The Slide Into Irrelevance of the Anglican Church

Sunday June 17 2012 was a memorable anniversary for me. It was thirty-five years to the day since my met my wife, and I remember it like yesterday – better, in some respects. Two years or so after that we “tied the knot”, and our, official, thirty-third anniversary will happen in August this year.  I’m sure that my wife wouldn’t look at it quite the same as I do, but to me the day we met carries more significance, if a date can be significant in that way.

So I regard marriage as a contractual formalisation of something that already existed. Although I haven’t been divorced, that is another such formalisation. The difference between married people and unmarried people is simply one of a relationship to a formal set of obligations, responsibilities and benefits, and it has long been assumed that such formal obligations, responsibilities and benefits will contribute to the smoother running of society as a whole, in much the same way as, say, a formal contract between an employer and an employee will contribute to the more efficient management of a business.

Of course it is more complex than this. We have Common Law provisions that dictate that people can be effectively married even if not formally so. But marriage is also a kind of public declaration of devotion – in an ideal world the married have no need for formal arrangements to cement this devotion. And weddings are themselves a celebration, not of formal arrangements per se, but of a formalised mutual commitment. In this sense they are a “tradition”. As I’ve argued elsewhere, traditions themselves become the traditions and there is no historical reason to suppose that things that we regard as traditional now will always be traditional.

More people, in the UK at least, are nowadays opting not to get married. Divorces, after peaking in the early part of the millennium, are currently declining but one has to suppose that given the decline in marriage, this is not unexpected. The rate of divorce is not declining. None of this has affected me personally, of course. But in general the attitude towards marriage has changed substantially these last thirty-three years, and is yet another example of the fickleness of tradition.

Try telling that to the Church of England. The CofE officially regards marriage as a union in the sight of God, as fulfilling God’s wishes for his people. Church doctrine (not just the CofE) extends outside this to an interest in peoples’ sexual habits, discouraging sexual activity outside marriage, not for ostensibly good emotional or social reasons but because God frowns upon it. Ironically, the church owes its very existence to a need to facilitate a divorce.With the social trends outlined above, the CofE is undoutedly becoming less of a relevance.

Even the CofE would admit this, albeit obliquely. I was married in an Anglican church, in common with “traditional” expectations, and although it was against my own better judgement, I was more than happy to go along with the wishes of my fiancée at the time . There were a couple of problems. I had an issue with my banns being read in my home town, and the vicar of that town was reluctant to actually proclaim them. We’d bought a house outside his area and I’d never once been to his church, so I could understand him from that respect. I’m not sure what the situation is now but at that time one couldn’t get married in an Anglican church without having their banns read, and I’m sure he’d have preferred me not to get married in church. He reluctantly agreed to read them. My second problem was that the name I’d always been known as wasn’t the name on my birth certificate. The vicar of the presiding church refused to marry me under any name other than the one on the certificate, so I had to get the minor changes required. His reason was that a marriage certificate is a legal document! Forget any notion of the sight of God, we have to comply to state requirements. It was something that I’d have had to do anyway, but it shows that the role of the church in weddings is not substantive. Marriage, even as long ago as 1979, was more than anything a state-sanctioned process and the role of the church was merely ceremonial. Obviously, committed Christians will see the role of the church as something more, but even for these people, their marriage is protected elsewhere. But I was never a Christian in any meaningful sense anyway, and the sight of God never entered my head.

In a religious society, church officials having jurisdiction over marriage appears to make some sort of sense. But we are not a religious society. Something like 65-70% of marriages in the UK are performed outside church.  Nevertheless, some of us still cling to the idea that there are certain places that we should celebrate this contract and declaration of devotion, even if the place of marriage is meaningless in a legal context. Even the bride wears white to signify virginity, which even in 1979 was even more ludicrous. But it doesn’t do any harm, after all.

A principle of philosophical ethics is that morality, if it is to be taken seriously, has to be universal. Just as white people and black people are morally indistinguishable, so are men and women. Therefore, for reasons of moral equality, people should have the right to choose their marriage partner, should they decide to marry, which involves the acceptance of obligations, responsibilities and potential sanctions. Let me say right here that for this reason I am a supporter of homosexual marriage, and any idea of a differential “civil union” doesn’t make any sense – a marriage is a civil union plus a spoken dedication, apparently. It is this minor difference that campaigners wish, understandably, to eradicate, as in itself it indicates that there is a difference. In essence, the only differences centre around the word “marriage”.

I think that the most extraordinary thing about myself is my ordinariness, and I don’t belong to a single minority group apart from Everton fans. Support for gay marriage again puts me in with the majority, although many people see a distinction between marriage and civil union, and therefore “marriage” is supported by a significant minority rather than a majority.

