The “submit” controversy

At the risk of politicising this blog, I’d like to comment on a deeper aspect of the current “marraige vow” controversy being debated within the Anglican Church as well as publically in the Australian newspapers. To me, this debate is really the collision of two worlds — the sacred and the secular — with the not unexpected result that there are incompatibilities between them.

One branch of the Anglican Church wants to change wives “obey” to wives “submit” to their husband in an optional form of the marriage vow.  There are two ways to view this change, one religious and one political. The Anglicans are debating this based on  religious not political grounds; the public at large is debating it based on political not religious grounds. Let me briefly cover each.

Submission of wives to husbands based on religious grounds

The basic religious point, it seems to me, is one of being faithful to one’s beliefs. One side of the Anglican church is being faithful to Paul’s analogy of marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church. By giving couples this option to consciously choose to elevate the seriousness of their vow into a higher level of conformance with the sacred mystery of Christ / Church, that branch of the Anglican Church is pursuing a higher level of religious faithfulness to Paul’s ideal.

The other branch of the Anglican church takes a different view. It attempts to stay faithful to Christ’s call to go into the world and be “yeast”, transforming the world by emulating Christ’s forgiveness. This branch views St Paul’s statements on marriage as being culturally conditioned. Dorothy Lee wrote a thought piece on this on the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne website. Click here to read the full article. Here is the crux of her argument:

“Household codes [like those on marriage] reflect the culture of the ancient world and the context in which the early Church found itself. These codes, originating with Aristotle, demonstrated that, far from being socially and politically dangerous, Christians were good citizens, following the accepted values of the day (even with a Christian twist). The household codes reflect the compromise the church sometimes has to make in order to proclaim the gospel in socially or politically repressive contexts.” This branch of the Anglican Church would say that we aren’t being faithful when we antagonise the people we are trying to serve in the world by stressing an outmoded cultural code.

Here you see the contrast between two religious views; one which draws a sharper line between secular and sacred in order to convert it, and the other which moves toward the secular, to be part of it, transform it and convert it.

Submission of wives to husbands based on political grounds

This might seem a simple question. In our society, it seems completely obvious that wives don’t submit to husbands, nor women to men in general. That is the ideal of western society (but not other global societies). It has been the ideal since the emancipation of women, given strength by the feminist movement.

But, as a general rule, in cases where things seem completely obvious, we ought to look more closely, to discover whether we have lost some nuances or distinctions. [Let me hasten to add that I am not opposed to the general thrust of complete equality for women.]

Here is one point I’d like to make about the nuanced power issue contained in the ideal of complete equality of men and women. As an example, when women take up powerful political positions — CEOs, Prime Ministers and the like — we hope that their feminine side is not totally subsumed by the masculine demands of the role. The crucial strenghts of the feminine side are well-known — seeing issues and context more broadly, more sensitivity and nurturing in their decision-making, more concerned about relationships. Their feminine side ought not be forgotten by the women in such power psoitions. Indeed Thomas Berry in his wonderful book The Great Work sees the feminine influence as being one of the major positive forces that can heal global problems in the 21st century.

So, if we have a nuanced view of feminine power in corporations and government, cannot one also exist in marriage? Whatever words we might use in the marriage vow, don’t we want women to bring their feminine talents to the marriage? I’m sure that makes sense to most married couples. Young people choosing their vows ought not lose the distinction between the different strengths men and women bring to marriage. It is an important part of what they are commiting themselves to.

If the Sydney Anglican Diocese, by its emphasis on having an option to “submit” in the marriage vow has reawakened a discussion of these important things, good on them I say.


3 Replies to “The “submit” controversy”

  1. This issue has its roots in a religious belief that Christ asks us to “submit” completely, or to phrase it a little differently, to give completely of ourselves. Christ asks us all to submit; only then we can then find complete understanding of his teachings. We are also asked to submit completely in the act of marriage, each partner to the other. It is only in this submission, or giving completely of ourselves that we truly find happiness in a relationship.

    My question is simple: why doesn’t the man also promise, in the giving of his vows, to submit to his wife?

    Here’s a simple test in your marriage: if your spouse asked you to do something, would you simply submit and do it? But, if I were to add that your spouse asked you to do something that was extremely important to her, wouldn’t you give completely of yourself in doing what was asked? Is there a way to measure this “importance”, or is it in the act of doing that we give it measurement?

    It takes a strong person to go into a relationship where we are asked to submit to the other. A self serving weak person can’t imagine submitting, yet all through our history we are given many many examples of very strong people who willingly submit themselves to a religion, a cause, a journey, or a relationship.

    Finally, It may possible to apply this same ideal to the secular, but in my opinion, the issue becomes too muddy. In each instance I described, each side can be seen as being being ideal: God to man, woman to man, cause to woman/man, etc. I don’t think secular relationships hold up to the same scrutiny.

    1. Very well put John. You have raised the bar in the discussion, to a point where even religious people will probably be shocked. We resist the idea that submission is also the measure of our relationship to Christ. That word is so strange; we can hardly imagine submitting to someone completely in our modern, individualistic era. Yet we know, as you point out, that is what God asks of us. Maybe by practicing it in marriage we learn how to practice it in our relationship to God.

  2. I would be interested to hear the opinion from a woman and her feelings about the term “submit”. It currently seems to reflect a strong negative connotation, of male dominance, and I would imagine that in its current context it is reflected in this way, which is what is causing the uproar. This connotation needs to be changed and it will take men and women who are comfortable with themselves and resolute in their beliefs to define submission as a positive.

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