Asking the wrong question

The Church of England recently held its General Synod.  As part of this, people get to ask questions.  Question Time can actually be the most entertaining part of the whole event.  One of the questions submitted in advance was:

What is the Church of England’s definition of a woman?

The ‘official’ answer was

There is no official definition, which reflects the fact that until fairly recently definitions of this kind were thought to be self-evident, as reflected in the marriage liturgy. The LLF project however has begun to explore the complexities associated with gender identity and points to the need for additional care and thought to be given in understanding our commonalities and differences as people made in the image of God.

To be honest, I think that is about as good an answer as you will get.  But parts of Twitter practically went into meltdown.  ‘They’ve abandoned the Bible’, ‘The Church of England isn’t Christian anymore’ and so on and a lot worse.  With all these people so convinced that they knew what the Bible’s answer was, I was tempted to ask for a Biblical reference.  But if you step even a morsel of a toe into that cesspit, you just get covered in sh*t, rather than an actual answer.

Leaving aside the arrogance of those who believe that they know the mind of God with absolute conviction, in Biblical terms, the questioner was asking the wrong question.  The Bible is not concerned with defining a woman, there is no reason that the Bible should be.  In Biblical times the only relevant question would have been about defining if someone was a man.

In Biblical times, being a man mattered.  Being a man was high status, there were expectations placed on men that were not placed on women.  Certain offices, like priests, were only open to men.  Women were expected to wear head coverings, men weren’t. 

In the 613 laws of Moses, some laws only applied to men or to women.  Being faithfully Jewish meant keeping the laws, so you needed to know which laws applied to you.  That was the only reason there was any interest in knowing if someone was a man or a woman.

Even in Biblical times it was recognised that knowing whether someone was a man or a woman was not always easy.  There were people whose body was ambiguous.  It was recognised that where the religious authorities were not sure, that they should ask the person themselves.  The person would know best whether they were man or woman.  In contemporary jargon, we might consider this asking for their gender identity.  Sometimes even the person didn’t know, only God did.  In those cases, the person followed a modified set of laws combining some of the elements of male and female laws.

With the hindsight of modern medicine, we can identify some of the conditions that Jewish rabbis grappled with.  With that hindsight comes a different perspective on what is important in identifying whether a person is male or female.

To take one example, there is a medical condition called hypospadias where the urethra (bringing urine from the bladder) does not fully extend to the end of the penis.  The urethra may end at the base of the penis or part way along it.  Where that happens the end of the urethra is always on the underside of the penis.  This led to the rabbinic test known as the ‘arch test’.  In the arch test, to prove maleness, it was necessary to be able to urinate in an arch.  The urine had to be able to go upwards.  Failing the arch test was evidence that a person was not male.   Simply having a penis was not sufficient, in Biblical times, for a determination that someone was male.  With modern medicine we would consider hypospadias an inconvenience that could be corrected by surgery. There were many such tests.

As Christians, we have always seen the question differently.  In Galatians 3.28 Paul wrote There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. In Christ it no longer matters whether we are male or female.  As Christians we no longer need to ask the question.  God knows who we are, that is enough.

More detailed medical information can be found in:

John Hare’s chapter Hermaphrodites Eunuchs, and Intersex people: The Witness of Medical Science in Biblical Times and Today in Susannah Cornwall (ed) Intersex, Theology and the Bible

Julius Preuss, Biblical and Talmudic Medicine

Party like it’s 1753. (The Power of Love)

Money, sex and power are a heady combination and have caused untold problems for the church since the very beginning.  The church has been trying to be in control ever since.

Then governments tried to get involved.  You can never have too much bureaucracy when there is temptation involved, as St Augustine might have said if he were alive today.  Somehow these three elements of money, sex and power have all coalesced around marriage, leading to the centuries old fight over which institution controls marriage.

Until around the 12th century marriage was a very loose arrangement, that neither the church nor the instruments of government were very concerned about.  Folk ceremonies such as hand fasting were perfectly good enough to establish that two people consented to be a couple and to have children together.

That sufficed for centuries, but then money came to be the issue.  Or, to be more specific, inheritance.  Social views were changing on the acceptability of illegitimate children.  It came to be the case that legitimate heirs could inherit, but illegitimate ones could not – assuming that there was anything to inherit.  The more wealth, titles and land you had, the more important it was to make sure that the right people would inherit it. 

It became very important to make sure that the validity of a marriage could not be doubted.  The best way to make sure of this was to have witnesses.  What better witness than God?  Unfortunately, God could not testify in court, but clergy could.  Clergy who witnessed a marriage and recorded it were the best possible witnesses to show that a marriage had been legitimately entered into and that it was between the two people stated in the record.  The idea that the couple marry themselves and the minister is a witness is still the current church position.

