Dearly Beloved: An Anglican Theology of Marriage (Part V)

I will resist the temptation to act as if an appeal to the classical Anglican theology of marriage can solve all the problems that face our society today, let alone the crises that continue to ripple across the Anglican Communion. Nevertheless, there are some general concluding observations that I would like to advance in the hopes of showing that this theology is just as applicable to marriage in the twenty-first century as it was to marriage in the sixteenth century.

Marriage is for the whole society

The words “dearly beloved” that open the Anglican wedding liturgy have become iconic in western society. All kinds of wedding services open with these words today, even if they have no other hints of liturgy or even Christianity. The phrase “dearly beloved” has been immortalized in countless wedding scenes in movies and on television. There are probably many reasons for the endurance of this classical phrase, most of them aesthetic. But what is most interesting about opening the wedding liturgy with these beautiful words is not so much the words themselves but to whom they are addressed. The “beloved” is not the couple but the congregation, made up of friends and relatives of the bride and the groom, and in ages past, members of the community in which the couple was raised and in which the couple intended to settle and build a family. What this teaches us is that marriage is not a private affair. Marriage is a communal event.

Marriage forms an important basis for community life. It creates the basic connections of family that enable a community to thrive. This would have been particularly obvious in Europe in the centuries prior to the industrial revolution when most of the economy depended upon an inheritance of skills and trades handed down from one generation to another through apprenticeship. It mattered to you who the miller’s daughter married because their children were likely to be the future millers who would keep your family fed.

In contemporary western society, we tend to view such an economic approach to marriage as craven, assuming that such an approach removes from marriage the spark of romantic love that we find necessary today. But our pre-industrial revolution ancestors, along with many traditional societies around the world today still, had no choice but to take economics into consideration, not to the preclusion of love but because of it. In an interdependent world, everything we do impacts everyone else around us. Therefore, when the community gave its seal of approval to a union, it was with the acknowledgment that this marriage would be good for everyone, that it would be life giving not just for the couple but for the whole community.

In our modern context, it would be ludicrous, of course, to attempt to go back to a system in which the local community has a direct say in each and every marriage. However, it is imperative that we learn again that each and every marriage has an affect upon society and that no marriage is a simply private affair. In our severely atomized world, we have lost a sense of any sort of interdependence, and so marriage has come to be regarded as entirely confined to the domestic sphere. How often, for instance, in our society’s discussion of whether or not to extend the title of marriage to the unions of same sex couples have we heard the question asked, “How does the marriage of two men or two women affect your marriage?” The implied answer is that it obviously does not. But regardless of how one feels about the topic of same sex unions, what the raising of this question reveals is our belief that no marriage has any effect on any other, let alone on society as a whole. Every marriage is its own island, affecting only those directly involved.

What the classical Anglican theology can offer is a recovery from this rampantly individualistic view. The casual approach to marriage that our society has adopted has created a wake of broken families, from which has sprung a whole host of deeply entrenched ills in our society, touching every strata of society, from the hyper greed of wall street to the cycle of poverty and abuse that has come to rest in inner cities and far rural enclaves alike. The marriage of my neighbors may not affect my life as obviously as it once did, but it still does affect me. Good, healthy marriages strengthen communities and lead to cultural, moral, and even economic flourishing, while an excess of broken or unstable marriages lead to the reverse. While acknowledging the place of marriage within the community will not solve all of these problems, it will go a long way towards abating our rapid decline. The special emphasis that Anglicanism has placed on this dimension of marriage gives Anglicanism a unique place in this discussion.

Marriage is about children

The Christian tradition is not unique in suggesting that one of the primary purposes of marriage is the procreation and raising of children. One of the fallacies sometimes advanced in our society’s conversation about marriage is that marriage has always been everywhere the same. Throughout history, people around the world have had a varied understanding of marriage, disagreeing about everything from whether marriage is primarily relational or contractual, whether it is to be regulated by religion or by the state, and whether it is to be monogamous or polygamous. Still, given all this variation, it is extraordinary to realize that there are things that every culture has held in common in its understanding of marriage, and one of those things is the idea that marriage is for children. It is only in modern western societies that this understanding has been lost.

