the way we live now

With so many alternatives to traditional marriage now available Geoffrey Kirk points out that polygamy is not the worst of options


You have to take your hat off to John Gladwin. While Ruth Gledhill was still celebrating his discomfiture over the Kenyan debacle, up popped the old trouper on the Sunday Programme, spinning like Rumpelstiltskin.

‘No offence given; no offence taken; and definitely no abandonment’! Relations between the Diocese of Chelmsford and the Anglican Church of Uganda (always, one suspects, more an episcopal abstraction than a tangible reality) were better than ever. The twenty curates who accompanied him (eight male, eight female and four undecided, I guess) had a whale of a time. There was only a single cloud on the sunny horizon: polygamy.*

Some of John’s curates usefully discovered that the Ugandan Church is more pastorally tolerant of polygamists than it is of homosexualists: a fact which, quite naturally in John’s view, only goes to show how dialogue and ‘engaging’ with one another as part of a ‘listening process’ is to everyone’s advantage.

Meanwhile, with the screening on Channel 5 of Big Love, a soap opera of faithful polygamy in suburban America (‘a 2005 study indicated that anything between 20,000 and 40,000 people in the United States practise polygamy’), the subject was getting an altogether different airing.

The coincidence of these two facts leads one to ask a simple question: what, when the ‘listening process’ is at an end, will be the liberal Christian attitude to polygamy? And what, by way of sub-text, is John Gladwin’s view? It is all very well to use polygamy in a crude sort of trade-off: ‘You can have polygamy if we can have gay sex.’ But when the chips are down, where stands the polygamist in a world where gay sex is taken for granted and even sanctified?

No one can reasonably doubt that there is a concerted political campaign afoot to destroy monogamy as an institution. The ‘privileging’ of monogamous heterosexual marriage is being regarded in many quarters as oppressive to those outside it, and offensive to those who take other ‘lifestyle options.’ In consequence in most Western societies tax incentives and other legal provisions for married couples have been progressively reduced. Proposals to give to un-married partners equal rights with married couples (which have been attacked by the Archbishop of Canterbury) are, somewhat paradoxically, merely the most recent extension of those attitudes. It is already clear, moreover, that Civil Partnerships (which were said to be a ‘contentless’ contract quite unlike matrimony) are being celebrated with all the trappings of a wedding and even the use of the very vows which the law expressly excludes. The monogamous ideal of one sexual partner for life is now regarded by the majority of the population as unrealistic, even laughable. As divorce settlements rise, adultery multiplies.

In this smorgasbord of alternatives to traditional marriage it would seem churlish not to include polygamy. Despite an unthinking and outmoded feminist prejudice against it, polygamy has many advantages for a multicultural pluralist society, not least a generous accommodation to a rapidly growing Muslim minority.

Polygamy, after all, frankly acknowledges what biology and commonsense tell us: that men find monogamy more of a burden than women. And institutional polygamy, upheld by the law (rather than the informal serial polygamy which presently prevails), would give entrenched rights to female partners, and more importantly a security to children which the current practice of random multiple couplings does not.

The harem has, frankly, had a negative press; but viewed positively as a ‘woman’s co-operative’ where, by common agreement and multi-tasking, individual members can balance the claims of motherhood with those of creative work outside the home, it could be a far more satisfactory arrangement than the childcare of indifferent quality to which most monogamous couples are these days forced to resort. It would also be cheaper.

The advantages to children are obvious. Polygamy gives a regimen of balanced childcare which few of the various parental arrangements currently on offer are able to deliver. The father, it is true, may have a favourite wife or wives, but the wives themselves, by working together, can ensure that all the father’s children receive equal attention and esteem – and a fair share of the family’s goods and services. Arguably, where the parenting skills of six or seven ‘mothers’ are pooled, the result (especially among poorer families) will be unqualifiedly beneficial.

Finally, polygamy has a long and honourable biblical history. Liberal Christians who have accommodated biblical teaching to homosexual partnerships (‘permanent, faithful, stable’) will have no difficulty in dismissing the very few words of Jesus which have led to Christian monogamy, in favour of the broader and more extensive biblical tradition of polygamous relationships. They will helpfully reflect that Jesus’ own parentage was hardly a model for the obsessive concentration on monogamy which has marked most of the Christian Church throughout most of its history.

I do not for a moment, of course, suppose that John Gladwin will be offering himself as a sort of Joseph Smith redivivus for the Anglican Communion. But it would not surprise me in the slightest if polygamy were not the next-but-one item on the liberal agenda. It is not always easy to guess where these people will jump, but one thing is certain: that as surely as they accuse the orthodox of being obsessed by sex, they are. Apart from euthanasia, the entire programme is about gender alignment or genital function.

What, you will ask, is the time scale? I am prepared to hazard a guess. I think polygamy will enter the liberal Christian radar about eight or ten gay bishops hence, and around the time when the Episcopal Church appoints its first transgendered diocesan. You can decide for yourselves when that might be.

*Ardent feminists among my readers will probably want this term cleared up. Polygamy, of course, means ‘marrying more than one spouse’ – the root is gamos, wedding. It therefore properly applies to both women and men.

The practice of a male marrying more than one female is technically polygyny; that of a woman with a number of male spouses polyandry. But it is for good reason that Mr Gates’ spell-checker, whilst recognizing ‘polyandry’, does not recognize ‘polygyny.’ No known society has formally recognized ‘polyandry’; and so ‘polygamy’ has come to replace it in common usage.

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