A celebration of a universal rite

Should we ever have allowed the vociferous elements of the church lobby and other religious groups campaigning against same-sex marriage to define what society means by and wants from marriage?

Pope FrancisThe institution of marriage predates recorded history and it is contested whether the shift from polygamy to monogamy, the predecessor of formal marriage, took place through evolution 4,000,000 or 20,000 years ago. The common principles of commitment and responsibility are believed to make marriage important in forming the fundamental social building blocks that bind us together. It is, in other words, an ancient and ubiquitous human ritual, albeit of multiple formats.

Of particular interest to anthropologists has been the role of ritual in the structure of human life. ‘Life-crisis‘ ceremonies, or rites of passage, are publicly displayed and shared at birth, puberty, marriage and death to mark out the phases of a life and are often accompanied by lavish and complex ritualistic traditions.

Catherine Bell refers to the symbolic dimensions of ritual that are linked to a cosmic authority to legitimate social hierarchy. So, in this appeal to a higher authority, which in turn stipulates compliance, ritual supports traditional forms of social hierarchy and shields the assumptions on which the authority is based from challenge.

Nonetheless, traditional rituals are, perhaps somewhat contradictorily, not fixed. The rules and the governance of marriage have changed over time and space, depending on demographic benefit and necessity. History gives us many examples of its permutations: monogamy, polygyny, less commonly polyandry, same-sex marriage, and, though rare, even examples of group marriage such as that of the Caingang people of Brazil. Prohibitions to marriage have included those based on age, pre-existing kinship or membership of religious or another socio-economic group, as well as barriers such as permanence and gender. Marriage contracts, as distinct from the state of marriage, range from a simple mutual agreement to full civil and religious ceremonies overseen by the state and/or organised religion and vary from a state of permanence to serial monogamy.

Ancient practices

As a polygynous society, the ancient Israelites seem to have had an ambivalent attitude to marriage based predominantly on the needs of men, who had no laws imposing marital fidelity on them, although married or betrothed women risked the death penalty for adultery. The Old Testament book of Malachi says that God hates divorce but only mentions men divorcing women, whereas in Ezra, God commands Israelite men to divorce their pagan wives, and the Book of Proverbs compares wives to precious possessions and subjects them to a litany of expected virtues.

In Europe, Ancient Greek girls were usually married to much older men by the time they were about 14. They were judged on their dowry, their fertility and their skills in such things as weaving. European mediaeval aristocracy began to record their social, economic and political practices around the institution, which were often arranged and closely controlled by senior members of the family because of a transfer of land, social prestige and political connection. In the 19th century, inequalities prevented Catholics, atheists, Baptists and many others from marrying except in the Anglican Church. In the 20th century, the law was changed to recognise married men and married women as equal before law.

Traditional marriages of girls younger than the legal marriageable age, 16 or 18 in most jurisdictions, are still widespread, in spite of international agreements and national laws, according to Nawal M. Nour. Poverty, religion, tradition and conflict play central roles in the rate of child marriage in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Religion takes over

Kenneth Allan says that anthropologist Émile Durkheim saw religion itself as as the most fundamental social institution of humankind. As human experience became symbolised and social interactions ritualised, religion became organised and more central, until religious organisations claimed the right to define the practice of marriage and police its use.

The early Christian church had no specific ritual for marriage, which was left to the Roman secular establishment. Garry Wills, Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern University in Illinois, says that in the 12th century the ‘sacralizing of the natural reality led to a demoting of Yahwist marriage [the Garden of Eden-style becoming one flesh], the only kind Jesus recognized, as inferior to “true marriage” in a church.’ And so began the belief in ‘holy matrimony’ ordained by god as a sacred institution.

Before the marriage rite was written into the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in the 16th century, marriages were much more informal: couples could simply promise themselves to one another at any time or place and the spoken word was as good as the written contract. Even Thomas Aquinas had only required spousal consent as the ‘efficient cause of matrimony‘ in the 13th century. But in 1549, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church according to the use of the Church of England [etc] set down a common liturgy that included a prescribed wedding service.

It was not until this time in the 16th century that the Catholic Church officially named the sacraments for the first time in Canon Law at the Council of Trent in 1547 after the Protestant Reformation had mounted its now historical challenge, reaffirming the primacy of celibacy condemning the practice of taking concubines, and making marriage valid only when the wedding takes place before a priest and two witnesses. Prior to that time, the seven sacraments, including the sacrament of Matrimony, were accepted as part of the apostolic oral and written tradition without controversy.

So, we can see that in Europe at least it has taken only  500 years of the 2.4 million-year span of human history for the church in its varying guises and traditions to take control of and define what is meant by a timeless and universal human ritual, to manipulate it to fit its own beliefs and to exclude anyone deemed unfit to partake in their idea of holiness.  In a thankfully increasingly secularised, equality and human rights-driven society, despite the extant link between state and church, the recognition that injustices have been embedded in our society are being challenged by gay and straight alike. Amen to that.


Bell, C Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford University Press, USA. 1997

Nour NM Health Consequences of Child Marriage in Africa. Emerging Infectious Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). November 2006

Allan, KD Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World. Pine Forge Press. November 2005

Wills, G The Myth About Marriage. New York Review of Books. Accessed July 2013