Article excerpt

Over the course of the last two decades, Anglican and Episcopal churches have been engaged in a vehement and often volatile debate about human sexuality. The reader will be delighted to know that in these brief notes I don't intend to pursue that topic or enter into that debate. I mention it simply as a means of introduction, a necessary piece in the puzzle of this preface. Listening to that debate about sexuality I heard much talk about the role of Christian marriage. What has interested me is that parties on both sides of the argument often speak about that institution as if it had not changed since the Wedding of Cana. There is often an assumption that the legal, liturgical and theological traditions enveloping the institution have not been altered since our Lord walked upon this earth. Knowing something about history and something about human nature, I thought that this was probably not the case and so I began to read various works on the subject. That reading has led me to a number of conclusions about the institution of marriage and its peculiar and complex history, but once again, you will be relieved to know that I don't intend to share any of those viewpoints with you in these pages. What I do want to share are some brief descriptions of a few of the historical works on the subject that are readily available and well worth reading. I have tried to limit myself to those volumes that are indeed readily available, which can be purchased in paperback and can be found or easily ordered from most book stores or on the internet. Before we enter the murky waters of the sexuality debate, I sincerely think that we need to familiarize ourselves with the fascinating history of this remarkable institution. That task is particularly important for members of the clergy, who are often asked to deal with these traditions critically, providing them with theological justification. In articulating a defense or an attack on this venerable institution, one needs to be well aware of the historical as well as the theological context.

The study of the history of marriage is a very difficult task. In the introduction to his book on The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), the Cambridge historian Christopher Brooke attempts to explain why such studies are so problematic. Quoting from a pioneering lecture he gave in 1962, Brooke notes that the study of marriage is a task of "extreme delicacy": "The sacrament is performed by the parties themselves; in what it consists has never been clearly defined-and a theologian who tries to do so is guilty of interfering in matters which are not his concern" (p. 6). In dealing with the history of marriage, a central tension is that between its public and private characters. Marriage is essentially a private affair that has a significant impact on public life. It is a public institution built upon a personal relationship. The decision to enter into marriage is made by two individuals privately but that decision has an enormous impact on how their families, their communities, their social circles and their government view and treat them. Given that, it has always been difficult for couples, families and political and religious institutions to decide where they should put the accent. Is marriage essentially a private affair, solely determined by two consenting adults? Or is it a public institution that demands conformity to various social and political laws and religious and familial customs? When does a marriage truly begin and what are its essential components? What determines whether a marriage is valid? Conversely what deficit or obstacle makes it defective and hence no marriage at all? These are the kinds of questions many of these works seek to address, questions arising out of the tension between the private expectations of two individuals seeking marital intimacy and the public expectations of families, political institutions and churches.

For Christians, the beginning point of any discussion of marriage is Holy Writ, an area that, for two reasons, I shall not attend to here. …


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