Follow the recent publication of the House of Bishops report “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations”, now seems like a good time to revisit Thinking Again About Marriage, published by SCM Press last year and edited by John Bradbury and Susannah Cornwall. The book includes contributions from a broad theological and ecclesiological spectrum across the Christian tradition, and seeks to offer a useful resource for critical and clear thinking and reflective practice.
In her Prologue to the Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, Jessica Martin acknowledges that we ‘cannot talk about same sex relationships in isolation’; nor can we say anything about human sexuality without ‘speaking first of our sense of the body and bodily relationships as holy’ (Martin 2013, p. xiv). Christianity is incarnational. In Christ, body and God come together; the life of the Church is characterized by the language of being a body with many members. Therefore anything we think about same-sex relationships, especially when we disagree, has ‘no value except as part of this larger vision of all our human relationships’ (Martin 2013, p. xiv).
Marriage is part of that larger vision. The language we use, the expectations and aspirations we have, are shaped liturgically. The liturgical character of marriage expresses a public commitment that is both exclusive and inclusive. Exclusivity in terms of ‘forsaking all others’ (CW, p. 106) is held alongside the expectation that marriage ‘enriches society and strengthens community’ (CW, p. 105). It expresses a generous and outward-looking aspect to this vocation – the gift of marriage is a source of ‘refreshment and joy’ (CW, p. 112) as well as ‘strength, companionship and comfort’ (CW, p. 105). This ‘perfect crown’ (Oliver 2012, p. 12) is an inclusive relationship that is connected to other forms of social life (to the wider community, including those who are single and networks of non-biological kinship). It is a way of expressing the call to holiness and discipleship rather than the only expression of maturity. Although marriage is a public celebration of intimacy, there is something provisional about it. Marriage is a way of life lived in the hope of the kingdom of God and in the face of death.
This chapter begins with a consideration of Rembrandt’s capacity to reflect on human relationships – and the way his painting The Jewish Bride conveys inclusivity and exclusivity. This expression of marriage is then set alongside the research and analysis of the Church of England’s Weddings Project. This serves to highlight the importance of drawing on a deep vein of resources to think about marriage, rather than colluding with the pressures of a wedding day. The liturgy draws us into God’s purposes and the promise of love. It does so recognizing the penultimate reality of our human frailty and the ultimate hope of God’s kingdom.
‘Let their love for each other be a seal on their hearts and a crown upon their heads’
The art critic Laura Cumming described the exhibition Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery in 2014–15 as presenting both ‘ethereal vision and earthly worlds’ (Cumming 2014). Rembrandt takes us on a journey through life, captivating us with moments of intensity. In these episodes something of the beyond breaks in. We are drawn into the company of the saints irradiated by light, and radiating that light into our lives as we encounter them. Rembrandt takes us to the heart of human life. He powerfully and compassionately enables us to gaze on faces that have loved and lost, hoped and endured. He lends dignity to our frailty, infusing every gesture and glance with grace. He holds us between life and death; without losing passion for the former he makes us confront the latter. No wonder that in her review, Cumming describes the exhibition as ‘dark, impassioned, magnificently defiant’ (2014).
Rembrandt looks on human beings with absolute attention; his portraits scrutinize us: the tenderness and sensuality of a sleeping woman; the injustice and brutality of a hanged teenager. We are caught up in Bathsheba’s moment of decision as she holds David’s letter – loyalty to king or husband weighs on her heart. We are captivated by the moment of distraction in the face of the young Titus, Rembrandt’s son, as he daydreams at his desk. We ponder what meaning, consolation or inspiration the old woman is finding in the book she is reading with undivided attention. Rembrandt captures things that are statements of public intent or position; he also draws back the veil on the inner thoughts of men and women. In one painting in particular, he reveals a love that is both a crown and a seal.
In The Jewish Bride the love of a nameless couple endures. The richness of the fabric catches the light yet pales in comparison to the luminescence of their faces. There is something compelling about these two individuals. Rembrandt has observed them with a depth of attention, with the result that the portrait has a profound impact: he reveals something recognizable and affecting; something that touches human longing. Cumming describes it as ‘a secular altarpiece, an inspiration to patience, humility and kindness’ (Cumming 2014). If it serves as an altarpiece, it is one that conveys the sacred. In paint and brushstroke, Rembrandt expresses what Christian liturgy declares in word and gesture.
