The family gathered in London over the weekend for Will and Abby’s wedding. Thank you for the opportunity to catch up with the important people in my life! All five of the newest generation were there (Noah, Willow, Rowan, Corin and Seth). Weddings are not really for toddlers, but they were great and put up with all the waiting and talking brilliantly.
As with all church weddings, I say, when I conduct one, that marriage is a gift from God, in which a man and a woman are united, promising to share their lives until death parts them. And at the end, I declare that God has joined them together.
All of us are the products of the union of a man and woman, and marriage is a relationship based on that union. It reflects the complementary nature of humanity as male and female and forms the foundation for family life and society, especially as far as children are concerned. If there is a God who has any interest in humanity, then God is involved in marriage.
But can marriage be a gift from God for those who do not believe in God? How should society define and understand marriage? As the understanding of marriage becomes more secular, how should the Church respond?
The development of reliable contraception has had a huge impact on the way we think about marriage, of course, resulting in greater sexual freedom and gender equality. Attitudes towards divorce, pregnancy outside marriage, illegitimacy (even the word has become out-dated), gender equality and same-sex relationships have also changed profoundly. Greater affluence, the use of technology in the home and the increased cost of housing have transformed domestic life. Alongside all these changes, and perhaps largely caused by them, the Church has lost much of its its role and authority.
Some reject marriage, either in principle or as an irrelevance. Others seem to think of it is little more than an excuse for a party. Tax legislation that favours marriage, and therefore discriminates against single people and couples who are not married, is controversial. So can it continue to be central to the way society organizes itself?
There is a strong case for the Church distancing itself from the State in order to say that there are two distinct ways marriage is understood – a “secular” one and a “religious” one – as happens in other countries. That would have the benefit of meaning that, as a minister of a church, I would no longer find myself in the uncomfortable position of being a person authorized by the state to conduct a wedding.
But I do not want to abandon the idea that marriage is a gift from God that touches profoundly who we all are as people, even for those who do not acknowledge God. It derives from God’s loving commitment to us, and demonstrates that commitment more powerfully than any other human relationship. Many of the reasons why people got married in previous generations – unwanted pregnancy, shame, illegitimate children – have diminished, but the real heart of marriage lies elsewhere: in our sexual complementarity as human beings, in our need for security in a loving, lasting relationship and in the stability it brings to children and society. Something to be profoundly grateful for, to nurture and promote.