Gay Wedding – The Theology

In my previous post I laid out the liturgy used in the gay wedding of two Church of England priests and compared it to the actual text of the BCP marriage service. In doing so I demonstrated that the argument that the service was not intended to mimic the BCP marriage service and therefore to be itself a marriage was specious. What I intend to do in this post is to examine the theology of the liturgy used in the service and demonstrate that, far from just being a blessing of a civil union, the texts used propose a clear redefinition of the theology of the Church of England.

Anglicanism, Doctrine and Liturgy – A (Very) Brief Summary

Anglicanism has always understood that its liturgy is an outworking of its doctrine. Since Cranmer framed the original BCP and the 17th century divines clarified it, and throughout the process of liturgical revision from ASB to Common Worship, liturgy has been understood to articulate what the Communion centred in Canterbury actually believes.

Liturgy has been a common point of unity of the many Provinces that make up the Communion, for though each now has its own prayer book, they have all derived those prayer books from the English BCP and its succesors. This has allowed the common usage of liturgy across the Communion, with many Diocesan Bishops in England for example allowing churches to use Eucharistic liturgies that come from other Anglican communities across the globe. This is done because it is understood that the individual provinces would not stray in any significant manner from the Eucharistic doctrine laid down by Cranmer and safeguarded by the redactors of the Book of Common Prayer and its successors. Were the liturgy to substantially vary on what it expressed, it would indicate doctrinal alteration.

This means that liturgical innovation is doctrinal innovation. For example, were I in my church to introduce a Eucharistic liturgy that invoked "O Great Mother" and that distributed raisin cakes rather than bread, I would be guilty of altering Church of England doctrine. In such a case I would expect my Bishop to come down very hard upon me. Were I to refuse to change the new liturgy, I would expect to have my licence removed fortwith.

The Sexual Theology of the BCP Marriage Service

We now turn to examine the sexual theology of the BCP Marriage Service. In the opening charge to the couple and the congregation, the Priest says the following:

holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church;

This is a clear reference to Ephesians 5, where Paul writes the following:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Paul takes the institution of marriage in Genesis 2 and explains how the union of husband and wife signifies more than just the coming together of two humans. He teaches that within marriage the husband and the wife take on unique roles in the way that they together sexually signify Christ and his Church. Within marriage Paul argues, the husband signifies Christ. That is why he is first called to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He must give up all things for her in the same way that Christ gave up all things for his bride. The bride then serves her husband on the same grounds that the church serves Christ, not because of any patriarchal power structure but because the church understands that Christ has laid down everything for her.

The BCP marriage service echoes this understanding for it first calls on the husband in this manner:

Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health;

Here the primary call to the husband is to love, but when the wife is addressed the charge is different:

Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health;

The distinction in the charges points to the Ephesians 5 teaching that the wife submitting to her husband, on the basis that he loves her by laying down all things for her, is a mirror of the church’s relationship to Christ.

This understanding leads Paul to the realisation that the consummation of the marriage creates a mysterious holy union between husband and wife that mirrors the union of Christ and the Church. The sexual bonding of the two as "one flesh" is not just a physical act but a spiritual one, for it has a deep signification in its activity. To put it as unsubtlely as one can, the act of a husband and wife achieving orgasm together is not just an indication of their physical oneness but points beyond them to the work of the cross in uniting fallen humanity to a holy God through the shed blood of the Son.

Within this signification, the uniqueness of the partners is key. The sexual difference of the man and his wife are the driving force behind the symbolism. It is their biological difference and the union of those differences that is the indicator of the greater union of Christ and the Church.

To summarise, the BCP Marriage Service explicitly draws from Ephesians 5 and in doing so distinguishes between husband and wife in their unique roles in signifying the union of Christ and the Church. The sexual imagery is deliberate and points to a higher truth beyond the married couple. It is an understanding of sexual activity that has dictated the Church’s response to all other forms of copulation and was still part of the guiding theology in the 1990s revision of the Marriage Service.