Their posture captures the exclusive intimacy of love. It is a seal upon their hearts as their hands touch; hers resting on his, across her breast. Tenderly, yet without possession, his arm reaches across her shoulder. We do not know if they are newly married or celebrating the longevity of their commitment. They are not surrounded by an entourage or children; they are not gazing at each other. Regardless of their age, there is a maturity beyond romantic captivation. They look out at us with the assurance of companionship that is generative. They inspire and embody virtues – patience, humility and kindness. We see beyond the luxurious dress to a generous love that responds to others; a love that is a crown upon their heads.
In this painting Rembrandt presents a compelling and poignant vision of marriage. It reflects both the public and private aspects of that commitment. In doing so he echoes the words of the Song of Songs: ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave’ (Song of Songs 8.6). This conception of marriage is picked up within the Common Worship marriage service as the priest says: ‘Let their love for each other be a seal on their hearts and a crown upon their heads’ (CW, p. 111).
Such love is expressed in an intimate and exclusive relationship. It is not a solely private commitment because the married couple are connected to, and live within, a wider network of social life. Their exclusivity expresses an equally radical inclusivity. The liturgy gives voice to marriage as a way of life that reflects the call to holiness, the call to discipleship. It is not the only expression of such maturity, hope and living well. The language of covenant – inclusivity and exclusivity – is rooted in God’s faithfulness to us; it draws us into the inner life of the Trinity. Whatever our marital status, we share in this generative, loving fellowship. Robert Song writes that ‘in our finite covenant relationships, we bear witness to the eternal covenant relationships within the very being of God’ (Song 2014, p. 10). The language used of such transformed relationships is ‘holiness’ – with the cross of Christ as the crucible burning away the ‘fragmentation between human beings and God’; with worship as formative of a holy people, open to moral density and intimacy of relationships (Hardy 2002, pp. 490, 498).
All that marriage celebrates and affirms – intimacy, hospitality, exclusivity and inclusivity – is an expression of living well within the Church and world. Such life is costly and demanding; its abundance is rooted in vulnerability and fragility. The love it embodies is rooted in the mystery of incarnation and as such is an expression of life lived in hope of the kingdom of God. This is not least because it is life lived in the face of death, in the light of the resurrection. For some, marriage is primarily an expression of permanence, faithfulness and procreation; for others there is recognition of a series of shifts in the understanding of Christian marriage. I will argue that our liturgical expression of marriage deepens our understanding of participation in the kingdom of God. In addition it enables us to acknowledge the provisionality of such covenantal commitment in the face of the penultimate contingencies of life and death, and the ultimate consummation of the heavenly wedding banquet.
‘May their marriage be life-giving and life-long’
Before exploring the theological horizons of the liturgy it is worth pausing to consider the expectations of those seeking to get married in church. The Church of England Weddings Project, which began in 2007, set out to explore why couples choose to be married; it reflects their experience of the Church from the point of making initial contact to the wedding day and beyond. The project resulted in The Church Weddings Handbook (Oliver 2012), which is described in the Preface by Archbishop John Sentamu as a ‘wake-up call’ to clergy and parishes seeking to respond with warmth and imagination to those wanting to marry in church. He writes: ‘People want to be married in church … there is a recognition that there is something important in a wedding that only begins to make sense when there is space for the sacred’ (in Oliver 2012, pp. v–vi).
By drawing on conversations with couples and visits to hundreds of churches, the book seeks to dispel myths and complacency in order to give this pastoral office more impetus and to remove unnecessary barriers. John Barton reflects on the competition among secular wedding venues, which show no interests beyond the reception. He says, ‘Surely we, the servants of Christ who lavished his generosity on an unsuspecting couple at Cana, are not motivated by profit and can add value to all that’ (in Oliver 2012, p. xi). To take the wedding at Cana seriously means doing more than ‘adding value’ to the wedding as an event; the liturgy shapes a vision of marriage that faces the hopes and challenges of human commitment, while also pointing beyond an institution to God’s kingdom.
The Weddings Project focuses on three tasks: to attract more weddings in church; to build public awareness of the Church’s enthusiasm for marriage; to care for couples and guests well, so that more of them want to ‘stick with the church after the day’ (Oliver 2012, p. 6). It does not aim to set out a theology of marriage; rather, it seeks to inform pastoral ministry with secular research. Yet it is precisely the question of how we think theologically as well as pastorally about marriage that has become urgent following the headlines in the wake of the government’s decision to legislate for same-sex marriage. In the light of that decision, the research and analysis of the Weddings Project uses language that merits further consideration.
