74. Inculturation of marriage: Introduction
74. Inculturation of marriage: Introduction

74. Inculturation of marriage: Introduction

Marriage is one of the topical areas in inculturation. Current efforts at inculturating marriage include wearing native clothes instead of a white wedding gown at Church marriages. The white wedding gown dates back to Queen Victoria of England, who wore a white dress at her wedding in 1840. As the queen of the influential British empire, people copied her. From there, it became globalised as the standard wedding gown style.

However, the arguments for inculturating marriage in Nigeria run deeper. One can identify two. The first is to recognise customary (traditional) marriages as valid in the Catholic Church. Hence, those who are only married traditionally should receive communion. Second, we should develop a rite to celebrate customary and Church (canonical) marriage rites in a single ceremony. Today and in the coming weeks, I will explore these arguments.

First and foremost, Nigeria practices legal pluralism, that is, the existence of three legal systems at the same time. They are customary law (based on customs), Islamic law (based on Islamic tenets) and English law (received English law, the constitution, and the statutes). With this complex mixture of laws operating simultaneously within the same country, it is sometimes unclear about the law applicable in a given situation. A general principle is that English law applies to Nigerians as public law. However, individuals can adopt any legal system to regulate their conduct regarding personal matters.  

All legal systems have laws guiding the valid celebration of marriages. Therefore, as marriage falls under personal matters, individuals freely choose which legal system to regulate their marriage. As baptised Catholics, we can add a fourth legal system—canon law. Canon law recognises only those marriages done according to canonical regulations.

Second, marriage is based on natural law, that is, as God willed it. However, due to the various legal systems, couples contract their marriages under these systems. They are traditional or customary marriage (customary law system), statutory marriage or ‘Marriage under the Acts’, often called Court Marriage (English Law system), and Islamic marriage (Islamic/Sharia law), Church marriage (canon law system).

Margaret Onoka coined the term ‘double-decker marriage’ to describe the marriage contracted according to customary and statutory law. According to her, “Double-decker marriage involves celebration by the same couple of a marriage under one system and their subsequent marriage under another system”[1]. As long as the spouses are the same, these are not two marriages, but one marriage contracted according to various legal systems. For some Catholics, it can even be a triple-decker marriage if couples celebrate the marriage rite separately under each legal (customary, statutory, canon) system.

Contracting marriage in various legal systems is necessary if one desires to benefit from each legal system.

For instance, statutory marriage is necessary for obtaining certain civil documents and inheritance rights regulated by Nigeria’s statutory laws.  

Furthermore, Section 33 (1) of the Marriage Act states: “No marriage in Nigeria shall be valid where either of the parties thereto at the time of the celebration of such marriage is married under customary law to any person other than the person with whom such marriage is had”.

Section 35 states: “Any person who is married under this Act, or whose marriage is declared by this Act to be valid, shall be incapable, during the continuance of such marriage, of contracting a valid marriage under customary law, but, save as aforesaid, nothing in this Act contained shall affect the validity of any marriage contracted under or in accordance with any customary law, or in any manner apply to marriages so contracted”.

Moreover, the Marriage Act also provides penalties for those who violate the law. Section 47 provides:“Whoever, having contracted marriage under this Act, or any modification or re-enactment thereof, or under any enactment repealed by this Act, during the continuance of such marriage contracts a marriage in accordance with customary law, shall be liable to imprisonment for five years”.

Therefore, while customary marriage permits polygamy, bigamy (marrying someone while already married to another person) invalidates a marriage under statutory law. This is why some people advise their sisters to contract a statutory marriage or their brothers not to do so.

May God continue to help us🙏🏾


[1] Onoka M. C, Family Law (Spectrum Law Series), 2003, 143.

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