Sermon at a service for renewal of marriage vows in National Marriage Week
Southwell Minster, 12th February 2005
Preface to Marriage Service; I Cor 13; Luke 15: 11- end
The Royal Wedding announced
Well, my guess is that we have all been taken by surprise by that announcement on Thursday! Whether or not the royal couple were aware that they were making their announcement in the midst of National Marriage Week, it certainly adds a certain something to our service today. All I can say is, even if you thought I might have a mischievous streak in me, I certainly had no idea that this was going to happen when I chose what you might think is a slightly eccentric reading from Luke's Gospel. I shall return to that.
Looking for realism amidst the romantics
As I tend to do when preparing sermons, I was searching around through all sorts of books and worthy documents to see what people wiser and more experienced than I might have to say about marriage. Strange really, but perhaps not surprising, that most that I have been able to unearth are either overbearingly romantic and sentimental or really a little too worthy and pedestrian. Let me give you an example: a poem from a poet of no less distinction than the Duke of Newcastle, to whom we should all do due homage as one of the major patrons of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire in the 17th Century:
There is no happy life
But in a wife;
When they do meet:
'Tis pleanty, peace, calm
Like dropping balm:
Love's weather is so fair,
Each word such pleasure brings
Like soft-touched strings;
Love's passion moves the heart
On either part.
Such harmony together,
So pleased in either,
No discords, concords still,
Sealed with one will......
And so it goes on. Hmmm. Well, yes maybe.
Let me not be the cynic. I certainly do not come here to cast aspersions on the institution of marriage. But really... a little bit of realism? Of course marriage has the potential to be all the things that we say it should be. It has all the ingredients to be the foundation of society, to be the relationship in which is found all strength, all hope, all encouragement, where roses are always red and violets blue. Through the centuries, we have set so great a store on it. Christians have held such a high doctrine of it. The 1948 Lambeth Conference, which gave a high priority to consideration of Christian Marriage, concerned as the bishops were by the rapidly rising rate of divorce, said this in their report:
'Marriage entered upon by Christians is [is, mark you, not may be, or hope it is] endowed with the gift of special grace to the man and the woman for the fulfillment of its obligations and the realisation of its ideals.'
So, although the statement goes on to recognise that the grace is only efficacious if the couple collaborate with God in the nurture of their relationship, nonetheless there is pretty heavy statement of moral obligation. And the bishops go on to make pretty definitive statements about the indissolubililty of marriage which, whilst not denying that sometimes marriages fail, the reason for failure is always sin, and to depart from the norm in marriage discipline is always 'deplorable' - their word not mine - and remarriage after divorce 'must always involve a departure from the true principle of marriage'.
Well, that was written nearly sixty years ago in the wake of the end of the Second World War when all sorts of things had happened to undermine the institution of marriage, and I suspect there may have been something of a panic reaction. Indeed the bishops do add a paragraph that does recognise the need for pastoral care for those who have entered a second marriage after divorce, and specially mention those who 'are casualties of marriages entered upon unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly, as so often in wartime, or the victims of abominable treatment or desertion.'
A transient society
Today, of course, we have moved on in our thinking. At heart we hold on to that high doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. We deeply desire, both in our own relationships and as witnesses to the faithfulness of the God who loves his people, so beautifully described in that ever popular passage from 1 Corinthians we have heard this morning, to be able to model that faithfulness and to invite others into that arena where they too may be embraced by God's love. We are aware though that many, probably the majority, of relationships today are formed outside that arena, that the framework of expectation and example and yes, even discipline is not obviously available to generations who are no longer immersed in a religious community and faith tradition. And we are aware too, I guess, that the framework within which they, within which we all, operate in modern society is one which profoundly challenges permanence in any area of life. We are in a 'move on, throw away' society. Everything, it seems, is governed by its sell-by date and relationships are simply a part of that culture. Whereas even I can remember the days when we scraped the mould off the cheese, and chewed our way through the remnants of the soggy cornflakes at the bottom of the package, now our dustbins are full of barely touched goodies that have been opened, tasted and forgotten about. Indeed, I can go to our friends next door to our church in the centre of Nottingham, as I do each year, to ask for some close to sell-by date food to nourish those doing an overnight sleep-out, and be shown trolley loads of every conceivable sort of high quality food that will be thrown in the dustbins if I do not take it.
