regret using the word in the first place - it has only confused matters.
So I still think that the bishops are correct to use the language they have. But whether their reading of history gains complete acceptance or not is, I suggest, pretty much irrelevant. They must know that marriage has not always been exactly the same in law and custom as it is now (it's been pointed out often enough in the debate). Their reading is that the scale of change is unprecedented, at least since the Book of Common Prayer was produced. that seems reasonable to me.
What needs to be discussed is whether they "believe that the scale of the challenge which gay marriage presents to the Church is much greater than it really is." (Prof Woodhead's analysis). So we need to ask how big the challenge to the Church is, and having established that, whether the Bishops have made a mistake in their estimation of it. In that the Church is threatened with schism, and/or internal battles which make women's ordination look like a walk in the park, I'd like to suggest that the challenge is, as it happens, very big indeed. I'd love to be proved wrong, but I think that's what the Bishops think - and I suspect it's in the nature of their job to know.
Frank, deceased wife's sister issue and indissolubility are separate issues.
Your main sentence has got garbled grammatically,I can't understand what you mean (you're probably on a wobbly train like me): "So I still don't see that the distinction that you appear to draw between the paragraph you quote from the House of Bishops' Statement and the statement from Randall Davidson are inimical."
Yes: you’re right: it’s garbled and I apologise profusely for not reading my response carefully enough before I hit the button (and I don’t have the excuse of a wobbly train). What I meant to say was this: "So I still don't see that the paragraph you quote from the House of Bishops' Statement and the statement you quote from Randall Davidson are inimical".
My point is that Davidson and the House of Bishops are addressing two different matters: the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s legislation on the one hand and the change in the definition of “marriage” brought about by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 Schedule 3 Part 1 1(1) on the other.
I have no views on the broader issue of the content of the House of Bishops’ Statement: my sole point is that if your objection (as it seems to be at first blush) is to the sentence “There will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage … and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England” then I think that that sentence is correct as it stands. There may have been previous divergences between the general understanding of marriage and the doctrine of the C of E; but until 2013 the definition of marriage continued to be that in Hyde v Hyde and Woodmansee (1866) LR 1 P&D 130 at 133 as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others” [per Lord Penzance]. The 1907 Act did not change that: the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 certainly did.
Frank, going back to your first post, I still don’t understand why you’re not sure the statement by House of Bishops is in error.
Let’s start with indissolubility:
The Church of England enforced a view of marriage as indissoluble long after civil law allowed remarriage of divorcees. E.g. Princess Margaret famously spoke of being: “mindful of the Church's teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble.” Not until 2002 did CofE formally accommodate remarriage of a divorced person.
Do you agree that this constitutes a divergence between civil law & church’s doctrine reflected in canons and BCP?
If yes: then the HoB is in error in saying it is the first time they have diverged.
We can come back to deceased wife’s sister once we’ve straightened this one out!
thanks for your comments - they must have been approved while I was writing my previous post. I think you're right to wonder about a captivity to the present - though to a large extent isn't that the human condition?
Do you have evidence in your research that most Christians don't have the "men from Mars, women from Venus" paradigm in mind? It seems to me so prevalent in wider society that it's likely, prima facie, to be prevalent among Christians. Be that as it may, and clearly there are different views possible, I wonder whether talk of male and female as both being the same human substance is a bit of a red herring in this particular debate. Whether male and female are distinct in some ontological way (perhaps hypostatically rather than substantially?), or it's just that women are under cooked men (is the argument over whether there are two recipes or not!?), surely the Church has always thought that male and female are not simply interchangeable? But you seem to be saying that within the definition of marriage we ought to treat male and female as interchangeable (please correct me if I'm wrong). Can you give examples from Tradition where that is so, especially in what we might call a personal sphere? I can't at the moment think of any.
the question is not whether the church has previously thought that men and women were interchangeable.
The point is that any major change is a first and that all are hotly debated as being impossible at the time.
So the question is "has the church ever hotly debated a change on the grounds that it fundamentally changes our understanding of marriage".
And the answer to that is yes.
I can access the website but seem to be unable to access the comments.
Bernard, I think it all depends on what you mean by "the definition of marriage." The Bishops' Pastoral Guidance refers to the "definition" in this way: "the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer." (paragraph 9.)
So the "definition" is a legal one, in civil and church law, largely concerned with who can legally enter into a valid marriage. That "definition" changed on the grounds of incest with the Deceased Sister's business, and on the grounds of adultery on the question of remarriage of a divorced person with a living spouse. These changes, for a time, put the church at odds with the state. It is also changed with the allowance that the spouses need no longer be of different genders to each other. That is now a point of difference between the estates.
Some might argue that the latter change is more "substantial" (in the sense of "important") than the former two. But as I noted in my blog post, this all appears to me to be rather like the amendments to the Constitution of Animal Farm. From the earlier definition of marriage (PG para 1, citing the canon law), as "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" everything has been struck except "a union of man with woman." All marriages are equal, but some are more equal than others, it seems.
The biological distinction is retained by the church over against the state, but the issues of fidelity and monogamy have been amended out as no longer required in all cases. For the church to claim that the biological is more "significant" than the moral presents us with a conundrum, for it is the body that should be concerned with virtue rather than plumbing.
But it is nonetheless most assuredly a change in the definition, an it now places the church once again in dissonance with the civil law, as Linda Woodhead has noted.
Bernard, my answer to your question is that the majority of the Church Fathers and medieval theologians (inc. Aquinas) did not elaborate on the theological significance of sexual difference because they thought it could or should be transcended en route to an angelical existence. Augustine is the exception, and gets picked up by the Reformers, who start to forge our modern ideas of gender difference being something more essential in both this life and the next. So in terms of salvation men and women were indeed 'interchangeable' although that is a slightly odd way to put it! (A key authority was of course the life and teaching Jesus, including his answer that there is no marriage in heaven because we are like the angels.)
"For the church to claim that the biological is more "significant" than the moral presents us with a conundrum,"
I'm not sure about that.
We're not saying it's ok to be immoral provided it's only straight couples who are doing it.
Isn't it rather that we have come to the conclusion that marrying your dead wife's sister and divorcing are not immoral whereas we have not yet all come to that conclusion about same sex relationships?
Well, Erika, I'm addressing this issue of "definitions." I think you are correct that the church must have decided that this form of incest and adultery are no longer immoral; and they have yet to reach that conclusion about same-sexuality. But it seems to me that fidelity and monogamy do represent moral ideas, while heterosexuality does not.
The problem is the notion that they have not changed the definition; or can appeal to that definition with regard to gender even though they plainly allow marriages that don't meet the definition on other grounds.
One could say that the "definition" hasn't changed but that fewer and fewer marriages come under it. But as in typing out a species on the basis of its characteristics, a relationship that fails to meet a "definition" shouldn't continue to be referred to as a member of the set of those that do. Perhaps we should dig out our scare-quotes and start referring to "marriages" of couples who have other spouses still living.
As I have noted elsewhere, it is the whole idea of a "definition" is faulty. What we really have is a "description" of a human phenomenon, padded out with hopeful ideals, many or most of which are not fulfilled in a good number of cases.
"How many marriages did the founder of the Church of England have?"
As far as we know - NONE. The gospels seem to suggest that Jesus was celibate although he did approve of life long marriage and his premier miracle was performed at a wedding at Cana in Galilee when The Lord turned water into wine.
Father David: Love you for that angelic reply to a silly question.