Two into One

From Anglo-Saxon elopement to royal re-marriage


I was driving past Arundel at the time when David Frost, the divorced son of a Methodist minister, was poised to form a matrimonial alliance with the Catholic family who reside at the Castle. When I made a casual reference to their marriage, I was surprised to be corrected. But then my travelling companion was a wise priest. ‘A form of marriage’, he replied, ‘they will be entering a form of marriage.’

Of course he was right. Marriage now takes different forms – witness the rather similar marriage involving a divorced commoner to be concluded in Windsor Town Hall this month. But this should not surprise us. Until the Church got hold of it and filled it with some Christian content, it was a pretty flexible and accommodating institution.

Marriage transactions

Take for example the definition of marriage in Germanic law codes (like those of our own Anglo-Saxon forbears) before Christianity began to work on them. There were three ways of contracting a marriage: by capture (sometimes called ‘marriage by rape’); by purchase (a financial arrangement with the bride’s family); and by mutual consent (which meant marriage by elopement, to which the bride consented, but her family did not). And flexibility continued to be the name of the game after you had raped, bought or run off with your bride.

The first year of marriage was a trial period and you could walk out the door without a backward glance – unless there was a child. In this case (shades of the Child Support Agency) money was usually involved, a fine or a sum equivalent to the original price you paid for your bride (if you had paid!). But divorce was one-way traffic.

Burgundian law decreed that a woman attempting to divorce her husband was to be covered in dung. A Burgundian man, on the other hand, could divorce his wife for adultery. In fact, if you caught your wife in flagrante with another Burgundian, you could kill them both without legal penalty. You could also divorce her for sorcery or tomb-violation. But actually, as long as you were important enough, you did not need a reason. You could just do it.

Bryce Christensen, an American professor of literature, has made it his business to investigate the form marriage takes in our post-Christian Germanic societies. His focus is on America, but his conclusions apply to Europe too. His argument is that marriage has been transformed in the last twenty-five years or so, and that this transformation is the reason why same-sex couples are now showing an interest in the institution. He writes, ‘homosexual weddings constitute the predictable (not natural, but entirely predictable) culmination of cultural changes that have radically de-natured marriage.’

Two careerists in a bed

Marriage is not what it was, in his opinion, for two main reasons. First is the destruction of the ‘complementary husband–wife division of labour.’ This arose spontaneously in an agrarian society in which the household was the unit of production (think Little House on the Prairie) but remained in place in an industrialized US in the ‘somewhat artificial breadwinner/homemaker version.’ He argues that this distinction became increasingly artificial in the course of the twentieth century, so that by its end, Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin’s 1950 prophecy that it would become ‘a mere incidental parking place’ for consumption and relaxation had come true.

Christensen has an interesting take on equal opportunities legislation. He suggests that ‘the family wage system’ was willingly abandoned by corporate employers since they ‘had long recognized that bringing wives into the labour market would drive down wages.’ And the result? The advent of the careerist mother has meant that ‘in economic terms at least, a growing number of American children had two ‘fathers’ long before advocates of homosexual marriage ever attempted to give children two biologically male parents.’

These ‘two careerists in the same bed’ do not see themselves as subject to the obligations of ‘fertility, fidelity and permanence’ of the traditional marriage, even when, as our American cousins tend to, they have religious allegiances. Here is Christensen’s second solvent of Christian marriage: ‘self-sacrifice disappeared from the cultural catechism written by the Woodstock generation.’ Which brings us to homosexual marriage.

Christensen agrees with its opponents when they protest that it ‘makes a mockery of wedlock if it licenses vows for couples who can never bear children…, will not resist the temptations to extramarital affairs, and will not preserve their union for life,’ but thinks that sterility, unfaithfulness and instability are now built into the institution of heterosexual marriage. And so it ‘appeals to homosexuals because it now offers insurance, employment, lifestyle and government benefits, while imposing no obligations.’


I am not certain this is the whole story. I think there is also the Duncruisin’ Syndrome: as the body gets less attractive, settling down becomes more so. But there is surely much in what Christensen says about the similarity between heterosexual and homosexual experience in the contracepting culture of today.

As I said, marriage can take many forms. It has done in the past – for example Germanic marriage law – and, as Christiansen helps us to see, it is assuming a different shape before our very eyes. The Windsor/Parker-Bowles liaison is one sign of this metamorphosis, but it is obviously happening all around us, and not only of course to other people, in society, but to us, to Christian people in our churches.

What is to be done? Perhaps the answer is to worry less about form and concentrate more on content. As Professor Brundage’s work makes clear, the attempt by the medieval church to define the Christian form of marriage in canon law followed the evangelization of Germanic society. First Christ and then, and only then, Christian marriage.

Submission and mission

What is the Good News about sex and marriage? Can a young working woman be asked to ‘obey’ her husband? Admitting that it sounds old-fashioned, I put the following scenario to a couple marrying in my church this summer. ‘What would happen,’ I said, ‘if John got promotion in another part of the country?’ ‘I’d give up my job’, replied Emma straight away. Thus encouraged, I tried out St Paul’s ‘let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.’ I explained that another translation uses the word ‘submission’: St Paul is saying that wives should place themselves under the mission of their husbands. And what is their mission? To love as Christ loves the Church, he who came ‘not to be served, but to serve’, and to lay down his life for his Bride.

In that spirit were Germanic marriages reformed. The same spirit wants to reform modern gay marriage.


Bryce Christensen on marriage may be read at


Simon Heans is the Vicar

of St Barnabas, Beckenham

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