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This page last updated 8 July 2015  

an essay for Anglicans Online
8 July 2015

Marriage, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

Has The Episcopal Church changed its doctrine of marriage? Reading various statements during and after the 78th General Convention, it would seem that once again, that church based in America and present in sixteen other countries is threatening the fragile unity of the Anglican Communion by leaving behind the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Why is The Episcopal Church singled out, however? Our church is in the same position as the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of Ireland, the Church of Wales, the Church of Canada, the Church of Australia, the Church of Southern Africa, the Church of Brazil, the Church of Mexico, and the Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia. Not to mention the Church of England itself. Each of these churches of the Anglican Communion is trying to discern a way forward that includes gay and lesbian people as full members of the Church, as their secular governments have legitimized same-sex marriage. If that is straining the bonds of our Communion, it is not purely an American issue, by any means.

What follows, Gentle Reader, is my attempt to explain what we did decide, which is to begin the process of amending the marriage rite in the Book of Common Prayer. Then I will turn to the situation in the Anglican Communion as a whole.

Let me be clear: marriage is part of the Church’s doctrine, one of the questions of the relations that are the Triune God as reflected in the relationships of human beings. It is not “merely” a moral or pastoral matter, for moral and pastoral theology cannot be divorced from doctrine. The doctrine of The Episcopal Church comes from various sources: “ the basic and essential teachings of the Church [are] to be found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer” (Canons of The Episcopal Church, IV.2). The Book of Common Prayer, the touchstone of the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church, to which all clergy swear to conform, has not yet been amended. The canon concerning the preparation of marriage has indeed been changed to read “the couple” instead of gender-specific language — but the canons are not sources of doctrine.

The Catechism is such a source, however, and it has not been changed:

Q. What is Holy Matrimony?

A. Holy Matrimony is Christian marriage, in which the woman and man enter into a life-long union, make their vows before God and the Church, and receive the grace and blessing of God to help them fulfill their vows. (BCP, 861)

Clearly, we have entered a new phase of discernment, begun in 1976, concerning this teaching. Technically, this is known as “development of doctrine,” to which I shall return below. But to begin with, I have argued that the theology of marriage that we have inherited is not adequate to the mystery of marriage alluded to in Ephesians 5.

What we did do by decision of the General Convention was to approve a change of the canon that priests must follow to prepare couples for marriage, in order to facilitate the use of two “trial rites.” Read it here. The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music had proposed three new rites that different- and same-sex couples could use for marriage. One was rejected by the House of Bishops. The other two are (1) a revision of an earlier rite for the blessing of a same-sex civil union; and (2) a version of the Prayer Book rite that is not gender-specific. These can be found here.

“Trial use” of a rite is specified in Article X.b of the Episcopal Church Constitution. It hearkens back to the first Book of Common Prayer, proposed in 1786 and finalized by Convention in 1789. We Episcopalians have always believed that any rite to be used in the Book must first be tried out by the people of God. Two consecutive General Conventions must approve the text of the rite for it to be included in the Prayer Book — and to become a source of the church’s doctrine. When the 1928 Prayer Book was approved, replacing the 1892 Book, a standing commission on liturgy was established to continue the process of revision. (At the time, the 1928 Book was considered to be temporary, as its approval in 1925 had been very controversial.) It took 51 years and several trial rites before the 1979 Book that we now use received approval.

So these two rites are now authorized for trial use. Furthermore, their use is completely at the direction and with the permission of the Bishop exercising jurisdiction. Because the Constitution requires that trial rites be authorized throughout the Church, bishops who disapprove of their use must nevertheless make provision for a couple who desire one or the other’s use. See here for the text.

Moreover, the exact texts must be approved at two consecutive General Conventions (see Canon II.3.6 for an expanded description). Insertion in the Prayer Book has stringent requirements, and there is no telling when — or even if — either or both of these specific marriage rites will pass the second reading in 2018 that is constitutionally required.

