Reforming Marriage talks at Leicester Cathedral

Dean of Leicester reports on Bishop’s plea to change marriage to meet evolving cultural circumstances

Dean David spoke as part of a talk given on Monday 9 October 2017, part of the St Martin-in-the-Fields Autumn Lecture Series – Reformation. The panel also featured Nicholas Holtam and Sally Hitchiner. The topic was Reforming Marriage.

Dean David’s words are featured below, and you can also listen to the talk via a podcast on St Martin-in-the-Fields’ website, available here.

Bishop Nick has shown that marriage has evolved. Beyond the leaving and cleaving of the Old Testament, the biblical writer of the Letter to the Ephesians weaves mutual responsibility into marriage. By the time we get to the fifth century St Augustine in ‘The Good of Marriage’ in 401AD can conclude that marriage produced ‘progeny, fidelity and a sacred bond’. Further centuries saw the church claiming marriage to be a fully sacred institution not just a secular one; a sacrament by the 12thcentury. By the 16th century marriage is depleted and celibacy exalted. The Reformer Martin Luther found himself surprised to be married. As a medieval monk Luther had not really considered he would marry – after all Christ may have returned or as a Christian living in turbulent times he may have been martyred. Equally and pragmatically there were those who accused him generally of a lack of self-control so marrying would have be an own goal for such opponents. Yet he marries Katharina von Bora and comes to describe her as ‘my rib’ and ‘a gift from God’. He says marriage is ‘a hospital for the soul’. (see for example Katharina and Martin: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegrade Monk, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books 2017 and The Estate of Marriage, Martin Luther, 1522 ).

Despite worthy attempts at Queer retellings, a Reformation conversation about marriage could barely have conceived of same-sex marriage. Yet we can see how some elements of this 21st century conversation can be traced back to the Reformation. Think about the shift from seeing marriage almost as a ‘necessary evil’ to ‘an institution of creation’ intended for all human kind. Luther described it therefore as ‘worldly’ i.e. not held captive by the church. He recognised that although procreation was central, that companionship and even love were even more poignant. Luther also recognises that only very few are called to celibacy or a single life. He describes them as ‘special miracles’. That is another talk but essentially celibacy is about that gift and not a ‘cold shower’ response to unwanted same sex attraction. Singleness needs a much richer life affirming account. Crucially Luther also sees marriage as ‘the cradle of citizenship’. It was not private but public and thus it needed public space, honour and recognition.

Same sex couples are discovering these gifts and desiring marriage. I believe that God is at work in the world. How intriguing that gay and lesbian people are recognising the value of marriage at a time when marriage may be waning amongst heterosexuals. And all this even as the church remains anything but radically inclusive. If it were another topic, the church would at least wonder if God is at work. I need to confess to having come late to seeing this. I have been in a relationship for over 25 years and in a Civil Partnership for nearly 10 years, but marriage has not been our lens.

We didn’t see it that way because it was never an option. It is still not an option for us in our church and really not an option for me as a priest. For much of my life being gay was far from acceptable. I often quote the transition in my school which Oscar Wilde also attended. His name was absent from the Honours Boards throughout my 1980’s school career. Now he’s back!

So that marginal, somewhat hidden life was different. In the Christian Union I sang ‘Jesus take me as I am’. I believed it. So I came to see my life having fallen in love, as a gift not much understood and not much celebrated. Could this experience belonging to a small but significant proportion of society and church reveal something about love or friendship or trust which was maybe important to what it meant to be a child of God? I had witnessed good and bad marriages. I understood why the critiques of marriage were often justified as they revealed sexism, abuse and captivity. As gay people emerged from the shadows into the mainstream, I wondered if we should just walk into marriage?

Civil Partnerships therefore were an opportunity to celebrate a new way of commitment which was analogous to marriage but different from it. This enabled a new space to be formed which could lead to flourishing. But we soon saw that the name for such flourishing which most people understood was marriage. It is so much part of our human, cultural and religious story that it made sense. The Church of England’s reluctance to embrace Civil Partnerships wholeheartedly has added to the failure of Civil Partnerships to become the vivid same sex version of lasting partnership.

However, for us Civil Partnership has provided permanence with legal protections. It has created a small space for us to belong in society. The problem is that it is a tiny space; perhaps shaped more by contract than covenant, more by pragmatism than spiritual wisdom. We did make our Civil Partnership ceremony a rich experience but the fact that it wasn’t in church mattered and the fact that it couldn’t really fully embrace the ideas of it being a hospital for the soul leaves a deficit.

As the years go by I see this played out. As a Church of England Dean I have a public role. Leicester is diverse in terms of other faiths. It is therefore perhaps particularly uncertain about how to deal with a gay Dean. The county of Leicestershire is conservative too. Mostly I am able to be myself yet this happens in a filtered way. When I am asked if I have a wife, I say ‘no I don’t have a wife’. Then I analyse whether to leave it like that or say the next sentence. When appointed, no mention was made of my domestic life unlike the other announcements typically for Deans and Bishops. People are rarely hostile, just flummoxed as if there isn’t a frame for comprehension. But this is harder in the church than anywhere else. I see that despite change, homophobia is at work in me, in my community and in my church. Usually for me this doesn’t end up with violence but these are the gaps in which such malevolent powers grow. Without language, visibility, exemplars and sacred rituals to provide evidence of radical inclusion, homophobia will persist with consequences. For example, the Church of England is responsible for hundreds of schools and academies where the impact of homophobia is still felt, shaped by our bias and we need to do better.