How the Gay Marriage Liturgy subverts the Ephesians 5 Model

We have clearly seen how the BCP Marriage Service draws explicity from Ephesians 5 to create a sexual theology around the coming together of husband and wife. We now turn our attention to the liturgy provided for the gay union in London and we will see how far from not attempting to be a marriage, the service deliberately uses marriage imagery.

The opening exhortation of the gay union has the following phrase:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together these Men in a holy covenant of love and fidelity; Such a covenant shows us the mystical union between God and God’s people and between Christ and his Church;

Far from not attempting to be a marriage, the gay union liturgy deliberately picks up the Ephesians 5 language of the BCP service and clearly applies it to the union of man and man. In particular, it indicates that such a union in its sexual dimension fulfils the role of signifying the bond of Christ and his Church.

This means that the liturgy used for this gay union is not just an attempt to bless a relationship, but in its choice of language it deliberately attempts to alter the doctrine of the Church of England as to what constitutes a holy marriage. Up till this point the Church has clearly indicated that the only sexual union that can signify the union of Christ and the Church is that of husband and wife. The opening exhortation of the gay union liturgy denies that to be so and explicitly extends the nature of the sexual partners to be either of differing sexes or of the same sex. This therefore cannot be understood any other way than an attempt to redefine the Anglican understanding of marriage, for as we have seen the BCP marriage service places a great deal of emphasis upon the clear reading of Ephesians 5. In the BCP liturgy the sexual union of husband and wife as a mirror of Christ and the Chuch is a key indicator of marriage and also a contributor to the understanding of why sexual union outside of the marriage of husband and wife is sinful and idolatorous.

One possible argument against this perspective is that this was not the intention of the framers of the opening exhortation in the gay union liturgy. If that were the case though it demonstrates very poor theological understanding, for the Ephesians 5 connotations are clearly derived from the BCP marriage service which itself is clearly indicating the significatorial roll of sexual union. It is far more likely that the framers of this liturgy understood the implications of the words that they chose and made the deliberate choice of using them in the context that they did to alter the theology derived from that passage. In doing so they have fundamentally altered the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage.

Issues with the Gay Union Liturgy and its Implicit Deconstruction of the Ephesians 5 Model

There is a problem though in this activity of altering the doctrine of marriage in that the vows that the two clergy made to each other are identical. Whereas in the BCP marriage service the husband and the wife make different promises to each other, indicating the theological differences of their significatorial roles in sexual union, the promises made by the two men in the gay union liturgy are identical:

I Peter take thee David as my partner, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to I love and to cherish, till death us do part; and thereto I plight thee my troth.

This leads us to a problem with the liturgy that not only demonstrates how its actions runs counter to Scripture, but also presents a significant issue for the Church of England to address if no disciplinary action is taken on those who carried it out. Having identical vows for both partners of a same-sex marriage, while at the same time drawing on the Ephesians 5 model for those vows, implies that there has been a fundamental misunderstanding in the church’s application of Ephesians 5 up to this point. The BCP service indicates clearly that the sexual distinctiveness of the two partners is critical to understanding the mystery of the sexual union of the spouses – the gay union liturgy implies that it is not.

This leads us to wonder whether the claim that same-sex marriage undermines heterosexual marriage may actually have a great deal of merit. If the Church of England accepts and permits this gay union liturgy (which we have clearly seen is a gay marriage liturgy), then it will implictly condone this dimunition of the sexual model in Ephesians 5. If the gay marriage liturgy is permitted to be used again, or if it is not condemned and those who took part in it disciplined, the Church will by its actions implicitly accept that the analogy Paul uses in Ephesians 5 with explicit roles for the sexes is not in any sense a uniquely God ordained signify of the work of Christ.

