Mankind is agreed, certainly Christendom is agreed,
that marriage between persons nearly related to one another must be forbidden.
But two questions are disputed:
where the line should be drawn (since it must be drawn somewhere),
and whether affinity or relationship by marriage is to be regarded as a bar to marriage or only kinship or relationship by blood.
The Christian Church teaches that marriage is so close a bond
that it unites not only the married couple but their families.
A man becomes the brother of his wife's sister, the son of his wife's parents.
A woman likewise becomes related to her husband's kin as if they were her own.
The sister of a man's wife, then, is not someone whom he might one day marry.
Such an idea should be as revolting as marriage with his own sister.
This principle cannot be defended on biological grounds.
It is a spiritual principle and is fully supported by Scripture.
St. Paul speaks of marriage with the stepmother as
one which is not so much as named among the heathen (I Cor.5.1),
and directs that those who are guilty of it shall be immediately excommunicated.
The Jewish Law directly forbade it (Lev.18.8).
So were marriage with a brother's widow and other marriages with persons related only by affinity.
The Church of England forbids marriage with persons within the third degree
of kindred and affinity.
The degree is reckoned in this way.
A man is related:
We need carry the list no further.
Persons who are married are counted as one for this purpose.
Thus a man's wife's sister is related to him in the second degree of affinity.
His nephew's wife and his wife's niece are related to him in the third degree of affinity.
The list of prohibited degrees at the end of the Prayer Book, drawn up by
Archbishop Parker, forbids all the degrees that come within these limits
and no others.
The line thus drawn is based upon the line drawn in the Hebrew list of prohibited degrees in Lev.18 and is regarded as being, for that reason, of Divine authority.
But Lev.18 is not a complete list.
It includes some cases of affinity in the third degree which is the furthest limit to which it extends, but it omits some relationships which fall within that limit; and like all Hebrew laws it is addressed to the man and does not treat men and women as equal.
For instance, it forbids marriage with a brother's widow
but does not mention a deceased wife's sister.
(The law of prohibited degrees in Lev.18 is not to be confused with the LEVIRATE
LAW which belongs to a much older stratum of the Hebrew law (Deut.25.5-10:
cf. Gen.38.8), and is a relic of primitive notions about inheritance.
The levirate law is well known because it is mentioned in the Gospels (Mark 12.19; etc.).
If a man died without heirs, his brother was directed by the levirate law to marry the widow even if he had a wife already, and the children of this marriage were regarded as the children of the dead man and inherited his property.
The levirate law was probably obsolete in practice at the time when the Sadducees tried to puzzle our Lord with it.
It has never been accepted by any part of the Christian Church.)
The Prayer Book Table of Prohibited Degrees applies to the Hebrew law the
principle of PARITY OF REASONING;
that is, it assumes that whatever is forbidden to a man is equally forbidden to a woman (since under the New Covenant "there is neither male or female", men and women are equal);
and it assumes that if one case of any degree of kindred or affinity is forbidden,
all cases of the same degree are forbidden.
The English canon on the subject (99 of the 1604 code) did not, however,
declare that marriages contrary to these prohibitions were no marriages,
but that they were to be judged INCESTUOUS and UNLAWFUL, and that the parties so married were to be separated
by legal process.
In this it followed the example of the medieval canons.
Until 1835 the English civil law left this matter to the Church.
The Marriage Act of that year declared all such marriages to be null and void.
Various Acts between 1907 and 1931, however, removed the prohibition of marriages within the second and third degrees of affinity (except with the widow of a grandfather or grandson, and the corresponding ones for the woman).
These marriages were expressly permitted as civil contracts only.
The Acts did not claim to alter the law of the Church in any way,
and it remains as it has been since the Reformation.
It is clear that members of the Church are bound to obey the law of the
but since there are in England no proper church courts capable of taking action against those who break them, the provisions of the canon can no longer be carried out.
The position is extremely unsatisfactory.
If the Table of Prohibited Degrees is of Divine authority,
the Church has no power to alter it.
But we cannot be certain about this.
No other part of Christendom treats this matter precisely in the same way as we do,
nor do the modern Jews.
We cannot be absolutely certain that the code in Lev.18 is part of the moral law
and not merely part of the civil law.
In the latter case it would not necessarily be binding upon Christians.
Nor can we be certain that the principle of "parity of reasoning" is of Divine authority since neither the Roman nor the Eastern Communions use it in the same way as we do.
(We may ignore the various Reformed denominations, for they hold that the individual must judge for himself in such matters and, therefore, impose no marriage laws on their members, but are content with those imposed by the civil law.)
It is therefore a possible theory that the Church has the right to alter
the rules if she wishes.
If she has such a right that is doubtful, she has not in England used it.
But the Church must have a definite rule firmly enforced and, as far a possible, universal.
If we cannot have a rule for the whole Church, let us at least have one for the Anglican Communion.
(The Australian Church has already given permission for marriage with a deceased wife's sister and thereby broken the unity of the Anglican churches, while the American Episcopal Church appears to have no rules at all on the subject.)
The Table of Prohibited Degrees in the Prayer Book is at least consistent and reasonable, whether it rests on Divine authority or not.
It is certain that marriage with a brother's widow and with a deceased wife's sister was never allowed in any part of Christendom until the fifteenth century and was then only permitted to kings for political reasons by the corrupt Popes of the Renaissance.
Therefore, whether the church has the right to alter the Table of Prohibited
Degrees or not, it is highly inexpedient that the right, if it exists, should
The argument that a man ought to be allowed to marry his deceased wife's sister because she makes the best stepmother for his children is said to be disproved by experience (for instance, that of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children).
On the other hand, this permission is a serious breach in the Christian doctrine of the family.
The Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Kindred and Affinity
as Impediments to Marriage is a valuable mine of information on the subject,
but its conclusions are not very convincing.
It has not given sufficient grounds for rejecting "parity of reasoning" or altering the present table of prohibited degrees.
In any case those conclusions have not, so far, affected the law of the Church of England, which remains as it was before and which all members of the Church of England are bound to obey.
In one respect this report is satisfactory.
It opposes any attempt to restore the medieval system of dispensations,
which the Church of England abolished at the Reformation.
The faculty of granting these dispensations is one of the chief means by which the Pope controls the bishops.
The story of how Bishop Hefele was forced to accept the decrees of the Vatican Council illustrates this very clearly.
He was deprived of his FACULTIES and made to feel that his refusal to accept the Vatican decrees was causing many of his flock to live in sin.