My colleague organised a Christian presence at Leicester Pride this year. The group were expecting to hear lots of pain. They heard a bit. Mostly they heard from people who wanted to know more of the love of God. They thought that Jesus and his way could be for them. So undoubtedly this also concerns the Church of England’s mission, growth, renewal and reform. Even in Post Christendom the Church of England still shapes imagination in the way it contributes to the environmental conditions of society. Recently in Leicester our St Philip’s Centre working in interfaith and with TRADE, a local sexual health charity produced a report describing the Leicester Approach providing guidance across the faiths with LGBT people. Time and time again those of other faiths than Christian look to us for loving leadership. (See ‘Sexuality, Gender Identity and belief: The Leicester Approach’ 2017 available from )

Marriage is now available for same-sex couples. But I think this discussion in church still focusses too much on justice alone. Justice is still vital and we still await it. If this reformation is also to be Godly, then righteousness also matters. They come as a pair in the Hebrew Bible. Righteousness is the rightness or the virtue that is Godly. It is the territory of the hospital of the soul. 

Here are four areas which may stimulate further thinking as the church tries to work out whether or not this love is really love and so whether or not this love can be blessed.

  1. We must discern this together, embracing a diversity of voices and experiences. Shared conversations cannot be over. This means ensuring LGBT voices are heard and valued. This includes increasing numbers from African communities making their home here such as those in Leicester finding sanctuary from places of violence across our Anglican Communion. It also means we need to free up lots of heterosexual people to be open about marriage. They need to be as sufficiently open as LGBT people are now being asked to be within this discernment process. Our church constantly wants to split off into camps. With that language has developed which is stifling, sometimes brutal. Take a phrase which crops up such as ‘Generous Orthodoxy’. It now gets used as a weapon; somehow saying everything there is to say about our Anglican identity and used as a way to cut down conversation. Generous Orthodoxy properly understood is the modus of the people of God as we are drawn deeper into the life of Christ. In a community of relationship, careful to use the conversation to build each other up, we are to discern the opportunities and challenges for marriage in our day.
  2. The record gets stuck on the slogan ‘one man, one woman’. Most marriages have and will be made up of a man and a woman. But are there other things also to say? For example, our tradition’s understanding of marriage changed the day Jesus went to a wedding in Cana (John 1–11). It is a ‘third day story’. It is about what happens when life is renewed in the power that raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus reframed marriage as something which could reveal the fullness of God’s kingdom. The constrained water containers became the overflowing vats of wine. Therefore the gospel writers are clear that in heaven there is to be no marriage (Matthew 22.30). Marriage on earth is a school for the Kingdom where ‘all things are to be made new’. The writers of the New Testament frame marriage in light of the new creation. Hence the church is bride and the glorified Christ is bridegroom. Remember that Genesis 1 does not start with men and women but rather starts in the Hebrew text with humanity. Men and women come next. That unified humanity then requires an arc of incarnation and redemption until the great divides are overcome. So might unity be worth exploring not as at present as a conversation about holding together the church but rather as an over-arching theological narrative for marriage as a sign to the world of what can be wrought by love and by God?
  3. We have to talk about sex. Now that the majority of sex within marriage is recreational and not pro-creational, what does that reveal about bodies and souls and God? Our right concerns about sin and sex will only be heard if people can see that the Christian disciplines around sexual life lead to abundance of life. Our obsession with genitals is unlikely to do that. We have richer Christian wisdom to explore about human beings as sexual beings, and about the interplay of different kinds of love. Every morning after my coffee and bowl of porridge, I kiss my partner good bye. Within the current disciplines of clergy in Civil Partnerships what does this act mean? Unquestionably this is a sexual act that is part of the practice of relationship which keeps us together. I still fancy him. I love him. Our morning kiss gladdens our hearts and that sexual experience enriches our souls.
  4. Finally, there seems increasing talk about gender complementarity. There are biological differences between men and women, but a binary account is inadequate. We project much onto the words man and woman. Politics, sociology, power, gender, sexuality, and status all shape what we mean by man and woman. As those in God’s Trinitarian image, we relate to one another and live between the poles of sameness and difference. Our intimate relationships allow us to explore that. My testimony is that living as a same sex couple we see more and more of the differentiation between me and my partner. We discover how utterly different we are and we are working at what it is to be one. This long life of sacrificial love habituates virtue. It is not possible without difference but that is perfectly possible without notions of complementarity which carries so much possibility of demeaning, imprisoning consequences for both men and women.

Marriage as a hospital for the soul can provide a secure platform for people, building the common good. This is a counter-balance to the obsessive coupledom which sees the cosy comfort of relationship as an inoculator from the world. It is also a needed alternative to the exhausting and often damaging behaviours of multiple short-term relationships.

I believe the Christian story has the capacity to enlarge the story of marriage to include same sex couples. I look forward to the day when I can pray for them what I have prayed for so many husbands and wives. I hope to be able to pray ‘God the Holy Trinity make you strong in faith and love, defend you on every side and guide you in truth and peace’ (Blessing from Common Worship, The Marriage Service, 2000).

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