Later today I will participate in a conversation about how the Anglican Church of Canada understands “marriage”. What does “marriage” mean?

We are having this conversation because, whether we like it or not, language is fluid. The meanings of words are not fixed forever. How we understand and use words changes over time.

If before the nineteenth century I said to you, “I feel awful”, you would have understood that I was experiencing some kind of feeling of deep reverence or awe. Today, when I say “I feel awful”, you will probably respond saying, “I’m so sorry. Are you sick?”

If in the sixteenth century I said to my wife, “You are my bully,” she would have blushed and hopefully replied, “You are my sweetheart too.” If I said to her today, “You are a bully,” she would be deeply offended understanding that I was accusing her of being a mean person who picks on people she perceives to be weaker than herself.

Language is not set in concrete. The meanings and connotations we associate with words is always in flux. Over time the relationships we have come to associate with the word “marriage” have shifted.

In 2 Samuel 12:7,8, God spoke about marriage to King David saying,

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. (2 Samuel 12:7,8)

For God at this point in history, apparently “marriage” did not mean one man for one woman for life. “Marriage” for David included his relationship with at least eight women, apparently all at the same time.

In Jesus’ day “marriage” would have been primarily understood as a relationship that came into existence as the result of an arrangement between two families. The couple involved may have had little say in the relationship. An economic exchange would have been involved and any idea of romance would have been viewed as entirely beside the point.

Even in my life-time our understanding of what “marriage” means has shifted.

My father was ordained a priest in the Church of England in the late 1930’s. He served as a priest in the Anglican Church until his death in 1987. In his 50 years of ordained ministry, my father did not once remarry a person who had been previously married and whose marriage had ended in divorce.

I know my father was approached by at least one divorced person, a beloved and faithful member of his parish, hoping he would perform her wedding in the church after her divorce. My father could not perform the wedding. It is not that my father was lacking in compassion. But, marriage, as my father understood it throughout his entire life, meant one woman for one man until death did them part. A remarried divorced person was a contradiction in terms; the second “marriage” could not be a marriage.

I have married several people whose previous marriages have ended tragically in legal divorce. I believe absolutely in marriage for life. But I understand that there are times when, with the best intentions of our hearts, it is not possible to fulfill the ideals to which we aspire. And I believe, when it becomes impossible to fulfill the ideals we hold, we are wise to acknowledge the failure, attempt to learn from the past, and move on into the future with the hope of a new beginning.

For me the word “marriage” includes divorced people who have been blessed with the opportunity to make a lifetime commitment of love with a new person and have courageously launched into a new marriage relationship; for my father it did not.

In the prevailing culture of North America and much of the western world, the understanding and legal definition of the word “marriage” has undergone a radical shift in the past decade. The category of “marriage” is expanding. Words changing their meaning is not necessarily a bad thing. In this case the redefinition is emerging in response to new knowledge and growing compassion.

It is difficult to see what harm is done by two people committing themselves to living together in faithful monogamous same-gender lifelong intimate relationship. For most of western culture today, regardless of the gender of the participants, such a relationship is now a marriage. The church may resist this redefinition; but it is difficult to see what harm is done by celebrating the new understanding of marriage that has come to prevail in our culture.


earlier reflections on the “biblical definition” of marriage: