Christian Marriage - a vocation: living out our baptism

The Taonga article that sparked this response

The Anglican Communion is in disarray over intimate sexual relationships. The poverty of our sexual theology and minimalism in our studies of ethics is costing us dearly. At this, of all times, one would have thought changes to our marriage canon would have been brought on only by a significant new need and after the best theological reflection we can muster and after extensive and broad debate.

Until this year’s General Synod, Christian Marriage was offered only to couples where at least one is baptised or intending to be baptised (a catechumen – seemingly earlier canon drafters had presumed preparation for baptism to take longer than preparation for a wedding!) Now, with episcopal consultation, the link between baptism and Christian Marriage can be severed. That may very well be the appropriate ruling, however the argument provided by Rev. Edward Prebble, the mover of this change at General Synod, does not convince me.

You may wish to read his argument before proceeding.

Interestingly, Taonga usually presents both points of view in a discussion. In this case only one side is presented by our church’s official magazine – the now new official position.

As we begin, let’s just highlight the mess we are in in our Christian marital theology.

Some argue that there is no such thing as “Christian Marriage” – only a “Christian attitude to marriage”. For them there is only one type of marriage – a relationship sourced in “creation” rather than a sacramental relationship sourced in redemption. The selectively biblically literal claim that such is found in the scriptures. They soon run aground on questions whether Jacob was married to Leah AND Rachael – their logic would have Jacob only being married to Leah. When Muslim men are married to more than one wife – is this marriage? Significantly: if such a household converts to Christianity, might this man keep all his wives? Or keep one (the “first”?) and send the others away? Is not a better way forward to understand that there are different types of marriage, with Christian marriage being of a baptised person to one spouse with the intention that this relationship is for life?

The simple approach that there is no such thing as “Christian Marriage” – only a “Christian attitude to marriage” does not appear to fit. Distinguishing between marriage and Christian marriage and having baptism as integral to that may be a way forward. What about more complex approaches? Let’s examine that most rigorously theologically consistent denomination, the Roman Catholics. They don’t have divorce. But there are clear criteria that need to be present for a valid marriage. If there was an inadequacy in any area then one’s marriage can be annulled. That marriage never existed. The status of any children resulting from the what-was-never-a-marriage magically is not affected. I am not sure if one needs to confess the mortal sin of having sex while never having been married. Nor am I sure how a Roman Catholic is certain if they are actually married: might one have to test the case, appealing to the highest Marriage Tribunal, and when all such appeals have failed, then they can be sure they are genuinely married? Might dying whilst still in the relationship be sufficient to demonstrate that indeed it had been a marriage? Consumating the relationship is an essential component of Roman Catholic requirement for marriage, and someone unable to consummate the relationship cannot get married. Lack of consummation (Joseph, Mary, and so called “Josephite marriage” not withstanding!) means there is no marriage and an annulment is standard.

What about when a Roman Catholic Marriage Celebrant officiates at a wedding that the Roman Catholic Church would not recognise (one of the couple is divorced for example)? Is such a celebrant involved in a farce (or worse) knowing that no actual marriage is taking place?

The mess is not significantly better when we consider that other careful canonical church, the Church of England (I mean the one in England – some still call NZ Anglicans CofE but that is due to Christmas and Easter attendance increase, not an official title!). Divorce there is still pretty much a no-no. Hence, the hassle with Prince Charles and Camilla. Normal church understanding is that it is the couple in their vows who marry each other, and then the church, through its priest or bishop, that blesses this Christian Marriage. In the case of Charles and Camilla marriage in a Church of England church wasn’t possible, so with clever Anglican distracting sleight of hand, Charles and Camilla in their vows married each other, and then the church, through the Archbishop of Canterbury, ummm… ummm… blessed this Christian Marriage? (Does the CofE see them as really married now or not? Is it a Christian Marriage? Let’s not even ask if the Roman Catholic Church regards them as married…)

Once again, a simpler approach would have been consistent: there are different types of marriage, with Christian marriage being of a baptised person to one spouse with the intention that this relationship is for life.

Finally, before we turn to the General Synod changes, let us remind ourselves that the NZ State requirements for marriage have no need for the intention that one would forsake all others, be faithful, or make a commitment intended for life. These are all clearly essential to Christian marriage. Some would hence say that State marriages are not marriages at all. Once again I would posit: there are different types of marriage, with Christian marriage being of a baptised person to one spouse with the intention that this relationship is for life.

Let us now turn to Edward Prebble’s argument. A couple came to him seeking to be married in “her church”. “However, because of strong opposition by her mother, she had never been baptised.” As this is a pastoral, pragmatic argument, my first issue would be discussing the maturity of a woman, now seeking to be married, still apparently swayed by “strong opposition by her mother”. If she is  mature enough to get married, is she not mature enough to seek baptism? The groom had not been baptised and “came from a totally non-church background”. What an opportunity as God draws this couple into seeking Christian Marriage within the Christian community!

Edward Prebble next writes of “one Evangelical colleague found that he had to turn down worshipping parishioners from families who are uncomfortable with the practice of infant baptism.” Sorry – I’m completely lost to the logic here! What does infant baptism have to do with this? I would understand an ADULT couple are presenting themselves to be married, neither of them is baptised, here they are described as “worshipping parishioners” – surely, these are prime candidates for baptism as adults? Again: what an opportunity!

Edward Prebble takes the wedding of the unbaptised couple “and a very fine, happy, Christian (my emphasis) ceremony it was.” In what sense was it a Christian ceremony? Remember this was of a couple, prior to the changed canon, who refused to be baptised.

Let us continue in this pastoral and pragmatic vein. “The bride did not want to be baptised, as she felt that would be cheapening the sacrament of baptism.” Wow! What a loaded sentence. What an image of God, of baptism, and of herself as she saw herself in God’s presence. God’s gift, God’s love, God’s grace, not freely, prodigally, lavishly, wastefully, given to all of us unworthy though we be – but here her being baptised would be “cheapening” the sacrament. But baptism is not just cheap – it’s FREE! God’s love is a gift and it’s free – that is the good news.

Christianity has made such a mess of our sexual theology that in the English speaking world we use “living in sin” not for greed, or dishonesty, or gossiping, but solely in relation to sex. I wish the church could not talk about sex for enough generations until our negativity about it was forgotten – unfortunately we apparently cannot get to this veto. We desperately need a wholesome, positive, enthusiastic attitude to creation, pleasure, sex, and relationships.

I acknowledge Edward Prebble and General Synod may very well be right in removing the link between Christian marriage and baptism. But the arguments so far put forward fail to convince me. In my understanding, at my baptism God has declared to me that God will have me and hold me, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, God will love me and cherish me. And sacramentally my wife and I embody God’s baptismal covenant to each other, for our children, and as an icon for others.

I cannot imagine after appropriate pastoral preparation of a couple seeking to be married that they would with integrity use the words of our marriage services but refuse the promises given to them by God in baptism. I cannot imagine a couple seeking God’s blessing on their marriage, but not on their life.
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