Marriage is seen by heterosexual couples surveyed by the Weddings Project as an expression of life-long commitment; and church is seen by the majority of those as the ‘proper’ context for the wedding itself. The Handbook acknowledges a sense of spiritual seriousness – seeking God’s blessing, making vows before God, affirming the sacred, affirming personal or family faith (Oliver 2012, pp. 14–15). Yet it also sees spending and lavish celebration as a corollary to this culmination of commitment: ‘A perfect crown is what they are yearning for, when they yearn for marriage’ (Oliver 2012, p. 12).
The Handbook reminds us that an approach to marriage that is liturgically rooted is concerned with connections: between the assumptions and hopes of the couple; between the nature of God’s love and human commitment; between those who are married and the wider community. It commends the use of visual symbols that reflect the story of the couple, which is held within the context of the overarching story of God’s love from creation, in redemption and in eschatological hope.
By engaging with the liturgical expression of private and public commitment, we uncover something of God’s purposes for human flourishing. The phrase ‘the perfect crown’ is used as an expression of lifelong commitment: how might a liturgical expression of this imagery deepen our ecclesial understanding of marriage, educating our desires and enlarging our minds? As responses to Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride suggest, the capaciousness of marriage opens the couple to the cultivation of virtues. How might liturgy express a vision of the sanctification of human lives now, in the hope of the ultimate fulfilment of God’s purposes?
Alongside legal and historical developments, the richness and challenges of the biblical tradition and the deepening understanding of human gender and sexuality, our liturgical framework opens up ways of engaging theologically and pastorally with the question of marriage. Might same-sex marriage might be a continuation of a liberating trajectory in understanding marriage? Might our liturgy itself shape our understanding of marriage in a way that transcends inequalities between men and women; indeed, might extending this perfect crown to same-sex couples via the possibility of Church of England marriage be a redemptive step (Methuen 2013a)? This liberating trajectory in our understanding of marriage is rooted in the light of tradition and in the hope of the fulfilment of the kingdom of God.
‘God is love’
The first text to be cited in the Church of England marriage service is 1 John 4.16 (Archbishops’ Council 2001, p. 104). It declares that ‘God is love’. It is statement not just about the nature of God, but also of our capacity to reflect divine love in our lives: ‘Those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.’ This is a call to life lived within the love of God in the midst of community, rather than a description of romantic love embodied by the couple. At the very outset of the liturgy, marriage is set within a wider vision of all our human relationships. The opening prayer calls us to acknowledge God as not only the source of life, but of love, wonder, joy and grace. With echoes of 1 Corinthians 13 and the Church of England’s Collect for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, the prayer continues, ‘Without you we cannot please you; without your love our deeds are worth nothing.’ The Holy Spirit is invoked, not just upon the couple but upon the whole congregation gathered together. The Spirit pours into human hearts the ‘most excellent gift’ of love whose purpose is both worship and service. This in part echoes the constitution of the Church – as a community formed by facing the holiness of God in worship and enacting that holiness in the world.
The Collect that follows the declarations focuses on the generosity of God in creation – from the beginning, blessing it with abundant life. This vision for creation – and its redemption – rooted in the nature of God is also reflected in the prayer of blessing for the couple. The hope is that they may be joined in ‘mutual love and companionship, in holiness and commitment to each other’. The emphasis is striking in that it recognizes that abundance is a gift of God to all creation, and that this is not specifically related in terms of procreation to those about to be married. Rather, the prayer is for a flourishing of their relationship. This is focused on mutual love and holiness, which are to be the marks of all God’s people, and also on companionship and commitment within their life together. In Christ, stable relationships are built up in mutual trust. They are undergirded by grace and love, which are transformative because we are seen as precious; we are wanted.
Rowan Williams explores how ‘the whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God’ (Williams 2003, p. 3; emphasis in original). It is this incorporation in the community of God’s holy people that makes sense of the body’s grace; that gives space and time to come to the knowledge of our bodily selves and desire. Williams talks about sex as risky – and not invariably graced. Locating ‘sexual union in a context that gives it both time and space, that allows it not to be everything’ enlarges our vision of physical intimacy and nourishes our sexuality (2003, p. 10). The liturgy gives a framework within which to explore joy, desire, stability and faithfulness, which are rooted in God’s love for us. Its imagery and language is relational and generative; it speaks of enriched communities and heavenly fulfilment. The coming together of two human lives in love, two bodies crowned and two hearts sealed, speaks of fruitfulness beyond procreation. This liturgical space revalues sexuality and embodiment with a generosity and challenge.
