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The dreaded sister in law

Hallo again to all.

It's odd to realize, as we did recently, that Anglicans of the Victorian period were more willing to live with deep disagreements on sexual matters than we moderns. How so, you may ask?

The Church of England and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America in the nineteenth century were 'in communion' with one another despite their seriously differing views of the scriptural understanding of marriage: who can marry whom.

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'. Some of the roster may strike us as wildly improbable and absurd ('A woman may not marry with her son's son'); other prohibitions may seem quaintly ridiculous: the idea that a widow could not marry the brother of her husband or a widower his deceased wife's sister... Why not, for heaven's sake?

In the understanding of the Church of England, a sister-in-law was considered part of one's own family (by affinity rather than consanguinity), so marrying her after the death of one's wife was seen as almost incestuous. Such a marriage was a violation of canon law and in 1835 a violation of civil law as well*. On the other hand, the American Church had enforced no canons regarding the matter, although the table was printed in successive American Books of Common Prayer and was the source of amusement during dull sermons for generations of children.§

Kindred and AffinityIt's easy to dismiss all this blather about degrees of kindred and marriage prohibitions as amusing and of no real importance. But it was a deadly serious matter to Victorian churchmen: Attempts to modify or repeal the Act of Parliament that imposed severe penalties for marriages between 'the prohibited degrees' were portrayed by some MPs 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'.¶ American Episcopalians, on the other hand, thought nothing of it if a man, after the death of his wife, should marry her sister and gain not only a companion, but often a loving stepmother to his children.

Thus the understanding of a lawful Christian marriage was entirely different between the original two 'members' of the Anglican Communion, yet no bishop in England threatened to sever relationships with bishops in the States. No initiatives were undertaken to break the genial fellowship between the two churches. No Archbishop of Canterbury lost sleep over what such divergent views and practices meant to the 'future of the 'Anglican Communion'. No interest groups in America pressed for a stricter interpretation of the table of kindred and affinity or sought oversight from an English bishop. Yet the difference in scriptural understanding was distinct and, to those whose lives in England were ruined by the law, dramatic. But the relationship between the two churches carried on quite imperturbably. (It's tempting to conclude that incense and vestments were more likely to divide the churches into parlous factions than were affinity and consanguinity.)

If the Victorians — bless them — could carry on together, worshipping at one another's churches when travelling, sharing pulpits, maintaining collegial relationships and even attending Lambeth Conferences despite a clear and pronounced difference in theological understanding about sexual relationships, it's a strange curiosity that in our time we have grown more rigid and uncompromising. There's nowt so queer as folk.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 12 August 2007

* Felicia Skene's The Inheritance of Evil Or, the Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife's Sister (1849)
is a floridly written novella about what happened when one contravened 'God's law'.

§ CB Moss, in The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Dogmatic Theology, points out the inconsistent application
of the table of kindred and affinity across the various churches in the Communion.

¶ Sir Robert Inglis, MP for Oxford

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