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The Canons of the Episcopal Church require that before a priest can solemnize a marriage he or she must be sure that the couple to be married has been "instructed as to the nature, meaning and purpose of Holy Matrimony." This small book was written with this intent.
Marriage is both an event, the celebration and the blessing of a marriage, and a process, a couple's lifelong journey together. Marriage is an event that establishes a relationship and a relationship into which you will need to live. This small book intends to prepare you for the event and lay a foundation for the journey. At the event you will promise to travel together on a lifelong, sometimes difficult journey. There is much you will need to learn as you travel along, but before you make this life-transforming decision, it will be important for you to reflect upon and discuss the nature, meaning, and purpose of marriage.
I hope this book will provide a resource for and stimulant to these conversations between you and your priest.
Marriage Through the Ages
In primitive times a young man would capture a young woman from a neighboring clan or tribe and claim her as his wife. He was usually accompanied by another young man whose job it was to distract the woman's relatives or help fight them off during the abduction. In later times this person became known as the "best man." As time went on, fathers purchased wives for their sons, but the old ritual of abduction was now symbolized by the husband's picking up his bride and carrying her over the threshold of his home.
In the Greco-Roman world into which Christianity was born, marriage was a family affair. Women and children were considered property, and fathers therefore arranged marriages. Typically, the father of the groom gave a dowry to the father of the bride to compensate for a "property loss."
The marriage event was composed of two parts. The first was the betrothal, which took place at a family meal in the groom's home. At this time a promise of marriage at a future date was made, the girl was given a ring as a sign of possession by the man, and the dowry was exchanged.
Sometime after the betrothal, the second part, the marriage took place in the bride's home. The bride was dressed in a yellow dress with veil and a crown of myrtle, and she wore a cincture as a sign of virginity. She was delivered to the groom by a married woman, the pronuba, who acted both as a maid of honor and a representative of Juno, the god of home, family, and children. The contract was read and signed, and then the couple joined hands to finalize the relationship. Following a sacrifice to the family gods, the wedding feast was celebrated.
After the feast there was a procession to the husband's home. The pronuba would light the family fire, make a sacrifice at the family altar, prepare the marriage bed, and take off the bride's cincture and exits.
Jewish marriage rites were similar but without the pagan elements. In both Judaism and Roman society, marriage was a legal, contractual arrangement. When Jewish Christians married they used the same rite as Jews but made reference to Christ. When pagan Christians married, they followed the pagan rite but eliminated the pronuba and sacrifices.
Interestingly, for Christians singleness was as holy as marriage; some, in fact, would have said more holy. Marriage was for those who could not live a celibate life. The Christian community was to survive and grow through the conversion of adults rather than through the procreation of children. Therefore, for the first four centuries marriage remained a family affair and the church played no part in marriage.
Marriage customs began to change after the Christian church became the imperial state church. After two Christians had been married in a family ceremony, they would present themselves to a bishop or priest in order to receive a blessing. So it was that as long as the Roman Empire continued, the Church relied on the civil government to regulate marriages. In fact, this custom of the state marrying and the church blessing continues throughout much of the Christian world. The oddity is that in the United States, where we have an established separation of church and state, the church acts both on behalf of the state in performing marriages and on behalf of the church blessing them.
This blessing took different forms in the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East. In the West, where only one ring was exchanged at the wedding, it was known as the veiling of the bride and nuptial blessing. In the East, where two rings were exchanged, there was a crowning of both the bride and the groom.
New Understandings and Ways
The first major change in marriage customs took place in the tenth and eleventh centuries. With the collapse of the Roman Empire the church assumed a greater role in marriages. Now the priest was present at the groom's home for the ceremony. He witnessed the couple's mutual consent and the signing of a legal contract, the bride's pledge of obedience and submission to her husband, and his giving to her a ring. The priest would then bless the marriage and the marriage chamber where their union would be consummated and thereby made legal in the eyes of the church.