‘Marriage is a gift of God’
It might be said that the words of the Preface most clearly set out what the Church of England believes about the nature of marriage – in relation to God’s purposes, the world and the intimacy of life together as a couple. While the point is made that the couple marry each other (something picked up in The Church Weddings Handbook), the liturgy acknowledges that they do so in the presence of God and before a whole company of witnesses (invited guests and members of the Church community). The purpose of the gathering together with them is to pray for God’s blessing on them, as we have seen, but it is also to share in their joy and celebrate their love. This is a public marking of a prior commitment – of love that has grown and flourished. The relationship is to be a source of joy and celebration not just for the couple (a private matter) but for the wider community (a ‘perfect crown’).
Marriage is described in the Preface as a ‘gift of God in creation’ through which husband and wife ‘may know the grace of God’ (CW, p. 107). To speak of gift and grace, creation and divinity, broadens and deepens our understanding of marriage beyond the terms of a legal or civil contract (the earthy framework within which all legally recognized marriages are governed). It is an invitation to explore the nature of marriage as a way of life open to the cultivation of virtues – a way of holiness, a dynamic outworking of Rembrandt’s relational ‘altarpiece’.
Robert Song emphasizes three themes in relation to Genesis: that marriage is a created good; that it is a created good; and that it has a structure: faithfulness, permanence and openness to procreation (Song 2014, pp. 3–4). Yet to attend to deeper meanings of gift and grace, within a biblical as well as liturgical framework, is an invitation to model our patterns of life on Christ – whether in the home, workplace or church. As Alan Wilson puts it, the ‘spiritual and relational aspects of marriage are developed beyond considerations of sex, gender or children’ (Wilson 2014, p. 99). That does not undercut the fundamental goodness of marriage, nor the way it reflects the generative nature of creation. However, it roots faithfulness and permanence in God’s purposes.
A liturgy that shapes a theological vision of partnership and the ‘crowning summit’ of a committed loving relationship resonates with human longings (Wilson 2014, p. 120). Alan Billings expresses the power of the liturgy in giving a ‘voice’ to the couple as they seek to deepen an established relationship, and also articulating a vision that marriage is something good and God-given – enabling couples to flourish and live faithfully, and to raise children together (Billings 2004, pp. 75–9). However, given the trends he outlines in the rise of cohabitation and contractual relationships, the liturgy expresses a deeper and embracing vision of covenant that reflects a longing for stability and intimacy. It expresses a desire for fruitfulness and holiness directed outwards towards the world. It articulates an understanding of covenant as crown and seal. As Jessica Martin puts it, ‘No relationship in Christ can be transactional or contractual’; rather, there is a depth of attention as we seek to recognize and be recognized, as bodies become ‘the site of the sacred or holy’ (Martin 2013, p. xv).
Entering into marriage is the continuation of growth in love and trust. As deepening and flourishing of relationship takes place, ‘they shall be united with one another in heart and body and mind’ (CW, p. 105) as Christ is united with his bride the Church. By being rooted in Christ’s relationship with the body of Christ, categories of gender, sexuality and procreation are set in a radical vision of self-giving, mutuality and generosity. The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in private and public ways: in the ‘delight and tenderness of sexual union, and in joyful commitment to the end of their lives’ (CW, p. 105). The grace of growth in physical intimacy, with the corresponding deepening of emotional, spiritual and intellectual bonds, is to be a delight in itself. This is not selfish or self-enclosed, but perhaps a subversion of the self-contained nuclear family. To live a life of joyful commitment in marriage, here and now, is a form of living well that may enable us to articulate a vision for dying well (regardless of marital status). Joyful commitment is an invitation to live intensely, yet lightly; to think about how we exercise our gifts and determine our priorities; to allow ourselves to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven. Marriage is a vocation that has the capacity to enable the couple of flourish but also causes us to reflect on a wider network of commitments.
None of this is to deny that part of the givenness of marriage is that it is the foundation of family life. This is expressed in a way that is not limited to parenthood. It is the context within which children are born ‘and nurtured’ (CW, p. 105) – a phrase that itself recognizes or alludes to the diversity of family life. The pastoral reality of this might include the couple’s own children as well as step-children; there might be the financial and emotional pressure to conceive through IVF or the decision to foster or adopt; some might be caught up in the lives of godchildren and grandchildren. As Martin states, biological kinship is not ‘the last word in permanent relationships’ (Martin 2013, p. xv). The liturgy includes the expectation that each member of the family (in good times and in bad) may find strength, companionship and comfort. There is more than a suggestion that this stretches our care and concern beyond the nuclear family; marriage, according to such an interpretation, is to be a gift to strengthen others. Again, growth in both maturity and love is to be a mark of married life – not just for the couple but for all those whose lives are bound up with theirs.
