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An alteration and an altercation indeedHallo again to all.

It may be hard for us to grasp, but our current roils about gay and lesbian people in the church were equalled in intensity by earlier battles about divorce and remarriage.

The Bishop of Albany articulated the early 20th century Anglo-Catholic position on divorce in a New York Times [October 1912] interview:

'Our Church [the Episcopal Church in the USA]', said the bishop, 'has already adopted a rule by which the offending party in a divorce in this State cannot be remarried by Episcopal clergy. That is a distinct step in advance, but I believe we should go even further. I believe that no person, whether the innocent or the guilty party in a divorce, should ever marry again'. Bishop Doane said that he believed it would be a good thing if all the States would enter upon an agreement placing rigid restrictions in the way of divorced persons remarrying.

The dangerous sister-in-law, in silhouette
The mad, bad, dangerous to know

The situation in the Church of England was no less extreme. In 1800 and again in 1856 and 1857, there were attempts to have Parliament impose the death penalty for adultery, but the motions were defeated. Many of us probably know people who were denied the sacraments as a result of remarriage after a divorce as recently as the 1960s. Remarriage after a divorce has only become remotely possible in the Church of England in the last years of the 20th century. It's instructive to realise that the question of just what Christian marriage is undergirds many of the current discussion on homosexuality. Bishop Pierre Whalon, AO's resident episcopal columnist, looks at that larger question in his new essay Why This Issue?

Why this issue indeed. Travel back in time again, to the mid 19th-century. There looms in England the noisy battle of marriage with a 'Deceased Wife's Sister'. Start by recalling the section of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer called 'A Table of Kindred and Affinity, Wherein Whosoever Are Related Are Forbidden by the Church of England to Marry Together'. One of the most vexing of prohibitions was that of a deceased wife's sister.

A sister-in-law was considered part of one's own family; marrying her after the death of one's wife was seen as marrying one's sister, thought almost incestuous. In England, such a marriage was a violation of canon law and in 1835 it became a violation of civil law as well. The Deceased Wife's Sister Act roused emotions every bit as deep as those we see in discussions of sexuality now. By the mid 19th-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'.

Beginning in the 1860s, bills were introduced in Parliament annually to allow marriage with a deceased wife's sister, but it wasn't until 1907 that the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act finally made it legal. And not until 1921 (!) did the Deceased Brother's Widow's Marriage Act make marriage to a brother-in-law legal.

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

The Church survives, despite scruples and sexuality. It really does. Through God's grace, it always will.

See you next week.

Brian Reidís signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 17 August 2003

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

A thin blue line
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