It is beyond the scope of this series to do a comprehensive analysis of the theology of marriage in all Christian traditions. Nevertheless, having shown that the classical Anglican theology of marriage is biblical, one would expect to see resonance between the Anglican view of marriage and other historic Christian traditions. Briefly, let us look at how the classical Anglican theology compares with that found in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Lutheranism.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a sacrament, that it is a covenant bond for life, and that it is “by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (paragraph 1601). While Anglicanism would add the caveat that marriage is not a sacrament in the same way that Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist are sacraments, the rest would certainly hold. Furthermore, the Anglican theology and the Roman Catholic theology share the same scriptural underpinnings. Like Anglicanism, the Roman Church teaches that Christ’s first miracle at Cana signifies the importance of marriage (paragraph 1613). The Roman Catechism also teaches that marriage is grounded in creation via Genesis 2 and is a sign of the bond between Christ and the Church as found in Ephesians 5 (paragraphs 1615-1617 and 1659). Little is said in the Roman Catechism about the roles of the spouses within marriage that are particular to husband and wife, as opposed to classical Anglican teaching which makes this a central feature. However, the Roman teaching is enriched by additional scripture that is missing from the classic Anglican rite, including selections from Ruth, Tobit, and Revelation (paragraphs 1602, 1611-1612). The Anglican tradition could particularly learn from Rome in their use of Revelation to show the deep ties between the sacrament of Marriage and the wedding feast that will mark the fullness of Christ’s triumph at the eschaton.
Like Anglicanism, the Roman Church teaches that the first and chief end of marriage is procreation (paragraph 1652). What may be seen to be a significant difference is in the implications of that teaching. Rome develops the teaching on procreation to the point that it becomes not just the first purpose of marriage, but the overarching purpose in which all else is subsumed. Thus, in paragraph 2366:
Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment. So the Church, which is “on the side of life,” teaches that “it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life.” “This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the Magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”
Likewise, we’re told that the two great purposes of marriage are the good of the spouses and procreation and that within the sexual union of married people, “These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family.” In other words, sex must always be procreative, or at least open to the possibility. While one can hold this view and still be loyal to the classical Anglican doctrine, it does not reflect the actual teaching or practice of modern Anglicanism. The Lambeth Conference of 1930 reversed the teaching of a decade earlier and said this:
Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience. (Resolution 15)
This teaching was not universally accepted, particularly amongst Anglo-Catholics. Charles Gore, who is often cited as an early champion of a more liberal Anglo-Catholicism, wrote a scathing critique of the resolution. Nevertheless, it remains the teaching of the Communion today, and many Anglican churches in the west go a great deal farther. Still, it must be noted that this teaching is not simply a free-for-all. Anglicanism accepts that there are a broad range of pastoral reasons why some form of birth control may be exercised within marriage, but teaches that this must never be done in a way that would deny the goodness of procreation or the will of God in calling married people to parenthood. The emphasis in the marriage liturgy, even in the revised and modern liturgies in use in many parts of the Communion, is upon “God’s will” when it comes to the bearing of children.
Regardless of the question of contraception, however, it is worthwhile to note that the Roman position makes it hard to talk about sex as a purpose of marriage in anything but a passive way. Though marriage is a remedy for healing sin (paragraph 1609), it is not necessarily a bond through which sex becomes beautiful in and of itself. Sex is “a source of joy and pleasure” but only in so much as it is “generative” and within the “limits of just moderation” (paragraph 2362). Anglican theology assumes that sex is itself a purpose of marriage, creating the condition both for mutual joy and for procreation. Sex is not just a means to an end but an end in itself.
Another source of particular disagreement between Anglicans and Roman Catholics is the re-marriage of divorced persons, expressly forbidden by Rome while allowed under certain circumstances by the various Anglican churches. While there are numerous reasons for this disagreement, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission isolated the problem in their 1993 report on “Unity, Faith, and Order” as being one primarily of divergent understandings of sacramentality:
We agree that marriage is sacramental, although we do not fully agree on how, and this affects our sacramental discipline. Thus, Roman Catholics recognize a special kind of sacramentality in a marriage between baptized persons, which they do not see in other marriages. Anglicans, on the other hand, recognize a sacramentality in all valid marriages. (Paragraph 77)
This explains the differing pastoral practices between our communions, and it will require much greater conversation and study to get at its crux.
Yet, despite these significant differences, there is a great deal in the teaching about marriage that Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism agree on. Both traditions see marriage as grounded in scripture. Both understand it to be a gift given by God in creation, before the fall. Both insist that its uniqueness has something to do with the indelible gifts given individually to men and women.
What classical Anglicanism shares with Eastern Orthodoxy, perhaps more than any other Christian tradition, is a great esteem of and reliance upon the early Church Fathers. As the late sixteenth century divine Lancelot Andrewes famously put it when describing Anglicanism, “One canon … two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of the Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.” If then what can be counted as Orthodox teaching on marriage is best exemplified in the writing of the Fathers, there is naturally going to be a great deal of overlap with Anglican teaching.