It is not inconsequential that the 78th General Convention also called for the beginning of a new revision of the entire Book of Common Prayer, as we celebrate next year the fortieth anniversary of the 1976 Proposed Book.

Concerning the issue of marriage in the Communion as a whole, it is mightily ironic that all across the world, the secular is driving the sacred, albeit in different directions. The U.S. Supreme Court decision making marriage available to same-sex couples in all fifty states follows similar decisions already handed down or legislated in dozens of countries, including South Africa. In equatorial Africa, the politics of the criminalization of homosexuality are also driving the Anglican churches’ response, as those churches have either tacitly or overtly approved of such legislation. Whereas in the West the question is one of right of access to the state of married life, in those parts of Africa it concerns the struggle to overcome the legacy of colonialism. Even though “everybody knows” that there have always been some African women and men who experience same-sex attraction, politicians are finding it expedient to call same-sex relationships a decadent Western colonial import that has nothing to do with healthy African ways. Which, if elected, they will eradicate …

The State always has taken the Church on marriage where it did not want to go. Under the Roman Empire, the Church struggled with the problem of slaves who could not marry, and the easy divorce laws of Rome. (Roman women citizens were by far the most liberated in the ancient world.) The barbarian invaders were evangelized, and taught to respect the church laws concerning marriage. This had the effect over centuries of raising the status of women from the equivalent of cattle to that of human beings, with rights. Then as nation-states began to form, marital issues of the monarchs were put to the Church for judgment. From this exigency developed the canon law itself and eventually the traditional teaching we are familiar with. The Eastern Church on the other hand was required to allow remarriage after divorce by the Byzantine emperors.

The Reformers declared that marriage was not a sacrament, a position that to an extent influenced Article XXV of the 39 Articles of Religion The Council of Trent’s innovative decree Tametsi outlawed clandestine marriages and required public rites in the church with a priest. The Protestant churches followed the same pattern, as well, despite affirming that marriage is not a sacrament. In both cases, political and economic developments continued as always to drive the ecclesiastical agendas.

Now we stand in a new and bewildering time. Whereas almost all of our ancestors lived on average 35 years and half their children died by age 12, we in the West have over twice their life expectancy, and the death of children is thankfully no longer routine. Humans are so numerous that we are straining the resources of the planet. Technology has made possible the enjoyment of sex without fear of pregnancy. While we still need to procreate future generations to ensure the survival of the species (that will never go away), the powerful cultural forces that once demanded a high fertility rate have withered. Our society’s need of marriage is still there, as it always has been in every human community, but it is changing again, and very rapidly.

While the Episcopal Church has wrestled with the question of the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people for forty years, it is important to remember that in the churches overall, the notion that marriage is for other goods, such as mutuality, besides procreation is only about twice that old. That in itself is a development of doctrine which has happened in all the Western churches. In light of all these changes, the emergence of gay and lesbian Christian couples from the outer darkness to which they had traditionally been consigned is not surprising.

What is surprising is that after an early period of rejecting marriage as a patriarchal institution, now many such couples in the Church want it. In the present context, for them to affirm that marriage is, in the words of the new canon, “unconditional, mutual, exclusive, faithful, and lifelong,” is a remarkable resurgence of the Tradition, seemingly discarded by modern sophisticates. It is in fact conservative.

What does this mean? The Anglican Communion has an opportunity to develop the doctrine of marriage. Develop, not deny or adulterate. Will we seize it? Or will our differences be simply more fodder for power grabs through schism, doctrine degraded into slogans? We need to beg for the Spirit’s guidance, for we can get it wrong, as well. The great challenge before us all, around the world, is to reflect deeply on the Holy Scriptures, our histories, the achievements and errors of our ancestors, and the experience of the present, so as not to deny the traditional doctrine of marriage, but rather to deepen it. To paraphrase the challenging words of the Collect for Richard Hooker, in this day of bitter controversy, we can admit no compromise for the sake of a false peace. We must strain forward toward a comprehension for the sake of truth. And as the Episcopal bishops affirmed, we can only accomplish this together.

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at