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

In the previous post, I established that the marriage rite from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer forms the basis for the classical Anglican understanding of marriage. In what follows, I will analyze the structure of that service to see what it tells us about the nature of marriage, its purposes, and how it is meant to function.

What Marriage Is

As the community gathers to celebrate a wedding, the man and the woman to be married take their place in front of the priest, the man on the right and the woman on the left. The priest then begins, not by addressing the couple, but by addressing the “dearly beloved” friends and family there gathered. The immediate presupposition is that marriage is not simply a private affair but something that touches the life of the whole community.

The priest explains that marriage is a “holy estate” established by God, within which is signified “the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.” It is a true joining of a man and a woman, in the same way that Christ and the Church are truly joined, in a deep and unbreakable covenant. For this reason, it requires lifelong fidelity, reverence, and as we shall see, a clear understanding of the different roles that husband and wife are to play within the relationship.

Marriage is “instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency.” Marriage is not a product of the fallen world but part of God’s initial plan for His good creation. Adam and Eve were joined together by God in marriage prior to the fall. Marriage is blessed because Jesus chose a wedding to be the site of his first miracle (John 2:1-11). Likewise, Saint Paul commends it as honorable among all people (Hebrews 13:4).

The 39 Articles establish that marriage is not to be counted as a sacrament in the same way that Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist are. Nevertheless, the marriage rite indicates that marriage has a sacramental character. God “hast consecrated the state of Matrimony to such an excellent mystery, that in it is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church.” Each marriage is in some mysterious way an icon of the great marriage that binds Jesus Christ to His Bride. Thus, when a matrimony is solemnized, husband and wife are “knit together” not merely by human convention but by God’s grace, bound in an insoluble union. The service makes continual reference back to this mystery, quoting extensively from Ephesians 5, maintaining that in marriage a man and a woman become “one flesh.”

What Marriage Is For

Having explained the origins of marriage and its importance, the priest goes on to tell the couple why God created marriage, its purposes and ends. The order given here is significant:

First, [marriage] was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

The main and abiding purpose of marriage is to create family, out of which all three of these flow. A man and a woman who are not related by blood, who have no familial obligations to each other, are made one flesh through marriage, and thereby a new family is established, with a bond stronger than a blood bond, stronger even than the bond of a parent to a child since “for this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife” (quoted in the sermon, but coming from Genesis 2:24).

Thus, the first and most important purpose of marriage is the procreation and care of children. This does not mean that marriage requires procreation to be a true marriage. Though the service includes a special prayer asking for God to bless the couple with children, the rubric indicates that this prayer “shall be omitted, where the Woman is past child-bearing.” In other words, the rite assumes that there will be marriage between people who are infertile, either because of age or for some other reason. Nevertheless, the procreative purpose of marriage is stated at every wedding, even when the couple is known to be infertile. The orientation of marriage is always towards this end. The idea of the modern marriage in which a couple purposely chooses never to have children is not anticipated nor welcomed here.

The second purpose of marriage is that it may be a guard against sexual sin. Following Paul’s instruction to the Church at Corinth, the rite frames the case negatively, that men and women left to their own devices will seek inappropriate and immoral forms of sexual release (1 Corinthians 7:1-16). Marriage provides a context in which men and women can satisfy their natural sexual desires in a moral and licit way. In so doing, they remain pure and “undefiled” before the Lord, so long as their sexual activity is confined to their marriage.

Finally, marriage creates a permanent “society” shared by the man and the woman, making them partners in all of life’s circumstances. They will face all of life’s challenges together, no matter what happens. Thus, one’s marriage becomes a sign of surety in an otherwise constantly changing world.  Though a man’s fortunes may change by the hour, he can always rely on the fact that his wife will be there with him through it. Though a woman might be healthy one day and sick the next, she can always rely on her husband to be at her side.

What Marriage Is Not

Following the explanation of marriage, the priest utters the iconic phrase, “if any man can shew any just cause, why [this man and this woman] may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.” The ideal, of course, is to avoid having such a thing come out on the wedding day, which is why the rite prescribes that the banns of marriage be published for three weeks prior to the service. Nevertheless, this moment in the service provides one final opportunity to make sure that the marriage about to be solemnized will be a true marriage. If no one comes forward, the couple is then asked that they mention any just cause they may know of why a marriage should not take place, lest they be found guilty of a great sin at the day of judgment. “For be ye well assured, that so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s Word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their Matrimony lawful.”

The rite assumes that the man and the woman presenting themselves are eligible to be married according to the law of the land and the word of God. What these questions establish, however, is that if that assumption is incorrect–if the man and the woman presenting themselves are not truly eligible to be married–then regardless of what happens in the church on the day of the wedding, no actual marriage takes place.