The Anglican church sees things differently. For the church, a union in the sight of God, according to God’s desires, is being undermined. Officially, they view marriage not in terms of moral equality, and, typically of religious organisations, their prurience regarding peoples’ sexual behaviour allows them to cloud the issue. I don’t recall signing any declaration of procreation, (albeit, in keeping with my non-minority status, I have two children), so they are on very shaky ground here. The Bible, read as a whole, doesn’t come out unequivocally in favour of monogamous heterosexual marriage (how many wives did King Solomon have?), so it’s difficult to see what the church’s issue is.

The Government has proposed extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. Predictably, the Anglican Church opposes this extension, despite provision being made to take account of such religious opposition.

The Church of England is committed to the traditional understanding of the institution of marriage as being between one man and one woman.

The Church of England supports the way civil partnerships offer same-sex couples equal rights and responsibilities to married heterosexual couples.  Opening marriage to same-sex couples would confer few if any new legal rights on the part of those already in a civil partnership, yet would require multiple changes to law, with the definition of marriage having to change for everyone.

It’s not at all clear in what way the definition of marriage would have to change “for everyone”. It wouldn’t change for me, for a start. It would only change for those people for whom it meant a heterosexual union in the first place, and therefore it would only change for those people who desire a continuation of institutional discrimination. But the church is correct in that change from civil union to marriage would be barely noticeable. Indeed, the only that we have so-called civil unions in the first place was a a sop to religious feelings. Which begs the question, why do they oppose such an anti-discriminatory measure?

The issue of whether marriage should be redefined to include those of the same-sex is a more complicated picture than has been painted.  Arguments that suggest ‘religious marriage’ is separate and different from ‘civil marriage’, and will not be affected by the proposed redefinition, misunderstand the legal nature of marriage in this country. They mistake the form of the ceremony for the institution itself.

Currently, the legal institution of marriage into which people enter is the same whether they marry using a civil or a religious form of ceremony. And arguments that seek to treat ‘religious marriage’ as being a different institution fail to recognise the enduring place of the established church in providing marriages that have full state recognition. The Church of England will continue to argue against changing the definition of marriage, which has supported society for so long.

As I’ve already made clear and the above paragraphs seem to agree, “religious marriage” has no legal force on its own – it is merely ceremonial. The church is just a “traditional” provider, and despite what it might say, has no legal authority regarding who can marry whom. John Sentamu makes a curious statement:

We supported Civil Partnerships [the bishops in the House of Lords], because we believe that friendships are good for everybody. But then to turn Civil Partnerships into marriage, that’s not the role of government to create institutions that are not of its gifting. I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.

It’s not true that the Bishops in the House of Lords supported homosexual civil partnerships. But Sentamu is making an appeal not to church definitions but to “tradition and history”. History would have it that marriage is the union between a man and several wives, if the Bible is to be believed. If he is to be taken seriously then what is the church’s role in all this. If there is a definition then how should it work? If the state doesn’t get involved but merely acquiesces then wouldn’t this be worse for everyone?

Anyway, according to the church, these legislative changes will undermine its status as a marriage provider. Poppycock. It’s status is already undermined. Only 30-35% of marriages are currently preformed in church, and that includes other Christian denominations and other religious ceremonies. The Anglican church is already marginalised, not helped by its refusal to marry divorcees in some  cases. It is also marginalised within itself – on Saturday (16 June) on the BBC breakfast news the newspapers (and the Daily Mail) were reviewed by an Anglican vicar, bearing in mind this apparent controversy. Notably, the vicar was a female supporter of gay marriage, so the Anglicans can’t even be consistent. Once again, the church as a whole is seen to be lagging while the rest of us are growing up morally. No doubt things will change soon enough and we’ll forget this debate ever took place – Sentamu is already leading the way in forgetfulness.

They say that this could weaken the tie between church and state – again, ironic as the raison d’etre for the church was Henry VIII’s divorce – which is somehow detrimental to us. If anything is detrimental it is the attitude of the church towards legalised discrimination. I look forward to the day when these attitudes are completely marginalised.


Addendum: The Anglican Church won’t disappear, of course. More likely than not, while groups like the Pentecostals grow into an extremist subculture, the CofE will adapt as it always has. I don’t go to church much at all, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a service from a male vicar. However, this didn’t happen without argument, and although this argument still persists today, the battle for female equality has effectively been won in the UK, if not at all in the growing Anglican constituency in Africa. I predict that in a generation’s time, gay marriages will be conducted in Anglican churches without even a raised eyebrow. However, this is only because the church will be forced to adapt to society rather than the other way round. And it is this that I’m talking about when I talk of irrelevance.

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