Furthermore, to not condemn this liturgy and to discipline those who took part, the Church will undermine the guidelines of the House of Bishops found in Issues in Human Sexuality, Some Issues in Human Sexuality and the Pastoral Guidance on Civil Partnerships, that same-sex activity falls short of the behaviour expected of Christians, let alone clergy, fo the gay marriage liturgy clearly equates the validity of same-sex activity and married sex.


We have seen clearly that the liturgy used in this service is not just one of neutral commitment (as Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral has claimed), but rather is a service deliberately intended to mimic the BCP rite of marriage and to replicate the core theology of sexual union and the signification of the union of Christ and the Chuch. that lies at the heart of that historic text. Unless the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury take clear action, not only to denounce the liturgy but also to discipline the clergy who took part in the ceremony (the officiant and the participants), they open themselves up to being responsible for implicitly accepting a major shift in Church of England doctrine. Nothing less than a definitive repudiation of this text and a clear steer that the doctrine of marriage has not changed will do, for the gay union liturgy is clearly not just a "blessing" but is actually a blatant attempt to establish gay marriage as a given within the Anglican doctrinal framework.

20 Comments on “Gay Wedding – The Theology

  1. This is fascinating. We should not be surprised that this new marriage liturgy is introduced to the Church through disobedience. The liturgy itself is subverting the traditional teaching that the wife, representing the Church, vows obedience to the husband, representing Christ.

    • Perpetua, you said in the previous thread:

      The reason I so object to this is that it binds people in a covenant before God to remain in the relationship…. This will create terrible psychological confusion for those who spiritually mature out of same-sex behavior.

      Yes, I do see the problem here.
      Similar problems, of course, also confront homosexual persons who have been pushed by social pressure, by (im)moral bullying, or a by mistaken belief in a universally binding obligation to conform to the heterosexual norm, into entering unworkable heterosexual marriages and who later spiritually and morally mature out such charade-playing. These problems also confront their heterosexual spouses, who quite naturally and rightly desire to replace their sham heterosexual marriages by genuine ones.
      Such cases are, I am sure, far more numerous than the kind that you have posited – although it is to be hoped that, with the inexorable advance of more enlightened attitudes in both church and society, they will become ever fewer.
      Plainly an annulment, or something analogous, is called for in such cases.

  2. I agree that the gay marriage service is a ridiculous alteration of what Christ intended for his followers.  However, I’m actually a bit interested in one of your earlier points.  Forgive me if this goes off topic, and you can respond by e-mail if you’d rather not take us off track on your own blog.

    The sexual bonding of the two as “one flesh” is not just a physical act but a spiritual one, for it has a deep signification in its activity. To put it as unsubtlely as one can, the act of a husband and wife achieving orgasm together is not just an indication of their physical oneness but points beyond them to the work of the cross in uniting fallen humanity to a holy God through the shed blood of the Son.

    Just out of curiosity, what if the marriage is nonsexual?  For example, let’s say an elderly widow and widower marry, and are beyond their capabilities (or desires) to have sex.  Is their union not valid?  What of younger couples who simply have little sexual chemistry?  I’m not talking about just post-gays here (although I must say that my lack of chemistry with a potential wife is a great concern).  If the couple’s sex is awkward and unfulfilling, does that mean that the marriage is not as holy and doesn’t reflect Christ’s relationship to the Church? And what of other forms of sex that are not exactly traditional intercourse? Is, say, oral sex wrong because it does not represent Christ’s union with the Church? Or does it?

  3. Peter

    Ahh, you’re being a bit disengenuous here:

    Having identical vows for both partners of a same-sex marriage, while at the same time drawing on the Ephesians 5 model for those vows, implies that there has been a fundamental misunderstanding in the church’s application of Ephesians 5 up to this point.

    After all, the “Common Worship” marriage service has the same vows for husband and wife:
    if symmetric vows are the key to the betray of the gospel, setting Man on the same level as God,
    then the CoE is already lost.

    • James,

      You’re absolutely right. The Common Worship marriage service has removed the disparate vows, but it maintains the allusion to Ephesians 5 in the opening exhortation.

  4. The theology has already been changing, and not every understanding of marriage even within Christianity is based on Ephesians 5, nor should it.

    Marriage is a communicative experience, and involves a social context, and this gives rise to liturgical changes. When a gay couple have a service which, for all intents and purposes, acts as if it is self-sufficient (none of the service was a reference to civil partnership, for example) then there are theological implications. Now, although liturgy and theology are not arm in glove, that alteration is itself an interesting exercise in how belief changes and how that transfers from that liturgical alteration. We are not servants of a master Bible, the Bible is yet another servant, as is liturgy, as indeed is theology. The Bible is made for us, not us for the Bible (why I disagree with your post-gay thing, though what you do is up to you).

    Now it looks like there is going to be a division in Church terms between those who can see interpretation of inherited doctrines evolve (if to some extent still regulative) and those who see them all fixed (and highly regulative). I think some liberals ought to be more honest and stop playing the orthodoxy game and accept that there is real and substantial change. But I’m on the side of change.

  5. Hello Peter and all,

    a few things – I’d like to pick up on the things Pluralist and James Noble said. As James Noble pointed out the marriage service has changed from the BCP one – and as an aside I understand the preface to the marriage service in the 1980 Alternative Service Book is a bit different to that in the BCP. And as Pluralist said, “not every understanding of marriage even within Christianity is based on Ephesians 5”.
    So following on (maybe!) from that, could this service be seen as a valid development of the image from Ephesians 5? Given James Noble’s point there clearly can be valid changes to it in the context of a man and a woman – if the man and woman say the same vows, this could be seen as a move toward an equality that isn’t (quite) there in the Eph 5 text, and that alone has an impact on the Pauline image as it suggests the initiative isn’t only with the man. This move to equality is only reinforced by the facts that (for instance) the bride isn’t always ‘given away’ any longer, and for obvious reasons “with all my worldly goods I thee endow” isn’t always said only by the man, if at all. All of which is only to make the point that, while the Eph 5 image remains, valid changes have nonetheless been made – yet they’re not necessarily changes that have been reflected in doctrinal changes (I might be overreaching myself a bit here), surely? E.g. equality between a man and a woman in the marriage service isn’t taken to mean equality between Christ and the church, or people and God (whatever that could mean).
    So if these changes can be valid, and if they don’t up-end the church’s doctrines, cannot this service also be seen as a valid move? Is the difference of gender in the Pauline image such a key element of it? – there is also the self-giving of the two. And if, as Pluralist implies there are other Biblical and traditional images besides that in Eph 5, doesn’t that ‘relativise’ the Eph 5 image, or at least suggest it’s not pre-eminent? As is probably obvious I’m just trying to see if there are grounds that could be sketched for suggesting that this is a legitimate development.

    And of course that would rest on more than I’ve said above – this is it seems to me a question of truth, on two fronts (…pomposity alert!). Is being gay pathological / disordered? And can it be said beyond reasonable doubt that Scripture is talking about what we’re talking about here? (As another aside I think it’s fairly difficult to make a strong case that any of the ‘clobber’ passages held to address gay relationships, actually does address a union such as this one). Repeating myself again, my answer to those questions is a tentative ‘no’.
    On a different tack, I think you (and Pluralist if I’m not misreading) are right to imply that Colin Slee was a bit disingenuous, Peter. Though I think it is true to say that there is no absolute prohibition from the C of E House of Bishops on this, simply because there is a little room granted for clergy to respond pastorally in individual cases (is that correct?). Also, I don’t see what action Rowan Williams can possibly take – Richard Chartres, maybe, since it happened in his diocese. But also, the furore over the news of this service (which remember actually happened more than a fortnight ago), seems to me to have boxed RW in even more tightly (if that were possible!). We’ve trampled on charity so much in this ‘debate’ that practically anything he says is likely to be interpreted unfavourably by folk of one view or another. Am not sure what ‘disciplinary’ powers RW would have, especially given the news (which I’m assuming is true) that Rev Peter Lord, one of the couple, has resigned his licence.
    in friendship, Blair

    • Blair,

      I understand the point you are trying to make about Ephesians 5, but to be honest, I can’t see how you get round the clear teaching of the passage that the unique sex of the two participants in marriage is so important. If it were not, why would Paul say it was so?

