Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

An accompaniment to the proposed schedule

Here's the text of the fifth chapter of the WFWG report:

Way Forward Working Group  |  22 Feb 2016

This section explains the schedule to the proposed canon permitting a liturgy to bless those who have entered a civil marriage.

The formularies of marriage are provided for by Title G Canon III. That canon also contains a schedule which explains the Church’s views of marriage.  The working group has included in its report a possible new schedule explaining the views which underlie the proposed rites of blessing.

Clause 1.3 of Canon III (of Marriage) requires that a minister shall provide education to affianced (engaged) couples “on the Christian understanding of marriage” or ensure that such education is provided by “some other competent person”.  In order to assist with this, schedule II of the same canon sets out a summary of much of the Church’s teaching on marriage.  It does not attempt to be comprehensive, and directs readers to all the formularies of marriage and the instructions that accompany them, especially in He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa / A New Zealand Prayer Book.

It is the view of the working group that a similar schedule, setting out a theological basis for a Christian understanding of rites of blessing of marriages that were not conducted by a Christian minister, is a necessary accompaniment to the liturgies presented in this report.  The proposed form of this schedule is found in section 10.  Since such a schedule is necessarily brief, a longer excursus of those summary statements is offered here. 

In the case of those who are living in a life-long monogamous relationship, have been legally married in a setting other than the Church, and who have not received a formal pronouncement of the blessing of the God we know in Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Church offers and announces that blessing for five primary reasons:

  1. Love

We are followers of Jesus Christ and know the blessing that comes through his life, death and resurrection as a result of his self-giving love.  We proclaim that “Through Christ, and with all your saints, we offer ourselves and our lives to your service.”[1] So, in the first instance, as followers of the same Jesus Christ, we lift up to God the greatest elected earthly commitment to love that two people make, as it too is dedicated to and blessed by God.  In this manner, a couple who are already married in a civil ceremony orient their chosen love life to the source of love: God.  While we affirm that this commitment will be different in the kingdom to come,[2] it is also, in the self-giving love and devotion a couple has one for another, a glimpse and an anticipation of that coming kingdom for which we pray daily.  This eschatological dimension is hinted at through language from the Revelation of John in one of the most beautiful phrases in the Nuptial Blessing from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: “Let their love be a seal upon their hearts, a mantle about their shoulders, and a crown upon their heads.”[3]

We also hold that love that is self-giving is a blessing when we live in this manner with each other. We are blessing the relationship that (along with the life vows of the religious life) is an ultimate commitment to this love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[4]

It should be noted that the term ‘self-giving’ is more appropriate than ‘self-sacrifice’ since ‘sacrifice’ is freighted with servility and self-destruction. Margaret Farley writes:

A love will not be true or just if there is an affirmation of the beloved that involves a destruction of the one who loves. I do not refer to justifiable “laying down one’s life” for the beloved, but rather to letting oneself be destroyed as a person because of the way one loves another.[5]

Moreover, in the depth of faithful and life-long commitment a couple finds in ‘living-for-the-other’ a match for the example of Jesus Christ’s living for the church.

  1. Union

In the bond and union of body, mind, and soul, a couple finds in the quality of their companionship a fit such that their individual lives have greater meaning, value and purpose.  This is an outworking of the abundant life that Christ promises to all.

It is Jesus who directs us into Genesis when in Matthew 19 he speaks of two becoming one flesh, and this informs our understanding of union.  It is certain, however, that the Genesis texts are freighted with more weight than they were designed to bear – and not just in this debate.  To go to them to discern what is God’s will for us in creation is always fraught.  However, we can recall that the problem in Genesis 2 was ‘aloneness’ and it was this that gave rise to the divine sculpting of the earth-creature, a ‘fit companion’ being created, and then the drama and joy of the world’s first poem (mythically speaking) as the male describes the female as ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ (2:23). 

Following the seminal reading of Phyllis Trible, “these words speak unity, solidarity, mutuality, and equality.”[6] These are the virtues that confirm “fit” and the characteristics we are looking for in a holy union: “a union of strength, sympathy, and delight.” [7]  Because the identification of these virtues, mythically speaking, occur from the beginning of the world, the proposed rites speak of “a pattern of mutual support and faithful partnership established from the very beginning.”

We see then that the desire of God for the first earth creature is that it might have a “fit companion” or, as Trible would describe it, a “companion corresponding to it.” [8]  This becomes, in turn, the concern of both the same-sex couple and the other-sex couple.  But we can see that this desire looks beyond the surface of a binary, heteronormative world.  It is expressed not in finding a partner of the opposite sex but a partner of the apposite sex.  It is to this partner that one “cleaves” in a union for all of this life.

