Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) and equal marriage

by Andrew Lightbown

The Revd Andrew Lightbown is the Rector of the Winslow Benefice in the Diocese of Oxford.  He writes regularly on issues such as leadership, economics, mental health, human sexuality and the nature of the church.

Photographer: Matt Squire

For many years I have enjoyed watching Sunday evening dramas on television. We used to watch The Onedin Line en famille back in the 1970s. When we first married Ballykissangel quickly established itself as a firm favourite. Recently Poldark, The Night Manager and now Gentleman Jack have proved compelling viewing. Gentleman Jack should, I think, be required viewing for all involved with the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith initiative. Perhaps the Diaries of Anne Lister should also be required reading, for in Anne we are privileged to witness a very real, historical figure, determined to answer for herself, yet using the data of the church, the sharpest of theological questions: questions of personal and relational identity. It is important to remember that Anne Lister asked such questions as a deeply committed member of the Church of England, as someone who fully understood the importance of Scripture, rites and sacraments. Anne Lister could never be accused of being someone who capitulated in the face of secular culture or rights-based political theory. Anne Lister was a lesbian who sought to make sense of what this meant and implied for her, a deeply committed (Anglican) Christian, in the 1830s.

Anne’s theological reflection began, as with all good theological reflection, by taking seriously the concrete reality of her situation, as someone who had only ever been sexually and relationally attracted to other women. Anne then moved on to consider how the concrete reality of her status, her ontological reality, and crucially her desires, could either be rejected or affirmed by the Christian tradition. For Anne tradition was not reducible to a fixed and static set of dogmatic propositions; tradition is instead something living, evolving and dynamic. As a well educated, traditional, and deeply committed member of the Church of England, Anne drew on two sources of external data: Scripture and liturgy.

In and through Anne what we see is a set of theological questions (‘is my very identity acceptable to God?’ and ‘could I be married to another person of the same sex?’)  being worked out and stress tested through a dialogue between experience, Scripture and liturgy, or put another way between experience, Scripture, reason, and tradition. Anne Lister provides, from within our own tradition, a wonderful example of how the Church of England could (perhaps should) undertake its moral reasoning and theological reflection.

Anne Lister, of course, came to the conclusion that she could legitimately marry Ann Walker; and in her own eyes she did marry Ann Walker. But for Anne Lister it wasn’t her own eyes that were important, it was God’s eyes that counted above all else. Anne Lister had no doubt that God both endorsed and delighted in her marriage to Ann Walker. She had no doubt because she had done the hard work that theological reflection and moral reasoning demands of its participants. Whatever else Anne Lister was, she wasn’t a lazy thinker.

As I have already said, Anne Lister’s process started with taking her own status seriously in the light of Scripture. Her approach is highly incarnational, for she knew herself as real flesh and blood. She knew that she was both glorious and fallen. She knew she was attracted to and attracted by other human beings, and specifically those of the same sex. She knew that she had always been attracted to other women. She came to believe that her sexuality was the very essence of her own distinct created order. She believed that part of her special grace, part of the gift to her in creation, was that she could both love and fulfil the sexual desires of another woman. She believed – in the words of the Preface to the Common Worship Marriage Service – that ‘the delight and tenderness of sexual union’ is instrumental in leading to a ‘joyful commitment’ [between the couple] ‘to the end of their lives’.  Anne Lister seemed to understand that a lifelong relationship demanded the exercise of both agapē (sacrificial love) and eros.

Of course Anne Lister wasn’t privy to the Common Worship Marriage Service, for the BCP (Book of Common Prayer) was the sole liturgy used by priests in the 1830s, but she does justify her rightful desire to marry, and take as her wife, Ann Walker by reference to the BCP Preface: there can be no doubt that she regarded her relationship to be ‘ordained for the mutual society, help and comfort, that one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.’ In this sense hers is a noble, traditional and high theology of marriage. Virtue is also important to Anne, for what she desires above all else is for her love for Ann Walker to be characterised by monogamy. Anne Lister was simply not prepared to be Ann Walker’s extra-marital lover. For her to enjoy a sexual relationship with a married woman would be deeply sinful. It would be an act of adultery and therefore an affront both to God and to the institution of marriage – an institution she was overwhelmingly concerned to ‘uphold and honour’. Furthermore, it is monogamy and ‘continency’ that will ensure that she and her betrothed are able to ‘keep themselves as undefiled members of Christ’s body’. Could it be that Anne Lister models, incarnates, what it means to be ‘in Christ’?

Of course Anne and Ann were on slightly less secure grounds when it comes to the procreative rationale for marriage, and this according to the BCP rite was the ‘first’ and most important reason for marriage. Nowadays the procreative rationale, or emphasis, is somewhat downplayed. The Common Worship preface, for sure, refers to ‘marriage as the foundation of family life in which children are (born and) nurtured’, but doesn’t insist that procreation is the primary rationale behind marriage. Common Worship offers a far more generative theology of marriage; a theology which stresses the importance of family life, but which does not insist on a moral obligation to procreate.

Anne and Ann did make solemn vows to each other before God and regarded each other as legitimate spouses. A ring was exchanged as a ‘symbol of unending love and faithfulness’, and they also took communion together. Anne and Ann were not officially married by the Church of England, but neither were they prepared to accept the lesser, and thoroughly unAnglican, notion of ‘informal prayer’. Anne Lister regarded her relationship with Ann Walker to be ‘ordained’, acceptable, and pleasing in the eyes of God. I think that she was right to do so. She understood that if her relationship was indeed ordained then the only real way that it could be solemnised by the Church of England was through rites (vows made in the presence of God) and sacraments. In this sense she was thoroughly, authentically, traditionally and formally Anglican.

As the Church of England continues to consider same-sex relationships, and in particular the possibility of equal marriage, then maybe the story of Anne Lister is one we would do well to attend to?

The Anne Lister story is a theological story, and it’s an Anglican story.