New Testament Marriage, Blessings & Covenants   4 comments

Lent is a time for reflection, and this year I thought hard about the ‘Gay Marriage‘ controversy which has been hitting the headlines. Since then, I’ve received many unsolicited posts on the issue, many hurling abuse at the Christian churches and most showing a lack of understanding of the Christian view of marriage and the way in which it is framed within the law in the United Kingdom, as a result of centuries of conflict and compromise between church and state. I’m deeply concerned by the strength of the language used by both advocates and opponents of this proposal. I’ve been drawn into using some of this myself, I have to admit, and repent of some of the comments I’ve made myself.

I promised some of those I’ve engaged with that I would publish ‘a blog’ on these matters, which are not as simple as we may at first think in Britain, because of its complicated history of the entanglements of church and state. Perhaps the time has come to disentangle the Christian marriage service from the secular registration of marriages and civil partnerships, but I know this would be bitterly opposed in England, at least, and, in the meantime, there are many homosexual Christians who do not seem to feel sufficiently welcomed in the churches through the affirmation of their relationships, either formally or informally. As someone who has grappled with these issues of sexuality and the Christian faith over forty years now, has been challenged by the differences in marriage laws in the UK and Hungary in arranging our own ceremonies and has, as a wedding ‘MC’ had to carefully choreograph the intertwining of the diverse religious and humanist traditions which are part of the lives of many friends, I am concerned that the needs of Gay Christian couples, and those of other faiths, are being drowned out by the chorus of church-bashing which appears to be part of a rising tide of aggressive atheism.

Of course, my own ‘national church’, the Religious Society of Friends, has long been ‘permitted’ to marry heterosexual couples, without any formal litany, at its meeting houses, under UK law. It  also came to a new view of sexuality in 1963, publishing Towards a Quaker View of Sex. I found this extremely helpful as a university student in 1975-6, confused about issues of sexuality, and began to attend meetings for worship, though I didn’t become a member of the Society until 1989, when I was working for it in the West Midlands. In 2009, following an internal ‘discernments’ culminating in a minute at London Yearly Meeting, the Society published ‘We are but Witnesses’ which put forward a case for a departure from the traditional view of Christian marriage and argued for a change in the law to permit same-sex marriages to be ‘solemnised’ in places of worship throughout the UK. I cannot support this for three reasons:

1. The Dissenting tradition in the United Kingdom has always sought to separate it practices from the interference of the state in religious matters and, since ‘we are but witnesses’ commitments which take place in the sight of God, we have no need to enlist the support of the state. Indeed, marriages can be made without human witnesses, in so-called ‘common law’ relationships. Marriage is a religious matter, not a legal one, and whilst governments, which come and go, may wish to support it, we do not seek privilege from it as Christians, but regard it as a solemn duty. The gospel calls us to support equality in society and for that reason many of us have supported the move towards equity in legal matters which the introduction of ‘civil partnerships’ has enabled. These could be made available to heterosexual couples, and, if there are remaining inequalities between marriages and civil partnerships, these are surely matters requiring the attention of the state, not the churches. Whilst the Church has social responsibilities as part of its witness, its role is to hold to the eternal truths of Christ’s kingdom on earth, which is separate from secular society.

2. The Bible, and, more particularly the New Testament and, even more particularly, the words of Jesus Christ, our fonder, are quite clear both in defining marriage and in stating that homosexual men are excluded from the obligation to marry. Nothing is said about lesbian relationships, not because they did not exist in the ancient world, but because they were not seen as preventing women from marrying men. We need look no further than Jesus’ words for guidance, since they fulfil the teachings of the Torah, and the apostles were writing at a time when they believed that the ‘third dispensation’, the second coming of Christ, would pre-date many of their deaths. Therefore, marriage was only seen as a way of  controlling sexual relations on a temporary basis. I have not found any outright condemnation of homosexuality, or homosexual relations in the New Testament, merely condemnation of promiscuity.

3. Marriage, as public declaration of a heterosexual relationship where two people become one family, is fundamentally different from the formalisation of a ‘partnership’, and I have characterised this as ‘two into one’ compared with ‘one plus one’. As Christians, we celebrate diversity in human relations; we don’t insist on everyone doing things the same way. If we didn’t believe this, we would still have one undivided, catholic church. Rather than insisting on everyone being ‘married’, we should be finding ways of ensuring that commitments and ‘covenants’ between all loving couples can be affirmed and recognised in a variety of acts of public worship. This is what I have tried to show below.

A glance at the following sentences (from Orders and Prayers for Church Worship, the Baptist Manual for Ministers) and scriptures will, I believe, reveal three truths:

1. That Christian marriage, as an institution, cannot be extended to same-sex unions, if the Church is to remain true to Christ‘s teachings and actions in defining the nature of that institution throughout the centuries;

2. That the current ‘equity’ (‘equality’ is not a precise enough term) given to same-sex relations through the change in the law allowing ‘civil partnerships’ does not prevent local congregations and church governments from listening to what Gay Christian couples would themselves like, and making very simple adjustments to existing sentences to include blessings and covenants for these brothers and sisters in Christ.

