December 10, 2009

A Distinction to be Made

I would like to highlight one source of confusion in the present debates on marriage and sexuality (in the classic sense of a mixing together of various things).

That is the subtle distinction between Holy Matrimony and Marriage. The terms really ought not be used interchangeably, though they often are. However, marriage, properly speaking, is a human phenomenon (as part of the creation; and as many believe, thus instituted by God). Even given that source, there is wide variability to the form of marriage in many cultures and countries, through time and space, including the Jewish tradition out of which the Christian tradition grew. In many respects the Christian understanding of marriage was as much influenced by prevailing Roman custom (and law) as it was by Jewish understandings.

Holy Matrimony, or “Christian Marriage” is a particular subset of these various forms of marriage. The Canons of the Episcopal Church (I.18.1) attempt to preserve this distinction, limiting Holy Matrimony to marriages that are “entered into within the community of faith,” that is, within the church. (As a side note, I will point out that the BCP rubric, page 422, allowing “Christian marriage” in which only one of the parties is a Christian, pushes the envelope considerably, and is arguably discordant.)

The Exhortation at the opening of the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, on the other hand, supports the distinction, noting that “marriage” has existed since the Creation, but that what the assembled body has “come together” for is Holy Matrimony. The Catechism, page 861, continues this clarification by stating, “Holy Matrimony is Christian marriage.” (I will also note that the Catechism is one of the formal elements defining the Doctrine of the Church according to Canon IV.15. This is as “official” as one can get.)

Thus our church recognizes the existence of marriages which do not come under the law of our church as Holy Matrimony. This includes civil marriages as well as the religious marriages of non-Christians. We do not deny the legal reality of civil marriages, nor do we require the members of our church to have been married in a church wedding, or to participate in the “Blessing of a Civil Marriage,” in order to be considered married. (To some extent this reaffirms the ancient doctrine that the ministers of marriage are the couple, and the church serves to witness and bless the marriage.) This is, needless to say, not the case in all Christian traditions, and this is just one more example of the discontinuities that exist between those various traditions.

In the Episcopal Church, clergy are required by Canon I.1.18 to abide by the law of the church concerning Holy Matrimony and the law of the state concerning marriage. Where these are in conflict, it seems to me that preserving the distinction between Holy Matrimony and marriage is a helpful factor in determining what to do — or refrain from doing — in particular cases.

I hope raising this distinction will be helpful in continued discussions of the interaction between church and state, and within the church.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Daniel Weir said...

Thank you.
It is that distinction that makes it possible for some to support extending the privilege/right of civil marriage to same-sex couples while continuing to see Holy Matrimony as not possible for same-sex couples. I am sorry that so many Christians can't see the distinction.

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

An excellent posting, Tobias.

Thanks for the reminder about the status of the catechism. I continue to be amazed that some Episcopalians don't know we have a catechism.

And I agree that the rubric on p. 422 allowing for Christian marriage even in cases in which one one of the parties is not a baptized Christian is odd. I've never quite understood the rationale for that. Do you have further thoughts on this?

Marshall Scott said...

Tobias, I appreciate the distinction, and try to speak to it when I have the opportunity.

I will admit, though, some hesitation about describing marriage as "from creation." We might argue that relationship is described in Genesis 2 as God's purpose, but might argue that it isn't "marriage" in the sense that we use that term today. Moreover, at least from Lamech's choice to take two wives (Gen. 4:19), there is no clear mandate in scripture for monogamy as we appreciate it today. By the same token, thinking "from creation" might incline us toward the "harem keeping" or serial dominance demonstrated by other primates (the zooligical kind, not the ecclesiological kind).

I think the more important distinction is in intent. "Marriage" is about securing legal relations of persons and property. That encompasses both exclusivity and control of property, and issues if inheritance. Indeed, Duby in The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest points out that in Christian history formal, legal marriage was largely an issue for those who had property; while for serfs who did not have property (and were largely treated as if they were property) there was the simplest of ceremonies to set the individuals apart.

Indeed, if it is "properly speaking a human phenomenon," I don't think I would chose to describe it as "from creation." But, then, that may just be me.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the comments. Fr. Daniel, it is in part with that in mind that I offer this clarification.

Fr. Bryan, I have reflected on greater length on this anomaly in reasonable dna Holy. Suffice it to say that Tertullian regarded marriage with one who was not baptized as akin to sodomy!

Fr Marshall, I also reflect at length on the issue of creation in two early chapters of R&H. I use the term here out of respect for the wording of the BCP. I'm trying to stick fast to the documentary and canonical texts here; there is, I agree with you, ample room to critique and examine more closely the relationship between "creation," "Creation," and so on. In fact, it seems to me that the weakest link in much of the "argument from nature" concerning marriage must surely be that God did not create human beings alone with the capacity to reproduce sexually!

June Butler said...

(To some extent this reaffirms the ancient doctrine that the ministers of marriage are the couple, and the church serves to witness and bless the marriage.)

I learned the ancient doctrine in my 16 years of RC schooling, and yet it seemed to me a contradiction for the the RCC to claim that without the priest to witness and bless, there was no marriage. Thus, I see that the distinction between Holy Matrimony and marriage, which is lacking in the RCC, seems worth preserving in the Episcopal Church.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mimi, the RC position is much more complicated, and in my not so humble opinion, if full of logical inconsistencies, and unnecessary multiplication of concepts of validity and licitness. For instance, if a married Presbyterian couple were to convert to Roman Catholicism, they would be considered to be married, without further ado. But if an RC couple go off and have a civil marriage (or a marriage in another church), their marriage requires something called "convalidation" in order to be recognized. Here in NY, via an agreement between the Diocese and the Archdiocese, clergy have to inform RC couples who are trying to marry but for whatever reason don't want to marry in the RC church (in some cases because one or the other is divorced) that their "Episcopal Church" and NY State marriage will not be recognized as valid in the RC church. (This is assuming no dispensation has been procured.)

I think this does seriously confuse the theology of marriage with the particular discipline of marriage law, and seems to contradict the notion that the ministers of the sacrament are the couple.

Anonymous said...

Tobias, I've said something quite similar for a very long time.

The difference being this: I ask myself, "What do these words, marriage & matrimony, actually mean? Do we even realize what they mean when we use them?"

So I looked them up.

I noticed that "marriage" was a far more neutral word meaning basically any union between any two parties or entities. So it could describe the marriage between companies, like ABC and Disney. Or it could describe the marriage between ingredients in a pot of soup. These would, of course, be grammatically correct uses of the word "marriage" which indicate that marriage is not even limited to the realm of the religious - so those who fear "gay marriage" as being disruptive to the sanctity of "marriage" in general really do not have anything to worry about.

"Matrimony", I found, has to do with choosing a mother for one's children. That seems to me to pretty much directly address issues of procreation, and ensuring the continuation of a specific family line, by way of a father and a mother. Using the word "holy matrimony" would actually be more appropriate for a straight couple being wed in a religious ceremony.

I decided to also look up "wedlock" too and I found this:

O.E. wedlac "pledge-giving, marriage vow," from wed + -lac, noun suffix meaning "actions or proceedings, practice," attested in about a dozen O.E. compounds (cf. feohtlac "warfare"), but this is the only surviving example. Suffix altered by folk etymology through association with lock. Meaning "condition of being married" is recorded from early 13c.

So "wedlock" too simply has a meaning of giving a pledge or promise. I suppose one could correctly use the word "holy wedlock" for same-sex unions, for the people involved are making a pledge to one another, in the sight of God and the congregation.

I'm sorry...I get too wordy, but this kind of thing utterly fascinates me. I'm a grammar geek.