The ‘all of this life’ cleaving has a convenient double entendre which signals a matter that we should not lose sight of, namely, that the cleaving with an apposite partner is an incarnated cleaving, one of ‘all of this life’ bodily intimacy.  The cleaving in a holy union is not simply an intellectual abstraction, it is becoming ‘one flesh.’  So, while we speak of a union of unity, solidarity, mutuality, and equality, this is certainly a bodily union, one of intimate physical presence with one’s partner.  This union of love in a nuptial relationship is one that echoes God’s bodily (incarnate) commitment to the loving of the world – “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” – and the most extended reflection on this ‘mystical’ union is in Ephesians 5. There is, then, something almost necessary (it has to be always freely chosen) and divine in the bodily union of a couple who are bodily committed to each other’s ultimate good (this point is pursued further under the title ‘Gift’).

  1. Covenant

Marriage is a covenant where the couple vow to life-long faithfulness and, with God’s help, hope to match the faithfulness of God in keeping covenant with God’s people.

A covenant is a sacred commitment.  Most often in scripture covenant relationships are between God and God’s people, and as such represent commitments of unequal power.  They are not like the nuptial relationship.  However, it is right to speak of nuptial relationships as covenantal in the sense that they are not like most human contracts and agreements that are based on a conditional ‘if you do this, and if I do that, then we are in partnership.’  Rather the structure of both divine and human nuptial commitments (and it is this that makes them sacred and covenantal) is one of “Because of the love I have for you, I will …” In divine terms that is “because of my crucified and risen life, you are redeemed.”  The human commitment, by the grace of God, parallels that structure: “Because I love you …”[9] 

Covenant entails constancy and faithfulness in love, which we know as a blessing from God and a revelation of God’s self.  A.K.M. Adam writes eloquently on this matter:

[T]he central theological importance of marriage – as the church’s institution for the blessing and support of human intimacy – lies in constancy. Only our trust in God’s constancy can make possible the radical commitment that accepts Jesus’ call to discipleship … likewise, only our trust in a spouse’s constancy can make possible a radical commitment to a relationship whose theological significance lies in its capacity to represent God’s self-giving, forgiving, intimate, constant love for us.[10]

Precisely because the institutional blessing authorises what is theologically mimetic (that is, it mirrors or represents the character of God) we can understand that constancy allows, and even demands, that existing polygamous marriage relationships of converts are most properly to be honoured, and second and third wives are not sent away.  The Anglican Church was correct when it made this possible, not simply because it avoided possible pain and persecution of the women in such marriages in particular, but because it mirrored God’s constancy in love and faithfulness.  Likewise, while it seems irregular to some, to others it may appear that same-sex couples can manifest a godly constancy through committed life-long relationships.

We cannot underscore sufficiently that the life-long constancy that is spoken of here is not just a hedge for our safety – psychological, physical and even spiritual – as important as those matters are.  Covenanted constancy is how the Divine is revealed in the world, and we are created in that image.

[T]he marital covenant is an icon of the covenant of grace between God and humanity, as the force of marriage metaphors in scripture illustrate…  [S]cripture repeatedly makes the theological point that relations of utmost human intimacy ought to communicate something about God’s relation to humanity … God’s love for God’s people is manifest in a constant, undying commitment; so our relationships with one another, when we avow them in a theological context, should be constant and undying.[11] 

  1. Gift

The giving of oneself and the receiving evidenced in marriage is a particular instance of the truth that God creates us to receive our lives as ‘gift’, both from God and from the community we inhabit.  When we gather at the table/ altar we proclaim that “all that is in the heavens and the earth is yours and of your own we give you.”[12] The intimacy of marriage is an intense form of this giving and receiving of selves in the interplay of gift and giving.  The nuptial relationship is a life of donation of one’s self into the care of another.  The donation (or gift) of self is a bodily gift.  Liturgically this is symbolised by the careful rubrics around the holding of hands at the exchange of vows in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.[13] The resonances are obvious - “This is my body given for you.”

Here we return to the notion of desire only touched upon briefly under ‘Union.’  Part of the complex interaction in the receiving of a gift is recognising that this is a gift one wants to receive; that is, it is a donation of self, a body, that one desires, and, further, the giver desires that the other desire his/her body, and desires that the giver apprehends this desire, and so forth.

Rowan Williams’ essay “The Body’s Grace” sets out what we might mean theologically when we speak of desire.  This essay has been described as representing “the best ten pages written about sexuality in the twentieth century.”[14] The origin of bodily desire is in God’s desire for us.  As Williams puts it:

The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.[15]

This is important because it rightly frames our desire, including our sexual desire, as a good gift from God.  It also places desire not as some aspect of our lives that in order to be holy needs to be channelled towards some worthy instrumental purpose (for example, procreation), rather, our desire for each other can simply be for the joy and delight of each other and this is the divinely purposed end of desire.  So, we are divinely shaped, like the persons of the Trinity, to bring joy to each other.  The further layer to this gift is that it is not so much that we are to get joy from each other as to give joy to each other.  We thus perceive and receive each other as occasions for joy.  This is the blessing that we rejoice in and pronounce in a life-long relationship.  So, Rogers offers the following as part of a “Charge for a Wedding:”

