Anglican marriage changes: Why asking wife to ‘submit’ over ‘obey’ is a dangerous development
The Anglican church in the diocese of Sydney is changing the wording of its marriage service to provide, optionally for couples who choose it, for the wife to submit to the husband. This replaces the old vow for the woman to 'obey' – made optional in the Anglican rite in 1928.
It is not my place to critique religious rites so long as they occur within a church context between consenting adults. However the Marriage Act 1961(Cth) provides that those who are recognised ministers of religion of a recognised denomination, are empowered to solemnise marriages under the Act.
Because marriage is an institution of law, ministers of religion are in my view effectively agents of the state in terms of solemnisation of marriage. It is concerning therefore that wives may undertake to submit to husbands in a legal process, even one that occurs within a church. This is so for two reasons.
The Many Faces of Marriage
Contemporary Australian debate around marriage involves a lack of distinction between its romantic, personal and religious aspects, and its legal effect. All these concepts seem to be perceived in the popular imagination within a cohesive whole. Indeed Christian organisations have been vocal in their conceptualisation of marriage within a Christian construction. (I have written before on some of the personal and the legal implications of marriage.)
Use of 'submit' as the foundation for a woman's promise to her husband raises the possibility of this term entering wider contemporary marriage discourse, including in the context of rights and obligations in the context of the law. On the basis that there is blatant widespread misapprehension of the concept of 'consent' in sexual relations (rape), the danger of validating a wife's obligation to 'submit' to her husband is in my view a real one.
At best, this word and all it implies muddies the waters. At worst, it may be used to justify violence and abuse: if not at law, then within the minds of those who perpetrate such abuse.
Submission and Sexism
ABC Radio has reported that the Sydney diocese denies that the obligation on a woman to submit is sexist. In my view this is patently incorrect for two very simple reasons. First, there is no equivalent obligation on men to submit to women. There is no parity in submission as between the parties. Indeed, how could there be? Mutual submission would destroy the power imbalance on which submission depends.
Furthermore, it is sexist because of this validated power differential in a way that places women as subordinate to men. For more on the loaded nature of submission, see Tara Moss here.
A Question of Justice
If the Church wants to facilitate a rite in which consenting couples submit to each other, it is free to do so. But when it is acting as the agent of the state to solemnise an institution of the law, it must be held to contemporary standards of justice. Validating women's submission to men fails to meet this standard.
An argument perhaps for the removal of marriage from the law?
Kate Galloway is a senior law lecturer at James Cook University, and PhD candidate at Melbourne University. She writes regularly on the nature of property and its representations in the law; about issues affecting women; about justice generally; and about legal education.