Tag Archives: Christian marriage

An Immodest Marriage Proposal 

Both in the US and overseas (the debate in UK and in Australia are helpfully summarized here) debates about whether or not to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples has generated a great deal heat but very little analytical light. This is why I think a recent post by the Roman Catholic canon and civil lawyer Edward Peters is especially helpful (here).

He begins with a brief legal analysis of the legal and existential differences between “union” and “marriage.” While his concern is the response of the Catholic Church to changes in civil martial law, I think his observations are applicable to Orthodox Christians, Protestants and people of good will who reject recent innovations in civil marriage laws:

Ancient Christians, offered the choice between burning incense to honor the divine Augustus or dying a slow painful death, had to choose the slow painful death if they wanted to remain faithful to the true God. But suppose, instead of burning incense to honor Caesar as a god, ancient Christians could have burned incense to honor him as an emperor. Christians could have burned incense in such cases, as casually as we set ablaze waxen wicks atop a frosted cake to honor a man’s birthday, without fear of scandalizing others. No one thinks the birthday boy is God, and only if some authority begins implying that so-and-so really is a god (think North Korea), and that burning candles in his honor is to acknowledge him as a god, does the matter take on additional meaning. Here, the labels attached to the action domake a huge difference.

Likewise, saying that two persons of the same sex are in a legally-recognized union, whatever else one says about that relationship, is not tantamount to saying that those two persons are married for the simple reason that not every union—even long-term, consensual, sexually-active, economically stable, unions—is a marriage civilly or canonically.

For Peters’ observation to be codified into law, would require (in my view) that the State no longer issuing marriage licenses. Since the State does have a legitimate interest in marriage (even if there is a social debate about its nature), I think it would be better for the State simply to register marriages while remaining agnostic to the exact nature of the union.

How might this work?

First of all a couple could simply register themselves as married according to their own understanding of the institution. Let’s call this a “civil union.” While it would please everyone, this would allow the State to remain legally indifferent as the emotional and/or sexual nature of the union.

To this simple record of fact–“Person A and Person B on such and such a date contracted a civil union”–I would add the option of the couple signing a standard contract that (as Peters observes in his essay) that would spell out the conditions under which they would “share their earnings, have access to each other’s personal records, be covered under each other’s insurance, inherit a preferential portion of the other’s estate, and so on.”  Or, they could sign a contract that was in according to their own religious faith.

Or, the couple could sign a contract that reflected the teachings of their own religious faith. What might this look like?

For an Orthodox couple, this could look very much like the standard contract. To this, I suggest including (for example) conditions under which the divorce would be allowed drawn from both secular and canon law. I’ll talk about why this matters in a moment. For now

For now, though, I think the contract would, at a minimum, allow (not require) divorce for the following reasons: apostasy by one spouse, physical abuse, addiction, and the refusal by one spouse to have children.

Though stated in the negative, all of these conditions also reflect expectations that the spouses have for each other and which in the tradition of the Church are the essential building blocks of the vocation of marriage. Faith in Christ, mutual respect and affection, soberity of life and openness to new life. These are, I would hope, uncontroversial for Orthodox Christians.

While many Orthodox Christians are right upset by the recent change in marriage laws, I think the earlier change of “no-fault” divorce is at least as great a moral and pastoral challenge. In effect, civil divorce laws allow the State to insert itself into the life of Church and end a marriage for any reason or indeed no reason at all.

The same voices that (again, rightly) object to same-sex “marriage” were noticeably silent about changes in divorce laws. What should be a rare–and always tragic–event for the couple, the Church AND civil society, has become ordinary and a matter of social indifference.

Yes, as the list above suggests, there are times when divorce is necessary and the Christian tradition has always acknowledged this. However, Christians of all tradition have been so willing to see our understanding of marriage encoded, and so enforced, in civil law that we have overlooked that what Caesar gave with one hand, he took with the other.

We, and by “we” I mean all Christians though especially Orthodox Christians, have long ago accepted the idea that “marriage” is based not on the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God” but merely in human desire. And this we’ve done while simultaneously preaching a sacramental view of marriage that sees the natural vocation raised by the Holy Spirit to be a living icon of Christ’s love for the Church.

The take away for me is this.

Not that we can no longer depend on the modern secular State to support the Orthodox vision of marriage. Rather it is that we never could and never should have looked to Caesar to do for the Church what only the Church could do for herself.

As Christians–Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant–and people of good will, we need to advocate for laws that allow us at least to pursue a fuller vision of marriage. Such a vision embraces the necessary but insufficient role of mutual consent in marriage. But contemporary divorce laws reduce marriage to whim. They likewise exclude any role for of communities–religious OR secular–in supporting and sustaining marriage as well as holding married couples accountable to their mutual commitment.

