At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage — Billy Graham


Religion and the definition of marriage remain intertwined in the present, just as in the past. Historically, disputes over the definition of marriage concerned marriage, divorce and remarriage. Dispute over these issues in the court of King Henry VIII of England in the 16th century caused upheaval in the Church and English society. Heads rolled, literally, in the process. In the present, there is an ongoing dispute over the definition of marriage or the redefinition of marriage to allow same sex couples to marry. As I view the movement for same sex marriage, defined as marriage equality, in the United States, North Carolina is a focal point. Amendment 1 to the state constitution, enacted in 2012 following a ballot measure, defined marriage as the union of one man to one woman. Amendment 1 was struck down on October 10, 2014 by U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr.  It is now lawful for same sex couples to marry in North Carolina, much to the dismay of opponents of marriage equality, including Charles L. Worley and Billy Graham, who object on religious grounds. Heads are rolling, though not literally, in North Carolina now that Amendment 1 is no longer in force.

The first of King Henry VIII’s six wives was Catherine of Aragon. In the course of their married life, Catherine gave birth to six children between 1510 and 1518 before she could no longer conceive. Only one of these six children, Princess Mary, survived infancy. Henry wanted a son and heir and turned to Anne Boleyn whom he wanted to take as his wife and queen in place of Catherine. However, he could not marry Anne Boleyn unless his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was dissolved. Marriage was entirely a religious affair at the time and divorce was not permitted in Canon Law. Dissolution of a marriage was only possible on religious grounds. A marriage could be annulled if an ecclesiastical court found an impediment that prevented the couple from marrying. Catherine was married to Henry’s elder brother Arthur in 1501 until his untimely death in 1502. Canon law forbade marriage of between a man and his brother’s widow, but Pope Julius II granted Henry a dispensation allowing the marriage to Catherine.

Henry VIII petitioned for an annulment on the grounds the dispensation was invalid, but Catherine maintained, in her defense, she never consummated her marriage with Henry’s brother Arthur, therefore, the dispensation was moot. Interestingly, Catherine was supported in her defense by none other than Martin Luther who stated:

Before I should approve of such a repudiation, I would rather let him (Henry) marry a second queen…Even if there should be a divorce, Catherine will remain Queen of England, and she will have been wronged before God and man…No, my friend, if you are bound to a woman, you are no longer a free man; God forces you to stay with wife and child, to feed and rear them. (as cited in Oberman, Heiko A. “Luther”, p. 286)

In the court of Henry VIII Catherine found support from Sir Thomas More who served as Chancellor from 1529-1534. In 1530 More refused to sign Henry VIII’s petition to Pope Clement VII for an annulment. Consequently, the ecclesiastical court sided with Catherine and Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry the annulment. In spite of this, Henry VIII had his way, the Archbishop of Canterbury granted Henry VIII the annulment (under duress) in 1533, thereby freeing him to marry Anne Boleyn. In addition, in 1534, Henry VIII broke with Rome, establishing the Church of England and making himself and succeeding sovereigns head of the Church. In doing so, of course, he had his eye on the lands and holdings of the Church in England at the time, which were forfeited to the crown.

To secure the line of succession to the throne for the son and heir he expected to have with Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII required his courtiers to swear an oath of allegiance, recognizing himself and his lawful heirs and successors as head of the Church of England and to sign the First Succession Act of 1534 enacted by parliament. More refused to swear the oath and to sign the First Succession Act, insisting: “[U]nto the oath that there was offered me I could not swear, without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation.” (as cited in Conscience and conscientious objection) For this refusal, More was put on trial for treason, found guilty and sentenced to death. He was beheaded at the Tower of London on July 6, 1535. More remained steadfast in his Catholic faith and its principles concerning marriage and the primacy of the pope, accepting death rather than betray them. Yet in spite of his sacrifice, the Church of England prevailed with Henry VIII as its head and he married four more times following the dissolution of his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

In the present, marriage is no longer under the purview of religious institutions. Marriage is a legal contract between two persons who wish to marry; the state issues a marriage license and serves as guarantor. It is the state that grants a divorce to married couples who decide to part company. In North Carolina law Magistrate Judges are the only civil servants authorized to perform civil marriage ceremonies. With the repeal of Amendment 1, same sex couples are free to marry and magistrates are obliged to comply with the law in performing civil marriage ceremonies for same sex couples. In spite of this, religion continues to bear on the definition of marriage as some Magistrate Judges resigned in protest, citing conscientious objection on religious grounds. Gilbert Breedlove, a Magistrate Judge in Swain County, in submitting his resignation expressed his objection as follows:

I was Christian when I started. Then, the law didn’t require me to perform something that was against my religious belief. The whole Bible from front-to-end states that a marriage is between a man and a wife; any other type of sexual activity other than that is what is defined as fornication. (as cited in Blue Nation Review)

Similarly, John Kallam Jr., a Magistrate Judge in Rockingham County, asserted performing a civil marriage ceremony for a same sex couple “would desecrate a holy Institution established by God Himself.” (as cited in LGBT Nation)

Just as was the case in Tudor England, disputes over the definition of marriage and the place of religion in society generates upheaval in U.S. society, North Carolina in this case, and among the varied Christian denominations that exist in the present. Just as in Tudor England, notwithstanding the conscientious objection of Sir Thomas More to the changes concerning the definition of marriage and the Church in society instituted by King Henry VIII, the stand taken by the Magistrate Judges mentioned above will not stop the momentum toward marriage equality in U.S. society. The conventions of marriage and marital privacy are now guaranteed in law for same sex couples and there is no going back.

Posted by Geoffrey



1 thought on “At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage — Billy Graham

  1. Pingback: At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage — Billy Graham | Blazing Cat Fur

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