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Rev Jules Gomes: Will the brave new world of Methodist marriage extend to incest?


“Welcome to the Methodist Church Marriage Bureau Hotline. All our ministers are busy solemnising marriages right now. Your call is very important to us. We have revised our definition of marriage to make marriage more inclusive. Please press 1 for Heterosexual Marriage or press 2 for Same-Sex Marriage.”

Three cheers for the Methodist Church in Britain! At the Methodist Conference last month it decided to ‘re-visit’ its definition of marriage following the report of a task group set up in 2014 ‘to consider whether or not the Methodist Church should revisit its definition of marriage’. 8,000 of its members took part in the conversations, ‘where a wide range of views were expressed’. The current definition of marriage accepted by the Methodist Church as ‘the lifelong union of one man and one woman’ is uncool, quaint and old-fashioned. Some people feel the ‘definition should be extended to include the marriage of same-sex couples.’

But why stop with same sex couples? Why not include a far more broad-minded, inclusive, open, elastic and culturally sensitive definition of marriage?

In 1878, Mark Twain, travelling up the Rhine on a barge, came to the small town of Dilsberg, whose 700 inhabitants, Twain learned, were all ‘blood-kin to each other’ and ‘have been blood-kin to each other for fifteen hundred years’. The result, according to the captain of the barge, was that “for ages, Dilsberg has been a thriving and diligent idiot factory.” When, after a visit to Dilsberg, Twain noted that he saw no idiots there, the captain explained that this was “because of late the government has taken to lugging them off to asylums and otherwheres.” Twain comments: “The captain probably imagined all this, as modern science denies that the intermarrying of relatives deteriorates the stock.”[1]

If two consenting adults who love each other happen to be brother and sister or father and daughter or uncle and niece, why can’t the revised definition of Methodist marriage be tolerant enough to include them? After all, even the high priest of modern anthropology Bronislaw Malinowski emphatically stated that ‘biologists are in agreement that there is no detrimental effect produced upon the species by incestuous unions.’[2] In Japan, South India (especially in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu), and Pakistan—cousin and uncle-niece unions are both legal and commonplace.

Among Zoroastrians, xvétxvét or next-of-kin marriage was first discussed in the Pahlavi texts of the sixth to ninth centuries AD, with all three types of incestuous union—father-daughter, mother-son, and brother-sister advocated. Xvétxvét was even described as the ninth of thirty-nine ways of gaining entry to heaven, and its practice was accepted as a means of expiating mortal sin.[3]

Appendix 5 in the Methodist discussion on marriage cites the seduction of Lot by his daughters ‘concerning which Genesis does not make a moral judgement’ says the unnamed author of this discussion paper. Jesus, of course, it could also be argued did not have anything to say about consanguineous unions!

Neither did Jesus have anything to say about what we would call child marriages where people marry below the so-called age of consent—an artificial construct created by the modern, western world—and imposed upon other cultures. In 1860, the British colonial administration tried to curtail the practice of child marriage in India by raising the age of consent to 10 years for girls. In 1891, the criminal code was amended to raise the age of consent to 12 years for girls. The International Centre for Research on Women (UNICEF) estimated India’s child marriage rate to be 47 per cent in 1998, while the UN reports it was 30 per cent in 2005.

Given that Britain has the highest number of teenage pregnancies in Europe, would it not be beneficial to society if the Methodist Church included so-called child marriage within its new revised definition of marriage? After all, who are we to judge and say that the Indian practice of child marriage is wrong? How dare we impose our arbitrary idea of the age of consent on marriage, especially when we give girls under the current age of consent the right to abortion without even informing or consulting their parents? Even Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, married Aisha bint Abi Bakr when she was six years old and consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, according to Sahih al-Bukhari.

This brings us to the idea of extending the definition of marriage to accommodate polygamy. That would include both Muslims and Mormons, wouldn’t it? The Methodist author of Appendix 5 mentions polygamy as ‘the most common biblical form’ of marriage ‘which could include not only wives but also maidservants and/or concubines.’ He quotes Martin Luther as saying: “I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict Scripture,” and refers to the Christian Plural Marriage movement in vogue among present-day Christians.

He ends his paper with a proposed new revised definition of marriage: “The Methodist Church believes that marriage is a gift of God and that it is God’s intention that marriage should be a lifelong union in body, mind and spirit of the participants.” But why should this definition of marriage insist upon marriage being for life? Wouldn’t that exclude divorcees from remarriage?

By the time the Methodist Conference has finished re-visiting its definition of marriage, it will also have voted to upgrade its answering machine software to include the following options: “press 3 for Polygamous Heterosexual Marriage; press 4 for Polygamous Same-Sex Marriage; press 5 for Open Marriage; press 6 for Fixed-term Marriage; press 7 for Trans-Gender or Trans-Sexual Marriage; press 8 for more imaginative combinations; if you are a sexual minority that still feels excluded from our new revised definition of marriage or if your definition of marriage is not included in our database, press the press the # key. If you would like us to re-visit definitions of Christian doctrine like the Trinity or the Atonement, press the * key. If you are still unhappy with the above options, please hang up and call Lambeth Palace Marriage Bureau Hotline on 020 7898 1200.”

[1] Arthur P. Wolf and William H. Durham (eds.), Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004, 1-2.

[2] Wolf and Durham 2004: 2.

[3] Wolf and Durham 2004: 48.

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‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes
‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes
The Rev’d Dr Jules Gomes, BA, BD, MTh, PhD (Cantab) is a journalist and academic.

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