What Future for Marriage?

Simon Barrow


In recent years the Christian churches have set great stall by ‘family values’ and the institution of marriage. Yet the form of marriage we know as such today is a relatively late invention out of something that once had much more to do with solidifying dynastic power. And most commentators agree that it is going through a tough time – with more people choosing not to marry, opting to forge different (often informal) partnerships, and getting divorced in increasing numbers. This paper sets out a fresh approach, which proposes changing the law on marriage in its current form to distinguish between civic and religious unions.

In recent years the Christian churches have set great stall by "family values" and the institution of marriage. Yet the form of marriage we know as such today is a relatively late invention out of something that once had much more to do with solidifying dynastic power. And most commentators agree that it is going through a tough time, with more people choosing not to marry, opting to forge different (often informal) partnerships, and getting divorced in increasing numbers.

Given the wider fragmentation in society (and the corrosive impact of a market culture where most things can can be sold, swapped or re-negotiated in an instant), it is undoubtedly important to address these trends. People need security and stability as well as challenge and risk, especially those who are vulnerable on other ways.

But desperately trying to "keep the lid on" as far as marriage is concerned - by lecturing people, offering tax breaks, and denouncing other relationship forms - is proving (for Christians and for others who 'believe in marriage') a basically inappropriate and unsuccessful response. A much bolder and more positive approach is needed. But in order to arrive at it, we need a clearer understanding of what we have inherited, why, and what choices we face.

Most people both inside and outside the churches assume that Christian teaching is uncomplicated and unequivocal about marriage. But when we look at the texts and traditions involved, we discover that things are actually much more challenging, exciting (and, perhaps, worrying) than we tend to suppose.

There are certainly biblical traditions that uphold marriage strongly. But the Bible also portrays a wide range of extended family relationships. Jesus himself never married (unusually for a wandering rabbi, perhaps, and contrary to the fancies of the Da Vinci Code). Paul was rather sceptical and grudging about it, so the evidence suggests.

Meanwhile, the Gospels are often downright hostile a search for Jesus' sayings about 'the family' suggests that, while he cherished covenental values, had married companions and abhorred the practice whereby men could summararily divorce and disinherit women at will, he saw blood ties or contracted family bonds as less significant than the creation of a new kind of community.

That community was rooted in those who were often despised and 'impure' within the established political order. But it reflected the levelling, forgiveness-generating, favour-free, all-embracing, demanding love of God's coming kingdom. And for that, Jesus said, one should be prepared to abandon all if necessary - even family as we have understood it thus far.

Marriage and the Christendom settlement

How, we might ask, did the church proceed from this rather unsettling, subversive message to its subsequent comfortable embrace of worldly power? How did it become the cement of the existing society, rather than the progenitor of a new one? And how did it come to be the upholder of an institution which tries to hold together (some might say with increasing difficulty) the covenant-based approach to relationships enshrined in the Christian message, and a contract-based civil-legal arrangement based on very different principles?

These are good, tough, radical and not necessarily comfortable questions. Their addressing lies, in good measure, in the history of what we have come to call Christendom, the arrangement by which the church finds protection and privilege from the monarch/ruler and the governing authority/state by offering its blessing and support in return.

Specifically, establishment Christianity incorporated into its reading and practice of its own traditions understandings derived and adapted over time from the Roman courts. Marriage in these terms meant securing the succession of the (male) hierarchy. And by the time of medieval scholasticism the married state was often thought of in functional terms as asserting the regulative perogative of the church and controlling the fornicating disorder of the masses, albeit in a way inferior to the ideal of clerical celibacy.

There were radical shifts in understanding during and following the Reformation, but even in places like Victorian England marriage was chiefly for the more wealthy and educated, while 'common law marriage' (cohabitation) was the more usual estate.

The revival and spread of marriage in the general population was based on a fusing, of course, of civil and legal provisions with Christian meanings and rituals, because the church and the state were seen as mutually reinforcing institutions with a common grounding.

In Britain today, however, such a church-state settlement is unravelling. It is increasingly hard to justify, either theologically or in terms of plural society. And with its gradual demise come serious questions about institutions such as marriage, which have grown up within the shadow of the Christendom era and which share its dilemmas and fractures.

