In the current debate over extending marriage to gay couples, you will hear some Anglican clergy say that the church should get out of the “marriage business” altogether. “We should give up our roles as agents of the state. Let everyone have a civil marriage and those who want it can come get blessed in church,” the thinking goes.
While weddings do bring in some revenue for churches – and their quirky excesses can cause migraines among clergy – it seems remarkably cynical to regard marriage as a “business.” Linking marriage partners to the Christian faith can certainly be accomplished in a blessing ceremony, but going through the actual legal process at the same time as the church service lends an extra weight to the occasion.
Weddings are also one of those times, like baptisms and funerals, when “strangers” come to church. The betrothed couple may not have been to a Sunday service in years, but when it comes time to marry, they look for a church. It may or may not be the denomination of their childhood, but the church they choose should celebrate and welcome them, not inform them they need to go to city hall first.
A wedding may be the first time a couple and their guests have set foot in an Anglican church. Author and analyst Reginald Bibby, in his book Restless Churches, notes that churches faced with shrinking membership paradoxically often fail to seize the opportunity when new people come for life-passage ceremonies such as baptisms, weddings and funerals.
A couple on the verge of a new life chapter, possibly thinking of having children, ready to engage with the deeper values of existence – what fertile possibilities for church membership. But churches should not just see couples as potential new members. In preparing for marriage, the couple may have taken a marriage preparation course in or out of the church, or sat down with the rector for a talk. But once they take those vows and swirl out of the sanctuary in a haze of tulle, corsages and smiles, how does the church support them?
While we’re taking a look at whether marriage should be gay or straight, let’s take a look at marriage. The vows are timeless, although women usually don’t promise to “obey.” To love, to honour, to protect, “till death do us part” – this is serious business. There aren’t many times that we stand up in public and promise to commit to something for the rest of our lives.
And yet, look at how attitudes towards the marriage vows have changed in the last 40 years or so. If one grew up before the 1970s, one may have known one or two families coping with divorce. Now, of course, we know all too well the tired statistic that about half of all marriages certainly don’t last “till death.”
This is not to say that a return to the old days is preferable. Too often, children bore the stigma of coming from a “broken home.” Too many relationships marked by abuse remained in the same household because of overwhelming social pressure. And when love has completely left a marriage, never to return, who is to say that the partners should not start on a fresh road to happiness?
But surely not all marriages that fail come to those dire straits. Everyone knows marriages that break up through misunderstandings, lack of communication, petty annoyances, lack of forgiveness or generosity. Could the church not lend a hand?
Any good Anglican pastor is available for counseling and many also refer couples to secular counselors. Marriage renewal courses are also available – but usually taken by couples where both members are committed seriously to Christianity.
What about all the rest – all those couples who wash through the churches, then leave? What can the church do for them, years after the bouquet is thrown? God knows (literally) that the average parish priest’s schedule makes the organization of D-Day look like a picnic, but how about following up those weddings with a phone call, or a personal word? In the old days, a guy might greet another guy with, “Hey Bob, how’s married life treatin’ ya?” In pastoral terms, it could be as simple as “What a lovely wedding you had. How are things going?” Sometimes, that’s all it takes to create an opening for dialogue. We are so acutely aware of privacy issues these days that one hesitates to be intrusive, but reaching out in a timely manner might just turn around some marriages heading for the rocks. The church should do more to nurture the marriage in addition to hosting the wedding.
Solange De Santis is a staff writer with the Journal. Editor Leanne Larmondin is on sabbatical until mid-September.