There are multiple reasons for this loss. One reason is the wide availability of inexpensive contraception which has allowed for the first time in history the existence of marriages that are childless by choice. This is why the traditional Christian churches have been cautious in their acceptance of contraception, as we discussed in Part IV. But the availability of contraception would not make a difference if it were not also for the overwhelming tide of individualism that has marked the course of western society’s development in the last two hundred years.

While the Biblical material we discussed in Part III emphasizes that children are a blessing given by God as the fruit of marriage, today the bearing of children is more often spoken of in the context of individual rights. The main purpose of marriage in contemporary western society is understood to be the personal fulfillment of the couple. We have a right to be happy, and marriage is one of the ways in which we are able to pursue happiness. Therefore, if it would make us happy within our married life to have children, we should do so. If it would not make us happy, then we should not. What becomes quickly obvious when examining this view of child rearing is that marriage is entirely incidental to it. If both marriage and the raising of children are mostly about personal fulfillment, and if it is possible for some people to gain that fulfillment in marriage by not having children, then it is also likely that some people will want to gain their fulfillment through having children but without marriage.

The statistics on what happens to children born outside of marriage are alarming to say the least, yet any link drawn between these statistics and the need to re-establish marriage as being the best context for child rearing is derided and dismissed as old fashioned and foolish. But the Biblical view of marriage makes clear that the two cannot be arbitrarily separated. As we noted in Part II, the Anglican tradition has always made room for childless marriages, understanding the marriage of those who cannot have children to be just as valid as any other. And of course, there are many courageous single mothers and fathers out there who are raising children on their own, for a variety of reasons, and who should be celebrated by the Church for their loving faithfulness to their children. Nevertheless, marriage remains the best and most appropriate place for child rearing, and Anglicans should join other Christians in helping to ensure that this essential truth is not entirely forgotten in our society.

Marriage is about love

Few people today would deny that love is at the heart of marriage, but the classical Anglican theology of marriage presents a very particular view of what marital love is and what it is not. Love is not about emotional sparks or about a sense of personal satisfaction. Love is reflected in Christ and His self-giving. In centering our theology of marriage on Ephesians 5 and the mystery of Christ’s union with His Bride, the Church, Anglicans have inherited a view of marital love that is sacrificial. This is borne out in the scriptural roles given to the husband and the wife as icons of Christ and the Church. The husband gives himself completely for his wife, dying for her if need be, and certainly dying to self in any case. The wife serves the husband, nurturing and caring for him even at the cost of herself. These are counter-cultural notions, particularly in the way that they are made gender specific by the text of scripture. Yet inherent in both the role of husband and wife, particularly as the liturgy explicates them, is the deeply held notion that the well being of the other comes before the well being of the self. This is what love is. We learn it from Christ.

Of course, one need not be a Christian to be loving and self-giving, in marriage or anywhere else. But Christian marriage, understood in this context, can be a powerful force for good in the world. The more that Anglicans can stay centered on self-giving love in our teaching on marriage and in the living out of our marriages, the more we can be servants to the world. Our marriages can become icons of self-giving in our society, creating a witness for the world of the kind of love that is expressed and made perfect in Jesus Christ.

Marriage is about sex

It is interesting to note the many ways in which our society has come to denigrate the notion of married sex. It is a common punchline on sitcoms and talk shows that once you get married, your sex life dries up to nothing. At the very least, you won’t get to have the kind of hot, no-holds-barred sex that you had in your swinging single days. In an attempt to combat this idea, some Evangelical Christians have tried to advance the idea that married sex can be just as hot and steamy as single sex. A whole generation of young Evangelicals have been taught, “Don’t worry, when you get married you’ll have sex all the time just like your non-Christian friends, and it will be every bit as wild and hot as the sex you see in television and movies.” While this approach comes out of a good intention, I believe that it is ultimately misguided and gives young people the wrong impression of what sex is all about. It’s not sex that makes marriage good. It’s marriage that makes sex good.