Church courts came to be the ultimate arbiter of who was legitimately married and who was not.  They also became the final court for proving which children were legitimate.  Services and liturgy developed, eventually becoming the services we know now from the Book of Common Prayer.  By the early 1640s the church’s control of marriage in England was seemingly complete.

The middle of the 17th century was a turbulent time in English history and it produced a strain of Puritanism that did not accept the Book of Common Prayer and attempted to require The Directory of Worship (1645) to be used instead.  For a brief time, Parliament even allowed justices of the peace to carry out weddings. Each parish was to elect a registrar to keep records of the new unions.

With the Restoration and the new 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the church managed to restore its power over marriage again.

It would be almost a hundred years before Parliament’s next serious attempt to take some control of marriage.  Lord Hardwicke’s Act 1753 (An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriages) required all marriages to take place in church, except the marriages of Quakers and Jews.  It also required them to be legally registered. 

From 1753, unless you were a Quaker or a Jew, you had to get married in church. That meant that the church was required to carry out the wedding.  In 1836, this was amended to allow for Roman Catholic weddings and to make provision for other non-conformist traditions.  However, the principle had been established that any couple who had the legal right to get married in England had the legal right to be married in their parish church.  The 1753 situation had a lot to recommend it, both from the perspective of the Church and the State. 

Governments are more responsive to the demands of the populations they govern than churches are.  So, there grew demands for access to marriage to be widened.  Parliament introduced legislation to allow categories of people to get married that the Church had previously not allowed to marry.

The first time this happened was 1857 when legislation allowed couples who had been divorced, and had a former spouse still living, to get married in church.  The bishops forbade their clergy from carrying out these marriages.  This lasted until 2004 when the bishops allowed clergy to carry out the marriages that they had always had the legal right to perform.  No clergy were forced to carry out these weddings against their conscience.

It happened again in 1907, with the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Bill. This gave clergy an opt out conscience clause.  All clergy were able legally to carry out these marriages, but were not forced to do so if it was against their conscience.  Then in 1921, there was the equivalent Marriage Bill for deceased husband’s brothers.

A similar arrangement was made in 2004 when those with a gender recognition certificate were allowed to marry legally in England.  They had a right to get married in their parish church, but all clergy had a conscience clause.

Next, the coalition government legislated to allow same sex marriages in England.  It bowed to pressure from some in the church and introduced the ‘quadruple lock’.  This was the first time this had been used in legislation.  The effect is that same sex couples are allowed to get married in various venues in England but not in Church of England churches.

This legal anomaly is part of the long power struggle between the Church and the State in England. For over 250 years, the State has been taking control of marriage in England and the Church has been losing the power struggle.  The church does not want to agree with the government over same sex marriage, because to do so would be to admit defeat and allow that it is the government, not the church, who gets to define and control marriage.

The result now is an almost undeclared civil war within the church.  It is a conflict that is alienating many in society, especially younger people. 

Ironically, the Church’s best strategy for defusing the conflict would be to insist on the removal of the quadruple lock and the introduction of a conscience clause and allow clergy to conduct same sex marriages. They would be well advised to treat this like every other ‘marriage extension’ and allow all ministers to conduct same sex marriages in their churches.   Those clergy who want to do so, will soon have a queue of people coming to their churches.  Many middle ground churches will only have to consider their position when a same sex couple comes to their door wanting to be married.  Then it won’t be theoretical, it will be about real people in their parish and pastoral and missional perspectives will be important.

Some ministers will not want to conduct same sex marriages and they don’t have to do so.  That is important, nobody has to be required to act against their conscience.  There will be calls for a split and some are already calling for a third province in England.  The financial and reputational damage from that would be enormous.

Other denominations have gone for an opt-in approach, where conducting same sex marriage is allowed at national level, but every congregation has to decide for themselves if they want to register.  So, far the uptake has been low, partly because each church would need to have ‘That Conversation‘ before registering.

Everyone who can legally marry in England has had the right to marry in their parish church for hundreds of years.  It is time to get rid of the legal anomaly that is the quadruple lock and to let churches get on with their core business without the power struggles. 

Love wins.  Let’s get the party started.

Learning from the playground – lessons for Living in Love and Faith

We all know what school playgrounds are like and we know that fights can happen.  Often they stop when an authority figure appears, but sometimes both parties are so invested in the fight that they just carry on the scrap anyway.

I have broken up many fights in my time.  Once you have imposed a ‘ceasefire’, what you do next is really important.  If you just tell both parties that they simply have to behave better and even do the ‘shake hands and be friends’ trope then you solve almost nothing.  That is a playground lesson.

What you should do in breaking up playground fights is to see who has been hurt and deal with that first.  Broken nose?  Black eye?  Blood coming from somewhere?  You find out who needs medical attention.

Then you must find out from both sides why they were fighting.  If you don’t find that out and just have a ‘play nice’ strategy then the problems are just likely to go underground and the next fight might be on the way home or behind the bike sheds.  If you do not address the problem they were fighting about, then you solve nothing.  Big playground lesson.

