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Negotiating Dissonance between the Religious, the Civil and the Legal in Anglican Same-Sex Weddings

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 June 2023

Rémy Bethmont*
Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis


With the adoption of same-sex marriage or marriage-like schemes by civil authorities on both sides of the North Atlantic, Anglican same-sex couples in England, Scotland and the United States have had to negotiate various forms of dissonance between the religious celebration and the legal or civil status of their unions. This often translates into couples having multiple celebrations of their unions in order to bring together the legal and the religious creatively. These multiple ceremonies evidence the grip exercised by the tradition of a single wedding ritual that is both religious and legal on the imagination of Anglican same-sex couples. Enduring attachment to this tradition has given rise to particular LGBTQ ways of relating the celebration of a union to time, thus contributing to the unravelling of a rigidly legal Anglican understanding of the marriage rite.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Ecclesiastical History Society.

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1 This article will use the term ‘wedding’ in a loose sense, as it is used by many same-sex couples, to refer to more than just ceremonies that celebrate the entry into state-sanctioned marriage. A wedding may therefore also be the name of a civil partnership ceremony or even of a liturgy to which no legal recognition of the relationship is attached.

2 See for instance, Lewin, Ellen, Recognizing Ourselves: Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment (New York, 1999)Google Scholar; Hull, Kathleen E., Same-Sex Marriage: The Cultural Politics of Love and Law (Cambridge, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Jordan, Mark D., Blessing Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage (Chicago, IL, 2005), in particular ch. 5, pp. 128–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 A useful overview of the legal regulations within which English churches have to operate has been offered by Johnson, Paul and Vanderbeck, Robert M., ‘Sacred Spaces, Sacred Words: Religion and Same-Sex Marriage in England and Wales’, Journal of Law and Society 44 (2017), 228–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Edge, Peter W. and Corrywright, Dominic, ‘Including Religion: Reflections on Legal, Religious, and Social Implications of the developing Ceremonial Law of Marriage and Civil Partnership’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 26 (2011), 1932CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Edge and Corrywright do not, however, document the importation of religious elements into civil ceremonies and call for a systematic ethnographic study that would fill this gap.

6 Smith, Charlotte, ‘The Church of England and Same-Sex Marriage: Beyond a Rights-Based Analysis’, Ecclesiastical Law Journal 21 (2019), 153–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Although the quietly relaxed attitude towards homosexuality that prevailed in the Scottish Episcopal Church gradually found a more public voice and manifestation from the 1980s, there was no institutional discussion of LGBTQ matters at General Synod level until the early 2000s.

8 White, Heather R., ‘Gay Rites and Religious Rights: New York's first Same-Sex Marriage Controversy’, in Talvacchia, Kathleen T., Pettinger, Michael F. and Larrimore, Mark, eds, Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (New York, 2014), 7990Google Scholar.

9 Coulmont, Baptiste, ‘Do the Rite Thing: Religious Civil Unions in Vermont’, Social Compass 52 (2005), 225–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Silvia Falcetta, Paul Johnson and Robert M Vanderbeck, ‘The Experience of Religious Same-Sex Marriage in England and Wales: Understanding the Opportunities and Limits created by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013’, International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family 35 (2021) [online journal], at: <>, last accessed 13 September 2022. Their 2017 publication on the subject, which examined a large sample of buildings registered for same-sex marriage, estimated that the number of same-sex couples who marry in a different denomination from their own (because it is not allowable there) ‘is likely small’: Paul Johnson, Robert Vanderbeck, and Silvia Falcetta, ‘Religious Marriage of Same-Sex Couples: A Report on Places of Worship in England and Wales registered for the Solemnization of Same-Sex Marriage’, SSRN Electronic Journal (2017) [online journal], §6.16, at: <>, last accessed 13 September 2022. My own experience of interviewing committed Anglican same-sex couples leads to the same tentative conclusion. Most would not contemplate marrying in a congregation that is not their own, let alone another denomination.

11 Methuen, Charlotte, ‘Ehe, gleichgeschlechtliche Partnerschaften und Kirchengemeinschaft: Überlegungen zum anglikanischen Kontext’, in Krebs, Andreas and Ring, Matthias, eds, Mit dem Segen der Kirche: Die Segnung gleichgeschlechtlicher Partnerschaften in der theologischen Diskussion (Bonn, 2018), 99109, at 107–9Google Scholar.

12 ‘Church in Wales issues draft Bill on Same-Sex Blessings’, Church Times, 18 December 2020, online at: <>, accessed 18 May 2022.

13 The situation of same-sex couples in the Church of England will be changed by the decision of the House of Bishops, confirmed by General Synod, in February 2023 (while this article was going to press) to authorize ‘New prayers to celebrate committed relationships between two people.’ These will create a situation for English same-sex couples similar to that in the Church in Wales. See Living in Love and Faith: A Response from the Bishops of the Church of England (GS 2289), online at: <>.

14 All first names given without surnames are pseudonyms. Depictions of interviewees’ experiences have been checked with them for accuracy prior to submission of this article for publication.

15 Interview with Sarah and Deborah, October 2019.

16 Several such stories can be found in Falcetta, Johnson and Vanderbeck, ‘Experience of Religious Same-Sex Marriage’.

17 Interview with Robin, February 2021.

18 Such flexibility for same-sex couples from another denomination than the one where the marriage is solemnized has been analysed at greater length in Falcetta, Johnson and Vanderbeck, ‘Experience of Religious Same-Sex Marriage’, 19–22.

