I presided at the wedding of a wonderful couple last weekend. I first met the bridegroom the week he was born and baptized him not long afterward. He grew up in the church and was a partner in shenanigans with my son (think cool cows with sunglasses in the Christmas pageant or spitballs from the balcony.) Now he’s married to a talented young woman who has been his partner and best friend for the last couple of years. May they grow in grace as their marriage matures in the pattern of their parents and grandparents.
As a parish priest, I presided over a lot of weddings; many fewer after I became the executive assistant to the Bishop and now the Bishop. I used to joke that I preferred funerals to weddings – an in-joke for clergy and organists who know the complexities of negotiating expectations of brides (and occasionally grooms), parents and wedding planners. Often people in grief tend to be more open to the Gospel message than those who are ready to party and have spent a great deal of time planning every detail of it!
I was particularly happy with this wedding. The marriage rite in the Anglican tradition, whether BCP or BAS, is full of realistic hope and generous expectation, not only of the couple but also of the community that witnesses the vows. The unconditional commitment that is pledged in the declaration of consent, the exchange of the vows and the giving of the rings is amazing when you think about it. “For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish for the rest of our lives.” It is an aspiration of hope made in the context of the realities that mark our experience of life, not just the romantic glow of attraction and bliss but the hard slogging moments of darkness and difficulty. Like the 23rd Psalm, the presence of God in the midst of life comes not only in times of bucolic green pastures and still waters but equally in the shadows of death and the presence of enemies.
Marriage is a practical laboratory where two people with unique gifts, histories, passions and foibles come together in partnership, with God’s grace, to live out an experiment to demonstrate that “unity can overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, joy overcome despair”. It can become an effective sign, even in its imperfections, of the continuing power of Jesus’ love to reconcile a broken world, and so a sign of hope, not just for two individuals but for the community.
Unlike living together, marriage is a public celebration where the community takes its role in supporting, encouraging, protecting, counselling and assisting the couple in fulfilling the hopes so clearly stated in their vows. Without the community’s support, or in the face of its undermining, such a relationship is almost impossible to sustain. So it begs the question of how we actually act to support those whose marriages we celebrate. As couples (and their children) move from close proximity to extended family, and even as society increases in complexity, more and more emphasis is focused on the binary couple. How do they find community to help bear the burdens and celebrate the joys of family life? It is part of the responsibility we share as church.
Over the generations, aspects of our understanding of marriage have changed. More than fifty years ago, the Canadian Prayer Book recognized a greater mutuality of husband and wife and stated that “matrimony was ordained for the hallowing of the union betwixt man and woman, for the procreation of children to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord; and for the mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, in both prosperity and adversity.” This reordered the purposes of marriage in earlier Prayer Books, placing procreation second rather than first. The 1959/62 Prayer Book revision also removed two other statements: marriage was not to be entered into “to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding” and “It (matrimony) was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.” This was a liturgical recognition of a major theological and ethical change: until the late 1940s, Anglican bishops officially taught exactly what the Roman Catholic Church continues to teach, that artificial birth control was prohibited, and sexual acts not open to the potential for procreation were immoral. Some 30 years ago, the celebrant at the blessing of a marriage using the BAS began to say that “the union man and woman is intended for their mutual comfort and help, that they may know each other with delight and tenderness in acts of love”. Procreation was put in brackets, recognizing that by age, inability or choice, there might be no children in a faithful Christian marriage.
Today there is debate about whether the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church can be adapted to include same-sex couples in the definition of Christian marriage, as it has been for a number of years in the state’s legal definition. For some, this is an appropriate development of the Gospel; for others, it is a fundamental departure from Scripture and tradition. A commission reporting to the Council of General Synod is currently considering this. Changes in the canon, if any, will require a considerable time to implement after wide consultation.
However this develops over the next years, the prayer offered in a nuptial blessing expresses an abiding hope of all of us coming to a wedding, asking God’s blessing on the couple “that they may so love, honour, and cherish each other in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace.”