by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford
On 14 February a former Bishop of Jarrow used to stand at the feet of the Angel of the North in Gateshead, and bless any couples who came along. Kitsch and worldly certainly. But it might tell us something important about marriage and the church as we seek to respond to Government proposals to change the rules on where people can get married and who can officiate at weddings.
The history of marriage and the church is clear enough. For almost the whole of the first 1,000 years of Christian history there is simply no such thing as ‘Christian’ marriage. Christians get married, certainly. But they get married according to the laws and traditions of ‘secular’ culture. Christian clergy play no role. Indeed, there is nothing resembling a Christian marriage service, a liturgy, until at least the 8th century.
Even then weddings remain firmly under civil jurisdiction for another 400 years. It is only in the post-Reformation period that, by canon law and custom, it becomes a requirement in both Catholic and Anglican traditions that a priest officiates at a wedding. Always of course the actual ministers of the sacrament are the couple themselves and not the priest.
Marriage does not fit easily into Aquinas’ Aristotelian sacramental system. But the sacramentaliisation of marriage in the Middle Ages – rather like the monasticisation of the clergy – is a fascinating power grab by the medieval church, more to do with control than blessing.
Marriage is robustly secular. Though often missed, this is precisely what informs Paul’s teaching on marriage. Getting married is what people do, and that is part of its ‘worldly’ nature. In the teaching of both Jesus and Paul, marriage is part of the “the present form of this world which is passing away (1 Corinthians 7.31) and Jesus is specific that in the resurrection “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22.30). These would not be comfortable texts to us at the funeral of a deeply loved spouse but this is not intended as a moral condemnation. Rather it reflects the eschatology of the New Testament writers.
Christians have had to recognise for most of the last 2,000 years that marriage has taken a variety of forms and that these have largely been dictated and developed by ‘secular’ culture rather than by the church. Christopher Brooke’s classic, The Medieval Idea of Marriage, is hugely enjoyable in its own right, but leaves the reader in no doubt.
The history of marriage and the church has not been helped by a deeply unbiblical pessimism about sex. Rowan Williams notes that Gregory the Great had to reassure Augustine of Canterbury that someone who had had sex on a Saturday could still receive communion on Sunday. By contrast, in the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath is a specially favoured day for making love. Whilst the very positive statements of modern church leaders about marriage and the family are welcome, these have little resonance in the tradition, and often unintentionally echo the church’s earlier attempts to control marriage rather than demonstrating a desire to bless human relationships.
When I was a vicar in North Yorkshire, I officiated at a minimum of at least 30 a year. It was a pretty church in a stunning location, and with a huge parish centre where we could even offer wedding receptions. This was a place where people still got married in large numbers, even though the registry office was just stone’s throw away. Wedding preparation in large groups on Saturday mornings was an excellent opportunity to get to know couples well and do some straight teaching and reflection. But although I was completely confident that we had wonderful good news to share – that we knew about love, sacrifice, life intention, vows, for better for worse – I also realised in those precious encounters that they were inviting me onto their sacred ground, not the other way round.
And I think that’s why over recent years, I have learnt most from non-church weddings, especially a family wedding in a youth hostel in Derbyshire. Some non-church weddings have left me feeling empty and frustrated, to be sure. But so have some church weddings. This Derbyshire youth hostel wedding genuinely engaged and excited me. Location was determined by the bride and groom’s passion for rock climbing, and the ceremony itself – not just the party afterwards in a tent where the heating had failed – was a genuine opportunity for people to speak serious words about love and commitment, and make unique personal contributions. It seemed extraordinary to all of us that although there were several ordained ministers present, and the bride and groom would have loved to have their participation, the legalities prohibited any such religious content. But I realised through that day that I was learning at a ‘secular’ wedding things I thought I already knew.
This is important. For many of us as Christian parents our children may well not make the same choices as us about marriage. Even devout Christians are sometimes opting for non-church weddings, because the rules we make exclude them or because what we offer seems to restrain rather than to bless.
The experience of going to civil weddings has raised my game. If I were getting married now, it certainly would still be in a church, with full Nuptial Mass and all the trimmings. But we would seek to learn from non-church weddings, where the personal is often better honoured, the world better understood and the context better embraced. If Aquinas is right, these civil events are (at least in part) still sacraments, and the doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that Christ is there, just as he was at the similarly non-church wedding at Canaan in Galilee.
The incarnation invites us to a recognise that it is the world in all its glorious variety that is the arena of God’s activity, the arena into which God sends us to serve, the context to which God invites us to pay attention.
So, alongside welcoming the government’s long-overdue consultation on opening up the conversation about where people can get married and who can officiate at a wedding, let’s be bold enough – as confident missionary-minded churches have always been – to engage with the kitsch and the worldly next Valentine’s Day and do some serious blessing.