This raises two important questions. First, from the Christian perspective, now that we can no longer rely on the state to ensorse or define 'Christian meanings', how might the churches meaningfully rediscover a Gospel-oriented (subversive) vocation of 'Christian marriage' - one long subsumed in the formalised obligations of the Established church towards many non-church people sceptical of its identity and calling?

Second, in terms of the concerns of those in society as a whole, how do we enable people who are (in fact) choosing different ways of developing human relationships in a plural setting to discover, celebrate (and find formal arrangements which embody) values like faithfulness, nurture and commitment, as well as providing legal security?

That latter question includes long-term live-in relationships (cohabitation), lesbian and gay partnerships, and also partnerships not necessarily based on sex or romance - which are usually ignored altogether.

The difficulty at the moment is that these distinct matters are all viewed unhelpfully under one single framework -- that established by legal, heterosexual marriage. While this can be adapted and attenuated (as in civil partnerships) or extended (as in same-sex marriage) this is done awkwardly, with much disagreement, and with more than a few holes.

What is called 'marriage' in wider society today is essentially a civil contract which can be dissolved or re-entered as many times as necessary. Superimposed on that is a Christian ideal of lifelong fidelity which many accept as a 'nice idea' but which is not necessarily what they are really choosing, and whose basis in a community of faith they often do not understand or accept.

Similarly, because of the continuing role of the Established Church in matters of marriage (in England, and by extension through the different registration arrangements that have been developed), when the state has to face questions about what counts as marriage or how to recognise and deal with other kinds of partnerships, it is dealing not just with social mores but with religious ones.

A new way of looking at marriage and partnerships

Ekklesia believes that now is the time to face up to these tensions and to look for some fresh ways forward: ways which challenge the churches to develop their Christian vision of marriage as a gift rather than as something superimposed on civil-contractual arrangements; and ways which challenge society to provide a framework of civic partnership options which reflect the real choices people are making, and transcend the 'taken for granted' nature (for some) of what is now on offer.

Our suggestion, as a spur to deeper consideration and discussion, is that (following in the direction of the government's new civil arrangements for same-sex couples) the current definition of 'legal marriage' should be dissolved and replaced by a variety of recognised civic partnerships through which couples could specify the type of legal commitment they wished to make to one another.

What we are signalling in offering this possibility is not a final proposal, but an invitation to participate in a major re-think about the meaning and practice of "getting married" on the part of both religious bodies and the government -- based on a mutually beneficial disentangling of the roles, interests and practices of church and state.

As we have been suggesting, the current one-size-fits-all arrangement suits neither the realities of the relationships people form in a plural society, nor a coherent theology of marriage and relationships within the churches.

What we are suggesting instead is that the legal and ceremonial aspects of forming partnerships should be viewed as distinct, and that the differences between religious and civil/secular definitions of marriage openly acknowledged by all concerned.

In this way, individuals who want to enter into marriage as a religious commitment within Christian contexts would be free to do so -- as would humanists with their own meanings, and people of other faiths in their distinct traditions.

But registering their partnership under law would be a separate process allowing different arrangements depending upon their intent, and including clear provisions for the protection of children.

By the same token, it would be up to religious bodies to decide what forms of civic partnership would be acceptable within their understanding of marriage, and they would be free to offer ceremonial services, blessing and pastoral support or not. But such blessing (with its inherent meanings) would not be imposed on the non-religious or those who did not feel able to, or want to, make the commitments required or encouraged within a religious framework.

This would allow both civic and religious bodies autonomy in decision-making, would avoid people having to make vows they do not believe in, and would encourage couples to think more seriously about the kind of commitment they wanted to enter into, and the consequences of this for others.

It would also separate arguments within religious communities about gay marriage and cohabitation from the state's provision of legal contracts for relationships, and would make space for both faith-based and secular understandings -- without privileging or constraining either.

Ekklesia believes that discussing the possibility of a new set of recognized civic partnerships would require lawmakers to focus on the intentions underlying legal arrangements. Such values as justice, compassion, protection, community, commitment and love could thereby receive greater acknowledgement within public policy debate.