In desire God says to us, “You have ravished my heart.” God declares of Israel, “I will allure her.” As Jacob worked twice seven years for Rachel; as Ruth seduced Boaz upon the threshing floor; as the soul of Jonathon was knit to the soul of David; as these two of God’s human creatures desire each other, so God desires us. Grace like desire transforms us by showing us to be perceived in a certain way: as significant, as desired.[16]

  1. Household

As a household, a ‘little church’ or ‘micro-basileia’, the married couple is first, through their love for one another, a sign (mysterion) of Christ’s love for the world.  Indeed, as Ephesians 5 suggests both a church and marriage is a sign and a re-membering (anamnesis) of Christ’s love.  Marriage, like a church, is a purposed household. Its purpose is for the sanctification of its members.  Our Marriage Liturgy Second Form makes this mutual ministry of sanctification in marriage plainest: “Those who marry are God’s ministers to each other of reconciliation and change.” 

If we are to think of a household purposed for sanctification it is very helpful to draw the parallels between the monastic life and the married life.  We can speak of marriage as an ascetic vocation.[17]  Drawing on the great Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov, Rogers writes:

Both marriage and monasticism are for sanctification; both involve a commitment to living with others in which one cannot escape being transformed by their perceptions, which by the grace of God, will be for the better. In both cases, “to marry, just as to become a monk, means to take an absolute risk.”[18]

Just as monastic orders are schools for Christian virtue, likewise marriage is a school of Christian formation with disciplines of love, prayer and devotion.  Pius XI’s Encyclical On Christian Marriage puts it this way:

[Love] must have its primary purpose that husband and wife help each other in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life, so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more in virtue; … this mutual inward moulding of husband and wife … can in a very real sense … be said to the be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony.[19]

So it is the case, when we assemble to bless a civil marriage to be dedicated to God, that we have a present and future confidence that a couple, same-sex or opposite-sex, will sanctify each other through their household of shared faith, hope, and love and, in that way, will be life-long ministers of God’s grace and blessing.[20]

Finally, in receiving the pronouncement of God’s blessing, and asking for that blessing to continue and deepen in their life together, it is the expectation of the couple that they become a greater blessing to one another and, in the overflowing generosity of God, become a blessing to the world.

The tenor of formal blessings offered in public worship is plain: God is the one who blesses, so that the bishop or priest and the assembly are both asking for and announcing God’s blessing upon some person or persons.  The blessings are not the Church granting God’s blessing, but seeking and declaring God’s continued blessing that is already present.  This involves confidence and trust that God is pleased to bless what we are blessing.  In the case of blessing a couple it involves a confidence that we recognise God’s blessing already at work in the lives of the couple, and are right to ask for God’s continued blessing.[21]

At a most basic level this confidence rests in St Irenaeus’s famous observation that “the glory of God is the human being fully alive.”[22] That is, we recognise that we are blessing a couple who in word and deed witness to the truth that they are more fully alive in and through their shared life.  Further, we trust that this is will become more true through a lifetime of commitment to that shared life.  So, we recognise the fullness and blessing that can be found for some people in a mutually loving and intimate relationship.

[1] ANZPB/HKMOA p. 472

[2] Mark 12:18- 25

[3] BCP 1979 p. 430

[4] John 15:13

[5] Farley, p. 201

[6] Trible, P. (1978). God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Vol. 99). Philadelphia: Fortress: p. 99.

[7] ANZPB/HKMOA p. 780

[8] Op cit p. 90

[9] See Rogers, E Sexuality and the Christian Body: their way into the triune God p234ff

[10] Adam, A K M, ‘Disciples Together, constantly’ p128.

[11] ibid p127.

[12] ANZPB/HKMOA p. 420.

[13]  “The Minister, receiving the Woman at her Father’s or Friend’s hands, shall cause the Man with his right-hand to take the Woman by her right-hand, and to say after him as followeth… Then shall they loose their hands; and the Woman, with her right- hand taking the Man by his right- hand, shall likewise say after the Minister…”

[14] Rogers, E Theology and Sexuality: classic and contemporary readings, p309

[15] Williams, R “The Body’s Grace” in Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies: sexuality and the household of God, Hefling Charles (ed)  p. 59

[16] Rogers, E Sexuality and the Christian Body: their way into the triune God p. 274

[17] Ibid p. 79

[18] ibid p. 78

[19] Quoted in Rogers, E Sexuality and the Christian Body: their way into their way into the triune God p. 77, (emphasis added, editing by Rogers).

[20] 1 Cor 7:14

[21] This comes from: A Report of the Commission on Doctrine & Theological Questions to the General Synod Standing Committee and the ‘Ma Whea? Commission’ of The Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia On a theological rationale for a Christian approach to the blessing and marriage of people in permanent, faithful same-gender relationships, and the implications thereof on the ordination of people in same-gender relationships.

[22] Gloria Dei est vivens homo is “the glory of God is the living human being” and the “fully alive” has been co-opted by cults of self-fulfilment, but Irenaeus continues to write of the beatific vision of glory in heaven and earth and in that sense “fully alive” is correct.