That marriage is a way of life made holy by God, which also enriches community, is a theme to which we will return. Dan Hardy’s work deepens our understanding of the call to holiness as part of the vocation of the people of God, which situates marriage within a wider network of ecclesial and social relationships. It is unsurprising that the liturgy makes reference to the wedding at Cana, because it is the only reference to Jesus’ attendance at a marriage feast. However, it also expands our vision of marriage. The blessing is not just upon the couple, who in John’s Gospel do not feature in the narrative; the wedding itself is blessed by the presence of Christ ‘with those celebrating’ (CW, p. 105). Again, this is an expansive vision of community life as the context for marriage; and, in interpretation of the Gospel text, something of the foretaste of the kingdom of God and that reveals the identity of Christ.
‘Marriage is a way of life made holy by God’
This multi-layered revelation reveals our calling: that our humanity has to be transformed by divine love. Jean Vanier reflects both on the particularity of marriage and on the cosmic vision. For Jesus, says Vanier, marriage is ‘the sign of a sacred union, enfolded in love that enables people to grow in forgiveness, tenderness, kindness and compassion’ (Vanier 2004, p. 52). This event is also offering the transformation of the ordinary; just at the point at which our human resources run out, ‘the drudgery of duty’ becomes a ‘new passion of love’ (2004, p. 53). The cries of humanity for the fulfilment of the promise of love echo throughout the Scriptures in language of wine and feasting, bridegrooms and brides, in abundance and generous invitation. That yearning is sated at the wedding feast of the Lamb: ‘The Spirit and the Bride say “Come.” Come, Lord Jesus!’ (Rev. 22.17, 20). All drawn to this feast find community and love. The vision is eschatological; but the reality is glimpsed in human promises and celebration.
How does the liturgy point to the kingdom of God’s breaking into our midst? Marriage can be expressed at a basic level as a legal contract. The advent of civil partnerships, and the subsequent legislation regarding equal marriage, highlight a human longing to express something more. Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty that all should uphold and honour. This is not just because unity and commitment are worthy of celebration at a human level or because the risk of self-giving is a beginning and end in itself; rather, it is because this promise of fidelity – worked out with patience, humility and kindness in the face of death – is what Vanier calls ‘a taste and sign of eternity, a sign of the covenant that bonds God to his people’ (Vanier 2004, p. 58).
Again there is a mirroring of expectation between the life of the Church and the commitment in marriage; and there is a reciprocal call for support too. We live out this promise against the backdrop of hurt, disagreement and betrayal. It is because Jesus came to renew all things that our broken and fragile humanity is called into a new unity. The Church is called to be one, which is Jesus’ prayer; but as a microcosm of such relating, marriage is to be a sign of unity. Loyalty (or elsewhere faithfulness) is an expression of commitment that echoes the nature of God’s faithfulness to humanity. The honouring and upholding of this sign of marriage is not confined to the inner dynamics of the couple’s relationship. Rather, it is a responsibility that rests with all members of society.
Vanier describes the importance and beauty of the ‘bonding of man and woman in the oneness of human sexuality’; for such bonding to be affirmed at Cana reveals a deep desire and need to love and be loved (Vanier 2004, p. 59). Regardless of sexuality, such a biblical and liturgical vision of a love that is crown and seal is a prophetic vision for human life. Marriage, according to the Church of England liturgy, ‘enriches society and strengthens community’ (CW, p. 105): there is reciprocity and logic about such a statement. The couple needs the support of others to hold their shared life; their life together becomes a blessing in return. When human life is ordered along the patterns of mutual love and commitment, common life flourishes. It is a demanding pattern – as any reflection on the life of the Church or wider community reveals. Therefore it is to be entered into reverently and responsibly in the sight of God; as with the baptismal promises, this is not a place of selfishness. The commitment being made is not to be undertaken lightly. It is also a journey of hope: we cooperate in faith, trust and hard work.
Dan Hardy uses the term ‘sociopoiesis’ to capture the way relationships are formed and transformed in relation to God. As it embraces all spheres of personal and social activity including politics, economics, love and ethics, it seems appropriate to see marriage within this lens too. It holds together both the shaping of our individual personhood and the societal expressions of such transformation as our desires are redirected towards God, as well as seeking the well-being of friend and stranger. It is also a language that enables us to speak about the complexity and subtlety of the relationship between Church and world, which is pertinent when thinking about marriage within society and within God’s economy.
Hardy describes the way ‘care for the other’ draws on sacramental energy, for example (Hardy 2010, pp. 51–2). This finds expression as a crown and seal of love in marriage but it also reflects the challenge to pastoral care raised by the Weddings Project. The prophetic and priestly calling of the Church also imagines, speaks and enacts a calling to something better as society moves towards the fulfilment of God’s kingdom. A liturgical vision of marriage expresses something of the dynamism of this movement of attraction to God and calling to holiness.
