Sunday, 29 June 2014

Marriage Lines

I've been reading about the controversy stirred up by the recently leaked letter (to the JEP, and it also appears to BBC) on Sam Mezec's proposal to extend Civil Marriage to same-sex couples - as in the UK.  As with the UK, this purely relates to Civil Marriage, which does not take place in a church. This is made very clear in the preamble to the document.

General Overview

The letter comes from the Jersey Evangelical Alliance, for whom, evidently, this is not enough. They want to control not just marriages in churches, but civil - that is to say, secular marriages - in which there is no religious element, and the participants may not even be religious.

"A small minority should not be allowed to change the definition of marriage - and hence its meaning - for everyone else."

But should a small minority claim to speak for all Christians on the Island of Jersey? This is, after all, a group claiming to speak on behalf of Christians in Jersey. They are a loud, vociferous group, but are they representative of the majority of Christians?

And instead of any factual evidence, the letter seems to consist largely of statements, made as if they were the absolute truth, for example:

"Equality is not to be equated with sameness."Rather than extending the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, redefining marriage would introduce the instabilities and infidelities commonly associated with homosexual relationships into society's understanding of marriage."

This in fact simply a quote from a letter produced by the Evangelical Alliance in 2012 in the UK. They seem to be content with simply restating that letter, or the leaked letter is currently re-working that letter, and they have not yet removed that paragraph. The letter of 2012 was penned by the EA in the UK ahead of the Civil Marriage debate there, and that seems to form the basis for this letter. There is not much evidence that any fresh thinking has taken place locally.

A blogger called Sally engaged with this statement back in 2012, and made some very cogent points, as well as conducting a small sample survey to see if her explanations made sense. This is what she wrote@

"This is creating a myth about both heterosexuals and homosexuals. I know many, many faithful lesbians and homosexuals and I also know a fair number of unfaithful heterosexuals. Infidelity is one of the reasons for the rising divorce rate in this country over the last 40 years and an examination of the routes into single parenting amongst people in the church indicates that the infidelity of a partner is the most common reason. (My small sample academic research in evangelical churches and anecdotal evidence backs this up).

"Where infidelity has seemed to be prevalent in homosexual relationships in the past it has had much to do with the way these relationships were outlawed and / or disapproved of together with the way those in committed partnerships often had to lie about their status. LGBT people want to signify their monogamous, faithful commitment to one another."

In their letter, the local Jersey Evangelical Alliance also say:

"The law would be sending out the message that a household of two women or two men is just as appropriate a context for raising children and that it does not matter whether children are reared by both their mother and their father, or by a parent of each sex at all. "

Actually, the States of Jersey have already agreed that a household where a couple are the same sex is no bar to adoption this year, when they changed the law on that. Hence this argument has already been decided upon by the States, against that held by the writer of this letter. But that, of course, is the danger of rehashing material from 2012, without taking account of recent changes in legislation. Maybe that is another piece that will be excised from their final version?

In the debate, virtually all the States members - as can be seen in the voting patterns, and in Hansard - agreed that a loving couple was what mattered, rather than the gender of the participants. It was love and caring in a relationship. This is the crux of the matter, and I would argue that it also applies to single parent families, where the love of the parent for their child is what matters.

Children have been taken into care, because of a breakdown in the marriage, where they are no longer safe, and may be subject to abuse. It is the absence of a loving relationship, and its replacement by one of control and cruelty that is significant, and as no same sex couples have yet adopted, this is confined to heterosexual families. If there is a message here, it is that children reared by both mother and father may not be an appropriate context either.

The leaked draft letter goes on to state that:

"Once the State legislates for marriage between two men or two women simply because they 'love each other and want to formalise a commitment to each other',  it is difficult to maintain a principled objection to marriage between a group of men and/or women who are seeking a formal recognition of their love for each other."

This is again taken from the 2012 submission in the UK, and looking at that submission, I was struck by one thing. This is the only place in the entire document where the word "love" has been used.

Doesn't that tell you something about the writers of that document? An entire discussion on civil marriage, from Christian group, and virtually no mention of "love" at all? Does this not indicate a rather legalistic frame of mind?

Some Historical Aspects of Marriage

Civil Marriage, as opposed to religious forms of marriage, is a relatively modern institution. The Marriage Act 1753, full title "An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage", popularly known as Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act (citation 26 Geo. II. c. 33), was the first statutory legislation in England and Wales to require a formal ceremony of marriage. That is only 260 years.

When we read a statement as "throughout history, heterosexual marriage has been the norm", it should be taken into account that the definition of marriage has varied in different cultures and at different times. This statement of itself suggests a fixed norm, whereas history shows the manifest falsehood of this:

"There are four key components in the definition of marriage: it is voluntary, heterosexual, monogamous and lifelong"

Now I'm not saying that at least three of those are not important: voluntary, monogamous and lifelong. But the statement that this is a situation which has prevailed "throughout history" is a sweeping generalisation which is manifestly not true. I want to briefly look at two aspects of this, because they feed into my more general conclusion.


Recently, forced marriages have been outlawed in the UK. But - as this change notes - other cultures and ages (e.g. in particular the Middle Ages) know of the "arranged marriage", where parental consent and agreement is all that is required. The idea that love is required was also largely unknown for much of history.

