M is for Marriage.
I am very conscious that this “letter” of our A-Z is the most difficult one I’ve written, and that is not because I am single. This is my third attempt, because each time I’ve found it so complex, and such a big subject.
In our own church, we have happily married people, and some who may be unhappily married. We have separated, divorced, divorced and remarried, widowed, gay, unmarried by choice or circumstances, and people who live together who are not married.
All that different experience, and all of it giving different points of view - let alone what we have made of the marriages of our parents, relatives, and friends. And we’re all Christians.
Essentially, the Christian Faith tells us to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Christian teaching on marriage has varied enormously, from one age to another and from one church to another. And it has not gone from strict to lenient in a simple way, as many people think. The state, and the church, sometimes in order to control and organize people, have had, until recently, a lot of control over marriage and what it means.
Nor is it simple to ask what the Bible says. Throughout the Old Testament, polygamy was common, as was the keeping of concubines, so there’s hardly a pattern of one man, one woman. The way of life was so unimaginably different, that it is no help, and certainly no good example. Our Lord, speaking against divorce, spoke in the context of a society where a woman could be divorced on the mere word of a man, and so be outcast and destitute. Context does matter, after all. What he said, when he said it, provided a protection for abandoned women. Jesus did not otherwise give teaching on marriage. Nor did he have much to say about sexual behaviour. However, he had a lot to say about love between people, about humility, service and forgiveness. He showed what care for those close to him meant and that following his way was one of suffering and love.
He also spoke of the care and protection which should always be given to children, and that people should look after their parents. So, whatever the changes in society, or in the law, about marriage, legitimacy, inheritance, and so on, a Christian who wishes to commit themselves to another person for life, and to live with them, has all of this teaching of Jesus for a foundation.
The marriage service emphasises that marriage should resemble the union between Christ and his church - a union based on sacrificial love. And people do still fell a need to make a public commitment, make vows, and ask for God’s blessing on such a great change in their life. But fewer do now than in the past. Marriage is not for everyone, and one of the good things about modern society is that people no longer have to marry, whether called to this state or not.
A good marriage is a blessing; a bad one can be a life sentence or a purgatory of misery. I believe that many people now do not marry, but live together, because they have found that one cannot take solemn vows with certainty when another person is involved. It is interesting that it is many years since there was a marriage celebrated in this church. I do not believe that that means there is no longer commitment between people. I think it means that we are in a time of massive change in this area.
Whatever our marital state or life experience, we live with or among other people. We need loving, and so do they. God wants us to care for one another, to enjoy one another, and to live generous, hospitable lives. If we take that as our programme, our community will be truly Christian, and that is our calling.
THE ARNOLFINI MARRIAGE
by Jan Van Eyck