Sadly these are the lessons that the Living in Love and Faith process has failed to learn.  After five years of the LLF process, all we have are pastoral principles (which I support), documents on braver and safer spaces and a group course to listen to each other.  Even the LLF feedback mechanisms are a carefully controlled questionnaire about how much you have learned from doing the course in a group.  But there is no opportunity to look at the underlying issues and discuss them.

The opportunity to feedback into the LLF process ends on April 30th and it is important that people do feedback into it.  But we have to be aware that all the feedback mechanisms are carefully controlled to prioritise the ‘play nice’ slider scale responses. 

LLF and the Next Steps Group seem to see the problem in terms of people disagreeing and are acting as if the causes of the disagreement are of no more consequence that choosing whether to have custard creams or chocolate digestive biscuits with the after-service coffee.  People are literally committing suicide over this.  Others are repeatedly threatening to form a third province in this country over this.

Discussing the underlying causes of conflict is the biggest playground lesson any young teacher learns.  That lesson has not yet got on to the consciousness of the Next Steps Group.

The next playground lesson that needs to be learned is about power.  Fights where one person is standing up to a bully or an older student is fighting a younger one should ring alarm bells and be treated more seriously that a scrap about a football game that got overheated.  You always step in and protect the vulnerable.  Always.  Saying ‘I must be neutral on this’ or ‘both sides must be treated equally’ just means letting those with power carry on doing what they are doing. 

What is happening in the church is not a disagreement between equals, but is about one ‘side’ with power being able to impose their views on others.

To give an example of this, currently bishops do not allow the clergy to offer blessings to couples in a civil partnership (same sex or mixed sex) or in a same sex marriage.  Some clergy believe that such blessings are morally right and Biblically faithful.  Some clergy believe that such blessings are morally wrong and not Biblically faithful.  However the power imbalance means that those who believe blessings are wrong are able to impose their view on those who believe they are right.  At their next meeting the house of bishops could simply agree to allow such blessings as a matter of conscience.  Such a decision would be about accepting that both views are valid and permitted.

The current proposals for LLF are that after April 30th, two reports will be produced based on the feedback from those who have done the LLF course.  (Those who have engaged with the materials in other ways because they do not feel safe to do a course will be allowed to feedback into the responses, but their responses will be given less weight.  No protection for the vulnerable there.)  Then there will be three meetings of the college of bishops to come up with some proposals to put to General Synod in February 2023.

The elephant in the room is what happens if General Synod rejects the proposals as they did in February 2017?  Let’s remember our history, the Living in Love and Faith process began after General Synod rejected the bishops’ proposals.   But the bishops went ahead anyway.  We could easily end up with six years and zero progress. 

The biggest playground lesson that needs to be learned is that in order to move from a strategy of ‘fight nicely’ to a strategy that finds a way to stop the need to fight is to address the reasons underlying the conflicts.  We need to address the fear, ignorance, power, prejudice, hypocrisy and most of all the silence.  In other words, the bishops need to follow their own pastoral principles. 

The fighting needs to stop.  Our mission is to take the message of the Gospel to the people of this country, but they are horrified by they way they see people in church behaving.  Living in Love and Faith started with the idea of a teaching document, so I call upon the bishops to act like teachers and address the issues and allow the church to get on with being the church for all God’s people.

Let’s be honest about same-sex marriage

Some people support same-sex marriage, but do so on the basis of ‘equality’ or ‘justice’. Many supporters are not aware of the large amount of scholarship in support of same sex marriage. There is a lot of serious theology and Biblical material that we can engage with. It is important that supporters are able to argue from the Bible and theology if we are to convince sceptics.

The place to start is with Alan Wilson’s book More Perfect Union?

Alan Wilson is the bishop of Buckingham.

This book is written to introduce readers to the Biblical material and to examine the arguments in favour of same-sex marriage.

Another good introductory book is Gene Robinson’s God Believes in Love.

Gene Robinson was the bishop of New Hampshire in the American Episcopal Church. His election as the first openly partnered gay bishop caused a crisis in the American church.

His book is structured as answering a series of ten questions, such as Don’t children need a mother and a father? or Doesn’t gay marriage undermine marriage? Then finishes with a final chapter that God Believes in Love.

Mark Achtemeier’s The Bible’s yes to same-sex marriage is a book written by an evangelical aimed at other evangelicals.

He sets out to show that the Bible can argue in favour of same-sex marriage, but it is important to look at the whole Bible, not just fragments to proof-text a point. Well researched and explained.

Further reading

This is written by Rev’d Clare Herbert.

It is based on her research, done at the time when only civil partnerships were available in the UK. This gives a unique perspective on the question of marriage. It asks what civil partnerships and what marriage are? Then shows that the UK’s civil partnerships fit all the criteria for marriage.