Saint John Chrysostom and Tertullian are probably the early Fathers who wrote the most about marriage. In a wonderful little volume put out by Saint Vladimir’s Press called On Marriage and Family Life, the various homilies that Chrysostom gave on the subject of marriage are grouped together. It is a highly accessible volume that remains surprisingly and refreshingly relevant to modern readers. All potential brides and grooms should read at least parts of it. Chrysostom preaches about the divine mystery of marriage, the equality and dignity of the separate roles for men and women within marriage, and the importance of love, sex, and fidelity within marriage. All of these themes, which come directly from scripture, are reflected in both the Anglican and Orthodox teaching on marriage.
Orthodoxy is also like Anglicanism in that much of what the Church teaches is best understood through the observation of liturgy. It is beyond my competence to do a detailed analysis of the Orthodox marriage rite, but a cursory examination reveals further resonance between the two Christian traditions. The Orthodox liturgy emphasizes commitment, fidelity, and especially the sacramental character of marriage as a reflection of Christ’s marriage to the Church. The unique crowning ceremony that occurs during the Orthodox betrothal emphasizes that each of the partners, in being married, takes on both the glory of Christ and His martyrdom. The Gospel reading that is mandatory for the service is the story of the wedding at Cana.
In terms of the controversial issues that separate modern Anglicans and Roman Catholics, there is less of a divide with Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church has always recognized the possibility of divorce, though it is always understood to be tragic. Second marriages can be permitted with special pastoral permission, as is the case in most of the Anglican Communion. Contraception is a trickier topic, in that some Orthodox hold a position that is almost identical to that of Roman Catholicism, while others allow for more latitude, particularly in individual pastoral cases. Still, the divide between Anglicans and Orthodox on this issue is not nearly as wide as it is with Rome.
As with Rome, however, the greatest source of division on the topic of marriage has to do with a particular understanding of sacramentality. The Orthodox Church views a marriage as sacramental only when presided over by a priest of the Church who imparts a sacramental blessing. Anglicanism follows the western tradition in assuming that the officiants of the sacrament are the couple themselves who enter into it through the sharing of vows. The priest’s blessing is a good thing that strengthens a marriage and shows a desire on the part of the couple to live out their married life in accordance with God’s word, but such a blessing is not essential for a marriage to take place. For this reason, many Anglican churches allow for the blessing of a civil marriage, and no one bats an eye at the idea that a couple that enters the Church having been married as non-Christians is still validly married. Orthodoxy, however, does not recognize marriage outside of the Church, and the degree to which a marriage that occurred before a couple entered the Church is able to be validated varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Overall, though, the understanding of marriage in Anglicanism and Orthodoxy share patristic roots which make them largely compatible. Perhaps more than any other Christian tradition, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy share a common view of marriage.
It is difficult to compare the Anglican teaching on marriage with that of other Protestant bodies because Protestantism is so diverse and various teachings abound. Still, it seems fitting that if we are going to make comparison with one Reformation tradition that it ought to be Lutheranism since Luther’s marriage liturgy had some influence upon Cranmer as he developed the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549.
The Augsburg Confession says little about marriage. Much like the 39 Articles, the only really solid thing that is put forward is that priests ought to be allowed to marry (Article XXIII of the Confession). In Luther’s Large Catechism, he makes the case for the necessity of marriage on the grounds of human weakness, arguing that vows of lifelong celibacy cause people to sin because “even though they abstain from the act, their hearts are so full of unchaste thoughts and evil lusts that there is a continual burning and secret suffering, which can be avoided in the married life” (paragraph 214). In his explication of the sixth commandment, he argues that marriage is such a precious divine gift that it must be protected, and to be married is something that almost all people are called to for the sake of avoiding sexual sin. This point is made even stronger by Luther in his 1522 sermon on “The Estate of Marriage” where he says “let no man presume to be without a spouse” unless he is a eunuch.
Obviously, this runs contrary to Anglican teaching, in so much as Anglicanism has a place for the vowed celibate and allows for the possibility that one can be celibate without falling into sexual sin (along with the possibility that one can be married and be totally mired in sexual sin). Still, the traditions overlap in the understanding of marriage as being instituted in creation and the understanding that marriage is the only proper context for sex.
Marriage is clearly important for Luther, as it surely is for modern Lutherans as well. Marriage definitely does not have a sacramental character, which separates the Lutheran and Anglican view. However, the Lutheran view does emphasize marriage as an ordinance which reflects the goodness of God in creation. Despite the differences, the two views remain compatible in terms of the scriptural underpinnings of marriage and its purposes.
While a variety of teaching abounds in the Christian world, there is a core, scriptural teaching on the origins and nature of marriage that is shared by all the historic Christian traditions. Marriage is not a starting place for Christian teaching, like those things that are contained in the creeds, and yet there is a remarkable amount of shared Christian understanding on the subject. The Anglican theology of marriage that is found most explicitly in the 1662 BCP develops certain themes that differ in some ways from what we see in the other traditions examined above, but never to the point that one would say that Anglicanism was going it alone. The Anglican teaching is both biblical and patristic, ensuring that it is commensurate with that great body of shared essential teaching that has been handed down from the apostolic age. It is historic and authentic, communicating the grace and truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.