Finally, n one of this obviates the role of the State in marriage.The State has a legitimate concern in marriage. While Christians of various traditions think the State has overstepped its authority in expanding the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, this doesn’t negate the State’s role. What we need to do is what the Church has always done. We must find a way in which we can remain faithful to the Gospel even while acknowledging the State’s God-given role in human affairs.

My immodest marriage proposal, I think, might be a good first step.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Love, Children & Wealth

The Orthodox service of Crowning is often the first experience many people have of the Church’s liturgical tradition. And yes the service is beautiful and while not long (by our own standards at least), it isn’t 10 minutes in front of the justice of the peace. Beauty and solemnity however are not what matters in the Orthodox wedding service. No what’s important it is the theology of marriage and family life that embodied in the prayers for the couple.

Look at the opening prayer:

O God most pure, Author of all creation, Who through Your man-befriending love transformed a rib of Adam the forefather into a woman, and blessed them and said, “Increase and multiply, and have dominion over the earth,” and, by the conjoining, declared them both to be one member, for because of this a man shall forsake his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and the two shall be one fleshand whom God has joined together let not man put asunder.

The celebrant goes on the recall how God blessed Abraham “and made him the father of many nations” by healing Sara;; how He gave Esau and Jacob to their parents Isaac and Rebecca and raised up the Twelve Patriarch from Jacob and Rachael; “bestow[ed] … Ephrem and Manasse” on Joseph and Asenath. Moving to the New Testament, the prayer reminds us of John the Baptist, “offspring” of Zacharias and Elizabeth, who God “declared … the Forerunner” of Jesus.

The centrality of marriage and family life to salvation history reaches its culmination when God “out of the root of Jesse, according to the flesh, produced the EverVirgin Mary, and from her were Incarnate-born for the salvation of the human race; Who through Your unspeakable Grace and plentiful goodness were present in Cana of Galilee, and blessed the marriage there, that You might show a lawful union, and a generation there from, is according to Your Will; do You Yourself, O Most Holy Master, accept the prayer of us, Your servants; and as You were present there, be present also here with Your invisible protection.” This is the historical context within which the Church asks God to bless the couple’s marriage and grant them “a peaceful life, length of days, chastity, love for one another in a bond of peace, offspring longlived, fair fame by reason of their children, and a crown of glory that does not fade away.”

The blessings we ask God to give the couple don’t end with love and babies. Along with long life, conjugal chastity and mutual fidelity, we ask God to give the couple material wealth.

Account them worthy to see their children’s children. Keep their wedlock safe against every hostile scheme; give them of the dew from the Heavens above, and of the fatness of the earth. Fill their houses with bountiful food, and with every good thing, that they may have to give to them that are in need, bestowing also on them that are here assembled with us all their supplications that are unto salvation.

In imitation tof God’s “mercy … compassion, and … manbefriending love” the Church asks God to bless the newly married couple with three things: love, children and wealth. Taken together these are also the goals of Christian marriage. While the exact mix will differ, at a minimum the couple can’t do anything that undermines the blessing God would bestow.

This doesn’t mean that the couple must make as much money as possible. It does, however, mean that the couple should work and exercise enough financial discipline so that they are self-supporting and able to take part in the philanthropic work of the Church. Yes, circumstances might make one or both of these goals difficult, or even impossible, but this is different from refusing to be gainfully employed or to care for the poor.

Likewise with love and children.

A couple may not be able to spend the amount or quality of time they wish with each other. Work, familial obligation and illness can all place a strain on the relationship between husband and wife. This however is different from one spouse ignoring (or worse) the other. At the same time, love doesn’t mean that the couple spend every moment of their day with each other. What it does mean is that the couple can’t undermine the gift of love.

Children too are a gift from God and are an inherent part of marriage as both a natural and a sacramental relationship. Unfortunately, even among Christians, children are often seen as optional. When we do talk about a couple having children, we typically do so as something they want and not something God wants for them and from them.

Love, children and wealth together make up the blessing of marriage—again both as a natural institution and as a relationship in Christ that reveals God’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:21-33). We misunderstand marriage when we reduce it to only one or two these.

The moral challenge is balancing the responsibilities that come with three-fold of married life. Either because of God’s will or circumstances one or more of these blessings might be more abundant in the life of any particular couple. Whatever the circumstances what matters is not so much the presence or absence of the blessing but the couple’s fidelity to their vocation to be husband and wife. Circumstances might change the specific form but pastorally and morally what matters is the couple’s ability and willingness to live “their life together be … without spot of sin. … [K]eeping Your commandments in a pure heart.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory