Marriage, and being human.
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
A lunchtime fringe meeting took place on 16th February, during General Synod, to encourage the promotion and celebration of marriage, in the light of the reaffirmation of the Anglican Church’s commitment to historic biblical teachings on this subject at the recent Primates’ meeting at Canterbury.
Before the meeting I spent some time in the gallery of the main chamber of Synod and listened to the discussion on Evangelism. There was a particular stress on the need for the Church to prioritise making disciples among sections of the population statistically less likely to be seen in church: young people, and those on the deprived ‘outer estates’ surrounding our urban areas.
In the light of this missional need, the lunchtime seminar on marriage which followed seemed particularly relevant. As I found when vicar of an “outer estate” parish, higher levels of relative material deprivation, antisocial behaviour and psychological anguish, combined with much lower levels of educational attainment and church attendance, seem to coincide in those sections of society where teaching and modelling of strong, stable marriage and family life is rare.
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali’s talk began with the reminder that marriage is “a natural institution”. The bond between husband and wife, producing and nurturing the next generation, is seen by almost every culture as vitally important and key to the flourishing of the society. This confirms the Bible’s witness that marriage is from creation and cannot be controlled or reinvented by the Church or the State, though it should be recognised and supported.
The Christian faith has added some important insights which have enhanced marriage in countries influenced by the church. For example, the idea of mutual consent and equal responsibilities and rights between husband and wife, something that not all cultures and religious traditions affirm. Bishop Michael spoke of his experiences conducting weddings in Pakistan, where sometimes the bride’s mother would want to answer on her daughter’s behalf, and had to be reminded that the bride was making her own free choice. The “household codes” of Ephesians and Colossians, sometimes viewed today as conservative and even repressive, were at the time a radical departure from the marriage customs of surrounding cultures where wives often had few rights and husbands were not expected to show sacrificial love.
St Augustine held that there are three important aspects to marriage: the contract or agreement of shared responsibility in the relationship, the commitment to continue to love whatever the future circumstances (“for better, for worse”), and the sacramental – the way that the one flesh union between two people of different gender points to the coming together of God and humanity in the Gospel story. For centuries this understanding has been affirmed by Church and State as a public doctrine.
But a process which began during the enlightenment has now resulted in the unraveling of these principles. The celebration of “pure relationship” (sociologist Anthony Giddens’ phrase) , meaning temporary “love” with no strings, external constraints or the need for self-denial, has resulted in unprecedented breakdown of marriages, cohabitation, full approval of same sex relationships, and the government’s redefinition of marriage itself.
Bishop Michael suggested some practical steps that the Church could take in the current cultural context. First, to be more bold in publicly articulating the Christian teaching on marriage (this would include asking government to do more to support the institution). Second, to support single people by affirming non-sexual friendships. And third, to be more intentional in giving more thorough preparation for building lifelong intimacy and strong family life to those thousands of couples who are married in the church each year.
At this point the Bishop introduced Edmund Adamus who directs the Marriage and Family Life centre for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster. As with the recent Primates meeting, it is important to be reminded that the discussion on sexuality and marriage is not restricted to a small sect of middle class Church of England members. We are part of the worldwide church, whose different denominations almost all clearly profess the biblical teaching on marriage even though this is now counter-cultural in many parts of the world.
Edmund Adamus reported briefly on the recent meeting of Pope Francis and the Russian Orthodox patriarch, who together reaffirmed the historic Christian vision of humanity. He also summarized the conclusions of the two Vatican Synods on the subject in 2014 and 2015, which put a fresh spotlight not just on theology but also practical action – how the church can be proactive in preparing people for marriage “from infancy”. Good resources exist, for example ‘The Explore Experience’, which enables young people in schools and youth groups to interview “real” married couples; also courses for marriage enrichment and restoring damaged or broken relationships.
Most young people, even those with no faith and those from broken homes, still aspire to lifelong love and want to get married. There is a tremendous Gospel opportunity here: to celebrate this God-given desire for intimate, fruitful partnership with ‘the other’, to explain the boundaries which are life-enhancing not restrictive, and show how this desire points ultimately to union with Christ.
Will marriage be on the main agenda of Synod some time soon? Will Bishops and clergy commend it, preach on it, celebrate married couples who have children, bring them up and stay together; will more be done to prepare young people for lifelong exclusive relationship with a member of the opposite sex, and counsel those in marriage difficulties? Or will the subject continue to be viewed as too controversial and potentially upsetting, too ‘Daily Mail’, too ‘heteronormative’? Powerful forces in our culture are successfully deconstructing marriage and all that it represents. The church needs to be in the forefront of a ‘counter-construction’.
[An abbreviated version of this article was published in the Church of England Newspaper on 26th February.]
See also: We should listen to this judge: marriage means happiness, by Louise Kirk, The Conservative Woman