by Kim Fabricius, from a recent wedding in Swansea [names changed]
First, an accent check: How many soldiers here have served in Iraq or Afghanistan? Okay, so you’ll be used to me speaking American. American soldiers – they’re the ones who put the “oops” in “troops” and the “miss” in “missile”.
Doug – soldier; Hester – teacher. I’ve married soldiers, and I’ve married teachers, but never the one to the other. It’s an arrangement with promise. Doug, for instance, will be used to being under authority, and obeying orders even when they’re daft; and Hester will be used to a person in uniform behaving badly, and muttering annoying comments under his breath. Hester, just remember that a husband is like a fine malt whisky: it will take him years to mature – though I wouldn’t get your hopes up for more than a 12-year-old. Doug, I’m afraid for you I have no advice whatsoever.
This is a real, very personal pleasure for me. Of Hester – well, let’s just say of Hester I am very fond. And since she spent a year in the US, even if in the Windy City (Chicago) rather than the Big Apple, add to fond a kind of bond. That’s today’s icing on the cake of preaching at any wedding. I’m now a retired minister, but I’ve been taking fewer and fewer weddings for years. And not just because we now live in a post-Christian society, but also because – well, why get married in a church when you can do it at a fashionable hotel, an atmospheric castle, or a sunny beach abroad?
Yet even in our aggressively secular society, the rumour of God persists. While celebrity is now regarded as a career option, wealth a vocation, and cosmetic surgery the fountain of youth, nevertheless, in the wake of this ubiquitous cultural banality, some silly people will go on asking, “Is that it?” – and sense that no, it isn’t, sense that there is something more, often because in times of great joy or deep trauma – at the birth of a child (or grandchild) perhaps, so outrageously loved, or after a dreadful diagnosis, so irretrievably wrenching – at such times some people hear reality whisper in their ears. Christians suggest that through such “signals of transcendence” God is trying to get in touch with us. And if a couple has been so touched, and they decide that cohabitation isn’t quite commitment enough, that they want to get married but feel that a civil ceremony, wherever, lacks depth, mystery, ultimacy, that “congratulations” doesn’t quite cut it, that a blessing is essential, then they may ask for a church wedding, at which the minister will begin by saying, “We are gathered here in the presence of God …”
Yes, today we are “doing” God, which is quite a counter-cultural thing to do. How so? Well, for example, the church’s suggestion that while “following your feelings” may be the gospel of Hello magazine, a more superficial take on a serious relationship is hard to imagine. The suggestion that, in marriage, so-called “lifestyle choices” and even careers should recede in importance, while raising children should become a sacred possibility. And the suggestion that marrying the “right person” is actually a rather silly idea, as is demonstrated by how often Mr. or Mrs. Right so often becomes Mr. or Mrs. Wrong, and is replaced by Mr. or Mrs. Even-Righter.
Why do people actually get married? In her novel The Other Side of You, Salley Vickers makes an observation about an “elementary … equation [that] is rarely recognised. The reasons for choice of partner are obscure and what passes for love is generally a decidedly mixed bag … [of] lust, anxiety, lack of self-worth … cowardice, fear, recklessness, … the need to control.… There are other, happier ingredients, though these finer impulses can wreak more havoc than the more blackguardly ones.”
A cynical take on marriage? Rather, I think, a candid and accurate assessment. And that’s why it’s not the chemistry, or even the “heart” but, finally, the promises that a couple make that are the crucial factor in a marriage – promises made hoping to God that we may keep them. For, in ourselves, how can we possibly know what promising lifelong fidelity means, not just for bad but for worse? I mean, it’s all very well to assume we will be faithful through flu, flab, and flatulence, but what about MS or Alzheimer’s, or unemployment shattering our precious plans, or our pensions turning to dust? How can we make such radical promises as “until we are parted by death” when we are young, healthy, and earning?
And the honest answer is: we can make them only if we are the kind of people who can be held to the promises we make when we do not really know what we are in for when we make them. Only if – only if Doug and Hester see that love is learned even more than it is given, that love is a skill, a practice; see that love is more the result of a good relationship than the cause of it; see that marriage itself creates the context in which they may discover what love really is and, in the process, who they really are. Only if they see that an enduring relationship is built on the virtues of attentiveness, patience, perseverance, and, above all, sacrifice and forgiveness, each giving more than they expect to receive. Only if they don’t get so wrapped up in themselves that they lose touch with you, their friends, the ones who will keep them sane. And only if the resources on which they draw come not only from within and without, but from above, from the God we are “doing” today.
Finally, that Salley Vickers passage – here is how it ends: “Seldom, very seldom, do two people unite [in marriage] through sheer reciprocal joy in the other’s being.” Hester, Doug, my prayer for you is that you will experience this “sheer reciprocal joy”, and experience it ever more deeply as you grow old together, such that, as wonderful as this day is, it will turn out to be the day in your marriage that you loved each other least.