Sunday, 18 August 2013

The traditional Christian concept of marriage is too weak


The following is the Solemnization of Matrimony in the Church of England according to the Book of Common Prayer (the words by which I was married, in fact). 

DEARLY beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

Secondly, It 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.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.  ...

WILT thou have this Man to thy wedded Husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live? ...

I take thee to my wedded Wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.


I we put aside for a moment the wonderful, incomparable, precision and beauty of this language - then we may consider the conceptualization of the nature of marriage which lies behind them.

(I take it, I assume here, that these words also represent closely-enough the understanding of marriage in all the main traditional Christian denominations.)


And we can see that in some ways the concept of marriage is extremely ambitious and demanding and spiritual; but in other ways it has a very negative (remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication) and expediency-based (for the procreation of children) approach to marriage.

But also, and most importantly, marriage is seen as wholly a worldly thing, part of this brief and fallen mortal existence (so long as ye both shall live... till death us do part)

To a modern secular person, to be married for one's whole life seems like something tremendously demanding and indeed overwhelming; but to a faithful Christian who perceives this life in the context of eternity, a lifetime of marriage is almost trivially brief - it is to make marriage one episode in the tiny spark of mortality.


Why Christianity should have such a low view of marriage (even of marriage at its very best) is perhaps related to the history of the church, and the fact that the highest spiritual status was accorded to ascetic celibacy.

Perhaps also the sense that the events of this world were simply a trial - a test which could be failed, but not the kind of experience which might assist our spiritual state in the next life.

Perhaps also it is derived from the sense that the body was inferior to the spirit, that the needs and desires of the body were bad and ought to be transcended, and therefore that a thing of the body such as marriage was a sub-optimal compromise.

But, whatever the reasons; I suspect that this fundamental weakness, or ambiguity, or error in understanding the positive status of marriage has eventually proved to be a near-fatal Achilles heel in the context of modern Leftist secularism - which has for more than two centuries unrelentingly focused on subverting and denigrating marriage (and thereby family) as its major tool for the overthrow of Christianity.


Against this long-term and wholesale cultural assault on marriage, the mainstream Christian response has been and remains disturbingly feeble.  

I see this feebleness as evidence of (and consistent with) a long-standing Christian ambiguity about marriage; and the covert but undermining conviction that marriage is a second rate spiritual path and a worldly expedient - especially among the spiritual leaders of the Churches.

If the denigration of marriage is intrinsic to Christianity, then so be it; but if it is a result of long-standing doctrinal error or incompleteness - then now would be a good time to set about correcting it!