Thinking Again about Marriage is an edited book, with chapters from many different authors, covering subjects like Christian history, Marriage liturgy, Vocations, Reproduction and Gender Complementarity.

This is an affirming book edited by two of the leading experts in this field, Rev’d John Bradbury and Professor Susannah Cornwall.

Advanced reading

This is a classic book from Professor John Boswell.

This book takes a historical approach to marriage. It starts in the Greco-Roman world and moves through medieval Europe to more modern times. This is a detailed book that looks at history, liturgy, translation and theology to show that ideas about same-sex marriage have strong historical roots.

Blessing Same-sex unions by Rev’d Mark D Jordan takes on the questions of why some churches are opposed to even blessing same-sex marriages. In this book he examines some of the misconceptions about marriage and shows that some of the current ideas are based on history and tradition rather than the Bible.

He argues in favour of church blessings for all.

New Approaches in History and Theology to Same-Sex Love and Desire is an edited book. It has chapters including same-sex love, sexual ethics, homophobia, homosexual law reform, queer Christian marriage and queer saints.

This is edited by Rev’d professor Mark D Chapman and Professor Dominic James.

Time for Change

The Church of England is not a safe place to be.  Was it ever really?

A new report has shown that only a third of LGBT+ people feel safe in their local church.  The report is based on a survey done by the Ozanne  Foundation and it can be accessed at SAFEGUARDING LGBT+ CHRISTIANS SURVEY 2021 – Ozanne Foundation

It makes for stark reading.

It is clear that churches need to be much more proactive in helping LGBT+ Christians feel safe in their churches.  This means that church leaders must be much more transparent about where they and their churches stand on LGBT+ issues.  When we go to a new, unfamiliar church many of us are used to checking out the website first to see what the church is saying.  Too often those websites hide their position rather than reveal it.  We deserve much more transparency from our churches and their leadership.

What this new survey brings out into the open is that this feeling of churches being unsafe is something that is people who are not LGBT+ are completely oblivious to.  Churches should be the safest of safe spaces, but all too often they are not.  This needs to change.

The time for that change is now.  So, this report needs to be widely read by those in church leadership at local and national level and it must be acted on.

Conversion confusion?

There is yet another open letter circulating for people to sign, this time asking Liz Truss, in her capacity as Minister for Women and Equalities to allow religious exemptions from the proposed government ban on conversion therapy.  The open letter is available to read at:

Ministers’ Consultation Response – A Christian perspective (

There are some errors and confusion in the letter, so what follows is a breakdown of these matters.

The opening paragraph starts by declaring that the authors hold ‘orthodox, historic Christian teaching on sexual ethics.’  Many of the signatories are from free churches and, for them, their definition of orthodox will vary from one church to another.  But for those who are Church of England / Anglican or Methodist the definition of orthodox would imply that they subscribe to the official positions of their respective denominations. In July 2017 the General Synod of the Church of England voted for a ban on conversion therapy.  At the 2021 Methodist conference there was an over whelming vote tor a complete ban on conversion therapy.  How can someone describe themselves as orthodox if they do not subscribe to the agreed position of their denominations?

The use of ‘historic’ rather than ‘traditional’ is interesting. Possibly it is a recognition that traditions develop and evolve?  Subscribing to historic sexual ethics would surely mean believing that contraception was wrong in all circumstances (because the only reason for sexual activity was for procreation), that there was nothing wrong with marital rape (because it was just the husband ‘enjoying his conjugal rights’), that remarriage after divorce was wrong when there was a former spouse still living (because marriage is permanent and only ends in death) etc.  Are those ideas really the sexual ethics for the 21st century?

Paragraph two contains various aspirational statements about ‘We always seek to act in love, with gentleness and respect…’, or ‘never with any form of coercion or control.’.  Let’s hope that is true of every church whose ministers sign this letter. 

In the third paragraph the authors see a possibility that the proposed legislation will impact on the ‘normal practice of religion.’  They give some examples of this and fear they might be criminalised.  The normal practice of religion should not be abusive. Anything that harms others or drives them to suicide should not be a normal practice of religion in any church that calls itself Christian.

Then we get a very confusing paragraph which seems to conflate conversion therapy with someone converting to Christianity.  I think any prosecutor and even the most inexperienced magistrate could tell the difference between someone coming to faith in Jesus for the first time and someone who is undergoing a form of ministry to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

As the supporting material and the evidence submitted to the Equalities committee points out, ‘conversion therapy’ might not be the best term to use, but it is the term that is so widely used that it is recognisable and used for convenience.

Following this is a paragraph on marriage.  This is completely irrelevant to conversion therapy.  Why is it even included?  My best guess is that it acts like a dog-whistle in signalling to people of a particular viewpoint that they need to sign this letter in order ‘to defend marriage’. 

