Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Against marriage: or, why churches should stop performing weddings

In an interesting post, Jason argues for a religious understanding of marriage, and he cites P. T. Forsyth’s view that marriage is much more than a social contract: “the more one ponders the solemn implicates and slow effects of marriage, moral and spiritual, the more one feels that it has something sacramental in its nature.”

I think this is exactly the wrong thing to say about marriage. In fact, I’d like to see the church stop its custom of benignly validating the institution of marriage. The investment of marriage with a pseudo-religious quality has long diminished the witness of the church: the state authorises a legal union, and then calls upon the church to bless this union with a thin veneer of religiosity. Here, as elsewhere, the church proves itself to be the state’s faithful servant: yes, we will validate state authority with a harmless blessing; yes, we are only too pleased to sanctify the wedding ceremony, and to clothe the social functions of romantic love and family life with a saintly aura.

Notice that the church is not invited here to proclaim its own proper message of judgment and grace. The church is not invited to bear witness. Instead, we are simply asked to add God’s blessing to the social order and to the state’s authority. Here the situation is just the same as in those churches where all infants born into the nation-state are provided with baptism: the church’s witness is undermined completely by its willingness to serve as the state’s lapdog. We are like the comically odious Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice – that sycophantic clergyman who waits upon the pleasure of his exalted benefactress, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and is only too pleased to do her bidding whenever the opportunity arises.

If there is anything distinctively Christian to say about marriage, then the first step should be the church’s flat refusal to co-operate in the grim and desperate business of wedding ceremonies, and a flat refusal to provide the state with any so-called “marriage altar.” As Karl Barth has put it, marriage “must be completely divested of the character of a religious doublet to the civil ceremony” (CD III/4, p. 228).

Indeed, far from merely authorising weddings with pious talk about the “spiritual and moral” depths of marital love, the church’s witness demands a critique of romantic love – yes, a critique of marriage itself! As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has incisively argued in Life Together, the sexual relationship is by no means “sacramental in nature.” Instead, in our own societies romantic love functions as an idol which demands absolute subservience.

Halden explores this theme in a brilliant engagement with Bonhoeffer: “The longing to be completed through immediate contact with another is the reigning mythos of romance in our age. It is the object of voracious, often violent pursuit at all costs…. The fact is that in our romantic imaginations we seem to remain disturbingly trapped in the Zeitgeist of our age, hoping that by journeying deeper into the abyss of our selfishness we will somehow find the community that we long for with the other.” In Bonhoeffer’s analysis, the marriage relationship is not “sacramental by nature,” but it is selfish and parasitic by nature. In its hidden depths one finds not the comforting glow of religious sanctity, but an abyss of violence and self-will, a voracious need to find my own image reflected in the face of another.

But such a bleak analysis is not the last word. If the church refuses to sanctify the social order and the state’s authority as “naturally” blessed, it is also true that the church is a community with its own proper practices, its own virtues, its own proclamation of the good as that which has interrupted and reconfigured the natural order through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

If we begin to refuse church participation in wedding ceremonies, perhaps the way will be opened for a renewed sacramental understanding of marriage. The church refuses to recognise the marital relationship – or, for that matter, “the family” – as the fundamental social unit. Instead, the Christian community recognises the body of Christ as the fundamental social order of the new creation. And within this new society, within this economy of friendship and hospitality and self-giving, the church also bears witness to particular instantiations of Christian friendship, to specially gifted loci of generosity and hospitality and self-giving love.

Here, Christian marriage is sacramental precisely because it bears witness to the incursion of the new creation. It interrupts the existing order with the glad tidings of God’s new world. It interrupts marriage itself – and all the parasitic violence of romantic love – with the joyful and generous reality of the peace of the body of Christ.

In short: let’s say No to church-sanctioned weddings, No to the culture of romance-at-any-cost, but Yes to the sacrament of marriage, Yes to the body of Christ. To paraphrase St Paul: For in Christ Jesus, neither marriage nor singleness is anything; what counts is a new creation.

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