Age of marriage has also differed. One example (and I could cite many) will suffice. John McLaughlin in his paper on "Medieval Child Marriage" notes that:

"In 1396, Richard II of England was joined in marriage to young Isabel of France, who had been 7 years old when their engagement was announced the previous year in Paris. Not only was there no uproar; there was considerable happiness expressed over the assumed probability that this marriage would end the Hundred Years War then in one of its periodic states of truce between the two kingdoms. Peace was to be ensured by joining together this man and this little girl in marriage."

Wiki notes that:

The first recorded age-of-consent law dates back 800 years. In 1275, in England, as part of the rape law, a statute, Westminster 1, made it a misdemeanour to "ravish" a "maiden within age," whether with or without her consent. The phrase "within age" was interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage, which at the time was 12 years of age.

Sir Edward Coke (England, 17th century) made it clear that "the marriage of girls under 12 was normal, and the age at which a girl who was a wife was eligible for a dower from her husband's estate was 9 even though her husband be only four years old."

I'm certainly not advocating a return to these situations in any shape or form, but I highlight them to point out that the idea of marriage in the past could be very different to what we find today, and indeed the marriages acceptable to our ancestors might well be ones we would find abhorrent.


Why should the number two be involved? Other cultures and times know of polygamous marriages, and polyandry, while rarer, is not unknown. The Old Testament itself bares witness to polygamy, notably from the time of the patriarchs .

Abraham, the great founding father of the Israelites, had three wives, Sarah and her servant Hagar (see Genesis 16 v 3), and Keturah, as well as a number of concubines (Genesis 25 v 6). Esau had three wives - Judith, Bashemath (Genesis 26 v 34) and Mahalath (Genesis 28 v 9). Jacob, father of the twelve tribes of Israel had Rachel and Leah, who were sisters, as his wives, see Genesis 29, and their servants Bilhah and Zilpah in Genesis 30. ) The Mormons are well known for basing their early marriage customs on these practices, citing the Old Testament as being in favour. Certainly, the idea that polygamy was wrong does not enter the heads of these Biblical writers.

It should be noted that of 1170 societies recorded in Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas, polygyny (some men having more than one wife) is prevalent in 850. Indeed, current figures suggest that polygynous societies are about four times more numerous than monogamous ones.


The definition of marriage was legally changed in the UK following Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753, in which the State had to approve a marriage for it to be valid - from 1754 onwards a marriage, in order to be recognized as legal, had to be carried out in a very specific, circumscribed manner, ending a period during which "irregular" or clandestine marriages proliferated. As legal historian Leah Leneman notes on the situation prior to this:

"The only thing necessary for a legal marriage was the free consent of both parties, as long as they were of age (twelve for girls, fourteen for boys), were not within the forbidden degrees of kinship, and were free of any other marriage. A marriage could be established by 'verba de praesenti', that is, the statement of consent by both parties, or by 'verba de futuro', a promise of marriage in the future, followed by sexual intercourse. Because such things happened in private, various types of evidence came to be accepted in disputed marriage cases, such as letters in which the man wrote, or referred, to the woman as his wife, "habit and repute" (that is, the couple cohabited and were considered by their neighbours and relations to be husband and wife), and so forth"

"A "regular" marriage was one for which the banns were publicly proclaimed and which was carried out in the parish church, but an "irregular" marriage was as legally binding. This was true in both England and Scotland before 1754, and in both countries the eighteenth century saw a marked rise in such marriages. Although a minister was not requisite, most couples preferred to have some kind of ceremony and "certificate," so there emerged "celebrators" of irregular marriage who made a living out of this trade."

"The "irregularity" lay in the ceremony, not in the status of the couple once married, and there was no stigma attached to being married irregularly rather than regularly. The difficulty arose when one party claimed to be married and the other denied this."

It was against this background, and the problem over decided who was married, that Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act outlawed "irregular" marriages. As Leah Leneman explains:

"Under Hardwicke's Act, from 1754 onwards only marriages for which the banns had been proclaimed and which took place in a parish church, unless under special license, were legal, although marriages conducted under Scottish law were also recognized in England (hence the enormous popularity of Gretna Green)."

"The Scottish legal system did not draw the same conclusions as the English from the Cochran/Campbell case and continued to allow mutual consent to be the one thing necessary to constitute a legal marriage, retaining the flexibility to decide disputed cases on their own merits. "


We see that two of the principal statements in the Evangelical notion of marriage simply fall apart when looked at historically. The idea that marriage is somehow the same thing today as in the past is simply not true. The definition of marriage has altered over time, when we look at consent, age of marriage, and number of wives, and also the legal definition of Lord Hardwicke's Act  is relatively recent in origin. The word may have remained - but the substance has changed considerably.

There was a time when a monarch was thought to have to be male, when the next in line for succession had to be male, and when the definition of monarchy went hand in hand with ideas about the divine rights of Kings. We still call the Queen the "monarch", but the monarch in a constitutional democracy differs hugely from, for instance, the more absolutist monarchy of Henry VIII! The word remains, but the substance has change, and much the same has happened with the word "marriage".

But the thrust of their argument is that "Civil Marriage" is somehow "redefining marriage". This works very well if you assume, as they evidently do in their statements, that marriage has been fixed and unchanging throughout history. But when you look at the history, you see that marriage has been redefined continuously over the centuries. To further redefine it, in some way, would be no more than has been done throughout recorded history.


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