By the thirteenth century the marriage service as we now have it began to emerge. The betrothal and the marriage rite were united, and the first part was held on the outside porch of the church. The priest would first explain the church's understanding of marriage. Then the bride and groom were asked for their consent, and since there were few records, both those present and the couple were asked if they knew of any reason why they lawfully should not be married. Impediments were relation by blood or marriage, insufficient age, prior commitment to someone else (while they had to consent, some marriages were still arranged, especially for young children of noble families), incapacity to give consent, and undue influence.
Then insofar as the woman was still considered property, she had to be given away by her father. (One other change was that the bride's father now gave the groom's father the dowry, for he was assuming a financial burden.)
Once this part of the service was complete, the wedding party would go into the church and process to the altar where they entered into the marriage contract; the priest tied his stole over their joined hands (from which we get the expression "tying the knot') and pronounced them husband and wife; the bride's ring was blessed and placed on her finger; the priest blessed their marriage; and the couple exchanged the liturgical symbol of reconciliation, unity, the kiss of peace.
By the fourteenth century the whole liturgy took place in the church in the context of the Eucharist. During the reformation of the sixteenth century the Church in England became the Church of England and the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) was published. It contained a marriage rite that was a combination of Roman Catholic and Lutheran rites. There were a few other important and significant changes as well. Marriage was no longer a contract; it was now a covenant. Marriages were held during the parish Eucharist on Sunday. The dowry now took the form of alms for the poor. And the purposes of marriage were stated, namely to bear children, to provide a remedy against sin (the misuse of sex), and for the couple to care for each other.
Now in the twentieth century, while some of the theological understandings of marriage have changed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the marriage rite is fundamentally the same as that found in the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer. In our last section we will walk you through this contemporary liturgy and explain options you have and choices you need to make.
A Theology of Marriage
There are four major traditions within the Christian Church: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican Christian. The Anglican tradition, to which the Episcopal Church belongs, represents the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church in England, which became the Church of England in the sixteenth century and those churches around the world that owe their origin to the English church.
Our historic emphasis as Anglicans has been on the practical, as contrasted with the speculative, side of religion. We understand Christianity as a way of life, a matter of practice in which spirituality and morality, theology and ethics are one.
Fundamentally, Anglicans are Christians who worship according to some authorized edition of The Book of Common Prayer and are in communion with the see of Canterbury in England. Our primary identity is as a community of practice. That is, we are bound together by our liturgy. Orthodoxy for us is right worship rather than right belief. Our life of prayer shapes our beliefs and behaviors.
Through the years, in our constant quest to be faithful, we have revised The Book of Common Prayer and reformed our worship. This has often been painful and difficult because our liturgy is at the heart of our identity and is the basis for our theological and ethical convictions. To discover how we understand Holy Scripture and what we believe about issues of faith and life you need to turn to The Book of Common Prayer and engage in the process of interpreting this document. Therefore, to understand our theology of marriage we will reflect on the rite for the celebration and blessing of a marriage in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
The opening address in the marriage rite states first that marriage is a covenant and not a contract. Contracts are voluntary agreements that create legal obligations that are binding only insofar as both parties fulfill these obligations. A covenant, on the other hand, is a promise before God to enter into a relationship of love that is binding regardless of what the other does. It states that this bond and covenant relationship was established by God and blessed by Jesus to signify the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church. And it manifests itself as the union of two souls, which are composed of a body, mind, and spirit.
Continuing, this opening address states that the purpose of marriage is threefold: "for the couple's mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God's will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord."
Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines joy as "an emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune, or by the prospect of possessing something we desire." It is a state of happiness or contentment. But in Scripture joy has a more specific character: Joy is a consequence of our relationship with God and life in the reign of God.
We human beings have only one vocation, one calling, namely to live in an ever deepening and loving relationship with God and thereby with our true self (the self that is in the image and likeness of God), with all people, and with the natural world. This is also a description of life in God's reign.