Paragraph six doesn’t really follow on from the paragraph about marriage.  It starts with ‘To urge and assist people to live in this way, far from being harmful, is a kind and merciful act, and of benefit to all.’  I am not sure what the authors mean by ‘this way’. Are they still talking about marriage?  The paragraph goes on the ascribe everything to people’s identity being in their ‘feelings’. 

This sets up the false dichotomy, in the following paragraph, between an emotional state and ‘Christian conversion’.  It seems to be all about someone living an unsuitable ‘lifestyle’.  It would be helpful if the authors showed that they understood the difference between sexual orientation or gender identity and ‘lifestyle’.   

The paragraph goes on to say that ‘It should not be a criminal offence for us to instruct our children that God made them male and female, in his image, and has reserved sex for the marriage of one man and one woman.’  Nobody is suggesting it should.  Is this another dog whistle to call the ‘orthodox’ to sign?  Imposing those views on others could be seen as coercion.  Do they teach that ‘male and female’ should be interpreted broadly or do they teach it as a narrow binary?  How is adultery relevant to a discussion of conversion therapy anyway?

Paragraph eight ends with ‘Yet we think it important you are aware that if it were to come about that the loving, compassionate exercise of orthodox Christian ministry, including the teaching of the Christian understanding of sex and marriage, is effectively made a criminal offence, we would with deep sadness continue to do our duty to God in this matter.’  I am not sure whether to be more concerned that this is put in the singular, as if there is one and only one Christian understanding of sex and marriage, or whether it is more problematic that the authors think conversion therapy is about sex and marriage, when it is about sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Paragraph nine wants ‘the adoption of an entirely different approach’, but gives no clue as to what the authors think that different approach should look like.

The final paragraph is a mistake, in my opinion.  It invokes the Queen, in her role as ‘defender of the faith’.  In fact, the monarch holds two religious titles – ‘Defender of the Faith’ and ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’.  The defender of the faith title was bestowed on Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521.  The faith being defended was Roman Catholicism.  This would have implications for anyone ordained who signed this letter, it means understanding that only men can be ordained and those men must be single and celibate for life.  I wonder how many of them are?

The other title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England would suggest that the monarch would be expected to uphold the official position of the Church on this matter.  As mentioned earlier General Synod, the ruling body of the Church of England, voted on this in July 2017 and voted for a complete ban on conversion therapy. 

Quite a confused letter, in my opinion.

Yes Bishop.  Sir Humphrey 2 – Church of England 0

Sometimes great comedy succeeds when it finds true to life characters and situations and takes them to extremes, where we see them differently and find the humour in the situation.  Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby, from the TV programme Yes Minister, are two of those people who have become character classics. 

It is clear that the influence of Sir Humphrey and his mantras of delay and obfuscation are thriving in the upper echelons of the Church of England at the moment.  Except, it is not funny in real life.

For anyone not familiar with the Jim Hacker / Sir Humphrey dynamic, you might like to view

Yes, Minister – Sir Humphrey’s Stalling Technique – YouTube  on creative inertia

“In Due Course, Humphrey …” – YouTube  in the fullness of time

Then look at the minutes of the zoom meeting of the House of Bishops from 24 November  Meeting of the House of Bishops, 24 November 2021 | The Church of England   A grand total of 82 words, including the date, description and mode of meeting.  They ‘were updated…approved the direction of travel… received a series of updates… an update was given to the house…reflections…’   The only definite thing was that ‘the meeting ended in prayer’.   Sir Humphrey would have been so proud.

The level of obfuscation almost makes me wonder what is not being said.  The biggest thing missing is any sort of decision about anything.  As Sir Humphrey memorably put it ‘a decision is only an official decision if it was recorded officially in the minutes by an official’ even allowing that some might have recollections of other decisions being made. 

Sir Humphrey 1 – Church of England 0

Then there are the latest minutes from the Next Steps group about Living in Love and Faith.  These are available to read at LLF Next Steps Group Meeting on 24 November 2021 | The Church of England  Frankly watching Question Time at General Synod was far more informative about what was happening at the Next Steps Group meeting than their minutes. 

The minutes say ‘[T]he group also agreed actions relating to each of the Synod Questions which Bishop Sarah had promised to take to the Next Steps Group.’  To start with there were three questions – 52, 53 and 55 where their written answers were referred to the next meeting of the Next Steps Group.  The supplementary question to question 53 was also referred to the next meeting of the Next Steps group and answering the supplementary to question 55 Bishop Sarah promised to communicate the answers to the matters referred to the Next Steps group.

GENERAL SYNOD (  question paper

The supplementary questions can be viewed at General Synod November 2021 – Tuesday 16 November 2021 Afternoon – YouTube from about 3hrs 55 mins.

If it is already in the public domain, why not just say what was discussed and decided?

The obfuscation goes further. 

