OK, before we go on, I need to make a few things clear.
I was wed in church. Namirembe Cathedral no less. It was the 17th of December 2011 at about 12:20 pm. We had booked the 12 noon service and arrived 20 min earlier, but the bagole before us were late and as a result, our service was cut short to make up for (others’) lost time. One of the things that was cut out was my chosen reading of the day and I was pretty peeved about it and it didn’t help that from the money collected as thanksgiving and the one we paid earlier on to book the venue, we were given 10k as ‘entandikwa’ for arriving early.
But apart from the reading being cut out of the service, everything else went really well. I married my best friend and we were surrounded by (most of) our closest family and friends. If I were to be taken back in time to that day and asked to change something, I wouldn’t. Not about my wedding anyway. Also, I am still a Christian. I believe in the risen Christ and His power- through our repentance and confession and acceptance- to reconcile us to God and enable us through the Holy Spirit to commune with Him.
I say all this because when you read the next line, I need you to understand that it isn’t about my personal circumstances.
I think church weddings are a form of colonialism.
Let me explain.
Church teaching (by which, as I explained in Part 1, I mean the Anglican Church of Uganda to which I subscribe) about marriage has always been along these lines:
God is the originator of marriage.
His intentions for it are twofold: first for mutual enjoyment of the husband and wife and secondly for procreation.
Marriage is a lifetime commitment and is intended to be between one man and one woman
I fully subscribe to this teaching about marriage. My problem is with the Church’s position on the wedding (and here, I must insist on making the distinction between the wedding-which is a ceremony attended by the bride, groom and witnesses- and the marriage, which is the relationship between the bride and groom thereafter). I have a problem with the idea that the Christian bride and groom can only be said to be in holy matrimony if their marriage is solemnized in church and/or presided over by a priest.
Nothing in Scripture seems to support this idea and it is even less tenable legally.
First the Scriptures: There is no record of a priest presiding over a marriage in the bible. In fact, there isn’t any prescription of a wedding ceremony in the entire bible. You would have to go to a Deuterocanonical book – ie outside of Anglicanism and into Catholicism (Tobit 4:12-14) to find any mention of such a ceremony and even there, the father places his daughter’s hands in those of the groom and writes a contract, thereby binding the two in matrimony. There is certainly no mention of white, flowing gowns and fitting suits. In the New Testament, there is an anecdotal reference to a wedding in Canna, but the writers of the story are so unconcerned about the ceremonial practices that the only thing we can infer from it, is that Jesus partook of the bitter stuff and knew a thing or two about what a good party should look like.
The teachings on monogamy are consistent with both biblical instruction on marriage (the Gen 2:24 ‘two shall become one’ teaching only makes sense if it’s two people involved while Luke 16:18 and 1 Cor 7:2 don’t make sense in a polygamous situation) as well as with the explicit instructions of Paul in the New Testament for those who seek to be leaders in the Church to be exemplary by, among other things, being married to one wife.
The teaching about God being the Originator of marriage is pretty straightforward, not least because for starters, if we accept that we were made by Him and for His glory (both notions central to the Christian faith), then of course it was His idea that “a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife and the two shall become one”.
But there is zero evidence of God requiring marriage to be solemnized in Church or by a priest. In fact, what is evident from Scripture is that the Jews’ idea of marriage was basically what we in Uganda have as kwanjula, kuhingira, etc. This tantantala thing (white wedding) is quite simply, a Western traditional marriage.
Historically, weddings have always been a cultural affair. That is why the traditions vary from place to place. One of the consequences of European conquest across the African continent, was the subjugation of African culture in favour of European culture. In the context of European missionary exploits, this meant that our cultural practices as regards weddings were either entirely discarded as evil or demoted as second-class while those of the missionaries were elevated as the right thing to do. And at some level, this makes sense. Within most of our cultural contexts, polygamy was not only accepted, it was the norm. Being kwanjula-d, kuhingira-d, etc did not necessarily translate into the monogamy taught by the Church. And so, perhaps in an effort to make a distinction between those that continued along the established culture and those that had become Christians, I can see how having a white-wedding could help draw the lines. But that’s if that much thought was put to it. The other possibility is that the missionaries simply imported what they knew to be ‘true’ or ‘civilized’, replacing ‘backward cultural tendencies’ with ‘modern, civil’ ones that both achieved the aim of civilizing the African and straightened out the theological problem ‘cultural marriages’ created.
Whatever the reason, they were wrong.
Now I am not saying polygamy should somehow be argued into Christian doctrine in order to accommodate African cultural practices. The reality is, Christianity should, and often times does, challenge culture, customs and the status quo. I share the view with those Christian missionaries that Christians ought to get married to one partner. But if I was to be asked how to reconcile this with tradition, I would be of the view that the African Church recognises what we call traditional marriages as holy matrimony, and focuses on having its members practice monogamy. Rather than impose a foreign tradition as a means to correct a perceived problem with the local traditions, Christianity should aim to transform the local tradition to align itself with the Christian faith. Wouldn’t it suffice for instance, for a Christian woman to introduce her Christian fiancé to her parents in whatever tradition her ethnic group espouses, have a priest or elder of the Church pray a blessing upon the newly weds and we all call it a day? What would such an arrangement be lacking theologically that a white, church wedding would provide?
I happened to put this question to three Anglican bishops I have the honour of knowing as well as three ordained Anglican priests (two of whom are British). None of them disagreed with the theology. The problem, it appeared, happened to be legal. Cultural marriages as defined by the Ugandan laws give the man liberty to be polygamous. Church weddings do not. And so we move on to the legal arguments.
Legally speaking, the Church does not – in and of itself – have the powers to wed couples. That power belongs to the state and is vested upon the Church by the same. That is why the Church publishes wedding banns, requires two witnesses and, when the priest is announcing the wedding complete, begins by saying ‘By the powers vested in me by the state’. In other words, the idea that a church/white wedding is somehow more aligned to Christianity is both legally and theologically misleading. By having Ugandan (and many African) Christians conduct two different ceremonies, we are not only creating second-class marriages (in the sense that Christians duly married as per our traditions are looked down upon as either living in sin or not ‘properly’ married), we are also blatantly lying to ourselves about what Christianity really is.
In summary, here are a couple of questions that I would like to put to you, for open discussion:By forming a “Church wedding” culture, isn’t the church:
1. Demoting cultural (which in our case is African) weddings thereby unnecessarily creating a kind of second class marital status (obushwere oburikwera/obufumbo obutukuvu being 1st class and okuhingira/kwanjula etc second class)?
2. Telling Africans that God is only truly in your marriage only if you are wedded by the Church in a foreign tradition
3. Being intellectually and theologically dishonest seeing as even with holy matrimony, the Church is only wedding people on behalf of the state (which is why not all Churches can wed couples)
This was supposed to be the end of my post. However, as I reflected on the matter further, I actually came to an even deeper conclusion. If the Church conducts weddings on behalf of the state, isn’t it possible that it is in fact overstepping its mandate? What if the Church stopped wedding people and instead focused its efforts on the pastoral duties of teaching married people Christ’s way in marriage and the unmarried Christians Christ’s will for their lives?
What do you think?
Decolonizing Christianity Part 1 can be found here...