In Reflecting on Marriage, 14 Bishops Turn to Theology


By Douglas LeBlanc

Fourteen bishops — including nine of the Church of England’s 42 diocesans — have issued a 3,800-word paper that makes a theological case for preserving the Church’s historic doctrine of marriage.

The group contains prominent evangelicals, like Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry and chairman of General Synod’s Faith and Order Commission; Ric Thorpe, Bishop of Islington and lead bishop for church planting; and prominent Anglo-Catholics Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester, and Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham.

Two signatories are women (Ruth Bushyager, Bishop of Horsham, and Jill Duff, Bishop of Lancaster) and another is Karowei Dorgu, who was born in Nigeria, worked as a physician before his ordination, and now serves as Bishop of Woolwich, within the Diocese of Southwark.

The paper stands in contrast to other communication about the College of Bishops’ decision to bless but not marry same-sex couples. The two primary messages since that decision have focused on insufficient votes to change the church’s doctrine of marriage, and the bishops’ desire to preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion.

The 14 bishops’ paper seeks to explain why, as a matter of theology and ethics, the Christian Church has affirmed marriage as a lifelong and monogamous union of a man and a woman, and why it should preserve this doctrine.

“Without seeking to diminish the value of many committed same-sex relationships, for which there is much to give thanks, we find ourselves constrained by what we sincerely believe the Scriptures teach which cannot be set aside,” the bishops write in introducing their paper.

Their case appears under four themes: “Christian and Secular Understandings of Marriage,” “The Meaning of Christian Marriage,” “Marriage and the Story of Scripture,” and “Civil Marriage and Same-Sex Relations.”

The bishops contrast the purposes of marriage in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (procreation, chastity, mutual society) and in the alternative texts of Common Worship (companionship, the gift of sex, and the bearing of children). Common Worship is conservative, however, compared to what has developed since its authorization in 2000.

The bishops write: “Over recent decades, the gift of sex and the bearing of children have largely become severed from marriage in secular understanding. Many no longer assume that sex needs to be limited to marriage, whilst children are frequently born and brought up outside of any marriage bond between their biological parents. The meaning of marriage has become for many (and now enshrined in UK law) the union of two people who desire lifelong companionship and commitment to each other — on which basis it may seem hard to understand how anyone could justly deny such an ordinance to couples of the same sex.”

The bishops draw a distinction between secular modernity, which draws on themes from the French Revolution, and Christianity, which see marriage through different lenses.

“Three prominent values emerged during the French Revolution, in particular, which have continued to shape Western culture and which each have a bearing on our current discussions: Liberté (the freedom of the individual from state or institutional control), Egalité (justice for, and the rights of, the individual) and Fraternité (the coming together of individuals in solidarity to form communal life),” the bishops write.

“Christians see the world differently, believing that Creation, while fallen, still retains a sense of order and structure, a ‘givenness’ in every sense of the word. Christians have generally understood the male-female relationship not as incidental, but as part of a vast interconnected metaphysics — a world where humanity is deeply rooted in and connected to God, to the rhythms of the natural created order, a measureless system both visible and invisible, and yet profoundly real. In this scheme, biological difference is not accidental but deliberate and good.”

Turning to “The Meaning of Christian Marriage,” the bishops delineate the heart of their case:

“Christian faith has always insisted that Creation, even though fallen, retains goodness at its essence. In the Genesis account, sexual difference is part of Creation not the Fall, and so we relate to God and each other in these two forms as male and female. Marriage, therefore, as the union of man and woman, bears witness not to the accidental or arbitrary nature of God’s creation of male and female, but to its goodness.” …

“We cannot fully express our humanity alone — we each need relations with the opposite sex, whether in marriage or in other forms of social relating. Long-term celibacy expresses the Christian life in a vital and different way, enabling a single-minded devotion to God and testifying to a future where there will be no more marriage; and celibacy does not deny the essential point of interdependence. As in the life and ministry of Jesus, celibate single people also need the deep intimacy of friendships with those of the other sex.” …

“As a visible, tangible confirmation and culmination of all this, the sense of creative fruitfulness in the coming together of difference is expressed in a very real and physical way, in that it is only by the joining together of male and female that new life is born and the human race is perpetuated. Hence the divine blessing pronounced precisely on the uniting of male and female to bring forth life in Genesis 1:28. New life could have come from eggs simply laid by the female, or the multiplication of cells within the body of the male, but in divine providence, it is generated through the normatively procreative union of male and female, expressing again that same interdependence and coming together of difference.”

“Holy Matrimony, in Christian understanding, is more than a contract, a private arrangement between two individuals that helps build social cohesion. It is theologically much more significant. Every time a man and woman are joined together in the promise of lifelong fidelity, the goodness of creation is affirmed, the interdependence of humanity is celebrated, the story of salvation is depicted, and life is (potentially) generated.”

And in “Marriage and the Story of Scripture,” the bishops offer their briefest but most cogent sentences:

“It is no accident, as the Book of Common Prayer recognizes, that the first ‘sign’ Jesus performed in John’s gospel was to rescue a wedding party.” …

“Any change to the doctrine of marriage as a union between a man and a woman would therefore not only unravel the Scriptural story of salvation, but risk undermining our understanding of the nature of the Church as it is derived from Scripture and given to us as a revelatory sign. Marriage is essentially an ecclesial, as well as a human, instrument of unity.”


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