There are a variety of factors that could impede a marriage. One is force. Prior to the exchanging of vows, the couple is asked to give their consent to be married, each answering “I will.” If it turns out that this consent was coerced, for one reason or another, then the marriage is not established. Marriage must be entered “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.” The choice to marry must be made freely.

A marriage is also null and void if one of the persons entering into it is already married to somebody else. It is interesting to note that the prayer after the giving of the ring encourages the couple to live faithfully after the model of Isaac and Rebekah rather than the model of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. Obviously, the Old Testament describes a time in which polygamy was practiced amongst God’s people, yet the rite paints a picture of marriage that aligns with Jesus’ understanding, that marriage is founded in creation, established between a single man and a single woman to create a single family (Matthew 19:4-6). Just as Christ has one Body, the Church, so also may a man only have one wife. If a man is already married, he has already become one flesh with another, and thus no new family can be established.

Since the establishment of a new family is paramount in the rite, one of the primary concerns is that the groom and the bride be unrelated. At the back of the prayer book is “A Table of Kindred and Affinity” which lays out explicitly the various kinds of relations that would prevent a man or a woman from marrying. A man may not marry his mother, his sister, his adopted daughter, his son’s wife, and so forth. These prohibitions come from the Book of Leviticus. The table may seem a bit overly detailed, but the principle is important. Marriage must establish a new family. In so doing, it must not disturb existing familial relations.

The Joining

As I mentioned above, consent is key in establishing a marriage. Yet the consent alone does not seal the deal. When the priest announces to the congregation that the two are now married, the evidence he gives is that the two consented to be married, that they have “given and pledged their troth either to other,” and that they “have declared the same by giving and receiving of a Ring, and by joining of hands.” The vows that the couple make to each other enact the joining. When the couple freely give themselves to each other, God joins them.

Both the man and the woman promise to take the other as husband or wife, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance.” Additionally, the woman vows to “obey” her husband. Upon this foundation, the man “plights” his “troth” while the woman “gives” her “troth.” The difference in meaning is slight at best and negligible. Both partners are giving their troth–fidelity, truth, loyalty–to each other forever. They are inviting the establishment of a bond.

The giving of the ring was a matter of great controversy between Anglicans and Puritans, as the latter believed that the practice of giving rings was not biblical and therefore should be discontinued. But the ring symbolizes the merging of the couple in material as well as spiritual ways. When the man gives the woman the ring, he pledges all that he has to her, saying “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” The giving of the ring signifies the fullness of the bond being established, that nothing will be held back, even and including the man’s very own body.

Gender Roles

The differentiation of roles for husband and wife is a theme throughout the rite. If marriage is an icon of the bond between Christ and His Church, then the man and the woman each bear witness in their person to the different sides of that bond. While the man is asked to love, comfort, and honor his wife, the woman is asked additionally to obey and serve her husband.

The theology behind this differentiation is spelled out in the sermon at the end of the rite. If the priest does not give a sermon of his own, he is instructed to read the sermon there printed which outlines the duties of marriage. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church, honoring them, being willing to give up their own lives for them. While this is spelled out in the sermon it is rendered more clearly in the prayers where the priest prays that God may help the man to “love his wife, according to thy Word, (as Christ did love his spouse the Church, who gave himself for it, loving and cherishing it even as his own flesh).” Since the husband must act towards his wife as Christ does towards the Church, so must the wife act accordingly in reverse, submitting herself to her husband’s headship, “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church… Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.” The scriptural grounding for the duties of both husbands and wives is given as Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, and 1 Peter 3.

There are many fair feminist critiques that can be offered here, some of which I will address in the next post, but in any event it is clear that rite assumes a basic difference between men and women that encompasses more than simple biology. In order for marriage to be an icon of the love between Christ and the Church, men and women must play different roles, for which they were designed, in acting that love out.


The 1662 Book of Common Prayer rite for the Solemnization of Matrimony tells us many important things about marriage. Marriage is a sacramental bond, established before the fall, and given as a gift for all of humanity. In it, a man and a woman are bound together for life, creating a new family. Marriage is always oriented towards the procreation and raising of children, even when it is known from the start that a couple is infertile. Marriage is the proper context within which a man and a woman can satisfy their sexual desires. Marriage also creates a partnership that is a great help and comfort for both partners in all of life’s circumstances. Marriage is an icon of the union between Christ and the Church, played out by both partners in their respective gender roles. The husband must love his wife to such a degree that he is willing to give everything he has to her, willing even to die for her, that she might be honored and cherished and her well being might be preserved. The woman must obey her husband, to the extent that she shows faithfulness to his leadership as the head of the family.

The rite grounds this understanding of marriage in a particular reading of scripture. In the next post, I will explore whether or not this vision of marriage is supported by the scriptural evidence.

This post is the second 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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