‘Discernment to Decision Making

The meeting agreed to work on shaping the process of discernment that will begin once the findings of ‘listening to the whole church’ had concluded. A sub-group will be formed to consider this over the coming months. It will draw on a diverse group of people for wisdom and advice.’

There is so much redundant language used here that I can’t work out if the new sub group is the LLF reference group or if the reference group is the ‘diverse group of people for wisdom and advice’. 

Then on Diocesan Synods materials for Living in Love and Faith, according to the minutes the group has just ‘agreed to offer Diocesan Synods a range of materials’, but at Question time at General Synod, in the answer to written question 47 it was stated that these materials would be available at the beginning of December.  Perhaps this is what Sir Humphrey would call ‘in the fullness of time’.  Still waiting.

Delay, contradiction, meaningless phrases and no clear answers.  Yes Bishop.

Sir Humphrey 2 – Church of England 0

For more on Sir Humphrey’s tactics you may like to watch,

Best of Sir Humphrey Appleby – Yes Minister Part 3 – YouTube  especially the part beginning around 5 minutes.

Biblical marriage  – an affirming view

If you had asked me twenty years ago about same sex marriage in church, I would have opposed it.  The reason I would have given was that I thought it was against what the Bible taught. But twenty years ago I didn’t have a theology degree, I hadn’t seriously studied the Bible history, culture and translation issues. I can see looking back that some of what I thought and believed was quite superficial.

Eight types of marriage in the Bible.

I used to believe that Biblical questions of marriage were settled by the Genesis story of creation, particularly the second chapter, but God has so much more to say than that.  We should not mistake God’s first words on a subject with everything the Bible has to say about that subject. Studying the Bible seriously meant finding out that there are many different types of ‘Biblical Marriage’.  There are actually eight different types of marriage in the Bible.

For a start, there is the

1) nuclear family of one man and one woman

It is actually quite difficult to find examples of this in the Bible.  It can even be argued that in Genesis chapter 2 that Adam and Eve were not actually married.  Certainly there is nothing like a marriage ceremony, although verses 24, 25 do use the word wife.  Marriages involve making promises, as the Church of England house of bishops reminded us in their infamous document about mixed sex civil partnerships, there are no promises here. 

This form of marriage was quite different from what we see today.  Marriage was a property transfer; the woman went from being owned by her father to being the property of her husband.  It was a hierarchical and patriarchal relationship, where the man was the head of the house and the wife and any other women in the house had to obey him. 

There were arranged marriages, such as Isaac and Rebekah. This is told in Genesis chapter 24. Abraham sent his servant off to his family to find a suitable bride for his son Isaac.  Rebekah arrived on a camel after a long journey.  There was no ‘You must be tired, have a rest’ or ‘I’ll arrange a meal for you’.  Not even, ‘Hello, I’m Isaac, I’m going to be your husband.’  Instead it was straight off the camel and into his dead mother’s tent for sex.  The point where they consummated the ‘relationship’ was considered the point when she became his property.

What is far more common in the Bible is polygamy.

2) a man and several wives

This is the most common type of marriage found in the Bible.  Based on reading the Bible alone, anyone would conclude that this was the preferred form of Biblical marriage.  David and Solomon had hundreds of wives and this large number of wives was seen as a sign of God’s blessing on them.  It seemed like the more wives the better. 

3) A man and his dead brother’s wife (Levirate marriage). 

Levirate marriage is described in Genesis 38.6 – 10. This is where if a man died without children, his brother had to marry the widow and have children with her in his dead brother’s name.  This was enforced polygamy.  The idea behind it was that if a man had died without heirs to carry on the family name, then he would be forever written out of the family genealogy.  In a way it would be like losing eternal life, from a Jewish perspective. 

Similarly, if a woman was barren then the husband would not have heirs to perpetuate his name. 

There were also forced marriages such as:

4) a rapist and his victim Genesis 38.6 – 10. 

If a man raped a woman, he was forced to marry her.  She could refuse, but if she did, nobody else was likely to marry her, so how was she to live?  In Biblical times it was impossible for a woman to live independently.  Unless she came from a rich family, essentially her choices were to starve or go into sex work. 

From a modern perspective this is shocking and would be seen as an anti-women law, but in Biblical times this was seen as a way of making sure that a woman was provided for, for the rest of her life.  By contemporary standards forcing a woman to marry her rapist would be seen as the last thing she could be expected to want.  In a patriarchal society this may have been the only survival option open to her.

In some cases it would have been possible, in a situation where a father refused permission for a man to marry his daughter, that if he raped the daughter then the father could not refuse permission to marry her because the law required it. 

5) male soldiers and female prisoners of war. 

This is mandated in Numbers 31. 1 – 18 and Deuteronomy 21. 11 – 14

Women who taken as trophies of war were forced to marry the conquering soldiers.  They did not have the option to refuse.  Again it could be argued that if these women did not have a man to provide for them that they would be destitute and starve.  Marriage was just a way of sharing out the responsibility for providing for the women taken as war trophies. 

