How Civil Marriage became “Holy Matrimony” – Part Two

Richard White is a graduate of Ohio University, Carleton University, Wheaton College and Wycliffe College, Toronto. He has degrees in history, journalism, communication and divinity.

They didn’t keep minutes or record the heretical opinions of its members, but for the “Little Germany” group, the White Horse Tavern in Cambridge was their watering hole.   It was the mid 16th century. England’s future Protestant leaders were college students. Men like William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Thomas Bilney and the future archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. 

They argued, they drank, they debated Church doctrine mostly.  Decades later some of them would write our first Prayer Book, create new liturgies, change the number of sacraments from seven to two, and define a uniquely Anglican understanding of Holy Matrimony.  Above all, the “Little Germany” group got their name from perusing the writings of German reformer, Martin Luther, their contemporary. 

And they watched in amazement as Luther ploughed a path that led him from being a faithful son of the Catholic Church to being its leading critic.  It began on October 31, 1517 when this fiery, middle-aged theologian in the monk’s habit, walked up to the  Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and tacked a piece of paper to its front door.  Known as his 95 Thesis, it listed a string of  Church-sanctioned and unbiblical practices that disgusted him – paying to have one’s sins absolved, paying to spring people out of Purgatory, and paying an indulgence tax so the pope could rebuild his lavish home.    

After that there was no shortage of reading material from Germany. Luther was unstoppable in his critique of the Church. Over three years he churned out over  twenty-five tracts critical of the Church. It was his Babylonian Captivity of the Church that riveted them. It attacked the  Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation, and challenged the viability of the sacred list of Seven Sacraments too.

This may have been too much for the more conservative members of “Little Germany,” like Thomas Cranmer.  The Church had held firm to a belief in the Seven Sacraments for centuries. The Seven were –  baptism; confirmation; Holy Communion,  penance,   extreme unction, ordination  and Holy matrimony.  The same list Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics use today.  However Luther insisted that to be a sacrament Christ needed to command us to do it, plus there needed to be a designated sign for that sacrament. Christ had not commanded us to become priests, to marry, or to receive extreme unction so they couldn’t possibly qualify as sacraments. Luther was a stickler on Church doctrines having unquestionable biblical support.  In his writings he talked about the principle of sola scriptura

Sola scriptura taught that Scripture, not the pope, was the ultimate, and highest authority for settling questions of Christian theology or conduct. Sola scriptura showed that salvation came only through faith in Jesus Christ.  Sola scriptura showed us that sacraments were created by Christ, and only Christ. On that basis Luther insisted that only two of the seven qualified as sacraments – baptism and Holy Communion – and he cited the biblical texts to support that.

Over time the members of the “Little Germany” group latched onto Luther’s position and tweaked it.  Even after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, Thomas Cranmer continued to struggle. Whatever he truly believed, the instability of Henry VIII made tampering with the list of seven risky, and his list of sacraments seemed to change yearly.

In 1536 a committee, under Henry’s guidance, drew up a list of Ten Articles and baptism, penance and Holy Communion were the only sacraments listed.  But the next year, 1537, Cranmer and a team of bishops penned “The Institution of a Christian Man” and all seven were listed.  The next year, in 1538, Cranmer arranged a meeting of three English and three German Lutheran theologians, drew up a new list of Thirteen Articles of the Anglican Faith which again limited the sacraments to baptism, penance and Holy Communion. The shortened list was short-lived. In 1539, the Six Articles were published which reaffirmed the list of seven sacraments. And obviously with Church tradition saying one thing and Europe’s strongest reformer – Martin Luther – saying something else there was great confusion concerning Holy Matrimony. A resolution was coming.

Henry VIII died in 1547.  Cranmer’s Lutheran friends would have heard his sigh of relief.  Young Edward VI became one of the most Protestant monarchs England ever had and Cranmer pushed forward a breathtaking list of Church reforms that ignited both defiance from the bishops and riots in the streets. Cranmer followed the example of his “Little Germany” days and sought input from old friends, bishops, and Lutheran scholars abroad.

The fruit of their labour was the Forty-Two Articles of Religion (1552)  – the predecessor of today’s Thirty-Nine Articles (1571). The article on the Sacraments sounded very Lutheran: There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.  

As for Holy Matrimony, it might not have been  “sacrament” any longer, but Cranmer and the English reformers made one thing plain – it was holy and had God’s blessing. They did that by adding an introduction to the Prayerbook wedding service that hadn’t been there before.   

 

The introduction was to be read by the priest. In it, the priest explained that holy matrimony was monogamous and heterosexual, joining together “this man and this woman.”  It reaffirmed the biblical picture of marriage as beginning in Genesis and said it signified the mystical union between “Christ and his Church” as expressed by Paul in Ephesians 5.  It talked about Christ’s presence at the wedding feast in Cana the place where his first miracle was performed to show that holy matrimony had Christ’s blessing. And it repeated the Catholic teaching that holy matrimony had three purposes: the procreation of children, remedying  fornication, and providing “mutual society, help, and comfort” in “prosperity and adversity” for husband and wife.  

 

Only after hearing that God had created holy matrimony and receiving a dose of thoroughly biblical instruction did the liturgy allow the couple to exchange vows, the act and sign that had sealed holy matrimony when it had been a sacrament.  

 

Cranmer and his team of writers had struck a middle way.  They followed Luther’s reformed position by deleting holy matrimony from the list of sacraments. Yet they skillfully restated the Catholic positon on holy matrimony by reaffirming God’s blessing on this sacred rite. In one sense holy matrimony had been redefined – in another, it hadn’t changed at all.  A form of this centuries-old  introduction exists in both our BCP and BAS wedding services today.

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