From being a tired argument around fixed (and often unexamined) positions, the question of the meaning of marriage and relationships would then come into much sharper focus for both civil society and religious communities.

Facing the challenges to a top-down church

The recent (June 2006) legal case in the High Court, where a lesbian couple married in Canada are seeking to have their marriage recognised as such under UK law, is another demonstration of the confusing situation that needs to be addressed.

Some faith groups opposed to the full recognition of gay people are resisting this shift in legal definition, and would thereby deny others their full wishes -- even though they are not churchgoers.

Practically and theologically, Ekklesia sees no reason why Christian marriage should be restricted to heterosexuals, and many vital reasons why it should not. That is a (controversial, legitimate and important) argument within the church about its own customs, doctrines and practices. But in this as in other areas of life, the church's view does not have to be imposed on the civil arrangements of those outside the church.

Similarly, the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently argued that the government Law Commission's proposal about granting legal rights to live-in (cohabiting) couples would risk, 'further undermining marriage'.

We do not see why this should be so -- unless, as at present, civic and religious understandings have to be run together, in which case a conflict of perspectives is produced without any natural way forward.

We would suggest that, regardless of what theological position one takes on the matter, trying to stop the civil authorities providing protection to established cohabitees is actually a rather bad way to promote the ideal of lasting love that marriage is meant to enshrine in a church context.

Such a stance does not witness to generosity and faithfulness. It displays, rather, an apparent desire to regulate the choices of non-adherents in a way which neither strengthens the church case nor supports people seeking to develop their relationships.

If the church wants to argue (as it traditionally has) that specifically Christian marriage, rooted in the grace of God and sustained by the church community, is a greater good, a better way of embodying divine faithfulness, and ultimately (therefore) preferable to civil cohabitation, it is free to do so. And to show by the fruit of practice why this is so.

But there must surely be something wrong when the church's 'defence' of holy matrimony quite needlessly involves perpetuating what many will understandably see as an unholy injustice against established live-in couples by denying them legal rights.

Wider implications

Ekklesia is of course aware of the large implications for the tax and benefit system arising from the alternative marriage / civic partnership framework it is suggesting, and indeed for many other areas of public policy.

This is not our area of specialism, but we believe that with the recognition of new guiding principles it is an issue which can be faced fruitfully. And we believe that the kind of fresh framework we are suggesting could make the system less complex in the long run.

Similarly, the theological debate about relationships, sexuality and marriage could be re-opened in the churches in a much more positive and challenging way -- one that might encourage Christians of different outlooks to stop using the Bible and ecclesial authority as weapons, and to focus instead on their role in helping to give birth to the hope-centred new community that Christ creates.

In summary, what Ekklesia is recognising and suggesting is that:

  1. Our current confusion between the civil (secular), juridical (legal) and sacramental (religious) meanings of marriage arises from the 'Christendom' assumption that religious understandings can be superimposed on society through the state, and vice versa.
  2. It is positive to enable people to express their civil commitments in legal terms which reflect the variety of long-term partnerships people are actually forming - and which offer as much stability, especially for children, as possible.
  3. What the church calls marriage is not just another name for a legal and civil arrangement - it is specifically about the kind of relationships made possible by God's love and the community of people who seek to be transformed by this love through worship, common life, mutual forgiveness, and discipleship.
  4. If you try to force everyone in society into a one-size-fits-all legal arrangement you risk devaluing what is possible for different kinds of partnerships, sell short the meaning of Christian marriage - and end up in something of a no-win mess. That is where we are right now.

Further questions about social impact and form

We recognise that what we are saying will raise ire and eyebrows in a number of quarters. Christians trying to do away with marriage? Whatever next?

So we wish to emphasise that in suggesting that 'legal marriage' might no longer be adequate as presently conceived, we are not trying to abolish faithful, long-term relationships. Far from it, we are inviting both civil society and religious bodies to find better ways of encouraging them.

What we are saying is that it is unhelpful to pretend that there is only one view of marriage -- and then either to give everything that label, or to deny proper civic recognition to other live-in relationships because they are (from a Christian or other viewpoint) 'not marriage'.