The meaning and purpose of human life is to reach this end, an end that is both gift from God and our responsive action. We choose either marriage or singleness because we believe that through one or the other we can best fulfill our vocation. And we choose to marry a particular person because we believe that he or she, more than any other human being, will help us toward this end. The purpose of marriage, therefore, is spiritual. It is based on your conviction that life together will help you both grow and mature in your spiritual and moral life.
Help and Comfort
Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines help as "the giving of assistance or aid." It defines comfort as "the imparting of cheer and strength." But once again, Scripture uses these words differently. Help is used interchangeably with agape or charity love, that is, love as an act of the will that seeks the other's good or well-being. Comfort in Scripture points to the motive of compassion or identification with another and with the other's needs, which in turn leads to acts of mercy.
Help and comfort are descriptions of God's love. Another purpose of marriage, therefore, is to be an incarnation of God's unending, unmerited, unconditional, sacrificial, reconciling love. To be able to love in this manner is a consequence of one's spiritual life. It is because we have known and experienced God's love that we can love each other in this manner. Your life together is to be a testimony to the nature and character of God's love.
Children and Their Nurture
Christianity has from the beginning contended that both singleness and marriage are holy. Both states provide ways to serve God and reach the end of human life. By so doing the church established that getting married and having children were not a necessity or a "natural" event. The choice to get married and, if it is God's will, to have children had deep spiritual and moral significance.
I once wrote a book entitled Will our Children Have Faith?; a colleague later wrote an article "Will Our Faith Have Children?" There may be faithful, moral reasons not to have children, but we must be sure that they are not decisions made in despair about the future or for selfish reasons. Children are a sign that life, in spite of its hardship and tedium, is worthwhile. Children are a symbol of hope, hope in God about the future. And children represent our confidence that our faith has merit and can meet the needs of future generations.
Before the marriage celebration you will be required to sign the following declaration: "We, A.B. and C.D., desiring to receive the blessing of Holy Matrimony in the Church, do solemnly declare that we hold marriage to be a lifelong union of husband and wife as it is set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.
"We believe that the union of husband and wife, in heart, body and mind, is intended for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort to one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God's will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.
"And we do engage ourselves, so far as in us lies, to make our utmost effort to establish and to seek God's help thereto."
The Episcopal Church's understanding of the marriage covenant is founded upon an understanding of life in the reign of God and the fact that we live in between the times, between the already and not yet of God's reign. Therefore, while we need to strive, with God's help, to live lives that are based on life in God's reign, there may be circumstances that prevent us from doing so. For example, in the case of physical or mental abuse, to keep the marriage covenant would be destructive to a person's life, making divorce an option. When things are not going well, however, divorce should not be the first option we consider. In the Canons of the Episcopal Church on marriage we read, "When marital unity is imperiled by dissension, it shall be the duty of either or both parties, before contemplating legal action, to lay the matter before a Member of the Clergy; and it shall be the duty of such Member of the Clergy to labor that the parties may be reconciled." For, insofar as divorce is the breaking of a covenant promise, it is a sin. But like all sins, divorce is forgivable and God grants us another opportunity to demonstrate that with God's help we can maintain a covenant.
Marriage as a Sacrament
Another way to interpret the opening address on the meaning and purpose of marriage is to explain that from the church's point of view, marriage is a sacrament—that is, a sign through which the lives of a man and a woman united in Holy Matrimony testify to the presence of a gracious God who never gives up on us, who forgives us when we hurt our relationship, who seeks to give us what we need rather than what we deserve, and who accepts us as we are and desires the best for us.
Unlike the culture, the church teaches little about romantic love or love as an affection. It questions marriages founded primarily upon common interests, mutual advantage, contractual agreements, or sexual attraction. The church cares first about the character of the two persons who wish to receive the blessing of the church on their marriage, namely, whether or not they are capable of sustaining the kind of relationship upon which the keeping of promises is founded even if romantic love dries up and what originally attracted them to each other is no longer present.
Excerpted from To Love and To Cherish Until Death Do Us Part by John H. Westerhoff, III Copyright © 2012 by John H. Westerhoff, III. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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