Friday, 22 June 2012


With all the talk about marriage that has been going on in the wake of the 'Church of England' statement about same sex marriage, I thought I would find out a bit more about the history of marriage. My sense is that it has evolved as an institution over time in ways that would scarcely be recognisable to our ancestors. Almost everyone you talk to seems to have some 'ideal' in their heads that probably either never existed or was in vogue only for a relatively short period of history. We are especially prone to hark back to a Victorian ideal of the family while overlooking the large number of women who chose to live together and the large number of people who had extra marital affairs and raised two or more families.

Society's understanding of marriage has continually evolved, as has the relationship of marriage to both state and religious life. Clearly, in Old Testament times, wives were the property of their husbands; this view has prevailed in many societies across many centuries -in English law, until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, a man and a woman became a single entity in law on their marriage and all the woman's property was surrendered to her husband - she needed his consent to make a will. For much of history, the family has been patriarchal, organised so that male progeny could be identified and enabled to inherit, while today many would argue that it is more dominated by the developmental needs of children. At many periods of history (and still, today, in a few societies) women have married as early as 13 or 14 while at other times, notably in England in the eighteenth and twenty first centuries, the avergae age for marriage for both men and women has been the late twenties. In the Mediaeval period, common law marriage was very widely practised - two people needed simply to state their intention to take each other in marriage, until the thirteenth century, without even the presence of witnesses. The Marriage Act of 1753 brought common law marriage effectively to an end but, still, during the industrial revolution and into the twenthieth century large numbers of couples simply co-habited, often for life, without any formal ceremony, and this remains the case today. Marriage has moved from being seen as primarily a legal contract to being understood as primarily an affective union. It has been viewed as being largely about procreation at times, and equally about companionship at others. It has been seen as a covenant between two people, as a covenant between God and a couple and as a sacrament. 

Marriage has been and is, at times, regulated by the church, mosque, temple or synagogue and at other times and in other places it has been and is regulated by the state, with those who choose to solemnise their marriage through the ceremonies of their religion doing so in an additional ceremony.

It therefore seems odd for the Church of England to overlook this complex history and to be defensive when the state wishes to consult about the status of marriage. The situation seems far more complex than is suggested in the recent statement to which so many have responded 'not in our name'. I would like to see a much more thorough and widely-consulting debate of the whole issue of marriage. I am not sure that we know who put the so called Church of England statement together, but it can be read at,-family-and-sexuality-issues/same-sex-marriage.aspx

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Janet for this potted history of marriage.