People definitely need solid frameworks for their societal relationships, appropriate legal rights, clear provision for children, a coherent framework for tax and benefits, and so on. But that does not have to be based on one type of arrangement alone. Nor does it have to privilege some arrangements over others through the tax system (as the Church of England and other churches recommend).

Moreover, social stability and growth is not just about partnerships and nuclear families, important though these are. It is also about wider kinship, community, neighbourhood and friendship networks. It is about envisaging and working towards a fairer, more equal, more hospitable, more trust-based (faithful) and less acquisitive way of life.

Meanwhile, religious communities have their own practical ideal of marriage as a key component of a healthy society. They will naturally seek to develop and offer this as widely as possible, and they will be judged in doing so by the fruits of what they do and say. But requiring others to fit themselves around their own definition/understanding by common law benefits no-one. It is confusing and counter-productive for all concerned.

From a specifically Christian viewpoint

As we have been pointing out, 'Christian marriage' is not just another term for a legal and civil partnership arrangement; it has the potential, Christians believe, to be about something much more -- the transforming possibilities of God; a permanent covenantal commitment, rather than an alterable civil-legal agreement.

Understood in these terms, Christian marriage is about the grace of God enabling us to achieve more than is humanly possible. No process of civic relationship registration or tax advantage can guarantee or enforce that. For the church to suggest that it can shows a singular lack of confidence in the divine grace by which it claims to have been formed and to live.

What Christian leaders need to develop are communities of hope (which is what the church is meant to be) that really can support and sustain the faith, love and commitment it entails. This, not the attempt to define more openly who can marry in church, is what is required to 'strengthen marriage'.


  • It is not the state's job to promote 'Christian marriage', it is the church's job.
  • You cannot abolish Christian marriage, because its ground is the grace of God.
  • From a Christian viewpoint, what is 'sacrosanct' is not the legal institution of a civic partnership, but God's offer of unity-in-diversity (communion) expressed through our freely-entered relationships.

Therefore the church cannot expect to define what marriage is for everyone (believer or not).

Nor should the state or the government get to determine the religious meanings and impact of marriage and commitment within faith communities.

It works both ways.

But the church can and should develop, and offer as a sign of hope, its own distinct understanding of human relationships as communion before contract, equality before social division, and mutuality rather than patriarchy. Marriage-as-covenant can be seen as a foundational expression of that.

Understood in this way, the role of the church is not to impose its will on society, but to invite people to look at the alternative (not just 'nuclear') community created by Jesus, to take it seriously, to see its promise, and to respond to it.

Indeed, de-linking civil arrangements for long-term couple relationships from Christian covenantal commitments will require the churches (and other faith communities) to work much harder to develop further their own understanding and practice of marriage as part of a wider community. This is a rather tougher, but more meaningful, job than simply "getting people down the aisle".

Christians should, at the same time, be able to affirm different civic arrangements to express faithfulness and love -- without necessarily having to accord them the same meaning as Christian marriage within their own understanding and practice.

If the churches' concern is to enable society to develop life-long, stable relationships for the benefit of persons and the community, and if 'Christian marriage' understood on the churches' terms isn't what many people recognise as marriage, then the churches need to recognise that society as a whole requires an honest conversation about what kinds of civic partnerships would provide choice and stability.

By dragging its feet on civil partnerships and opposing same-sex marriage in wider society, as at present, the church is ironically hindering people from forming the long-term stable relationships it says we need.

In conclusion

Ekklesia's message is that a plural society will naturally gravitate towards developing a variety of institutions and understandings around long-term human partnerships. Resisting these will do nothing to alter the fact of diversity. At the same time, religious bodies have their own meanings, goals, rituals and ideals for relationships.

Sometimes these religious meanings, goals, rituals and ideals will coincide with civic or secular practices, sometimes not. But the best way to promote a specifically Christian vision and practice of marriage as a lively (even subversive) alternative in a 'free market' context is by good example, not by compulsion.

This paper is designed as a discussion starter for a longer-term research project. It is part of a broader concern with 'Post-Christendom' and may be subject to revision. Ekklesia hopes to produce a report on options for marriage and partnerships (including practical proposals and theological perspectives) in the future. We are seeking assistance and welcome papers and contributions. If you would like to be involved, please contact: office@ekklesia.co.uk

Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley
June / July 2006