Dearly Beloved: An Anglican Theology of Marriage (Part I)


What is marriage? Where does it come from? Does it have a fixed shape and contours or is it more fluid and evolving? These questions lie deep in the background of discussions in the Church about sexuality, blessing, and human flourishing. The answers to these questions will determine the future place of the Church within western society and the kind of pastoral direction and care that the Church can and should offer to a world in which human identity is increasingly categorized in sexual terms.

This series of posts will not attempt to answer all the big questions about marriage and sex. Rather, I intend to focus on a much more modest goal, an exploration of what the Anglican tradition has said about marriage historically and how that might shape our modern theology of marriage. I will do this primarily through an analysis of liturgy, which will lead into a discussion of scriptural exegesis, historical Anglican theology, and comparison with the wider Christian tradition. Rather than wading into the deep and murky waters of our pressing, controversial questions of the day, I want to establish whether or not there is truly an Anglican understanding of marriage to speak of and how, if at all, this should affect our teaching and practice.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

Anglicanism has a long and venerable history of expressing its theology primarily through worship. While the 39 Articles and the Catechism provide guiding principles, the liturgy is both the place where the link between Anglicanism and historic Christianity is realized and where the particularities of the Anglican theological emphasis are brought to bear. This is demonstrated perhaps most aptly when it comes to marriage, upon which the formularies are largely silent.

It is perhaps ironic that a tradition which owes its independence to a squabble over a king’s marriage would have so little to say formally on the subject. The Catechism says nothing at all. The 39 Articles speak of marriage only tangentially. Article XXV hints that Matrimony is a “state of life allowed in the scriptures,” which is hardly a ringing endorsement. It also says plainly that it is not to be counted as a sacrament in the same light as Baptism and the Eucharist, though there is room for understanding it as sacramental in some lesser sense. Article XXXII establishes the right of deacons, priests, and bishops to marry. Article XXXV establishes that the Books of Homilies “contain a godly and wholesome doctrine, and necessary for these times.” Contrary to some later opinion, this does not mean that everything in the homilies was to be counted as doctrine, nor that one must accept the homilies in their entirety to be a faithful Anglican. Nevertheless, the article does endorse the reading of the homilies in the churches for the sake of educating the people on a number of important topics, including Christian marriage.

Much of what is found in the homily entitled “Of the State of Matrimony” is a simple rehashing of material found more eloquently stated in the prayer book liturgy. The homily is delivered to a future bride and husband, and it functions largely as a warning to them not to cause each other trouble. The woman is told that “GOD hath commanded that ye should acknowledge the authoritie of the husband, and referre to him the honour of obedience.” Likewise, the husband is told “if thou doest despise her that is set in the next roome beside thee, thou doest much derogate and decay the excellencie and vertue of thine owne authoritie.” Though the roles of husband and wife are radically different, both must make an effort to subdue their own agendas and make peace in the home.

All of this is derivative, however, of the primary Anglican document on marriage which is the marriage rite itself. The other formularies seem to largely assume that the person who comes to them with a question about marriage is already familiar with the liturgy and thus will already have inherited some basic assumptions about marriage.

The Development of Anglican Liturgy

Though the Book of Common Prayer went through multiple revisions in its first century of its usage, the marriage liturgy went largely untouched. Imported from the Manual of the Sarum Rite, with some additional material from Luther, the chief contribution made to the marriage liturgy by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s first prayer book in 1549 was translation into a wonderfully poetic English. The cadences and phrases of the prayer book marriage rite continue to influence the liturgy of weddings in numerous traditions and to excite the popular imagination. One can hardly imagine, for instance, a wedding liturgy without the phrase “till death do us apart.”

Given Archbishop Cranmer’s highly intentional Reforming of the Book of Common Prayer between 1549 and 1552, it is remarkable that there is so little difference in the marriage rite between the two. In 1549, the rubrics assume the possibility of the man bringing gifts of gold and silver for his wife, which are laid out with the ring to be blessed by the priest. Thus, the man says to his wife, “With thys ring I thee wed: Thys golde and silver I thee geve: with my body I thee wurship: and withal my worldly Goodes I thee endowe.” In 1552, the gold and silver disappear, replaced by the duty owed to the priest and the church. The 1549 blessing makes mention of God sending an angel to Tobit, something which disappears in 1552, undoubtedly because of burgeoning Protestant concerns over the authenticity of the apocrypha. Finally, while both books instruct the newly married persons to receive communion the same day they are married, 1552 actually assumes that the service will take place in the context of a Eucharist. Otherwise, though, the two rites are identical.

The Elizabethan revision in 1559 left the 1552 rite virtually untouched, meaning that this version of the liturgy was official up until the English Civil War. After the restoration, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer made only one significant revision to what was inherited from 1552. The assumption that the rite would take place in the context of the Eucharist is done away with. Likewise, the instruction to the newly married couple is now that they “should receive the holy Communion at the time of their Marriage, or at the first opportunity after their Marriage.” Gone is the blanket directive that they must receive that same day. Nevertheless, the presumption is still towards Holy Communion being an important part of the Church’s solemnization of matrimony.

Despite the presence of newer alternative liturgies, the 1662 rite is still the official marriage rite of the Church of England today. Furthermore, the growth of the Anglican Communion in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries carried the 1662 Book of Common Prayer abroad where it became the basis for most other prayer books in use in the Communion today. This does not mean, however, that the marriage rite is uniform in the Communion. As we will see, the marriage rites of American Prayer Books have been particularly divergent from 1662. Nevertheless, given that the 1662 rite is still in use, is essentially the same as that which was offered in Cranmer’s Prayer Books, and has set the pattern for the marriage rites that exist in almost all of the other provinces of the Anglican Communion, I submit that any theology of marriage that can reasonably claim continuity with classical Anglicanism must take the 1662 rite into account. No liturgy should be so ossified in place as to be unable to be translated and adjusted to meet the needs of new people in new places. Cranmer would be horrified if he found us making his prose into an idol. Yet the Anglican tradition has always insisted that what we offer is nothing more or less than the teaching of the faith received by the Apostolic and undivided Church. If that’s the case, than any liturgical revision must take into consideration the continuity of what has been historically communicated by the liturgy.

For better or worse, the marriage rite that we find in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is what the Anglican Reformers and the later divines alike believed they had received from the early Church, expressing the theology of marriage that is taught by Holy Scripture. In the next post, we will walk through this liturgy step by step, trying to decipher what it says to us about the nature and purpose of marriage.

This post is the first in a series of five. The other posts in this series can be found here:
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V

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