The liturgy sets the commitment of the couple in the context of worship; it brings the light and love of God into their journey of deepening intimacy. It is a process of transformation as love is sealed and as it becomes a crown. Holiness and God are mutually defining. Divine holiness attracts, calls, refines; it is relational and performative as we improvise upon its ‘beauteousness’. Like Cumming’s description of The Jewish Bride, this is a trajectory of humility, patience and kindness. Hardy also argues that social institutions have a key role to play in the performance of holiness, and marriage is unequivocally part of the legal and civil fabric of society. In Hardy’s terms, these are ‘provisional approximations to the good’; for ‘every attempt to guide, to enact justice, to embody mercy, and to punish and forgive, must pass through the refining fire of God’s justice in order to partake of the unnamed qualities of holiness and to be energized by it’ (Hardy 2001, p. 19).
To set marriage in the context of worship means facing the holiness of God, as well as performing it within the realm of human social life. It is an anticipation of the kingdom of God. It is a moment of being drawn into the light and love of God, as two people who have journeyed together in mutual affection take the risk of entrusting all that they are and all that they have to each other. They do this in the face of our human propensity to make mistakes and the fragmentation caused by our misdirected desires.
‘United with one another in heart, body and mind’
It is God’s self-giving holiness that forms us, lifts us up and calls us into a pattern of life that moves us towards the good. Within the marriage service, entering this way of life is marked in three ways: mutual consent, solemn vows and the giving and/or receiving of rings as a token. There is freedom, promise and a sign. All these are reliant on the invocation of the Holy Spirit for guidance and strength – that they may fulfil God’s purpose for their earthly life together.
The wording of the Declarations that follow express the freedom to lawfully marry, but also express the qualities of marriage – love, comfort, honour and protection. The declarations are mutual and exclusive. Each party commits to forsake all others and to remain faithful as long as they live. Such exclusivity is followed by an expression of commitment on the part of the congregation who agree to support and uphold the couple. A marriage is not self-sustaining – they cannot forsake each other, nor is the community to forsake them.
The vows are made in the presence of God and according to God’s holy law: that from this day onwards, until death, each party will have and hold regardless of circumstance, loving and cherishing the other for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. The words are so easy to recite we forget just how all-encompassing and demanding they are. They are rooted in the covenantal promises of faithfulness. The fruitfulness of such a reciprocal bond is open ended. The bonding of sexuality and embodiment of which Vanier speaks is something that is beyond our human capacity to love; we will fall short of love’s promises. And yet, in God, we know the forgiveness and renewal that become the grounds of our human offering of love. All our human loves are rooted in God:
God is the end and fulfilment of human desire, and our generously conceived desires point beyond their objects towards God. Desire’s balancing point between past and future means that is can only exist as a gift nourished by a promise. Desire joins what has been to what will be, and when it is hallowed by an exclusive choice it can grow into a shared common life, faithfully given all the way to its last breath. (Martin 2013, p. xvi)
The rings are to be a token: a ‘symbol of unending love and faithfulness’ (CW, p. 109) and a reminder of the vow and covenant made in marriage. They are given and/or received within the love of God. All our human acts of trust and commitment are held within the unending love of one who is faithful; this act undergirds and sustains the frailty, vulnerability and imperfections of our human expressions of love. The words said express a physical honouring of the other and a sharing of resources or possessions. They are also an expression of the giving of oneself to the other; such mutual self-giving is something to which the people of God are called. It is in the giving of self that the other enables them to become more fully who they are. It is not a romantic sense of being ‘completed’ by the other but the opening up of something new and a deepening of capacity. It is a pattern rooted in God’s gift of God’s self in the incarnation.
It is following the consent, vows and the exchange of rings that the couple have declared their marriage; that marriage is proclaimed and acclaimed (often with applause as a precursor to the solemnity of the binding of hands and the affirmation that God has joined them together). The prayers of blessing over the couple ground this particular human expression of love in God’s generosity and creativity. God creates joy, gladness, pleasure, delight, love, peace and fellowship. Divine and human come together in this expression. God pours out abundance at the start of this new chapter of life together; it affirms and bears witness to a relationship that has already begun; and their love is to be both a seal on their hearts and a crown upon their heads. Just as the vows express commitment in all the complexity and conditions of life we experience, so God’s blessing is asked upon the spouses in work and companionship, wakefulness and sleep, joy and sorrow, life and death. All this is held within the perspective of God’s eternal kingdom.
