Unholy Matrimony?

(from the Anglican General Synod in Canberra)

The General Synod yesterday voted to explore the possibility that people other than baptized Christians could be married according to Anglican rites, in Anglican Churches.

In some ways this is a startling development. Anglicans have always hitherto considered marriage in Church as a matter between Christians, and regarded it as one of those “commonly called sacraments”. Marriage is not of the same universal scope of baptism and eucharist, but has distinctive meaning for members of the Church in relation to the relationship - a "mystery" as Ephesians puts it - between Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:32) .

Mover of the Bill, Bishop Glenn Davies of Sydney, argued that marriage is a “creation ordinance” common to all human beings, rather than a “redemption ordinance” specific to Church members. He pointed out that the Church only began insisting that couples marry in Church about a thousand years ago.

Some support for the proposal came from those who like Bp Davies do not see marriage as a sacrament. Others were motivated by missional concerns, seeing enquiring couples (among whom gradually fewer were baptized as infants) as prospective Christians who should be welcomed, rather than deterred because they are not Church members already.

I myself raised in debate the basis of more sacramental understanding, which actually goes back at least to Augustine of Hippo around the year 400. Augustine saw the “creation” and “redemption” aspects as concurrent and cumulative for Christians, and hence spoke of marriage as sacramental, using "sacramentum" to translate the "mystery" of Eph. 5:32. In subsequent theology this was developed to suggest that all those married participated in a sacramentum vinculum – a sacramental bond – while Christians also participated in a sacramentum signum – a sacramental sign, echoing and making real for them the union of Christ and the Church. So this kind of theological reflection is more ancient than the actual liturgical celebration of marriage – sacraments were not always liturgical, it seems, and a wedding and a marriage are not the same thing.

The mechanism for change proposed to Synod was abolition of any mention in Church law of baptism as a requirement for those (or at least one of those) coming for marriage. The problems with this blunt legislative instrument are numerous. Existing Anglican rites, which would then be open to all, assume specifically Christian theology. There would be a great risk of encouraging cynicism and dishonesty, were those unable to affirm these beliefs encouraged to affirm them ritually.

It was pointed out that many baptized as infants and who come seeking marriage may not be more knowledgeable about or sympathetic to that faith than others without that sacramental connection. Christians however recognize baptism not as a meaningless act, even if one who underwent it does not remember or even respect it. Baptism is the means of incorporating members into Christ’s Church – and the importance of our recognizing it, even in such marginal circumstances as the marriage of nominal Christians, is fundamental. Abolishing the requirement of baptism would therefore have implications for understanding baptism and Church, as well as the sacramentum signum that Christians have traditionally seen in marriage.

In fact the decision made by the General Synod was merely one to talk further around the national Church. An attempt to have the motion actually passed at the Synod was clearly lost. The “Provisional Canon” process adopted instead sends this proposal to all Dioceses for their discussion and review, but requires ¾ of the Dioceses to agree, including all the metropolitan Dioceses. This seems unlikely.

It is not impossible that these future discussions give rise somehow to a workable model including distinct rites that can be offered to couples other than Church members, respecting their status as seekers. Yet such measures will also have to satisfy Anglicans that the sacramental character of marriage – its capacity to be a sign to and for Christians themselves – can also be preserved.


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