The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Blessing of a marriage

He Qi Wedding at Cana

John 2.1-11: Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding in Cana
Art by He Qi

The old term “matrimony” literally means “the making of a mother,” but that sense of this sacrament has been replaced in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer by “The Blessing of a Marriage,” which is a good example of how new appreciation of the nature of something – such as a marriage relationship – can recast our understanding of tradition. Future generations will no doubt continue modify church language regarding this sacrament, but it may be hoped that the essence of it will never be lost – that the community of faith as the Body of Christ is called to bestow its blessing upon marriage, that most intimate relationship with public implications not only for the church but for society at large.

Jesus would have radically reformed marriage in his own day to be understood in what we would call sacramental terms – an outward and visible sign (lifelong vows, physical intimacy and moral responsibility) of an inward and spiritual grace rooted in the powerful metaphor of becoming one flesh. (See Mark 10.2-9.) The early church, however, seems to have had an ambivalent attitude about marriage, because it was a core belief of the community that the world would soon come to an end. It was better to marry than “to be aflame with passion,” Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, but he also advised that it was best not to marry at all. (See 1 Corinthians 7.6-16.) Over time, however, the church evolved an understanding of marriage consistent with that of Jesus’ teachings handed down through the gospels: No divorce allowed, except for un-chastity. There is no guidance whatever in Christian scripture for how Christian marriage rites ought to be done and by whom.

Divorce is not encouraged in the Episcopal Church, but neither are divorced people cut off from the community of faith, which is customary in some other Christian denominations. Divorce is understood, not condoned, as a kind of death that neither partner desired or anticipated – the death of a relationship. The church conceives of its ministry in divorce as one of helping people bear their grief and healing whatever brokenness may have resulted from the sundered marriage. Divorced persons are admonished in our canons to continue in care and concern for their former spouses, especially with regard to the welfare of their children. Divorced persons may remarry in The Episcopal Church, but ordained ministers are likely to insist on careful examination of the new relationship by way of pastoral counseling.

Christian marriage

Christian marriage: Lifelong union in the commnity of faith

The Episcopal Church has evolved an understanding of marriage in which the community of faith is called to witness a couple’s vows and the blessing of that union by a presbyter. There remains in this service a moment of ancient clarity regarding the nature of Christian marriage. Ceremonially, it is the “tying of the knot,” in which the presbyter enwraps the couple’s joined hands with a clerical stole, a sign of the church’s ordained ministry, and says: “Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” (See Mark 10.1-9, Authorized Version.)

Marriage is often celebrated in the context of the Eucharist, which is appropriate given the our communal understanding of marriage as not being just a matter between two people but of interest to the whole Body of Christ – and not just an individual congregation but the universal church of Jesus Christ. As in the baptism/confirmation rite, after the couple has professed their promises to each other, the celebrant asks the congregation: “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” The people respond, “We will.” Moreover, in the marriage-rite intercessions, we pray: “Make their life together a sign of Christ‘s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair … Grant that all married persons who have witnessed these vows may find their lives strengthened and their loyalties confirmed … Grant that the bonds of our common humanity, by which all your children are united one to another, and the living to the dead, may be so transformed by your grace, that your will may be done on earth as it is in heaven … ”

The Book of Common Prayer also provides for the blessing of a civil marriage, in which a married couple seeks the church’s blessing after having been married according to the laws of the state. There was no such service in any previous edition of the prayer book. It is a short service, but it includes the affirmation of the community found in the longer rite, expressing the conviction that marriage is not a private affair but a very public matter touching the fabric not only of the church community but also society at large.

Much contemporary debate among Anglicans centers upon whether the church ought to bless the marriages of homosexual people, which goes to the heart of a broader debate over whether homosexual behavior is acceptable in the Christian community. This debate reflects a broader debate in American society that is often heated and cruel, especially among those at either end of a spectrum ranging from absolute rejection to absolute acceptance of homosexual behavior and marriage. It is unlikely that these matters will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction in the near future; however, American society in just the past 40 years has changed dramatically with regard to homosexual people by repealing sodomy laws and, in some cases, accepting homosexual partnerships in some matters of civil law and administration. This syllabus is not an appropriate venue for airing this complex debate, but it is a matter for deep reflection for anyone contemplating becoming a member of the Episcopal Church.

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