SPOILER: This is not a post about Fifty Shades of Grey. Sorry.
The Anglican church in Sydney are adding a new, controversial vow to their marriage services. In it, the bride will promise to ‘submit’ to her husband.
Submit – The act of submission. To accept or yield to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.
Though the husband is not asked to make the same pledge, Sydney’s Anglican church says the vow to submit is not ‘sexist’.
Bishop Forsyth told the ABC, “We’re happy with this version, where the husband promised to serve his wife, to love his wife, and to protect her and she promises to love and serve and to submit,” he said. “The goal is we want men to give leadership in loving and protecting their wives…”
Though the man promises many things, and in the version above, husband and wife both promise to ‘serve’ each other in their marriage, it is never suggested that a husband obey his wife or submit to her will. The man’s role is one of leadership and his right to authority is made evident by the fact that he is, well, male.
Notably, the new vows were written by the liturgical panel of the church’s Sydney diocese, the same one that supports all-male leadership doctrine and opposes the full ordination of women – something Anglican women have been fighting for years. It is one of few dioceses to refuse to adopt national church law allowing women priests. One supporter of the full ordination of women, Reverend Chris Albany, of South Hurstville told SMH in 2006, ‘I believe the New Testament shows Jesus accepting the full and equal place of women within society…I believe a clear and informed reading of scripture … shows there is no obstacle to that full and equal role of women.’
Unfortunately, women’s submission to men is a loaded issue with a long and ugly history, within – but by no means limited to – marriage which was originally a contract of ownership between a groom and the patriarch of a household, hence the ‘handing over’ of a bride from father to groom during the traditional ceremony. The idea of marriage has changed dramatically since biblical times, and it is now widely accepted that women can work, vote, take an equal place in society, and are perfectly capable of making their own decisions whether they are single or married. This is especially true in places like Australia, where we have anti-discrimination laws, our first female Prime Minister, our first female Attorney-General and capable women on boards and in leadership positions across the country.
Kevin Giles, a New Testament scholar in Melbourne, was interviewed by SMH about the new vow, and said the subordination of women made for bad theology in 2012. ”Jesus not once mentions the subordination of woman and says much in contradiction to this,” he said. “Paul’s comments over the subordination of women fit into the patriarchal culture of the day and are not the biblical ideal. The truth is that happy marriages today are fully equal, and unhappy marriages are ones where one or the other party is controlling.”
In the same SMH piece, Muriel Porter, a Melbourne academic who writes on Anglican Church issues, points out that the term ‘submit’ is a more derogatory word than obey and had ‘connotations of slavery’. ”Frankly I’m horrified,” she told SMH. ”It is a very dangerous concept, especially in terms of society’s propensity for domestic violence.”
Submission sets a potentially dangerous framework for marriage. It is worth remembering that until 1976 it was legal in all states of Australia for a husband to force himself on his wife and marital rape remains legal in a number of countries around the world, even in circumstances where the couple are separated.
One wonders why, in 2012 in Australia, this problematic new vow would be introduced. Though brides can choose to have the promise to submit taken out of their vows, as many have routinely done with the promise to ‘obey’, it nonetheless creates further pressure on women to submit to the authority of men by establishing their willing submission as the proper and expected thing. Unlike brides, grooms preparing for their wedding day will not need to justify to their fiancée, family or church the reasons why they will refuse a solemn vow to ‘submit to’ or ‘obey’ their spouse because the pledge is only in the bride’s vows and not the groom’s.
Some like the vow. In the words of one Mrs Judd, 26, ‘to submit to that kind of love is not oppressive, but is actually a joy and a great freedom.’ Her husband, who is studying to be a minister, told SMH that marriage was akin to dancing: ”The male always leads, even if he’s not necessarily the best dancer.’
To use the dance metaphor, I can’t help but see this as a step backwards.
Over to you…