After hundreds of years the traditional ‘signing of the registers’ in church weddings came to an end on May 4th. New legislation passed by Parliament means all marriages will now be registered on an electronic system.
For the first time mothers’ names will be recorded as well as fathers’, in the old register system only the father’s name was recorded, a historical reminder that things weren’t always the way they are now. Children and wives were considered as belonging to the father or husband, even as late as the 19th C wives could be sold at market or children as young as 10 used for labour down mines or up chimneys. Roman society, in which Christianity emerged, was even more barbaric by comparison. A Roman father had total power of life and death over his children and female infanticide was not unusual. Romans would happily watch an innocent man being torn to pieces by a wild animal for entertainment; slavery was the norm and it was assumed a man would sexually abuse his slave. Christianity objected to such practises and to the principle that ‘might’ means ‘right’. It insisted that women were as valuable as men (even though we are still working out how to manifest that politically). It demanded that even a society’s enemies be regarded as human. Finally it separated church from state, so that all-too-human emperors could no longer claim the veneration due to gods. All of which was asking the impossible: but it happened.
Over the centuries Christianity has become so dominant that we assume lots of things to be human nature when they are in fact very unusual in the greater scheme of human nature. Universal human rights are a Western concept and to most societies completely unintelligible. Unlike many modern day quasi- religions, Christianity had no naïve illusions about human nature, we are fallen creatures with barbaric tendencies.
Evolutionary biologist Joseph Heinrich notes, in bird species male testosterone rises as mating season begins and they prepare to fight other males. The world is cruel and in both birds and mammals, males with higher testosterone levels tend to have more mates and offspring. The state of monogamy lowers testosterone, as does childcare. As men are drawn into family life their testosterone levels fall faster than those of their single contemporaries.
Divorce acts as a form of de facto polygny if powerful men are able to produce offspring with multiple women. It was standard practice in ancient Rome but Jesus of Nazareth forbade it, seeing it as desertion. His followers opposed divorce, infanticide and slavery; they also prohibited men from having sex with anyone but their wives. For women this had huge benefits; for low status males it was an even bigger boon.
It wasn’t until 900 years after that first Easter Sunday when the risen Christ appeared to his women followers, that the emperor Charlemagne enacted the Catholic church’s marriage laws. No man was to have more than one wife, no one was to marry a relative. This would have a revolutionary impact on Western society, setting us apart from 95% of global cultures. Without cousin marriage, clans grew weaker as people married out; they saw themselves less as members of a patrilinear line and more as wider members of society. Church rules on consent were also vital too; marriage was a sacred institution and no one could now enter into it unwillingly.
Soon the almost unthinkable developed, the idea of marrying for love, a process known as the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ revolution. Adult sons and daughters were no longer subject to the patriarch but were individuals in their own rights; increasingly they would set up their own separate homes upon marriage. They were individuals.
These marriage rules affirmed the right of individual sovereignty and brought about huge benefits to society. Not least because polygamous societies are racked by violence and turmoil because large numbers of males are left without mates and inevitably cause trouble. The Vikings are the classic historical example, Scandinavia exporting its excess men to terrorise Lydford.
Today we barely notice how unnatural our norms are in a world where traditionally powerful men behaved with the brutality of Caesar. That all changed though one Friday on a hillside in Judea.
As church attendance continues to fall I worry we may be in danger of losing the foundations of our society and like the song says “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
Taken from sermon notes Sunday 2nd May and ‘How God Created the West’ by Ed West