Prayer Book, Marriage, and Culture Wars: What Trueman gets wrong

There are also obvious reasons why a Christian should never attend a gay wedding. Many wedding liturgies, including that of the Book of Common Prayer, require the officiant to ask early in the service if anyone present knows any reason why the couple should not be joined together in matrimony. A Christian is at that point obliged to speak up ... Of course, that applies beyond the issue of gay marriage. A marriage involving somebody who has not divorced a previous spouse for biblical reasons involves that person entering into an adulterous relationship. No Christian should knowingly attend such a ceremony either.

Thus did Carl Trueman recently declare in First Things. It is rather odd that a conservative Presbyterian should invoke the Book of Common Prayer, rejected by the Presbyterian tradition when its representatives embraced schism rather than conformity in 1662. This, however, might explain why Trueman badly misinterprets the robustly Anglican 1662 rite.  

To begin with, no, the 1662 rite for the Solemnization of Matrimony does not "require the officiant to ask early in the service if anyone present knows any reason why the couple should not be joined together in matrimony" (emphasis added). The rite asks something rather different:

Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace (emphasis added).

Any objection must be just and lawful, as the rubric further expounds:

At which day of Marriage, if any man do allege and declare any impediment, why they may not be coupled together in Matrimony, by God's Law, or the Laws of this Realm; and will be bound, and sufficient sureties with him, to the parties; or else put in a caution (to the full value of such charges as the persons to be married do thereby sustain) to prove his allegation: then the solemnization must be deferred, until such time as the truth be tried.

As can be seen by the references to "sureties" and "charges", objecting to a wedding proceeding is not merely a matter of 'speaking up': it carries with it a significant financial obligation, not least to discourage and penalise those who might raise causes neither just nor lawful.

The focus for Trueman's suggestion must be, we assume, the reference to "God's Law" in the rubric, considering that "the Laws of this Realm" permit same-sex marriage. This being so, in what way does divine law provide a basis for objecting to a wedding at this point in the marriage rite? 

Let us consider some possible historical and contemporary examples.

It is 1597. In the parish of St. Mary the Virgin in Bishopsbourne, a wedding is taking place of a son of the parish (of good Conformist stock) to the daughter of a local Recusant family. One of 'the godly' happens to be present.  When the parson (historical detectives can figure out who it is) reads "Therefore if any man can shew any just cause", this representative of 'the godly' rises to his feet. He protests that it is contrary to God's Law for a Bible-believing member of the Reformed religion to marry a Papist, for Papists belong to the Antichrist: "they are doges, swine, uncleane beastes, forreiners and strangers from the Church of God" (see LEP V.68.1). And God's Law clearly states, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?".

It is 1710, in the midst of the 'Lay Baptism Controversy'. In a London parish, in the Latitudinarian tradition of St. Lawrence Jewry, a wedding is taking place of the daughter of the parson to the son of wealthy Dissenting family. A High Tory happens to be in unwilling attendance, required by family connections. At the appropriate point, he rises to his feet. He protests that it is contrary to God's Law for a member of the apostolical Church of England - maintaining the "Divine Right of the Apostolical Succession" -  to marry one who belongs to a sect lacking duly authorised Ministers, who were therefore incapable of administering "truly valid Baptism", for "the Divine Authority of him who Administers is an Essential Part of Baptism". Such sects, he declares, have "an Anti-Christian Constitution", having "abandoned the Divine Order of Bishops".

It is 2024. A complementarian evangelical is attending a wedding in the local Anglican parish church. Casting his eye over the wedding order before service begins, he notices that the bride and groom will be exchanging vows in the contemporary form: the bride, in other words, will not be promising to "obey" her husband. At the appropriate moment, the complementarian evangelical rises to his feet. He protests that the marriage cannot proceed in light of the impending failure of the bride to conform to God's Law, for God's Law requires wives to obey their husbands: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior ... wives should submit in everything to their husbands" (Ephesians 5:22, ESV).

In each of these cases invoking God's Law, has a just and lawful cause for not proceeding with the wedding been provided?

In each case the answer is a resounding, definitive 'No'.

Private invocations of divine law - not sanctioned by ecclesiastical or civil law - are no basis whatsoever for a just, lawful objection to a marriage. Any notion that, in the 1662 marriage rite, Christians are "obliged to speak up" in objection, on the basis on such private invocations of divine law is, put simply, utter nonsense. 

The basis in divine law for justly and lawfully objecting to a marriage were, for the 1662 rite, defined in the Table of Kindred and Affinity - "wherein whosoever are related are forbidden by the Church of England to marry together" - and Canons LXII and LXIII of the Canons of 1604. These Canons required clergy, "upon Pain of Suspension per triennium ipso facto", not to marry parties without the publication of Banns or a License; during daylight morning hours; "not in any private place", but in the parish church; and, if the parties were under the age of 21, to ensure parental consent before the publication of Banns. These various provisions gave expression to two fundamental aspects of divine law regarding holy matrimony: neither party could be in an existing marriage and consent had to be given by the parties to willingly enter into holy matrimony.

The Table of Kindred and Affinity gave expression to another fundamental aspect of divine law: a range of family relationships were an absolute impediment to marriage.