Blessing, help and the riches of God’s grace are invoked that in marriage the spouses may please God in body and soul; and that ‘living together in faith and love’ they may ‘receive the blessing of eternal life’ (CW, p. 111). The provisionality of marriage in the face of death and in anticipation of the kingdom draws our attention to God: the source of blessing and the one whom we are called to delight. It is a modelling of a way of holiness; holiness in the sphere of companionship, marked by a seal and crown.
‘In joyful anticipation of heaven’
The prayers of intercession are for the couple and for their deepening engagement with the lives of others. To begin with, prayers of thanksgiving for the couple on their wedding day are couched in the nature of God, in God’s faithfulness and holiness, in echoing the opening prayer naming God as the source of life and spring of love. The prayer for a life-giving and lifelong marriage is also set in the context of God’s love and grace: that the relationship may be enriched and strengthened by God’s presence – in order that the spouses may bring comfort and confidence to each other in faithfulness and trust. Again, the nature of our human relating, in its most intimate sense, should mirror the divine and be sustained by it. This should be the pattern of all human relationships – as we grow in mutual affection and learn to become ambassadors of reconciliation.
The prayers are also about the public aspect of marriage and its impact on deepening the quality of our social networks. The home should be a place of hospitality – bringing ‘refreshment and joy to all around them’ (CW, p. 112). Love is not to be contained within the couple or directed solely to their immediate family. Rather, their love should ‘overflow to neighbours in need’ and ‘embrace those in distress’ (CW, p. 112). The perfect crown of a public commitment of love in marriage is expansive and generous. It is a way of holiness that is undergirded by the love and support of those who have shared in blessing, witnessing and celebrating the wedding. Marriage is not a private arrangement. It is one of the ‘goods of community’ that is worked out over a lifetime, within a rich tapestry of relationships; it is a ‘highly demanding’ kind of ‘lived out commitment’ of self-giving, which is a seal on the heart and a crown upon the head (Martin 2013, p. xiv).
Order and purpose for the spouses’ lives is to be discerned in God’s word; with the Holy Spirit to ‘lead them in truth and defend them in adversity’ (CW, p. 112). There is something generous and expansive about this, which sits alongside the vision of abundance amid paucity, blessing in the ordinary, as expressed at the wedding at Cana. Nurturing a family demands devotion; and seeing children ‘grow in body, mind and spirit’ (CW, p. 113) is part of the fruitfulness of married life. This is not a restrictive statement: it might include godchildren, adoptive children and the assumption that marriage enables a trust in the future and the nurturing of relationships.
All this is set within the context of death: that, at the end of their lives, the spouses’ hearts might be content, and that they might live in joyful anticipation of heaven. This extends the understanding of marriage beyond an earthly covenant or legal contract to a vision of God’s kingdom: life now that mirrors the ultimate kingdom. Finally, words are addressed not just to the couple but to the whole congregation: that the Holy Trinity may make them strong in faith and love; that they may be defended on every side and be guided in truth and peace. Lives lived corporately in the power of the Spirit: this is a pneumatological vision that undergirds human commitment.
‘You have blessed creation with abundant life’
If Rembrandt presents us with an altarpiece of virtues associated with marriage – as a crown and seal, inclusive and exclusive – it is perhaps Mike Leigh’s film Another Year that presents us with a secular challenge to how we understand marriage in relation to the complex network of relationships within which we live. Leigh captures our human frailty with great honesty, both in tenderness and challenge, but also with a surprising hopefulness. Tom and Gerri are a mature, professional married couple: they exude comfort and contentment. Over the course of a year – marked by shifts in seasonal tones – they are surrounded by family and friends, who experience varying degrees of unhappiness and tribulation.
Their son Joe longs to be in a relationship and find fulfilment; his parents certainly wish that for him. He meets Katie, and their delight in each other and intense commitment serve to magnify his parents’ contentment. Yet Tom and Gerri’s friends, Mary and Ken, by contrast, find their loneliness and longing exaggerated. They are depressed, dependent, disillusioned; fragile, yet taking risks in their longing for love, intimacy and commitment. Then there is Tom’s brother Ronnie – recently bereaved, with an aggressive and unpredictable son.
Tom and Gerri fret, judge, cajole and support from their vantage point of stability. Around them is the maelstrom of hurt, grief, brokenness and longing. They are generous up to a point; they are tolerant within certain bounds. Their faithful commitment in marriage ought to enable hospitality, support of those in distress, the nurturing of relationships. In reflection on liturgy we have focused on faithfulness and intimacy as a crown on the head and seal on the heart; on exclusivity for the purpose of including others.
