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Rethinking the meaning of marriage

Hosea 2.16-20, Matthew 1.1-16 / John 2.1-11
This year the Methodist Church is having a rethink about marriage. Unless it’s actually someone’s wedding day marriage isn’t something we normally talk about much, except at church council meetings when we're deciding what fees to charge. Perhaps that's because it can be a touchy subject. The Babylonians had the first written laws governing marriage and already the reason they had for making those laws was to sort out conflicts between the marriage partners.
In ancient Greece marriage didn't have the same legal force as it had in Babylon, it was a private arrangement between two people, or between their families. But it was still important, as a way of deciding which of a man's  children would inherit his property. A woman could have ever so many children but, if she wasn’t acknowledged to be their father's wife, they would have to have to make their own fortune.
But the ancient Greeks weren’t just preoccupied with money and inheritance. They were also the first people to decide that strong communities depend on, and are rooted in, families where parents and children find mutual comfort, encouragement and support.
By the time of the Emperor Augustus, the guy who ordered the census when Jesus was born, many people had given up on marriage and were going through life having a series of relationships. It was more than 2,000 years ago but it sounds incredibly up-to-date. He decided to stop the rot by making the first recorded attempt to pass laws specifically designed to compel people to get married and settle down.
When the people of Israel adopted the worship of one God the symbolism of an everlasting betrothal between God and his faithful people was taken to imply that lifelong marriage between one man and one woman was also the natural order of things. If it's good enough for God it must be the right thing to do! We see this in the prophecies of Hosea, who contrasts the faithlessness of his wife with the faithfulness of God, and says that God will go on loving his faithless people just as Hosea must go on loving his faithless wife.
In the New Testament Jesus and Paul are not opposed to marriage or sexual relationships As John Chapter 2 shows, Jesus enjoyed a good wedding celebration, but they both believed that we have a great many more important things to cram into our short lives. Getting married is a huge distraction from the more important task of preparing for the Kingdom of God.
In the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew's gospel only five women are mentioned and none of them was married when her child was conceived. Matthew seems to be making the point that God isn't very interested in human institutions like marriage and works through people who aren't married just as much as through people who aren’t. For a long time Christians took this very seriously and placed a higher value on people who didn't tie themselves down with family commitments but instead devoted themselves to God, and that’s still the foundation for rules about celibacy in Roman Catholic holy orders.
However, as the New Testament period drew to a close Christians began to realise that marriage was here to stay and they began to say that husbands and wives must treat one another with love and respect. They also decided that the Church was the Bride of Christ and therefore his relationship with us became a template for married life.
This concept puts a heavy burden on couples. It sets up the idea that a marriage should be perfect, just as the love of Jesus for his friends is perfect, whereas that's just not possible. A marriage can only be good enough. It can never be perfect all of the time.
The comparison with Jesus also set up the idea that one partner in a relationship might be more important than the other. In practice that is often the case; one partner depends on the other emotionally, or financially, or for practical support, although the ideal surely has to be an equal relationship of give and take. Sometimes Biblical writers stuck to the idea of equality and shared responsibility, but more often they were happy to accept the idea that the husband is equivalent of Christ and his wife is equivalent to his followers, who are called to obey him. This brought Christians closer into line with the Roman idea that the husband was the head of the household, and helped them to avoid rocking the boat at a time when they were treated with suspicion for being different from other people, but it’s not very helpful for us when we’re trying to think about marriage today.
For long centuries after the New Testament period, marriage was just a matter of custom and practice. Two people got married by joining their hands and promising to love one another and live together. Marriage was sometimes blessed by a priest, but it didn't have to be. In Norwich two young people claimed they had got married and that the housemaid had witnessed them do it. The girl's parents were furious and made the housemaid stand up in court and deny everything, and that's how we know what happened. Today we've come full circle, with the majority of people now choosing to set up home together without having a formal marriage. Should we be as relaxed about this as our ancestors were? Families may not always have been happy then, but the Church didn't try to interfere in relationships and the sky didn't fall in.
The way marriage worked for ordinary people was based on a division of labour. The word ‘husbandman’ meant the person in charge of the land and the animals, and the word ‘housewife’ meant the person in charge of the cleaning, the cooking and the needlework. This doesn't mean that jobs weren't sometimes shared, only that people knew who was in charge. Outside the home it was the husband, inside the home it was the wife.
We've moved beyond these safe certainties and in many ways that’s a good thing because people often felt trapped by them and were unhappy with their allotted role. But now that every couple has the freedom to decide who does what, we need to help couples keep hold of the idea of sharing, not just the workload but also the responsibility for seeing that the work gets done.
Getting married in church didn't become compulsory for Roman Catholics until 1514, and until the 1750s for everyone else in England. But the Church increasingly got involved in marriage as an umpire when things went wrong. Maybe that's still a good place for the Church to be, not criticizing people who choose to get married in hotels or to live together in a common-law relationship, but helping them to strengthen their bond by recognising that it’s every bit as valid, and just as binding in a moral sense, as a church wedding.
Sometimes, when two people had fallen out of love, they agreed to lease one another to a new partner, because divorce wasn't actually allowed. So people effectively sold the responsibility for looking after their husband or wife to a different person, usually someone they already knew and liked. But, in Thomas Hardy's novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, the outwardly respectable mayor has a dark secret. He leased his wife to someone else while they were in an abusive relationship fuelled by alcohol. After he sobered up and realised what he’d done he immediately regretted his decision, but his wife believed that her new marriage was lawful and only came back to find him when her new husband died in a shipwreck. And this isn't a story about the dim and distant past, it's set in Victorian England!
It was to stop abuses like this, and brutal customs like the kidnapping of young girls as brides, that the Church started to describe marriage ceremony as sacred, with lifelong vows made before God which shouldn’t be entered upon lightly or inadvisedly.  But the main reason why most couples stayed together through thick and thin was that life was hard, and managing a household and bringing up children without a partner was even harder.
The ease with which people can now separate is a challenge to the traditional Christian view that marriage should be 'till death us do part'. I think we have to accept that relationships can go irreparably wrong, but we should still stand against the prevailing idea that it's all right simply to fall in and out of love without trying to keep a relationship together and make it work. Couples often regret breaking up, their children may be damaged by it and it's very costly to society. When people come to church to get married they’re investing in the idea of something which will endure and we should help them find strategies to realise that vision.
Being in love with your partner has been the ideal in marriage from the time of the Song of Solomon, but only the new economic freedom brought by the 20th Century allowed people to opt in and out of marriage if they felt that their love had transferred to someone else or just cooled. Being happy at all costs replaced putting up with things the way they are. Christians shouldn't be asking people to make do with second best but perhaps we do need to put more emphasis on the comfort, mutual support and security which people can find in a good marriage relationship.
A very important part of the traditional marriage service was the witnesses, the community gathered around a couple who then helped them to keep their vows, not just by discouraging them from flirting too much with other people but also by babysitting or giving them financial help and emotional support when things got tough. Getting married on a scuba diving holiday in the Caribbean is very romantic but it leaves the couple entirely reliant on one another.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that, at a time when the legal status of marriage seems to be in decline, there’s still a group of people who are fighting for the right to get married  in church. That group is gay and lesbian people. The Methodist Church has already affirmed their right to play a full part in the life of the Church. Now, in 2016, it has to decide whether that affirmation extends to sharing in all that we’ve said about the Christian understanding of marriage.
I’m not here to tell you the answer to that question. In fact, your views are being invited by the Methodist Conference. What I can say, however, is that the Christian understanding of marriage doesn’t depend on a piece of paper. It’s really a promise made between two people to love and honour one another, wherever that promise is made.


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