Love that Hath Ends Will have an End: Considering Christian Marriage in Our Time

Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.

-J. R. R. Tolkien, letter to Michael Tolkien, March 1941

It is the worst clandestine marriage when God is not invited to it. Wherefore, beforehand beg his gratious (sic) assistance. . . .

–Thomas Fuller

One of the most troubling cultural tendencies of the past several decades has been the steady decline of marriage as a life-long–or quantifiably long-term–commitment. The reasons for this decline are multitudinous and beyond the scope of this paper; rather, our concern is with the question of how marriage, specifically Christian marriage, is to be approached and understood in a culture that is rapidly secularizing. It is impossible however, to approach the question of how priests and pastors are to convey the importance and meaning of marriage to their contemporaries without some analysis of the challenges faced. Some people first experience the Church and faith shortly before marriage; alternatively they may have been failed in a variety of ways by their churches, receiving no viable Christian formation in this area. Such problems only become more pointed when the parties in question have only the failed marriages of their parents and two dimensional media iconography as examples. In this context it is imperative that the Church find her voice and consider new ways of prophetically speaking the truth of the gospel into the midst of the culture, rather than embracing the extremes of judgmental sectarianism or lukewarm licentiousness, neither of which is finally appealing or faithful.

The confusion of our culture regarding sexuality and marriage is pervasive, with the same ambiguity abroad in culture being present in the church. Stanley Hauerwas has observed links between current ecclesial conflicts over appropriate responses to homosexuality and the confusion that characterizes contemporary thought regarding marriage:

They do not know what to think about homosexuality because they do not know how to think about marriage and divorce. The churches have generally underwritten romantic accounts of marriage-that is, you fall in love and get married so that sex is an expression of your love. Such accounts not only destroy any understanding of marriage as lifelong monogamous fidelity but also make unintelligible the prohibition against same-sex relations. After all, the latter are often exemplifications of a loving relation.1

Hauerwas is not alone in his belief that the romantic ideal of marriage-and its subsequent failure-is an “attitude which makes it difficult for us to understand marriage. [. . .T]he elevation of being ‘in love’ to the level of ultimate human experience and the final criterion for measuring the quality of relationship” has resulted in a good deal of confusion regarding commitment.2 The distinction Charles Taylor makes between receding notions of hierarchical marriage and the rising acceptance of something termed companionship marriage is important to this shift. Taylor characterized the models in following manner:

The contemporary societal transition from hierarchical marriage to companionship marriage complicates the process of cleaving. The hierarchical marriage was developed to meet the need for order in society and the survival of the partners and the species. By contrast, the contemporary companionship marriage places the feelings of the individual partners about their relationship at the center and trusts other arrangements for society’s order and survival.3

The problematic aspects of the companionship model (if a model is discernable) have little to do with equitable relations between the sexes as envisioned. Instead difficulties arise from context, emphasis and the focus given such a model by our culture, and the subsequent challenges posed for the lived-reality of Christian ideals. The deleterious nature of such a conception becomes apparent when taken in the context of the observations of social critics. Hauerwas regards such an emphasis on personal fulfillment as a species of romanticism which ironically “began as an attempt to recapture the power of intimate relation as opposed to the ‘formal’ or institutionalized relationship implied by marriage [but] now finds itself recommending the development of people who are actually incapable of sustaining intimate relationships.”4

In Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement Rowan Williams takes an insightful look at many of the problems confronting society in the US, Great Britain and elsewhere. Building upon the theme that a disordered sexuality is one that refuses to recognize the dangers inherent in human relationships (relationships which by definition include opening oneself up to rejection and emotional pain) and to refuse participation in reality, objectifying other people by seeking pleasure without the attendant risk. Williams extends this analysis to issues surrounding children.5

The position of children within western society as consumers makes them economic subjects, and sexual subjects by extension. Contemporary language concerning sexuality and commerce enhances the already extant connection between them. This testifies to the extent sexuality is seen as a sort of currency. According to Williams the effect of the advertising culture is to shape children into pseudo-adults lacking understanding of the consequences of their choices. The rapid social ageing engendered by the loss of free space in which to master appropriate choice-making results in children who can only be considered developmentally disadvantaged or disabled. The consequences of this aren’t limited to children however:

In this context-but also in many that are supposedly more ‘privileged’-the effect of blurring the boundaries of childhood and limiting the choices of adults is a situation in which adults revert to child-like behavior, uncommitted and fantasy-driven, and children and adults can come to see themselves as rivals in a single area of competition. Sexually, socially, economically, the child may seem to be bidding for the same goods, and the difference between a child’s and an adult’s desires is not grasped.6

It is in this arena of competition that the issue of marriage defined primarily as a vehicle for feelings of mutual joy is revealed as problematic-in socially competitive economic structures where people are seen as means to an end. This has a corollary in the exclusion or absence of persons from relationships and society, which serves as a means of limiting competition for particular objects of desire. This ethic of self-absorption leads to a rejection of children in marital life since children are seen as competitors for resources. While adults with limited choice or means may find themselves in competition with children, adults from higher classes who do have choices react in other ways.

In such situations the competition for time, freedom, career and self-fulfillment is avoided by turning children themselves into a choice to be entertained or rejected intellectually before conception or birth-after birth responsibility may be avoided by entertainment of other sorts. Much in our contemporary societal rhetoric indicates an internalization of this child-adult competition dynamic but is often over-looked. One can see it clearly in abortion sloganeering and apologetics, but it is perhaps most discernable in secular society’s-and by extension, the Church’s-perception of marriage and understanding of the place of children within it. In his reflection on the wedding of a friend entitled, “Weddings and Wrong Choices,” Ragan Sutterfield observes that:

Children, undoubtedly, often keep one from doing what one may want to do. With children, travel is limited and more complex. Schedules become more regular and less spontaneous. Time and attention must be concentrated on activities outside of our list of wants and goals. Children interrupt the ideal modern marriage in which both partners want the same things and share the same goals. In short, children inevitably break the modern ideal of shared selfishness.7

It is this modern ideal of "shared selfishness" that makes the intrusion of children so unwelcome. In this context, the concern expressed by Williams about the competition dynamic becomes weightier when considering the understanding of the contemporary family presented by Charles Taylor. Taylor states that "most families are simply consumers; schools and other organizations provide cultural transmission. Thus in this present situation, marriage meets relational needs more than societal requirements."8 This may indeed be the state of affairs in the broader culture (though I tend to believe families do more cultural transmission, even in dysfunction, than this picture admits), and as Priests of the Church in the world we will doubtless be confronted with many parishioners and others whose relations fit this description, but it is not an understanding that the Church should under-write.

The redefinition of marriage as simply a nexus of consumerism is troubling, and would bear more scrutiny as a primary cause for the disintegration of the marriage covenant. "Capitalism thrives on short-term commitments" observes Hauerwas, and it "is the ultimate form of deconstruction [. . .] how better to keep labor under control than through the scarcity produced through innovation? All the better that human relationships are ephemeral, because lasting commitments prove to be inefficient in ever-expanding markets.9

There is no doubt that Christians are called to resist the forces that would relegate marriage to a functionary of economics or a lab for social experimentation. Any such resistance should come primarily through the example of Christian lives. Yet Christians, as Hauerwas has indicated, are as confused as anyone regarding marriage. But how did we get to this point?

Three key developments lie at the heart of this transformation: (1) the (almost) complete separation of sexuality from procreation; (2) a significant renegotiation of the relationship between the sexes; and (3) a shift in moral authority and autonomy from traditional and external sources (State, Church) to the individual. The result has been to transform the couple relationship, which may also be a legal marriage, from a community of need premised upon a clear-cut division of labour between the sexes into a permanent ‘do-it-yourself’ project privileging the emotional and interpersonal aspects of the relationship.10

The privilege granted to emotion and self-fulfillment in contemporary conceptions of marriage and the family is troubling and has been recognized before as a difficulty which the Church must face if it is to maintain any engagement with the society. If an image of marriage is forwarded as wholly or primarily about self-fulfillment, and the market encourages both abundant choice and ephemeral relationships, then marriage as a recognizable and lasting commitment is shattered.

The Christian community must understand that our societal view of marriage is long-departed from holy covenant and now reflects a view of sexuality that has lost “touch with the necessities and [entered] the realm of play [becoming] part of the entertainment industry, a choice to be catered for, but not a constraint on producers.”11 The sacralization of choice for choices sake, apart from any reflection upon the quality of those choices, combined with avoidance of discomfort and the desire for self-realization presents many problems to Christians. This is particularly true in the context of the family-as-consumer model.

Presented with one of many hypothetical situations, theologian and ethicist Amy Laura Hall confronted the consumerist approach to family as it relates to medical ethics. These are the situations wherein Christians may be called to ask hard questions of society-even close friends and relatives-while following a more difficult path. During a forum on pre-natal genetic testing at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Hall was put the question of how she might counsel her sister-who had already given birth to one child with a genetic disorder-in her consideration of genetic testing and goal of having another child. Hall’s response would take a great deal of spiritual and emotional strength: she responded that she would ask her sister, who shares her faith, why she and her husband felt they must have another child genetically their own, raising the possibility of adoption as an ethical alternative.12 These are the difficult tasks ahead for Christians as we interact with a society that is decreasingly informed by the Christian tradition, whether in cases of marriage, reproduction, medical ethics, or other realms of human existence.

What is our alternative; how are we to consider marriage as Christians in the midst of our society? Additionally how can we during the course of our ministries present different perspectives, overcoming the temptation to become a chaplain and enabler to harmful societal practices and understandings? It is important that Christians present an alternative to either the so-called hierarchical or the so-called companionship models of marriage; instead, we should participate in reclamation of the best aspects of our tradition and forward a particular model of sacramental marriage. Additionally, putting forward a model or framework for considering marriage is not enough, we must also consider alternative criteria for judging the soundness of relationships, including the replacement of cultural or popular understandings of love with the ideal of fidelity. Finally, these alternatives have to be presented not primarily as a circumscription, but rather as good news spoken by the Church into a confused and hurting culture.

As Anglicans we are heirs of a particular form of the Christian tradition, and it is within these parameters that we should begin our search for an appropriate means to address contemporary challenges. To begin, we should consider the ways in which our tradition has conceived the marital covenant. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, still the official Prayer Book of the Church of England, describes marriage in the following manner, declaring it:

an honorable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honorable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprized, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.13

While the XXV article of the 39 Articles, clearly presents the official and predominant historical Anglican understanding that there are two (dominical) sacraments-Baptism and the Eucharist-and five “commonly called sacraments” or sacramental acts, the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer clearly describes marriage in a manner that fits the definition of a sacrament in Article XXV. Here then the old jibe that Anglicans have a Calvinist theology and a Catholic liturgy may be demonstrated, for while officially denying that marriage is a sacrament, it seems to be practiced as such.

The 1662 BCP indicates first, that marriage is an “honorable estate, instituted by God in the time of man’s innocency.” Understandably, there are echoes of Jesus’ teachings in this statement. It is a claim to authority through natural law, i.e. what can be observed and discerned from nature; more importantly it is an appeal to tradition, resonating with the ipissima verba iesu and our Lord’s appeal to scriptural precedent and directly intersects with the Genesis creation account to which Jesus directs us for guidance. Marriage is therefore honorable because it is a state of life instituted by God in creation.

The text next moves, appropriately, from the institution of marriage in the first creation and-with the understanding that it signifies “unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church”-connects it with the new creation. It signifies something momentous: the union between Christ and his church, which may be conceived of as eschatological hope in the new creation on the one hand, or understood presently as our participation in Christ by virtue of baptism and our participation in the Eucharistic community on the other.

Marriage is considered a manner of life which “Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee.” Adorning Cana of Galilee with his presence and beautifying it with his first miracle, Christ demonstrates that this is a joyous event, important to the community and not only the couple marrying. Additionally, there is a sense in which Christ incorporated this event into his ministry-its placement as his first miracle bears some consideration, as do his later uses of marriage as an icon of how He and God relate to the people of God and the world. It is no mistake that the miracle at Cana was once commemorated, along with the visitation of the Magi (or as the Prayer Book calls it, the “Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”) and the Baptism of our Lord, on the feast of Epiphany as one of the events in which Christ’s identity was revealed.

The prayer book also claims the apostolic commendation of St. Paul for marriage, which importance will be examined a little further on. Once it has presented the foundation of marriage, the prayer book offers a list of meanings which marriage should not be made to bear. Marriage is “not by any to be enterprized,” in other words, personal advancement or selfish-fulfillment is not the appropriate end for marriage. Also, the decision to marry is one to be reflected upon seriously and with an understanding of what it is meant for, or as the BCP says, “it is not to be “taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.”

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) describes the purpose and ethos of marriage in a manner in keeping with the understanding of the Book of Common Prayer. He begins with the insistence that couples’ love of God be greater than their love of each other, continuing, he states that it would be:

an ill Husband that uses his Wife as a man treats a Harlot, having no other end but pleasure. Concerning which our best rule is, that although in this, as in eating and drinking there is an appetite to be satisfied, which cannot be done without pleasing that desire, yet since that desire and satisfaction was intended by Nature for other ends, they should never be separate from those ends, but always be joyned with all or one of these ends; with a desire of children, or to avoyd fornication, or to lighten and ease the cares and sadnesses of household affairs, or to endear each other: but never with a purpose either in act or desire to separate the sensuality from these ends which hallow it.”14

Taylor’s approach is interesting; he doesn’t suggest that one purpose is any weightier than the others. Instead, each purpose is to be equally embraced; the whole is to be considered the immediate reason for marriage’s establishment by God. These ends are the immediate ends because the final end is, as with all functionaries of the Christian life, fellowship with God. Reading further in Taylor’s work is instructive as its similarity to Roman Catholic approaches to marriage and contraception are clear.15

The current prayer book of the Episcopal Church, while modernizing the language maintains the primary thrust of this theology16:

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their 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. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.17

The present Book of Common Prayer, while affirming one purpose of marriage as that of mutual joy, does so only in the context of the Christian tradition which finds itself at odds with so many contemporary assumptions. The prayer book presents marriage in the imaginative language of trefoil union of heart, body and mind; in an ideal marital union the re-unification of man and woman as God’s image is reflected in their “mutual joy, . . . 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.” Throughout the marriage service the Anglican tradition is clearly present; there is a focus on the will of God and the proposition that a marriage should be “in accordance the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” Even as it relates to the rearing of children, the primary predicate is the will of God. Many conflicts over the understanding of marriage today are actually concerned with the question of what precisely the purposes of God are in relation to marriage. The 1975 report if the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission On the Theology of Marriage and its Application to Mixed Marriages found that “On marriage itself the Commission finds no fundamental difference of doctrine between the two Churches, as regards what marriage of its nature is or the ends which it is ordained to serve.”18 [Emphasis mine]

Both the 1662 and 1979 prayer books affirm the begetting of children as one of God’s purposes for marriage. Our tradition is not insistent that every sexual act be procreative in the reproductive sense. Jeremy Taylor recognizes this when indicating that sexual expression is hallowed by association with “all or one of these ends.” An obsession in either positive or negative sense with any single end is harmful and distorts the marriage bond. A focus on a single end to the exclusion of all else warps the image of marriage just as the flat rejection of one of these ends does. The Church cannot allow assumptions which do either of these to go unchallenged; to do nothing invites circumscription of the marriage covenant. As Hauerwas relates:

One of those purposes of marriage the church has named is the having of children. That marriage has a procreative end does not entail that every marriage must in fact produce biological heirs, but it does mean that marriage as an institution-that is, an ongoing practice of a community across time-of the church is procreative. Accordingly it would be appropriate as part of the examination of couples desiring to have the church witness their marriages to have their intentioned to have children declared. I would think it quite possible to deny marriage to people who refuse to have their marriages open to children.19

Such a sentiment seems radical in our context and such situations are doubtless best handled in a pastoral manner and on case by case bases by priest and couple. Hauerwas’ observation does however, cut to the heart of contemporary conflicts regarding the nature of marriage. It seems clear from the elucidation within the prayer book tradition as sharpened by Taylor’s insistence that a couple be willing to concede an openness to any of the particular purposes for which marriage was ordained. Particular sources of fear, insecurity, disdain or hindrance in relation to one of these ends is something that should be explored pastorally over the course of several meetings and should be prayerfully and thoughtfully considered by the couple and priest.

In the definition of marriage as a manner of life “commended of Saint Paul to be honorable among all men,” the 1662 prayer book claims a certain apostolic authority. Certainly marriage existed before Christianity-so did Baptism-and like Baptism, marriage is transformed through the life of Christ. Christian “[m]arriage is not just a piece of paper, not a matter of custom and convenience,” so says Edward Gleason in his book Redeeming Marriage. Gleason continues:

Marriage is part of the original and natural order of things, established by God as the way a man and a woman are to live together in God’s world. Despite the clouds of romance which so often surround it, the marriage liturgy is a strong document full of ‘hard’ statements, clear but perhaps difficult conditions, not easily nor always fulfilled. The straightforward, stating realities that we cannot avoid save at the peril of our marriage. These realities begin with the statement that ‘the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation.’ This is an understanding of the natural order, the way things are to be, now and henceforward. Nothing is to alter this.20

In a manner that is both reminiscent of and an outgrowth from classical Anglican understandings of the definition of a sacrament, Ephraim Radner considers the sacramental nature of marriage-clearly guiding Gleason’s understanding-to be an outgrowth from Jesus himself, as with all sacraments:

if we speak of these particular acts in terms of the figures or images of Jesus’ own life and actions, it is because, ultimately, sacramental realities embody, historically, the personal-that is to say, scriptural-forms of God as they have been revealed in the conformed life of the Church. [. . .]21

Marriage then, is a sacrament-as Paul says in Ephesians 5:32, “This mystery (or sacrament) is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”-but it is equally a calling, like celibacy: “Think of marriage as a vocation to a creative comradeship not with a saint but with a man, whoever he may be whom God commends to you. [. . .] Live true to your own ideals and your own faith, but don’t expect another to see with your eyes or to think with your thoughts; and be sure that religion is a life and not an argument.”22

Focusing too much on the mutual joy while maintaining a romantic view of marriage coupled with an emotivist or individualistic understanding of joy, may well lead to the belief that “falling out of love” is sufficient justification for a renunciation of their matrimonial vows. As Hauerwas put the question, “Do they think that a marriage is no longer a marriage simply because the people in the marriage no longer love one another?”23 That such a tendency has taken root in our church is undeniable, especially when one considers the use-hopefully not widespread-of the so-called Liturgy for Divorce which in its existence creates a back-door to marriage and in its specific structure creates parallel renunciations for each of the marital vows (imagine someone creating a liturgy to reverse or dissolve the three renunciations and affirmations of Baptism.) It is difficult to challenge the creeping ascendancy of such beliefs in a day so many seek to salve the memory of failure (their own or a close friend or relative’s) in marriage by justifying them and resenting a statement of the ideal. Ephraim Radner addressed the issue this way, “there is much disquietude, within our churches themselves, in the face of this tradition. For it is the tradition [. . .] that conveys the currently debated ethical imperatives regarding the norm of heterosexual activity in marriage. It is the tradition that has imposed those stark limitations on fornication, adultery, and divorce that are so irritating today.”24

Despite any irritation caused by the constant reminder of the tradition it is imperative that ideals and traditions be upheld, particularly in the face of popular denial.25 The ideal that marriage is to be life-long is no where more wonderfully put than in the liturgy itself; in the declaration of consent both parties consent to forsake all others as long as [. . .] both shall live, and again at the conclusion of the marriage service, following the vows, the priest pronounces “Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” Just as the service begins in the sight of God, so the couple is sent forth with the prayer that God will watch over them.

The readings available for the marriage service also reflect the hope present in the liturgy. The apocryphal reading from the book of Tobit poetically puts the prayer to God, the supplication that the married couple may “grow aged together.” Thomas Fuller concluded his meditation on marriage in The Holy State with the his wish “to all married people the outward happiness which, anno 1605, happened to a Dutch couple [. . .], living most lovingly together seventy-five years in wedlock; till the man, being one hundred and three, the woman, ninety-nine years of age, died within three hours of each other, and were buried in the same grave.”26

The role of the priest in the present situation is a delicate one. As in the Eucharistic role where they serve as a pivot point between the people and God and God’s response to the people, the priest is called to mediate between the messy circumstances of life and the ideals-the icons-upheld by the Church. To abandon the icon is to reject the role that marriage has in the unfolding of the new creation; yet in becoming a Pharisee one risks excluding people from the community of faith, which is exactly where they need to be in order to learn the habits of life necessary for fidelity and commitment. The imperfect nature of the world is precisely why we need the clarity of sacramental marriage held up to us, in which the difference between a Christian marriage and another is clearly seen, and “lies in this: that [in a Christian marriage] each takes the other from God, and each makes the promises to God, and not in the presence of a man with a man’s ideas of faithfulness but in the presence of Christ Who was faithful to the unfaithful.”27 Marriage is sacrament and sign “a sign to the world of what marriage in the natural order by God’s ordinance is and ought to be,” it is the Church’s role to make visible this sign in the world to “married people, to the world and the Church, that continuance within the covenant is dependant upon the continued forgiving and renewing grace of God.”28

Again we see the proper role of marriage as pointing the eyes of its participants upward to God. In association with Christ, marriage, like the other sacraments does “not embody principles or concepts, however theological. Rather, sacramental realities are subject to the irreducibility of a person, in that they represent the personal shape of Jesus into which God transforms the world. They stand over the world and call it to themselves.”29 [Emphasis mine] There is no doubt that people today need to be directed toward the images, gifts and graces that draw them upward. This is the opportunity the marriage service presents; it is a means for the Church’s engagement with the world. It is “proper that the marriage service provides both through its language and its structure, a reminder that there is here a proper seriousness, an action which is in the true sense ‘solemn’, as well as a sense that what is being done is set in a broader social and theological context than simply the action of two individuals. Marriage is never, for the Church, simply a lifestyle option, but part of God’s ongoing process of creation and redemption.30 [emphasis mine]

Contemporary notions of marriage and love present many difficulties for priests and pastors as they interact with people from various backgrounds and levels of engagement with the Christian tradition. But this is, above all, an opportunity to engage with people on a subject where they know there is a need for guidance and wisdom. While many have lamented the growth of cohabitation among young adults-and this is not something the church would want to encourage-it is not all negative. In many cases it actually indicates a reverence for marriage; this reverence however is tied to a cynicism born of observed failure and a sense that the ideal is impossible. Because of this perception, it is important that the Church be there for young adults from the beginning, providing encouragement and guidance as they begin the first tentative steps to romantic involvement, emphasizing the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in our trials on the one hand, and God’s acceptance and love on the other. People need to know that God does not expect perfection from us, instead he gives us his love in the person of Jesus Christ so that we may be perfect in him, drawing our strength from him and not from within ourselves. Such engagement is one of the most important as the Church moves forward into the great unknown of post-Christendom. If we can present the Christian hope-the salvation story-in a coherent way, and allow it to shape the virtues of our communities, then we will find ourselves fulfilling the wise charge of Thomas Fuller:

“Let grace and goodness be the principal loadstone of thy affections.–For love which hath ends, will have an end; whereas that which is founded in true virtue, will always continue.”31

The phrase “Remembering the Future” has been tied to the healing of such heinous things as the holocaust, or as a possible way forward in the midst of terrorism.32 In a similar vein the narration of “future stories” has been sought as a route to help people in difficult situations deal with their pain or their addiction, to look back from the place they want to be, and observe how they arrived as opposed to the trial of looking forward from a place of darkness.33 It is one of the ironies of our existence that we sometimes overlook solutions to our most common problems, never thinking to apply our ideas to any but the most pronounced difficulties or aberrations. I want to suggest that the way forward for the Church in the situation of marital breakdown is to reclaim its narrative, its future story, its eschatological hope. To our benefit, we’ve already been given the framework: we know where the future ends. Our task then, is to apply our imaginations to look back from our future hope, from where we hope to be, and discern the ways we can get there as a community of faith, as married couples, and as individuals. If, as Radner states, the role of a sacrament is to “stand over the world and call it” to itself, to fullest reality, then the first step in healing the frayed content of our lives is to consider the sacraments, the medicine Jesus prescribed us; surely the image of marriage presented in our tradition has a role in this restorative process and can indeed be good news to a troubled world.

Works Cited:


  1. Stanley Hauerwas, A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2000), 48. []
  2. Associated Parishes inc., The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage: A Liturgical and Pastoral Commentary (1987), 2. []
  3. Charles W. Taylor, Premarital Guidance, Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling Series (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 60. []
  4. Stanley Hauerwas, “Sex in Public: How Adventurous Christians Are Doing It,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 488. []
  5. This argument is discernable in much of Williams’ writing on marriage, sexuality and the body, but is perhaps most noticeable in his essay “The Body’s Grace” and in his homily “Unveiled Faces” in A Ray of Darkness. []
  6. Rowan Williams, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (New York: T&T Clark, 2000), 28-29. []
  7. Ragan Sutterfield, Weddings and Wrong Choices [Internet] (The New Pantagruel, Vol. 1.2 Spring 2004 [cited); available from http://www.newpantagruel.com/issues/1.2/weddings_and_wrong_choices.php. []
  8. Taylor, Premarital Guidance, 61 []
  9. Hauerwas, A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity, 50-51. []
  10. Duncan Dormor, “‘Come Live with Me and Be My Love’: Marriage, Cohabitation and the Church,” in Anglicanism: The Answer to Modernity, ed. Duncan Dormor, Jack McDonald, and Jeremy Caddick (New York: Continuum, 2003), 130. []
  11. Nicholas Boyle, Who Are We Now? Christian Humanism and the Global Market from Hegal to Heaney (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 59. []
  12. Genetics & Public Policy Center, Custom Kids? Genetic Testing of Embryos (2004 [cited March & December 2004]); available from http://www.dnapolicy.org/policy/pgdForum.html. []
  13. The Church of England, The Book of Common Prayer: And the Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the Church of England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 301-02. []
  14. Jeremy Taylor, “Matrimonial Chastity,” in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, ed. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 205. []
  15. Ibid., 63., While the selection from Love’s Redeeming Work ended with “hallowed,” Taylor finishes the paragraph this way: “Onan did separate his act from its proper end, and so ordered his embraces that his wife should not conceive, and God punished him.” Contemporary discussions of so many issues seem skewed by undue focus on sexuality, and therefore many traditionalist arguments seem reactionary in their obsession with one purpose among several, i.e. the begetting of children, Taylor seems to avoid this pitfall. []
  16. And I might add, removing some of the language that might well be more needed today than in the past, and which makes the 1662 so fun (who doesn’t want to hear about brute beasts?). Of course much of this work was done in the 1928, so it can’t really be characterized as a recent change. []
  17. The Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer: And Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979), 423 []
  18. Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission, “Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on the Theology of Marriage and Its Application to Mixed Marriages,” (Washington, D.C.: Publications Office, United States Catholic Conference, 1975), 20. []
  19. Hauerwas, A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity, 49. []
  20. Edward S. Gleason, Redeeming Marriage (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1988), 12 []
  21. Ephraim Radner, Hope among the Fragments: The Broken Church and Its Engagement of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 126-27. []
  22. David Hein, “Spiritual Counsel in the Anglican Tradition: Marriage and Children,” Anglican Theological Review Winter, no. 76 (1994): 86. []
  23. Hauerwas, A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity, 49. []
  24. Radner, Hope among the Fragments: The Broken Church and Its Engagement of Scripture, 123. []
  25. For an interesting consideration of the evidence that divorce has had a much more deleterious impact than usually believed, take a look at this article: Mary Eberstadt, Eminem Is Right (Dec. 2004) [Internet] (Policy Review Online, [cited); available from http://www.policyreview.org/dec04/eberstadt.html. []
  26. Thomas Fuller, The Holy State and the Profane State (London: Printed for Thomas Tegg, 73, Cheapside, 1841), 205. []
  27. Hein, “Spiritual Counsel in the Anglican Tradition: Marriage and Children,” 86. []
  28. Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission, “Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on the Theology of Marriage and Its Application to Mixed Marriages,” 21. []
  29. Radner, Hope among the Fragments: The Broken Church and Its Engagement of Scripture, 126-27. []
  30. David Cockerell, “The Solemnization of Matrimony,” Theology 102, no. March–April (1999): 111. []
  31. Fuller, The Holy State and the Profane State, 204. []
  32. Rowan Williams, “Remembering for the Future,” in A Ray of Darkness, ed. Rowan Williams (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995), 205. []
  33. Andrew D. Lester, Hope in Pastoral Care and Counseling (Louisville: Westminster-John Knox Press, 1995), 59. []