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The Revd Thomas Lucas Scott, former rector of St Augustine's Church, LondonderryHallo again to all.

The Anglican world has been rather quiet this last week in terms of new topics, but we've summarised all the most recent sites in New This Week, and those include some interesting parish web pages. We enjoyed a visit to St Augustine's, Londonderry, and were fascinated by the history of the former rectors of this pretty parish. One chap of long tenure (and long beard) was rector at the time when one of the greatest of perturbations in the Victorian church was occurring: the Deceased Wife's Sister Act.

To understand the turmoil and the scandals surrounding it, one must turn to a section of the prayer book called 'A Table of Kindred and Affinity, Wherein Whosoever Are Related Are Forbidden by the Church of England to Marry Together'. (The very concept of some of the marriages is head-spinning—a man may not marry his mother's father's wife—but I recall as a child pondering the likelihood of such a marriage by matching up real people in one's life with the prohibited condition. This made minutes pass quickly during boring sermons.)

One of the most vexing of prohibitions was that of not marrying a deceased wife's sister. This caused much distress particularly in England, where not only was so doing a violation of canon law, it became, in the early 19th century, a violation of civil law as well. Although it may be hard to grasp, the Deceased Wife's Sister Act roused emotions every bit as deep as those we see in discussions of sexuality in our own time. By mid-century there were strong efforts made to repeal it; Sir Robert Inglis, MP, staunch Anglican layman, was the most bitter opponent to the repeal of the law. EM Forster notes*:

'Sir Robert, it is true, opposed everything except science and art: he was against the Jews, the Catholics, the Dissenters, and now he denounced the Deceased Wife's Sister bill as "an alteration of the law of the Land, an alteration of the law of the Church, and an alteration, if man could make it, of the Law of God". The debates were solemn rather than acrimonious in tone: members quoted Latin to each other, even Greek, and the meaning of Leviticus xviii, verse 18, was deeply pondered. Some feared the Bill would break up the home by transforming "beneficent aunts into hostile and partial stepmothers".

Other quoted petitions from clergymen who implored that the Bill might be passed, since many of their parishioners had already married their sisters-in-law, under the belief that this was the best thing for the children—and of course it was the best thing for the children. Such an argument did not convince the Bishops in the House of Lords who denounced thunderously: indeed the Lords were far more passionate than the Commons, as sometimes happens when the subject is sexual'.

As someone wrote during the impassioned debates: 'Should the law be altered, probably the next generation will wonder at our scruples'. The thunder and those scruples are long gone now and the passion only surfaces in yellowed letters in archives that document broken families and ruined lives.

What scruples of ours will future generations wonder at?

See you next week.

Cynthia McFarland's signature
  Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
  Brian Reid

*Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biography (1956). We in fact owe the marvellous
novel 'Howards End' to a situation in Forster's family directly related to the DWSA,
but that's another story for another time.

Last updated: 8 October 2000