Monday, December 19, 2005

Marriage Again

Why is it that I find myself inundated with what I think are good ideas that have nothing to do with the forthcoming business whenever I am on my was to a diocesan council meeting? This has happened several times of late, the most recent being last Saturday morning. I am sure the bishop wondered what I was scribbling as he launched the gathering.

I had been barreling down the road thinking of budgets and some of the challenges facing us, when from the back of my mind more thoughts on marriage started to emerge. I found myself coming back to ideas I had encountered several years ago in Diarmaid MacCulloch's magesterial volume on the Reformation. MacCulloch makes the point that "The Protestant Reformation... brought a momentous change in direction in the Christian history of sexuality... it reaffirmed marriage..." (page 609).

MacCulloch has his own agenda, and so uses quantities of data to make particular points, some of which are highly pertinent. However, as I have reviewed his chapter on love and sex in the Reformation period it is perfectly possible to unpack material to make a somewhat different point than those this Oxford University professor leads us to.

As I read these pages I find myself realizing that the Reformation was, like all great spiritual renewals, a period when attention was given to the ethical outworking of biblical truth. It was an era when not only was the medieval unbiblical theology that affirmed celebacy as "angelic" called into question, but it was also a time when there was increasing clarification in light of revelation of what might best be described as a confusion of role and identities.

In those years a set of standards was put in place that has, one way or another, prevailed in the West for much of the last 450 years as the general norm. This norm is now in terminal decay. You could say that our generation is living amidst the ruins of biblical standard that had been accepted until the deconstructionist mindset of this post-Christendom age swept it away.

The truth is that what Christians have considered the standard for all is now being relegated to counter-culture status. Marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman is being either sidelined and ignored, and in many instances is being ridiculed as hopelessly outmoded. There has been a huge growth across the western world of casual cohabitation, the progressive polygamy and polyandry of multiple divorces and remarriages, as well as a whole array of experimental domestic arrangements.

Right now in many places marriage between a man and a woman is ceasing to be normative. Just this morning the BBC is reporting on the implications of the newly-passed Civil Partnerships Act in Britain, which devalues what we have traditionally understood to be marriage while raising the profile of alternative arrangements. The laws of many other nations around the world are sliding in this direction, as they have already in places like Canada and the Netherlands.

Yet here is the tension -- the vast majority of the population still seems to look to and crave for the stability, security, and generativity that comes with a lifelong marital relationship between a man and a woman, within which children are brought into the world.

Some will say that folks have just been conditioned to think this way and that this antediluvian way of relating is likely to become far less prevalent. This may be so, and expectations may change as an array of alternatives are offered and experienced.

Yet could it be that Scripture is right? Could it be that deeply ingrained within the soul of human beings is a craving for a faithful relationship with a member of the opposite sex that is nurturing and only ended by death, even though we know such relationships make high and lasting demands? As I go about my pastoral ministry, talking with all sorts and conditions of people, both in and beyond the church, I am convinced that the bulk of the population regardless of cultural and societal pressure is drawn to this way of family life.

I, therefore, am perfectly happy to be counter-cultural. I have no desire to throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we are to be faithful to the Creator God who has revealed himself to us, then however chi chi the smorgasbord of alternative arrangements might look for the moment, believers are called to constantly assert our commitment to marriage whose principles are rooted and grounded in the biblical witness. This is one of our greatest calling cards and something for which more and more will yearn and crave.

However, to make such an affirmation will also make great demands upon us as we seek to live within this covenant and affirm the sanctity of marriage. It requires of us oodles and oodles of teaching and example. We need to challenge at its very root the prevailing mood of the culture that marriage has a ball-and-chain flavor, rather than this being the most freeing, happy, and healthful way for two people to live together.

It will also require that as we prepare couples for marriage, we develop scads of resources to help them live this counter-cultural relationship, and that we be there for them in a whole variety of ways to enable them to find their way through the maze of difficulties that challenge any such covenantal relationship. It is essential that we work hard with, and have our doors open to, married couples as they strive to grow within their marriage and to maintain its stability.

Such concentration on marriage does not mean that we should abandon those men and women whose marriages get into difficulty, and perhaps, come to an end. It does mean that we should stand alongside them as they walk through this dark valley and then enable them to come out of the murk and pain on the far side of such a personal disaster. I heard a divorced and remarried Christian man say not long ago that marital breakup is always sinful, but it also needs to be added that God's grace is sufficient.

Up until now it has been the relationship experimenters who have been considered the radicals and the adventurous ones. Some of their experiments may have been made to work, at least for a while, but just as so many ground-breaking pieces of architecture from the 1960s now look tired and jaded, I hazard that a lot of these alternatives are likely to be seen that way in not too many years. I would like to assert that the real radicals and adventurers are those of us who are committed the biblical notion of marriage being between one man and one woman for life. Maybe the time has come to rejoice in our new status!

1 comment:

star_chic said...

I am a christian devorcee doing a theology degree course in England.
As i am currently planning my remarriage I was encouraged by your acceptance and understanding that marriage sometimes doesn't work out. However, as you said, Gods love and compassion is always present. This often leads a person to a real 'true' love. Why then can people not accept this and allow christian people to do Gods will, thus encouraging people to cohabit without marriage.

Congratulations for seeing Gods love and compassion in all relationships!