Thursday 12 January 2012

Marriage – let’s be clear on the biblical and legal definitions – and fight to retain them

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, is quoted in the Telegraph today as saying that marriage is still the bedrock of society which promotes love, care and forgiveness in relationships.

Last week, the same paper reported that a senior High Court judge, Sir Paul Coleridge, had launched a campaign to promote marriage and fight family breakdown. Sir Paul, 62, who has been married for almost 40 years, said that he was ‘unashamedly advocating marriage as the gold standard for couples where children are involved’.

Previously on this blog I presented evidence that marriage leads to better family relationships, less economic dependence, better physical health and longevity, improved mental health and emotional well-being and reduced crime and domestic violence.

The findings of the landmark 2006 report 'Breakdown Britain' were similar. Based on an extensive evidence-based analysis by the Centre for Social Justice it found that the breakdown of marriage and the family was the key driver of Britain's collapse, strongly correlated with the five 'pathways to poverty': family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness, and addiction.

Marriage is a virtually universal human institution because it was originally God’s idea. It was God who first said that it was not good for man to be alone and who created the unique complementarity of the marriage relationship for companionship, pleasure, procreation and the raising of children – one man, one woman, united for life (Genesis 2:24).

Marriage is also in this way illustrative of Christ's own self-giving abandonment to his bride the church (Ephesians 5:31, 32) and points to a greater richness of human relationships beyond the grave of which the very best on earth are but a pale shadow.(1 Corinthians 2:9, 10).

Marriage is practised by virtually all societies and cultures and this was God’s clear intention. Marriage is not just something for Christians but for all mankind. It was given as a creation ordinance in the second chapter of Genesis long before the calling of Abraham, the establishment of Israel or the birth of the church.

The very same biblical definition of marriage has been part of British law for centuries and was formally defined in a famous court case late in the 19th century.

The classic legal definition of marriage dates back to that given by Lord Penzance in Hyde v Hyde in 1866:

'… the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.'

So there are four conditions for a marriage:

•the marriage must be voluntary
•the marriage must be for life, ie the parties' intention at the time of the marriage
•the union must be heterosexual
•it must be monogamous

In addition, the parties must be of marriageable age.

The formalities of marriage are predominantly governed by the Marriage Act 1949, the Marriage Act 1983 and the Marriage (Registrar General's Licence) Act 1970.

By contrast the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (CPA 2004) defines civil partnership as a formal legal relationship between two people of the same sex formed when they register as civil partners of each other. It gives same-sex couples virtually all of the rights and privileges of married couples.

Currently same-sex couples cannot get married and opposite-sex couples cannot form civil partnerships.

There are moves currently in both Scotland and Westminster to change the legal definition of marriage to include partners of the same sex.

The Scottish Government Same-Sex Marriage Consultation closed on Friday 9 December. A similar Westminster consultation on same-sex ‘marriage’ will be launched in February. Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and opposition leader Ed Miliband have already voiced their support for legalisation.

Sentamu and Coleridge have given a strong lead in standing up for the uniqueness of marriage. It is now time for other Christian leaders to follow suit.

Some people may choose to live in civil partnerships, and under present law this is now legal (although not moral). But no one has the right to redefine marriage for the rest of us.

Let do everything possible to make sure they don’t. Marriage is special and unique. Marriage is marriage – one man, one woman, for life. It is not for governments to define - but simply to recognise.


  1. Well said, Peter. I've never understood the argument that marriage is a "Victorian Christian" institution set up by men to subjugate women. Every programme I've seen about the human race shows some form of covenant relationship between one man and one woman, often with the exchange of gifts or money. It's true that in some periods of history it has been abused, perhaps especially over the past two or three centuries in Britain, but that doesn't make it wrong.

  2. In spite of the fact that even in Evangelical bible believing churches couples living together seems to be condoned it is still God's holy Law that marriage is as defined by Peter. The fact that such couples and society in general accept this as the norm still does not make it morally right as God instituted marriage so that couple could live together in His way by marriage. Even though there are small but vocal groups advocating homosexual marriage/partnerships this will never ever make it morally right and will only serve to hasten the deserved judgement of a righteous God whose laws are being so openly and blatantly ignored.


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