Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

The theology of ordination and of marriage

Here's the full text of the fourth chapter of the WFWG report:

Way Forward Working Group  |  22 Feb 2016

This section explains how the working group has understood the theology of ordination and marriage in a way which might permit blessing of same-sex couples who have been married in a civil ceremony, and how such a blessing might affect qualification for ordination.

The group perceives a distinction to be made between the Church’s theology of ordination and of marriage, and the statements in Te Pouhere, the Formularies, and the Canons which collectively express the Church’s doctrine.

Since the middle of the 20th century the Church’s theology has been changing in a variety of ways.  What might be broadly called the theology of the body (how the physical body is understood through to an understanding of what it means faithfully to belong to the body of Christ) has received a good deal of attention, as theologians have engaged with advances in biblical studies and church history, in physiological and psychological advances, and in cultural and political analysis.  Feminist scholars have enlarged the field of reading scripture, for example, and the Church’s theology of baptism has affected congregational life; the list is long. 

Various sociological and anthropological disciplines influence each other, and a wide range of theology emerges from this work.  However, no single theological position emerging from these influences could be held to be that of the whole Church, and certainly not belonging to the whole Anglican Communion.  This fact is both consistent with Anglican theology down the centuries, and at the heart of the difficulty that confronts Anglicans today.  Anglican differences are now frequently litigiously framed, and doctrine eclipses all else because it is doctrine to which licensed Anglicans register their assent.


The proposed changes have an effect on who may be ordained by the Church.  This does not come about because of a change in either the Church's doctrine of marriage or a change in its doctrine of ordination.  The Church still requires those coming to be ordained to either be celibate or in "rightly ordered" relationships; there is no suggestion that there is a lower standard now required.  However the proposals do expand the definition of rightly-ordered relationships to include those who are in a civil marriage and whose relationship has been blessed.  The reason for the expanded definition is that the group felt that the Church could not bless a relationship yet not consider it to be "rightly ordered".  However as the proposals allow Dioceses/Amorangi to decide which blessing rite will be adopted those that do not adopt a rite to bless same-sex couples will not be subject to an expanded definition of "rightly ordered".  Allowing Dioceses/Hui Amorangi this choice is consistent with Anglican ecclesiology and our current doctrine of ordination which vests considerable discretion in Bishops.

The theology of marriage

Because the motion that was passed at General Synod / te Hīnota Whānui in 2014 affirmed the “traditional doctrine of marriage”, there is no change to the existing formularies.  The group’s proposal (in line with its commission) to propose a service for the blessing of same-sex relationships does not (in the view of the majority of the members) impact the current doctrine of marriage.  It is accepted that the blessing of a relationship has some similarities with the rites of marriage, but even as the two are alike in many ways they are not the same.  Neither would a doctrine of same-sex relationships be the same as the doctrine of marriage. 

From a theological point of view, it is suggested that it is reasonable to expect consonance between the virtues lifted up to God in traditional marriage and in same-sex relationships.  This is appropriate not least because it is well understood that sexual intimacy is shored up and secured by virtues like fidelity, constancy, honesty, commitment and so on, all of which help to mitigate the risks and vulnerabilities that accompany sexually intimate relationships. 

In theological discourse, marriage has hitherto been the only model available to expound a holy, sexually-intimate relationship.  As the Spirit guides the Church into truth, the Christian tradition has discerned godliness in modes of friendship and community, but the discourse of marriage is leaned on (to some considerable extent) to inform a Christian understanding of the relatively new phenomenon of same-sex relationships.

The doctrine of marriage

As previously noted, the Church’s doctrine is contained in its formularies and canons, and in higher level documents (Te Pouhere and the Church of England Empowering Act 1928).  Marriage is not expressly mentioned except in the twenty-fifth article of the 39 Articles:[1] 

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures: but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

Thus, it is not strictly accurate for Anglicans to call marriage a sacrament, and it certainly cannot be called a Sacrament of Christ.[2]  It is notable that the Church’s formularies and canons are not of one voice with regard to marriage, and therefore neither is the Church’s doctrine.  Some might describe the stated doctrine as confused (or even contradictory) if one considers, for example, that an amended form of the marriage liturgy from the 1662 Prayer Book was included in He Karakia Mihinare / A New Zealand Prayer Book, but both the 1662 and the 1928 versions of the Book of Common Prayer have been retained as constitutional formularies.