When the rubric, therefore, refers to 'God's Law', it is to this which it refers: that which ecclesiastical authority has determined to be the relevant and necessary aspects of divine law which would prevent the solemnising of holy matrimony. Here, to use words from Hooker, are "such ordinances as the power and authoritie of that Church under which wee live hath it selfe devised for the publique good":

if against all this it should be free for men to reprove, to disgrace, to reject at theire owne libertie what they see done and practised accordinge to order set downe, if ... the Church did give everie man license to followe what him selfe imagineth that Gods Spirit doth reveale unto him ... what other effect could hereupon ensewe, but the utter confusion of this Church under pretense of beinge taught, led, and guided by his spirit (LEP V.10.1).

We can see how this also applies to one of the situations mentioned by Trueman: "A marriage involving somebody who has not divorced a previous spouse for biblical reasons involves that person entering into an adulterous relationship". To begin with, we should note that Trueman here is presuming that are "biblical reasons" for marriage after divorce: something which many Christians, including Augustine, have rejected. 

Leaving this aside, however, let us consider a situation in which - as provided for in the canons of many Churches of the Anglican Communion - a marriage is being solemnized with one of the parties being divorced and the former spouse is living. As per many of such relevant canons, the bishop has granted permission for the marriage to be solemnised. A lay person attending the solemnising of the marriage, however, believes that God's Law is explicit and abundantly clear: "And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her". Thus, at the relevant point in the marriage rite, this lay person objects.

The objection is neither just nor lawful.  The ecclesiastical authority has determined that marriage after divorce, when granted permission by the Ordinary, is not contrary to divine law. There are, therefore, no grounds for an individual to object on the basis of private judgement. To again quote Hooker:

Ecclesiasticall lawes have place, so that, unlesse wee will be authors of confusion in the Church, our private discretion, which otherwise might guide us a contrary way, must here submit it selfe to be that way guided, which the publike judgement of the Church hath thought better ... here mens private phancies must give way to the higher judgement of that Church which is in authority over them (I.16.7).

To be clear, this does not provide an answer as to whether or not the Church has authority to canonically provide for the marriage of persons of the same sex (or, indeed, of those who are divorced). This, however, is the point. Trueman's interpretation of the provision in the 1662 marriage rite, in which just and lawful objections can be made to the solemnising of a marriage, has nothing at all to do with that debate. 

In those churches in which there is no canonical provision for solemnising marriages between persons of the same sex, it is irrelevant. In those churches in which canonical provision has been made for solemnising such marriages, the 1662 provision and its equivalent in contemporary marriage rites is likewise irrelevant: such marriages are just and lawful according to (civil law and) the understanding of divine law as given expression in the canons regulating the solemnising of holy matrimony. 

Debate about whether or not such provision accords with divine law is for synods. When a synod has decided in favour of such provision, and gives expression to its decision in canons, private judgement is not a just, lawful basis for objecting in the marriage rite to the solemnising of such marriages. Private judgement can, however, be exercised in other ways: in theological debate regarding holy matrimony; in placing oneself under an ecclesiastical authority which has a different understanding of divine law on this matter; and, as is usually the case with such canonical provisions, in clergy exercising their right not to solemnise a marriage. 

In conclusion, there are two key points. Firstly, Trueman's interpretation of this aspect of the 1662 rite, of the priest asking for just and lawful impediments to the solemnising of the marriage, is an invitation to a disorderly exercise of private judgement which had no place whatsoever in the ecclesial vision of the 1662 revisers. Indeed, they were well-used to such appeals to private judgement over and against ecclesiastical authority "during the late unhappy confusions". To answer this by saying that the 1662 revisers had no understanding of same-sex marriage is to merely state the (very) obvious: then again, they also had no place for dissenting clergy who rejected episcopal orders and subscribed to the Westminster Confession.

Secondly, this is a good example of the purpose - and an illustration of the misuse - of the Book of Common Prayer 1662. It is not a manual for resistance in 21st century culture wars. It is not a conservate go-to text for fighting off the libs. It does not serve the interests of "factious, peevish, and perverse spirits" (in the words of the Preface) of Left or Right, progressive or conservative. It is, rather, an order for common prayer and administration of the sacraments, and other ordinances, in episcopally-ordered communities, after the manner of "the ancient Fathers" and in harmony with the Reformed Catholic confession of the Articles of Religion. It does not prevent theological debate or deny theological diversity, but it roots such debate and diversity in communities of prayer, scripture, and sacrament, with generously orthodox Reformed Catholic doctrinal commitments, served by the apostolic orders of bishops, priests, and deacons, with a common life duly ordered by ecclesiastical law "ordained and approved by common authority" (Article 34). The BCP is, thankfully, not a manual for culture wars in this transitory life. It is something much richer.


  1. Soundly put, Brian. It is rather bizarre for a Presbyterian to invoke the '62 in such a way, but it seems some so-called conservatives have no sense of self-awareness or appreciation for their own intellectual pedigree. Grabbing anything that seems to stand athwart the zeitgeist and using it as a cudgel is neither diligent nor done in good faith. We conservatives ought to do better. Certainly when using such a precious thing as the '62; certainly when talking about something as important as a marriage. Our prayer book shouldn't be understood in such a crass, divisive way.

    1. Many thanks Jesse. And I entirely agree: "grabbing anything that seems to stand athwart the zeitgeist and using it as a cudgel" is neither conservative nor traditional. It lacks the wise discernment of an authentic conservatism, and the reverence for the tradition we have received - that tradition is something much greater than a cudgel for passing debates.


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