The Traditional Anglican service of Holy Matrimony from the Book of Common Prayer reflects the holiness of marriage with solemnity and dignity, including the final blessing: “God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, bless, preserve, and keep you; the Lord mercifully with his favour look upon you, and fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace; that ye may so live together in this life, that in the world to come ye may have life everlasting. Amen.”
The end of the marriage service was altered in 1979 for the book that is used by the Episcopal Church. Their book says: “…that you may faithfully live together in this life, and in the age to come have life everlasting. Amen.” Changing the words of this blessing has changed the meaning, even if it was unintended. This difference, signified by the word “and” instead of “that,” is unfortunately consistent with a wide gulf that radically separates two understandings of what marriage is.
Need for clear teaching
For those who have only a worldly concept of marriage, how the couple will live together has no relevance to eternity. Of course, the end of every marriage must come since everyone dies. But, the end for which a Christian man and woman marry does in fact have eternal significance. So then, how do we protect Christians from a worldly concept of marriage?
Not by silence. No longer can we simply assume that every Christian has learned properly, or that they even know that fidelity in marriage is a moral issue of grave consequence. Christians ought to be well acquainted with the commandments of God against fornication and adultery (and what is fornication, if not adultery before the fact?). And, also they ought to know that divorce is an evil thing.
None of these things should be controversial for any Christian who believes the things that Jesus said, and said clearly. Nonetheless, we have come to a time that requires us to teach Christians, even some devout Catholics and born again Evangelicals, to see the difference between ideas that prevail in this age, and the truth about marriage.
It is wrong to assume that people know how to live together in this life, as man and wife, simply because they are Church people. Pastoral experience has taught me, over many years, that we can no longer assume that children are being taught by their parents at home. Gone are the days when the Church can expect younger parents to be aware of their responsibility. If pastors and religious teachers simply assume they can build on a foundation already laid, they will often be in for a shock. It has not been business as usual for many years now.
And, since nature abhors a vacuum, bad ideas can be found wherever teaching has been neglected, especially in the minds of many who have already reached adulthood. Might the following things need to be spelled-out for some modern Christians, especially those under 40? I am sorry to say, yes they do. Experience teaches me this. What goes unsaid goes unlearned.
Preparing people for marriage highlights this in a special way. Certain things have to be taught, because when they go unsaid, the vacuum fills up with error. We cannot assume that Christians have no need to hear the following, or that the Church has no responsibility to teach them.
The end of marriage is, all too often, the gratification of desire. And, added to this insufficient understanding, uncouth practices are treated as normal and healthy by modern people. This is because they have been indoctrinated by the spirit of the times to accept almost any sexual practice, as if gratification is, itself, moral justification.
For example, it would be wrong for the Christian bride to find herself being treated as a “sex slave.” She should not expect a Christian husband to request or demand “service” that is humiliating and degrading, even if one such practice was popularized by a president in the Oval office, and falsely justified by his warped idea of how to study the Bible.
We should not assume that younger Christians know that marriage gives moral rightness to copulation, and adds blessing to wholesome pleasure, but that marriage is not a license for just any kind of sexual activity that has dawned on the human imagination. “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for God will judge the immoral and adulterous.” (Hebrews 13:4, RSV)
To others, of all ages, the end of marriage may be larger than gratification, but still not good enough. Based on a need for love and companionship, and in some cases security, the end of marriage may be happiness based on what can be received. That may be bigger and nobler than gratification alone, and emotionally more rewarding.
Nonetheless, the desire to be made happy is insufficient as the end of marriage for a Christian. For, this kind of love may be in keeping with eros, and even with phileō. But, it falls short of agape. That is, though it may include all of the emotions we associate with romantic love, and with friendship (both good and necessary things in married love), it falls short of the love described by St. Paul in I Corinthians chapter 13.
A means of grace
Modern Christians need to be taught in order to truly understand the good things that God the Holy Spirit can give to a husband and wife through one another. Not every Christian is comfortable using a word for marriage that we, as Traditional Anglicans, use. That word is “sacrament.” It may be a waste of time to try to sell everyone simply on that word; but, we should not hesitate to make an effort to sell all Christians everywhere on some of the theological meaning of that word as applied to marriage.
First of all, to put it very simply, when an unmarried Christian man and an unmarried Christian woman say their vows before God and human witnesses, this constitutes a form of words that state the clear intention of entering into a union that is, itself, God’s own doing. The fact that marriage is the work of God himself is the teaching of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 19:6: “What God has joined together”). After the consummation, the joining is complete.
Contrary to the spirit of the times, since the body is holy, the occasions of coming together in intimacy have their place in grace and sanctification also. Happiness and pleasure do not, in themselves, contradict holiness. Always, respect for the body includes respect for its nature and power of procreation.
We need to consider the Greek word charis (often in the form charisma) that is usually translated “grace,” and in many places as “gift.” The New Testament usage of this word consistently refers to both special and extraordinary graces given by the Holy Spirit. St. Paul teaches Christians to desire the gifts that best fit the need or occasion (I Corinthians. 12:31), and this leads directly to the famous chapter on charity. We should want the graces or gifts that are most beneficial to others, consistent with divine love.
Christian marriages have to them more than human commitment. The Holy Spirit works by means of this union. He gives grace through faithful spouses to further growth in virtues and sanctification. Daily activities and all of the changes of this transitory life, are the context of that ministry to one another over a period of years.
The husband and wife are God’s agents to one another, to aid salvation, and sanctification. Furthermore, all spouses are called to aid each other’s gifts and vocations in this world, and in a special and obvious way in their joint responsibility should they be so blessed as to become parents. Such a life, in turn, may often lead to a Christian couple being a witness to the world of the love between Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:32).
My advice to Christian couples is to pray together often (which is best when it is initiated and led by the man), perhaps as part of the daily offices of prayer, according to the practices of specific church traditions. The end of marriage, as we know it, is that the husband and wife love one another as aids to everything good and eternal by the work of the Holy Spirit. Then the blessing applies. “That ye may so live together in this life, that in the world to come ye may have life everlasting.”