As we saw in Parts II and III, classical Anglican theology views sex as one of the main purposes of marriage. While this is stated in somewhat negative sounding terms in the traditional form of the liturgy, the overall idea is a positive one, that the sexual desires and inclinations that we have as human beings find their most natural and most positive expression in marriage. Sex is not bad. Sex is holy. But our sexual desires are just as fallen and broken as everything else in our lives, causing us to want things that are not always good or healthy for us. Much like marriage itself, our culture views sex primarily as something we engage in for personal fulfillment. Something of that is reflected in the capitalistic way we approach sex, as a tool to get us pleasure or love or some other unseen end. But in Christian marriage, understood through the framework of Anglican theology, sex is not a means to an end but an end unto itself. Sex is a part of a whole, the natural physical expression of a bond that has made the partners one flesh. Sex doesn’t do anything. It is something in and of itself.

To understand sex, one needs to understand marriage. The understanding of marriage as a sacrament of self-giving love is key. If marriage is an icon of the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for His Church, then married sex should be an expression of that same self-giving. This does not mean that sex has to be overly serious or spiritualized (a recent set of prayers produced by a British Roman Catholic group for married couples to say right before they hop into bed together strikes me as well meaning but creepy). Sex is not a tool for spiritual exploration anymore than it is a tool for personal gratification. Nevertheless, as husband and wife learn to give themselves to and for each other, their lovemaking should also become more self-giving and more loving. The grace of marriage is meant to slowly heal us of our self-centeredness, and our sexual self-centeredness is no exception. Within marriage, our broken and selfish desires are retrained and remade, so that the married couple finds themselves eventually sexually fulfilled only in each other, not because of how hot their sex life is, but because their desires themselves have been reshaped into the image of Christian love.

In a society as highly sexualized as ours in the west, the Anglican emphasis on sex as a purpose of marriage can help to change both the culture and the Church. By unswervingly insisting that sex is an end and not a means to an end, we can give people a picture of the married life that is both passionate and rewarding, without having to cave in to prevailing notions of sexual idolatry.

Conclusion

Sometimes in the Church we talk about first tier and second tier issues. While we must agree upon first tier issues to have any kind of deep fellowship (the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the inspiration of Holy Scripture, etc.), we can disagree about second tier issues which may be important but are not essential to the faith (predestination and election, the ordination of women, general ideas of Church order, etc.). Marriage is often relegated to that second tier, important but not essential.

There are some general problems with this piecemeal view of the faith. But accepting, for the moment, that separation between a first and second tier of doctrines is indeed possible, I believe that it is a mistake to place marriage in the second category. While marriage is not a creedal issue, what we believe about marriage ultimately reflects what we believe about the things that are at the heart of the creeds. If we get marriage wrong, we are sure to get our understanding of the creeds wrong as well, maybe not all at once but within a generation.

In my opinion, the most beautiful aspect of classical Anglican marriage theology is its Christocentric character. Marriage reveals to the world something essential about who Jesus is and who we are in relation to Him. The reason why marriage forms the bedrock of society is precisely because in marriage the truth about society and about God is revealed. The liturgy says that the third purpose of marriage is the “mutual society” formed between the man and the woman. It is not inappropriate to say that this “mutual society,” if properly rooted in Jesus Christ, is a microcosm of what a redeemed society should look like and be like.

As we saw in Part IV, Anglicanism is not unique in Christian teaching about marriage. Yet the Anglican approach to marriage does contribute to the overall Christian witness about marriage by focusing on particular aspects of the gospel that marriage exemplifies and by expressing these things in the beautiful, rich language of liturgy. In a society in which the basic moorings of reason and tradition have largely been swept aside, the poetry of the Anglican liturgy may serve as a bridge between modern people and traditional Christian theology. We can appeal to hearts as well as minds, following the ribbon of truth from whatever place the grace of God might make it most accessible to each person.

The problems that we face as a society and within the Anglican Communion are vast, and many of them are conditioned upon how we understand marriage. I hope and pray that these reflections on classical Anglican theology surrounding marriage may in some very small way contribute to healing both our Communion and our world.

This post is the fifth in a series of five. The other posts in this series can be found here:
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V

About these ads

About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
This entry was posted in Dearly Beloved: An Anglican Theology of Marriage and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.