We could use a modern lens to look at this and see what would amount to a war crime, by contemporary standards.  Seeing it through the standards and norms of the time could allow a more humane interpretation of providing for the women and children. 

6) a male slave and female slave.

This is shown in Exodus 21.4. Slaves were property and owners could force them to get married.  A female slave was then subject to having sex with her husband as well as her master.  This was often done as a reward to a favoured, usually male, slave or for the breeding of the next generation of slaves to replenish the workforce.  Women were considered to be property and this type marriage was simply seen as a property transfer of assets.

7) a man and a woman and the woman’s property such as female slaves

This can be found in Genesis chapter 16.  If a woman had any property, for example if she was a widow and had property from her first marriage, then when she remarried everything became the property of her new husband.  A woman would not have had a concubine, but she may have had servant women or slave women and they became the property of the new husband as well.  This meant that the husband has sexual rights over all the women who came as collateral to the marriage. 

Children were property too.  Sons were the most valued, but there was little distinction between sons born to a wife and those born to women the father was not married to.  All that really mattered was paternity. 

We can see this emphasis on paternity in

8) a man and a wife (wives) and concubines

We can see this in the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 16.1 – 4.  At that point Sarah has been barren and unable to provide an heir for Abraham.  Genesis 16.4 describes ‘Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.’

This same situation is seen in the story of Jacob.  He had two wives, Rachel and Leah, but also had children by their slave girls Zilpah and Bilhal.  This lengthy story is told in Genesis 29.31 to 30.24, giving birth to twelve sons and one daughter.

Culture and tradition

Having a large household was expensive, so by the time of the New Testament, when the Jewish people lived under Roman occupation, few could afford to have more than one wife and all the extra children.  Times were hard and one wife only became the norm due to economic necessity.  It also fitted in with the culture of the Roman occupiers, where monogamy was the usual form of marriage.

In 1 Timothy 3 we are told the qualities that are needed for someone to be a bishop in the early church and in verse 2 it includes the condition that he be ‘the husband of but one wife’. That simple verse, however, could be understood in more than one way.  If a bishop was only allowed one wife – was it to be understood as one at a time or only one in total? 

These were times when many women died in childbirth.  If a man’s wife died and he married again, would this rule him out of high office in the church?  There was a time when that question was the really hot button controversy in the church.  Eventually it seems to have been settled on ‘one at a time only’. 

In the new Christian faith, marriage did not have the importance that it had in the Jewish faith.  There are many reasons for this, such as an expectation that the world would end soon, but also a different understanding of eternal life.  For followers of Jesus eternal life was no longer seen through being part of a family tree, but as being part of the eternal life promised by Christ.  Marriage ended in death.  This matter was addressed by Jesus in Matthew chapter 22 verses 23 – 32.

Paul urged everyone to remain single if they could.  If they couldn’t then they could get married, but being single was the higher calling.  Marriage was a concession for this life alone, once we die then marriage is no more.

A broad view of marriage

Marriage in the Bible does not conform to the pattern that is preached in many Christian churches.  The idea that marriage in only for ne man and one woman does not stand up to scrutiny.  By the end of the first book of the Bible we have seen six different types of marriage alone. 

There were certain priorities for marriage in Biblical times, principally having children and being part of the unbroken family lineage. 

Why gender and sexuality is an Anglican problem

Anglicanism, uniquely among the main Christian denominations in England, has not been able to make any progress on matters of sexuality and gender because of the way that these matters are treated nationally.  I will not consider Roman Catholicism here, because matters there are treated either globally from the Vatican or locally from a particular bishop.

In the Baptist church, the church model is congregationalism.  Individual congregations have a great deal of freedom in what they choose to believe and practise.  They come together in the Baptist union as an overarching model, but are independent of each other.  For example, if one congregation chooses to take a particular stance on the ministry of women, then it does not have to consider the impact on the Baptist congregation in the next village or their views. 

All Baptist churches in England have the right to register as premises for same sex marriages and are legally allowed to perform those weddings. In practice not many Baptist churches have decided to register, but whether or not a congregation chooses to do so would not be seen as a schismatic act.

Methodist churches have a different structure and work in circuits and districts.  Major decisions are taken by the annual Methodist conference.  Some delegates are elected to participate for one year, some for three years.  The chair of the conference changes annually.  This prevents the build-up on power by certain individuals, as does the fact that the laity places at Conference outnumber the clergy places.

When the 2021 annual conference decided to allow Methodist churches to perform same sex marriages in their churches, they did it in a way that moved forward by respecting conscience.  There had been a working party, the Marriage and Relations taskforce, that produced a report – God In Love Unites Us – available at The 2019 Marriage and Relationships report (  This document was written to reflect the mind of the church, that the present position was no longer tenable, so it was written for the middle ground, looking at compromise and ways to move forward together. 

