AS EYE SEE IT by Peter Toon. A Column of Opinion
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Tue Jan 7 00:48:03 EST 2003
AS EYE SEE IT
By Peter Toon
Co-habitation and Clandestine Marriage - are they similar?
One of the features of modern life in the West is the number of
couples who live together in a "faithful partnership": one of the
features of medieval and early modern life was the number of couples
who secretly agreed to marry and sealed their promises with sexual
intercourse. In the case of the former, public opinion is now
generally neutral and certainly tolerant: public opinion was also
generally neutral and tolerant also about the latter until
Parliament decided it was time to make Clandestine marriages illegal.
In Great Britain the suppression of Clandestine Marriage occurred in
1753 with the passing of The Marriage Act. Henceforth, marriage could
not be rushed into by anyone but had to follow the reading of banns
and required witnesses.
Before the passing of this Act, it had long been the case that if a
man and a woman, being unmarried, made promises one to another and
then engaged in sexual intercourse they were regarded as married in
the sight of God by the Church. The Council of Trent accepted this
long standing situation but required the presence of a priest to
witness their promises or vows.
The reason why Clandestine Marriage was accepted by the Catholic
Church and her courts for long centuries was that the Church doctrine
of marriage. This was that an exchange of binding promises
[preferably with 2 witnesses] and physical union were the essential
elements of the making of a marriage. The involvement of parental
consent was not seen as essential if the parties were of age. And
this medieval Catholic approach was accepted in terms of canon law
in Protestant England, until 1753.
Of course, what the Christian State and the Church wished to see in
Britain was the state of affairs required in The Book of Common
Prayer - banns followed by a public service of holy matrimony - which
had been in place since the mid sixteenth century. And this state of
affairs was achieved (yet not wholly for Christian reasons) by
Parliament in 1753.
Of course, the Act did not stop fornication and adultery in practice
or in suggestion in the theatre plays of the period. But from
henceforth a couple who lived together could not claim to be married
unless they had gone through the hoops erected by the State.
In the post 1960s western world of Europe and America, there are a
few couples who run off to Reno or Las Vegas or Gretna Green
(Scotland) for a quick marriage and in so doing surprise and/or annoy
family & friends. But the dynamic [certainly not the strict]
equivalent today of Clandestine Marriage is perhaps Co-Habitation.
It seems that a larger proportion of young male/female couples live
together, sharing bed and board, than actually marry each other -
although some who co-habit then later marry.
In fact, Co-Habitation has become so common that society accepts it
without negative comment and the Church merely tells the parties that
they ought to get married, or live separately.
The situation is that these heterosexual couples are living in what
they term temporary, faithful partnerships, and in some cases, these
faithful partnerships may become more permanent through a marriage.
So one of the various questions that arise when we reflect upon this
situation is this: Does the use of the adjective "faithful" make co-
habitation to be moral?
Before offering a brief answer, we have to recognize that there are
now many "gay" or same-sex couples who also tell us that they are
living in "faithful" partnerships. They say that if the heterosexuals
can do it, why can't they do so as well!
Morality in the West is more and more being based upon and found
within the emerging doctrine of human rights. So, it is commonly
argued, that if I have a right to personal fulfilment and happiness
(which I do), and if I find this with a partner (of either sex), and
if the partner feels the same way, and if we are doing no observable
harm to anyone else, then our "relationship" is moral and remains so
as long as each of us maintains loyalty and faithfulness.
However, on a strict interpretation of the commandments within the
Law of God in the Bible and within the Canon Law of the Church from
the early centuries to the present, co-habiting without the vows of
holy matrimony is fornication, is sin, is wickedness and is immoral.
It is a sin to be repented of, which means in practice that the
parties are to separate with due penitence or to be joined (where
this is permissible and desired) in holy matrimony according to the
law and before witnesses.
One thing is clear in a time when human rights are so prominent in
culture and church - the church should not treat heterosexual
cohabitation favourably (by turning a blind eye) and homosexual
cohabitation negatively! Either both are allowed by human rights or
both are condemned by divine law! And if the latter then great
pastoral sensitivity is needed when uttering the divine condemnation
in both cases.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon is Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & is Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large of The Prayer Book
Society of America.
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