The real challenge to those of us who, in whatever way, are involved in the marriage business, is not how do we break the mould of our society, or drag it back into the past, because that we shall never do, and I am not even convinced we ought to try. To do that would, I believe, be dishonest and run the risk actually of undermining any integrity that we still retain. Nor will it do, as some would have it, simply to withdraw into a little enclave and pretend that we are a community untouched by the evils of modernity. It may make us feel very pleased with ourselves, but it will also hasten our decline. The real challenge to us is to discover a way of living within our culture, of acknowledging the very real struggles and temptations that we all face in our relationships - and let's be brutally honest, even the most faithful Christians have to do that, and even the most faithful and loving of Christians sometimes have to acknowledge the breakdown of the things most dear to them, so there is no call on us to be anything other than entirely humble and penitent in our approach to these matters. But of course, if we are to have any significant ministry at all, we cannot simply stop there.
The love of God
We have a Gospel to proclaim. And the fundamental question is, what is that Gospel? Well, for me it is the Good News of a father who, without stopping to think about it, or to question, or to demand penitence, who without anger or rancour or even visible distress, runs from the safety of his home at the first moment that he spies his returning child way out on the horizon of the world, and flings his arms around him in a passionate loving embrace. No questions. No demands. Simply unbridled joy and unconditional celebration.
I cannot remember ever interviewing a couple in preparation for marriage whom I have believed to be anything other than committed to each other and wanting to form a lasting bond. There may of course have been those who had not properly thought through all the ramifications of what they were doing. Who does? There may have been occasional wedding services where I have felt that those surrounding the couple were not behaving in a way that was conducive to forming a community of support for them. But I am confident that the vast majority of people wanting to publicly proclaim their relationship and to ask God's blessing in that process, do so with the intention of making it work. That too often it does not, calls not for lectures or criticism or even for panic on the part of faith communities. It calls rather for honesty and openness, for transparency in our teaching and in our care, so that all may see through to the God who loves and loves and loves, not because we are good or faithful or pure, but because he loves. The reality of life is that the best laid plans of mice, men and women come to nothing. The reality of life in God is that his arms are always open.
There was a wonderful cartoon in Punch in the 1880s that showed a formidable figure of a bishop in full regalia talking earnestly (and patronisingly?) to a young lad. The bishop says 'Who is it that sees and hears all we do and before whom even I am but as a crushed worm?' The boy tentatively replies, 'The missus, me Lord?' Who knows what we all hide behind. Of course we rejoice at the richness and the depth of love that blossoms in so many relationships. But many hide their struggles, many are deeply hurt by and ashamed of failure. Helen Thomas wrote a most beautiful autobiographical account of her marriage to the poet Edward Thomas. It was a difficult marriage, and Helen's account is extraordinarily beautiful and poignant. In it she says this:
We cannot say why we love people. There is no reason for passionate love. But the quality in him that I most admired was his sincerity. There was never any pretence between us. All was open and true. Often he was bitter and cruel, but I could bear it because I knew all. There was nothing left for me to guess at, no lies, no falsity. All was known, all was suffered and endured; and afterwards there was no reserve in our joy. If we love deeply we must also suffer deeply; for the price for the capacity for ecstatic joy is anguish. And so it was with us to the end.
(As It Was and World Without End, Helen Thomas, Faber 1972)
We might want to translate that into Christian language in this way: Nowhere should the open arms of God be more obvious than among his pilgrim people who have been led through the desert, whose heart has been broken and destroyed on the journey to the cross and yet who are the living embodiment of new and transforming life that is rooted and grounded in faith, hope and above all, the joy of unwavering, unquestioning love.
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