19 Boswell, John, The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, 2nd edn (London, 1996)Google Scholar.

20 The possibility of registering civil partnerships in religious buildings also indicates that the state itself does not have a clear understanding of how the civil relates to the religious. For details regarding the legal construct allowing a strictly civil ceremony to take place in a religious registered building, see Johnson and Vanderbeck, ‘Sacred Spaces, Sacred Words’, 242.

21 Marriage Act 1949, §5.

22 Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977, §8(1)(a)(ii).

23 This point was made clear to the Episcopal Church's Liturgy Committee working on a new marriage service when they enquired of the Scottish civil authorities in 2001, at a time when not even civil partnership existed, whether the complete omission of the mention of ‘husband and wife’ in the new liturgy might endanger the legal validity of a marriage thus celebrated. The answer was a resounding no: ‘Parliament, when drawing up the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977, dealt with certain religious bodies differently. There are those bodies, such as the Episcopal Church in Scotland, that have an automatic authority to solemnize marriages … The Registrar General is not involved in the registering of the celebrants and it is up to each religious body to decide what form of marriage ceremony is appropriate for their celebrants to use. The 1977 Act does not stipulate any form of words that have to be used by such bodies’: General Synod Office, Edinburgh, Liturgy Committee Minutes and Documents, e-mail from Kathleen F. O'Donnell on behalf of the General Register Office for Scotland to Elspeth Davey, 22 November 2001, unpaginated.

24 Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977, §14(a). Scottish Episcopal celebrants do sometimes make small alterations to the marriage service but they are understood to be the kinds of changes that the bishop would not object to.

25 National Records of Scotland, ‘Marriage Celebrants: National Records of Scotland Policy on Authorisation’, online at: <>, accessed 12 January 2022.

26 As the story of one couple I interviewed suggests, they were sometimes helped by the officiant who told them ahead of the ceremony that a lifelong covenant could only mean marriage in her eyes.

27 Although not as jarring, the visible superimposition of civil and religious ceremonies was already something that could be observed in some religious civil union ceremonies. Coulmont mentions a homily during an Episcopalian civil union ceremony in Vermont in which the officiant talked of a ‘Holy and Civil Union’: Coulmont, ‘Do the Rite Thing’, 235.

28 Tom Bauer, ‘Tom and Nilo's Wedding July 4, 2014, Christ Episcopal Church, Sausalito, CA’, 2014, wedding video, 24:57–25:19, online at: <>, accessed 14 February 2022.

29 Archives of the Episcopal Church, Digital Archive for General Convention Resolution 2009-C056, Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, ‘The Marriage of N. and N.’, 5 June 2009, online at: <>, accessed 14 February 2022.

30 Rémy Bethmont, ‘Blessing Same-Sex Unions in the Church of England: The Liturgical Challenge of Same-Sex Couples’ Demand for Equal Marriage Rites’, Journal of Anglican Studies 17 (2019), 148–67.

31 Indeed, in a recorded interview with a representative of the US Episcopal liturgical commission, the Rev. Ian Paton, who then chaired the Scottish Liturgy Committee, declared that same-sex marriage was evoked quite early on during a residential conference of the liturgy committee before it was ‘even on the political horizon’: Interview with Ian Paton by Drew Keane on behalf of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music of the [US] Episcopal Church, transcript, 2017, 3, online at: <>, accessed 14 February 2022).

32 Interview with Greg, July 2018.

33 Scottish Episcopal Church, College of Bishops, ‘A Response from the College of Bishops to Submissions made as a Result of Discussion of the Publication Human Sexuality: A Study Guide’, Virtue Online, February 2004, at: <>, accessed 14 February 2022.

34 Interview with Greg, July 2018.

35 Interview, October 2019.

36 Kathleen Hull's work shows this very well about same-sex weddings which took place at a time when there was no state recognition of the couples: see in particular Same-Sex Marriage, 26–77.

37 Marriage Liturgy 2007, 2.A.

38 Ibid. A more open formulation of the last sentence might have been proposed, such as: ‘They are celebrating their marriage.’

39 The third form of the marriage service in the 1989 New Zealand Prayer Book offers a consistently open formulation that allows the wedding party to understand the ceremony as the celebration of a marriage that is already in existence. However, in contrast to the draft 2015 American liturgy, this option is never explicitly presented as applying to couples who already consider themselves married in some way or other.

40 Although in theory marriage services are reserved for the solemnization of marriage, they have also been used in many instances for the church wedding of couples who had legally contracted a marriage in a prior ceremony.

41 The draft version is to be found in Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, ‘Reports to the 78th General Convention: Supplemental Materials; Appendices of the Report of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music’ (Episcopal Church, 2015), 89, online at: <>, accessed 14 February 2022; the authorized version can be found in Liturgical Resources 1: I will bless you and you will be a Blessing, revised and expanded (New York, 2015), online at: <>, accessed 14 February 2022.

42 Most of the countries covered by the Convocation of the Episcopal Church in Europe are a case in point.

43 ‘Marriage Liturgy: Third Form’, A New Zealand Prayer Book, 1989 (New York, 1997), 790–1.