Each district was asked to study the report and the proposed resolutions and vote if they were in favour or not.  29 out of 30 districts voted in favour.  The annual conference passed the change.  It also passed a resolution condemning conversion therapy.  It is now up to each Methodist church or group of churches to decide if they wish to register to conduct same sex marriages.  They can decide as they wish, but no church is forced to do something it votes not to do.  Likewise the Methodist structure means that each church has a designated person to conduct marriages, who may be a lay person.  Conscience is respected, but movement forward can happen where it is wanted.

The Anglican church has taken a different approach.  It has been producing documents and resolutions and having working parties for around 50 years and is nowhere near a way forward.  Reading the major reports in sequence, it is very obvious how the material has become increasingly polarised.  The compromise positions of material like the Osborne report are missing from new material which favours the ‘some people think this and some people think that’ approach in more recent material.

By documenting position A and position Z and trying to show both sides of a debate, the middle position is lost.  Most people are not at position A or Z, but somewhere between B and Y.  The Church of England is moving away from the exploration of compromise positions or ones that will allow those of different views to move forward together.  The extremes will never be able to work together, let alone agree on something.

This perpetuation of polarised views just prolongs the debate and makes schismatic options more likely.  People feel they need to defend their position because the alternative is so unacceptably extreme in their view.  It is an all or nothing approach.  No other denomination has polarised the debate as the Anglican church has done, to the Church of England’s cost. 

The latest, Living in Love and Faith has taken the polarised approach too.  Each ‘side’ will find things that they find totally unacceptable and therefore are triggered to defend their views, and because of that they are not willing to find common ground or compromise. 

The Next Steps group of bishops has announced there will be a new resource entitled ‘The Gift of the Church’ to be published in September 2022.  Let’s hope those producing it can follow the lead of their Methodist colleagues and publish a less polarised document that does represent the mind of the church and allows us to move forward.  They could start by reading God in Love Unites Us.

Why inclusion is an Anglican problem

I was at a church talk earlier this week about inclusion, based on the work of Inclusive Church.  The church where the talk was being given was particularly  concerned with certain aspects of inclusion, such as hearing and sight loss, the provision of wheelchair accessible toilets, or even toilets in general, as well as provision for those who are neurodiverse.  It touched on visibility, use of websites, disability conference, resources etc.  All very helpful and with a lot of useful discussion and support.  Even ethnicity and women did not create a ripple.  Then someone mentioned sexuality…

The problem was not that those present had a problem with people having different sexualities, but they knew that if the church wanted to make moves towards being more visibly inclusive that they would get push back and opposition from other people and even other local churches who were opposed.  This is a peculiarly Anglican problem.  Denominations like the Baptists or the United Reform Church have a congregational understanding of many issues anyway and would see it as an internal matter.  The Methodists have agreed that there are some issues decided by their annual conference and then the individual circuits and churches can decide exactly how to proceed for themselves. 

Anglicanism does not accept that level of diversity.  It can certainly be argued that congregationalism is not an Anglican way of doing things, so there should be uniformity in what is done and taught.  Except that the Church of England has already made some very large exceptions to that already, where individual congregations can vote to diversify on certain matters.  For example, those with alternative episcopal oversight because they do not accept women priests or those who espouse male headship under the bishop of Maidstone.  Before that whether or not to allow the remarriage of those who had been divorced was left to the individual member of clergy who had a conscience opt out. 

There is already a great diversity of worship styles, from those who do not wear vestments and have a monthly communion service to those who have full robed choirs and clergy with several masses each week, and a whole spectrum in between.

Unfortunately, reasoned debate on inclusion and diversity in being hampered by an almost default belief in certain Anglican circles that somehow ‘inclusion’ is a secret codeword for ‘gay rights’ and a move towards inclusion would put them on a slippery slope to same sex marriage in church.  Consequently there is resistance to even the idea that a church should be moving towards more visible inclusion.

Inclusion is Biblical.  Nobody throws away their Bible to be inclusive.  It is about studying the Bible, particularly the ministry and teachings of Jesus and the early church.  Jesus went out of the temple to meet and eat with the marginalised where they were.  The early church went beyond the narrow confines of the Jewish people and admitted gentiles.  They instituted a new form of admission – baptism – that was open to anyone.  No longer was initiation to the faith just for men through circumcision.  Those who could not live up to the purity codes of Judaism could find a home in their faith in Jesus.

It is time that the contemporary church in this country caught up with the early church and recognised that the great commission was for everyone.  Inclusion is about everyone, not just those who have different sexualities.  If Samaritans could be included along with gentile widows, so can many of our excluded and marginalised groups.  Frankly, some in the Church of England need to stop trying to fight a non existent enemy.

Let’s see a church that truly wants to be inclusive.  One that is open and safe.  Not one that is obsessed with sexuality as the sole test of some sort of ideological purity.