What we say about marriage relates directly to what we might want to say about the life of the Church (and indeed God’s world and God’s kingdom). Each one of us, alone and together, is called up to offer hospitality, comfort, encouragement, challenge. In Leigh’s film it is in the all but silent ritual of making tea and sitting at a table that we see compassion breaking in. A grief-stricken widower and distressed singleton show an intense level of mutual recognition and compassion.
Love and marriage can be a cause of deep hurt and frustration as well as a life-enriching blessing. Lives unravel through a lack of intimacy, through unfaithfulness or the inability to adjust to change within a marriage. Being human means finding ourselves caught up in a cycle of pain, brokenness, guilt and betrayal. The frailty of our mortality means that we find ourselves ‘alone’ because of divorce, death or never finding a partner; others might fear commitment or seek fulfilment in sexual ‘encounters’ rather than stable relationships. The question of loneliness, however, affects those who live alone and those who share their homes with others. Any liturgical theology has to address those realities. It does so from the perspective of an ultimate reality.
It speaks of love as crown and seal; not as perfect in itself but a breaking in and affirmation of what God has already done in Christ. What Vanier describes as a deep bonding of our sexuality is about fostering intimacy: emotional, spiritual, intellectual as well as physical. Marriage has the potential to be a crucible where lives are refined in holiness. It is a deep bonding that cultivates virtues – the gifts of patience, kindness and humility. Thus it is also to be a crown as well as a seal – there is a radically inclusive public engagement born out of the trust of exclusivity. In that sense liturgy educates and directs our desires and it enlarges our minds. It moves beyond quirky responses to the Weddings Project to a hopeful and challenging vision of marriage that is rooted in community and in God.
As John Bradbury hints in this volume, within the life of the Church perhaps we need to recover a sense of marriage as being a way of holiness – supporting those who enter into it after serious thought but also upholding those for whom it is a longing or a disappointment. As a holy people we are also to ‘think single’, as John Pritchard expresses it (Pritchard 2013, p. 122). Part of being able to think that way is to think more holistically about what it is to be members of a body – called to that same level of intimate commitment in Christ yet also sent out in the power of the Spirit to witness in the world. Liturgy expresses the depth of God’s love and holds open the long view of God’s future, which is our ultimate hope. That perspective transforms and upholds the complexity of our lived reality. The provisionality of our human relationships, our propensity to fail, is redeemed. As Martin writes with honesty and compassion, ‘We will fail. Because we are flawed … we need to forgive each other even as we hope to be forgiven. Relationships too will fail; but no bond of love can ever be forgotten or belittled’ (Martin 2013, p. xvi). A liturgical vision of marriage is a challenge to both Church and society as it expresses a theological account of a union that is both intimate/exclusive and generous/inclusive. It presents a vision of God’s Kingdom that seals the deepest levels of trust and affection; but that also crowns relationships with a love that seeks the transformation of the world. To think liturgically about marriage is to think imaginatively at full stretch – to continue a trajectory that is rooted in the nature of God and that does justice to human lives. Perhaps we should be wary of making things too tidy this side of the eschaton. As Rowan Williams expresses it in his haiku on John 2:
Poured from this stone, the water
stings, the mind lurches, suspects
joy, chaos. (Williams 2014, p. 33)
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Billings, Alan, 2004, Secular Lives, Sacred Hearts, London: SPCK.
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Ford, David F., 2015, ‘Theology at Full Stretch’, Bampton Lectures, University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, 20 January 2015.
Gittoes, Julie, Brutus Green and James Heard (eds), 2013, Generous Ecclesiology: Church, World, and the Kingdom of God, London: SCM Press.
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Methuen, Charlotte, 2013, ‘Marriage: One Man and One Woman?’, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/charlotte-methuen/marriage-one-man-and-one-woman.
Oliver, Gillian, 2012, The Church Weddings Handbook: The Seven Pastoral Moments that Matter.
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Song, Robert, 2014, Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships, London: SCM Press.
Vanier, Jean, 2004, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, London: Darton, Longman & Todd.
Williams, Rowan, 2003 , The Body’s Grace, London: Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.
Williams, Rowan, 2014, The Other Mountain, Manchester: Carcanet.
Wilson, Alan, 2014, More Perfect Union? Understanding Same-Sex Marriage, London: Darton, Longman & Todd
Julie Gittoes is Residentiary Canon at Guildford Cathedral. She chaired the SCM Press disucssion panel ‘Word Made Flesh: Does the Church Really Need Academic Theology’, held at St Martin-in-the-Field last month. You can hear a recording of the discussion here.