A simple illustration may be found in the bride’s vow to obey her husband.  This is present in the 1662 liturgy, was omitted from the 1928 revision, but is entirely absent in both word and implication from He Karakia Mihinare / A New Zealand Prayer Book.  The mutuality and equality expected and celebrated in marriage today are contained in formularies that are simply set alongside the older ones in which obedience and subjection of the wife to her husband are affirmed.  While many clergy might baulk at being asked to officiate at the rite of marriage using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer rite of marriage, such a request would in fact be a legitimate one for a couple to make. 

The differing depictions of marriage implied by these wedding liturgies create certain doctrinal tensions, but might also be viewed charitably as honouring the Church’s history while accepting (embracing, even) the dynamic nature of an evolving doctrine. 

In a further example, one can read in the very last clause of the marriage canon that marriage “was ordained for the increase of mankind according to the will of God.”[3]  In Thomas Cranmer’s exposition of the purposes of marriage in the Book of Common Prayer, this explanation and understanding of marriage was at the top of the list.  Yet this clause is now listed very last of six clauses in the current schedule, with a more recent development of understanding taking its original place: “Marriage is intended by God to be a creative relationship” is now the opening clause in the schedule.  These two causes or intentions of marriage are not the same thing, rather it can be seen that the much older phrase has informed and influenced the newer one (and the first has become last!).

It is suggested that General Synod / Te Hīnota Whānui consider whether the principle most important for the Church’s conversations today is the spirit of accommodation already contained in church doctrine, as these examples demonstrate.  The addition of a further rite of blessing of a same-sex relationship might therefore be seen as congruent with the Church’s established practice of accommodating previous understandings of holiness in intimate relationships, and retaining them alongside newer understandings as they emerge, despite the diversity of voices they represent.

Pastoral sensitivity

The current doctrine expressed in current canons and formularies makes significant accommodation for pastoral concerns.  One most obvious example is the provision that a minister may waive the requirement that at least one of the parties to the marriage be baptised (“in unusual pastoral circumstances in consultation with the appropriate episcopal authority”).[4]  This is a significant waiver given the view the Western Church traditionally holds that the marriage rite and the marriage itself is an occasion for baptised Christians to minister to each other.

Similarly, the marriage canon allows for the marriage of a divorced person, “even though the other party to the prior marriage is still living.”  This provision is entirely motivated by pastoral sensitivity, in response to the reality of the province’s contemporary context, namely that even though marriage is a life-long commitment, some marriages do end while both parties to them are still alive, and it is deemed by the Church that the parties to such marriages might rightly and properly marry again.  This pastoral provision is particularly apposite to the Church’s current conversations about same-sex attracted persons, not least because the scriptural strictures against the possibility of divorce and remarriage (coming as they do from words attributed to Jesus) are arguably much stronger than those against same-sex relationships.

The various pastoral discretions available to ministers in the canons, considered together with the development of new formularies, demonstrate that the doctrine of marriage implicit in both canons and formularies place the love and holiness of a couple’s relationship as prior to absolute or literalistic traditional understandings of marriage.  Te Hīnota Whānui / General Synod 2016 is invited to consider whether the addition of same-sex blessings is in concert with this view.

For the sake of utmost clarity: what is being proposed is the blessing of a relationship that manifests a number of virtues that honour each partner and God (and, thus, can be called a ‘Holy Union’).  In line with Motion 30, it is the case that such couples also need to be already legally married. The marriage itself will have occurred elsewhere, and the working group acknowledges that this will fall short of some Christian same-sex couples’ hopes because they cannot be married ‘in church’.

[1] And, for completeness, a homily “of the State of Matrimony” in the thirty-fifth article which would be widely held to represent an archaic view with regard to women’s apparel, obedience and subjection, and so on.

[2] The catechism in He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa / A New Zealand Prayerbook lists marriage as “a sacramental action.”

[3] Title G, Canon III, Schedule II, Clause 6.

[4] Title G, Canon III, 1.6