3. In doing so, no judgement of same-sex relationships in general is required and the special nature of Christian marriage need not be compromised, neither would the liberty of conscience of the ministers who would be asked to conduct such services.

This is why I have set out the sentences and scriptures below, as a way of looking at where the churches are at present, and how some may feel prompted to go further in including their Gay members and attenders.

1. Ordinances of the Church: The solemnization of Marriage:

‘Marriage is a holy estate instituted by God and commended in Scripture as honourable to all who enter it lawfully and in true affection. It was confirmed by Christ’s solemn words and hallowed by his gracious presence at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee; and it is set forth by the Apostle as signifying the mystical union between Christ and his church…

‘Therefore it ought not to be entered upon lightly or unadvisedly, but thoughtfully and reverently, duly considering the causes for which it was ordained…

  • ‘It was ordained for the hallowing of the union between man and woman so that, the natural instincts and affections being directed aright, they should live in purity and honour…
  • ‘It was ordained for the increase of mankind, and that children might be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord…
  • ‘It was ordained for the companionship, help, and comfort which husband and wife ought to have of each other…
  • ‘It was ordained for the welfare of human society, which can be strong and happy only where the marriage bond is held in honour…

2. Selections from the New Testament dealing with marriage:

  • The Words of Jesus:

‘Jesus answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’. (Matthew 19: 4-6; See also Mark 10: 2-12)..

‘There are many reasons why men cannot marry: some, because they were born that way; others, because men made them that way; and others do not marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 19: 12).

‘Every man should have his own wife, and every woman should have her own husband. A man should fulfill his duty, as a wife, and each should satisfy the other’s needs. A wife is not the master of her own body, but the husband is; in the same way a husband is not the master of his own body, but his wife is. Do not deny yourselves to each other unless you first agree to do so for a while…I tell you this not as an order, but simply as a permission’ (1 Corinthians 7: 2-6).

‘Every husband must love his wife as himself, and every wife must respect her husband’ (Ephesians 5: 31).

3. The Blessing of a Civil Partnership, or ‘Union’ (based on ‘The Blessing of a Civil Marriage‘):

The order is for use only when a civil ceremony has already taken place in the Registry Office, or another place authorised by the Registrar. The Minister should not perform this ceremony until he has seen the Certificate of Registration of the Civil Partnership, or ‘Union’. All standing, the minister shall say:

‘Dearly beloved: we are gathered here in the presence of God to seek this blessing on the union into which these two persons here entered. This blessing should be sought only by those who are willing to fulfil the obligations which a Christian relationship demands.

‘The hallowing of the union between two persons is…

‘…so that, the natural instincts and affections being directed aright, they should live in purity and honour..

‘…to honour the companionship, help, and comfort which partners ought to have for each other..

‘…for the welfare of human society, which can be strong and happy only where its bonds are held in honour.’

Then the minister shall say to the Couple:

‘In token of your covenant with one another, you may exchange rings. Do you promise before God to love each other, comfort, honour and keep each other in sickness and in health, so long as you both shall live?’

The partners answer in unison:

‘We do’.

If the rings have not already been given, the rings shall be placed on the book, exchanged and delivered by the Minister. Each partner shall repeat after the minister the following words:

‘ I give thee this ring as a token of the covenant made between us this day and as a pledge of our mutual love: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

The Minister will then add this blessing:

‘The Lord Bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.  The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’

A psalm or a hymn may then be sung, followed by selections from Holy Scripture, an address, prayers, closing hymn, and the blessing, as in ‘the Order for the Solemnization of Marriage’ and by agreement with the Minister. The following readings from scripture are among those that may be chosen:

‘Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends’. (I Corinthians 13: 4-8)

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”. (John 15 : 9-12)

The Orders and Prayers for Church Worship makes it clear that while we base everything we believe as Christians on the immutable Word of God, the nature of the sacraments and liturgy of worship have evolved over the centuries, and are part of a continuing ‘conversation’ between God and men, which is two-way. We don’t need to wait for God to speak first, we can have something to say to Him, based on the changing needs of human society in the twenty-first century. The PM has lit the blue touch-paper by announcing his ‘consultation’. The churches could surely go one better by opening up a dialogue with God and a discourse with each other on these issues, and especially with Gay Christians, rather than each denomination taking its own position in relation to the desire for a change in the secular law.

4 responses to “New Testament Marriage, Blessings & Covenants

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  1. Thank you, Hungary Wolf, for posting this splendid article. May God continue to bless your ministry. Agape, Fr. Ron

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  3. Greetings! Very helpful advice within this article! It’s the little changes that produce the greatest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!

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