Page 5 - Moravian Messenger April 2020
P. 5

'What is marriage?'
One Plus One contains a whole section devoted to looking at marriage from a historical perspective. This can help inform our understanding as we seek to answer this question.
One Plus One points out that marriage is virtually a universal phenomenon, present throughout the ages and in almost every culture. Marriage has,
however, developed differently in different cultures and continues to change over time. Marriages are sometimes monogamous and sometimes polygamous. Sometimes, though rarely, they can be polyandrous. In the Bible, the first example of polygamy is in Genesis 4, where Lamech, a descendant of Cain, takes two wives (Genesis 4:19). Jacob having two wives and two maids or concubines is treated as unexceptional (Genesis 32:22). King David had multiple wives and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13). Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). However, in his teaching on divorce, Jesus, drawing on the creation story in Genesis 1 and the story of Adam and Eve, certainly appears to speak of marriage as a monogamous relationship between a man and woman (Mark 10:2-12; Matt 19.1-9; Luke 16.18).
The Bible contains very little information about marriage ceremonies. The information we do find is incidental to the main point of the passage, e.g. the story of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) and some of Jesus' parables.
One Plus One points out that the early Christian church adopted the marriage ceremonies of the prevailing Jewish culture in which it was set, but as the number of Gentile believers grew it adopted many of the practices of the Roman empire, e.g. a wedding cake, floral bouquets and the white wedding dress.
One Plus One then goes on to point out that there is no known Christian liturgy for marriage before the 4th Century and that Christian marriage does not seem to have been regarded as different from a non-Christian marriage before this period. It is interesting to note that in the Moravian Church today, along with many other Christian churches, we accept a non-religious civil wedding as valid and do not require the couple to undergo any additional religious ceremony or blessing.
For the Celts and Anglo-Saxons marriage was primarily concerned with forging alliances between families and tribes. Women were seen largely as commodities in the transaction. As mentioned in a previous article in this series, thinking of women as property is a concept we also find in the Old Testament (see the March 2020 edition of the Moravian Messenger).
Prior to 1140 marriage was considered to be a private matter, arranged by families. Then in 1140 the Benedictine monk Gratian published his canon law textbook, Decretum Gratiani, which required couples to give their verbal consent and consummate the marriage to forge a marital bond. No longer was a bride or groom's presence at a ceremony enough to signify their assent. The book formed the foundation for the Church's marriage policies from the 12th Century onwards.
The Council of Trent in 1563 defined marriage as a sacrament, requiring the presence of a priest and witnesses, and reaffirmed its indissolubility. This was in contrast to leaders of the Reformation, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, who did not believe marriage to be a sacrament. They also believed that the civil authorities should legislate on this matter and allowed for the possibility of divorce.
While in Scotland, from 1573, divorce was permitted on the grounds of adultery or desertion, in England and Wales there was no such legislation. The break with Rome made papal dispensation and therefore divorce impossible, except by seeking a private act of parliament, which was extremely expensive. The only option open to most people was desertion and bigamy. This meant many people entered into informal marriages rather than legal ones. It was the emergence of the middle class that led to a rise in legally recognised marriages. In 1857 it became legal in England for a man to divorce his wife on the grounds of adultery. It was not until 1923 that the same law applied to women; before this date women had to prove that they had been cruelly treated in addition to their husband having been adulterous.
The 1753 Marriage Act, in England and Wales, said that for a marriage to be legal it must be solemnised by an Anglican clergyman in a parish church, the exception to this being Quaker and Jewish marriage ceremonies. Any other form of marriage was prohibited.
The Marriage Act 1836 allowed marriages to take place in legally registered buildings belonging to other religious groups as long as a registrar and two witnesses were present. Non- religious civil marriages were also permitted. Then in 1898 registered 'Authorised Persons' were permitted to register marriages instead of a registrar.
In 1969 the Divorce Reform Act was passed and came into force in 1971. In 1994 marriages were allowed in approved premises other than places of worship and register offices. In 2005 the Civil Partnership Act was passed and the Same Sex Marriage Act in 2013.
The answer to the question, 'What is marriage?' will vary in different cultures. Understandings of marriage have also changed over time. All this is true not just of society generally, but also of the church. How would you answer the question?
Brn Martin Smith & Philip Cooper Ministers at Royton, Salem and Fairfield Congregations
One Plus One
(A United Reformed Church Publication)
The fourth article on understanding marriage in
21st Century:

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