      • Hello Peter,
        well, as I might have said when this came up before, i don’t have a watertight answer to that. Some of my thoughts are, as i said above, that Eph 5 isn’t the only image we’re given (which is not a flat dismissal but as I said might relativise it slightly). Also, the changes to the marriage service James Noble mentioned do it seems to me shift Paul’s analogy. For instance if the woman no longer promises to obey, and if she is not ‘given away’, doesn’t that shift toward equality remove many of the ways in which a wife is ‘subject’ to her husband? Changes such as this mean, I’d suggest, that already Paul’s image is not being applied fully literally in the liturgy, yet given your point that Common Worship still alludes to Ephesians 5, that might prompt the thought that the church can still draw upon the image of Eph 5 without ‘literalising’ (that may not be the right word) all aspects of it.

        I do accept that that little lot doesn’t by itself “get round” the sex difference within the passage, hence the penultimate paragraph above. But my other thought is a wondering about how far the male / female, Christ / church analogy can be pressed. Paul himself says (Rom 11:33) of God, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”. Yet men and women, while obviously different, are not inscrutable to each other (…comedy pause :) ). …so if the analogy has its limits, can it be used by itself to rule out covenanted gay relationships?
        Well, not watertight as I said…
        in friendship, Blair

  6. Reading the passage in Ephesians and using George Lakoff’s terms from Metaphor Theory, we can see that Paul is using the relationship between husband and wife as the ordinary experience (source domain) to understand the more abstract concept (target domain) of the relationship between Christ and his Church. If the behavior in the relationship in the source domain has changed, than the metaphor is no longer a meaningful way of understanding the more abstract target domain.

    To continue to say that marriage signifies the mystical relationship between Christ and his Church in such a circumstance is to teach a false theology. To use an equal partnership where one is not obedient to the other as a signifier of the relationship between Christ and his Church is to teach that the Church is not obedient to Christ. Hmm, that does sort of describe the situation we are in now, doesn’t it?

  7. William,

    For people in the USA under forty years old, as a percentage, I think there are more women who grow out of same-sex behavior than men in heterosexual marriages who decide that they need to fulfill their same-sex attractions. (Note: I admit that I am in a very liberal and highly educated part of the USA.)

  8. Very good post, Peter.  When we set Paul’s thought in the larger Afro-Asiatic context of Scripture, we recognize that all of the Bible is predicated on a binary worldview: night-day, firmament above-firmament below, heaven-hell, male-female, good-evil, etc.  To justify homosex one must reject the entire biblical worldview, which is exactly what gay activists and theological revisionists do.

    Here are some essays that cover this:

  9. As a long-time Episcopalian who is heterosexual, I am horrified by the reversion to Ephesians 5 which is a tribal document demeaning to women.  I keep leaving the church because it is so often imbued with these sorts of archaic authoritarian relationships.  One has only to read Ephesians 6 which directs slaves to submit in terror to masters to see that some things decidedly require change.  Christ’s teachings are so filled with the joy of the utterly inclusive beloved community that one would think it quite obvious that He came to us to tell us to abandon that sort of hierarchy and domination and learn to love one another without regard to controlling them first.  I celebrate the interpretations of theology that embrace same-sex marriage if only because it also liberates me and all women in the process.  To males who desperately need to hang onto the tribal god of old and to the hierarchy and control of patriarchs, please do understand that you lose nothing when embracing all your brothers and sisters as equals.  The autocrat pays a significant price in keeping control as well.

    • Elizabeth,

      I think you’re not reading Ephesians 5 correctly if you think it’s a command to impose patriarchy. I hardly think that my loving my wife as Christ loved the Church, laying his very self down for her, is an excuse to demand dinner on the table when I want it.

  10. Hi Elizabeth,

    I used to feel that way, too. Until I had a baby and realized how much I did want my husband to be a protector while I was vulnerable.

    I realized we were truly not biologically equal. I appreciate the idea that husbands should be willing to sacrifice for their wives as Christ sacrificed himself on the cross and that wives should be willing to be obedient to their husbands as the Church is obedient to Christ.

  11. Yes, Alice, I think that there’s a lot to be said for this binary world view that you’re on about:

    night-day, firmament above-firmament below, heaven-hell, male-female, good-evil, etc…

    …soprano-contralto, tenor-bass, heterosexual-homosexual, straight-gay, etc.
    Omnis divisio debet esse bimembris, vel reducibilis ad bimembrem.
    GIORDANO BRUNO, La cena de le ceneri (1584)
    Nice, handy, pithy way of looking at reality.

  12. In a sermon that I preached on at Evensong on Sunday, 19 April 1998 at St Bartholomew the Great I made three carefully considered statements, namely:

    First, I am not persuaded that homosexual genital relations are contrary to the divine will.
    Second, I am not prepared to exclude from the priesthood or from the body of the faithful those who are involved in such relations.
    Third, I do not believe that we should discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation or activity.

    I went on to say:

    “Human relations, however, require a degree of restraint.  We cannot love one another as Christ loves us without that.  An action, not in itself wrong, may be nappropriate, even offensive, at the wrong time, in the wrong context.  Sex has its place but it is not the sole defining principle; alone, it does not constitute who we are.  We are defined by our humanity, by being created and redeemed, by being made in the image of God and remade by the death and resurrection of God’s only Son.  I do not accept that Christianity is necessarily and inevitably patriarchal or homophobic, but I see in the Church – the Church as the body of Christ … the celebration of a redeemed humanity where race, colour, gender, language, sexual orientation, disability, wealth and poverty are of no consequence.”

    I haven’t change my position during the last decade or during the last six months.

    • Martin,

      We can all see that you haven’t even attempted to even begin to answer the critique of the service that you approved and presided over. Frankly, we all know exactly what you think on the subject, but I have demonstrated above that your position is utterly at odds with the doctrine of the Church of England on the subject of marriage. Your complete failure to address that displays the bankruptness of your theology. It is isn’t even vaguely Christian, let alone Anglican.

      • As you know nothing at all about my theology, as you call it, except what the media have reported, I think that is an amazing statement.  Your view of the disciplinary process was a complete work of fantasy – you were never anywhere near the truth – and it would probably do your entire process of prayer and thought a great deal of good if you gave up commenting on things that you know absolutely nothing about.  Actually, I would recommend that you give up blogs, facebook, the web, everything; it just feeds your view of your own importance and the idea that you have somehow become the arbiter to faith and morals, with a better claim to infallibility than the Pope.  No-one made you a judge over me, so you have arrogated to yourself a role that is not yours.  Before you echo my Bishop in describing St Bartholomew’s as a private fiefdom – which it isn’t because the laity are fully involved in formulating the parish’s fundamental policies – consider that you have established a private papacy, a new and unauthorised Petrine ministry.   

        My theology begins with God, and carries on with creation, incarnation, redemption, the Blessed Virgin, the gift of the Spirit, the Church, the sacraments, the communion of saints, and the resurrection of the body, and I might reach sexuality eventually, but I’d rather think and preach about God than sex anytime. 

        • Thanks for that Martin. Another comment full of ad hominem and not engaging in the slightest with the critique above of the theology of the service you both presided over AND approved (theologically). Brilliant stuff. Thank you.

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