Heads off to St Valentine! (Thoughts about marriage)

As Robert Walsh explores 'Anyone in a romantic relationship on Valentine’s Day is aware of the pitfalls surrounding it.'

Romantic love will always be something that the Church handles carefully. The Marriage preface in the Church of England's Common Worship Marriage service references our sexual lives and is unabashed about doing so with the words:

The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together

in the delight and tenderness of sexual union
and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.

In a recent talk I gave, I explored the distinctiveness of the love we teach about as Church. Church should teach a redeemed sexuality and perhaps then on St Valentine's Day this is worth an exploration.

It would seem that our culture is obsessed with sex, with our partnerings ever more being scrutinised. People are defining themselves these days in terms of their sexuality. The Bible certainly has a lot to say about this aspect of of our personhood; what quite it says is being heavily contested, of late.

J W Paris, in The End of Sexual Identity says, “The major problem for Christians with ... sexual identity... is that it is a social construct that provides a faulty pattern for understanding what it means to be human, linking desire to identity in a way that violates biblical themes. ... “Christianizing” sexual identity—whether by affirming or negating the morality of various sexual identities—doesn’t help, because it doesn’t address the faulty connections that sexual identity categories make between human desire and identity... Desire is not a trustworthy indicator of human identity...” 

The challenge then is for the church to not capitulate to culture but to create culture. 

We have to ask ourselves what it means to be in Christ. 

Is Jesus as concerned with our sexuality as we are?

In Jesus' teaching the church family takes precedence over the human family and so we must be careful that we do not place too much onus on the good gift that is Christian marriage. 

W J Paris explores the ways in which, 
Jesus disturbed people’s understanding of normal sexuality in his day; he was born to a woman who became pregnant without having sex, and he never married or had children. Believers from then until now struggle to understand Jesus’ conception, birth, life and death, because each upsets taken-for-granted understandings of what it means to be human. The Christian religion is grounded in cultural disturbance, a rattling of what people take for granted.”

Despite this disturbance, the church sits within culture and indeed creates its own in ways that do not necessarily echo Christ.  

Alan Wilson's – More Perfect Union has had an impact on my theology of marriage and has raised for me the value of covenanted relationship as something keenly distinct from contractual relationship. I now ask myself more frequently, as a consequence, what it is I am to teach during marriage preparation. I feel called by More Perfect Union to reinforce the good godly gifts and expectations that are permanent, stable and faithful for Christian marriage. Reading this book has caused me to place a higher value on Church of England Christian Marriage as it is currently defined.

If our sexualities present moral difficulties across sexuality's spectrum in what ways can the church better prepare its couples to live out a God-honouring sexuality, especially in the wake of interest in such books as "50 Shades of Grey" which normalises a very fallen sexuality? 

Does the church even have a remit in today's culture to speak into such things when many would prefer it didn't?

I am also to find ways of better pastorally attuning myself to single people; to being careful that church does not give the impression that single people are somehow incomplete without a partner. They are complete because they are in Christ. Community with him and others is a constant invitation to us all. Life in all its fullness is realised in the lives of single people. 

I also find myself challenged to develop a new theology of sexuality: ‘A sexually embodied celibacy is the search for union with God, mediated in human relationships other than sexual partnership.’ (D Goergen, The Sexual Celibate (London: SPCK, 1974) p 157) There has to be room for the voice of those called to manifest this charism to be heard.

As the Rev'd David Harris (Rector of St Giles' Church, Reading) explores: 

'Marriage is not the opposite of the life of celibacy - or better said ... it is not something substantially different from it...both express a similar negation and affirmation, but in different ways. [The latter] is eros set free from the natural constraint of lust and pleasure, and that same eros is set free within...the aesthetic of Holy Matrimony.' (D Harris, Eros Transfigured: Marriage in the Book of Common Prayer.)

What can we learn about wholeness from those called to celibacy?

It is thought that there is a plasticity regarding sexual identity and gender. Is this threatening or illuminating? 

I believe it can be both - carefully handled. 

In what ways does plasticity inform or sharpen Christ-likeness?

If being In Christ is the definition of right person-hood, what does Christ-likeness have to say to us about our gender and sexuality? That they are not to be all-consuming, certainly!

Each is to be submitted to Christ. 

Of neither gender nor sexuality must we make an idol. 

In heaven, of course, there will be no marriage. 

Is the 'Same-Sex-Marriage' debate calling us as church to a rediscovery of the importance of the ways in which we define ourselves?

The ‘mystery of individual vocation’ is seen in a call from God to be our true selves, where the true self is defined by God’s Word and not our own, and where the process of transformation is characterized by the judgement which he brings to bear on our lives in their many aspects, including the sexual.(Dave Leal, Marriage as vocation, Grove)

We need to ask ourselves what further moral standards we might be bringing to covenanted relationships that are beyond the circumscription of the biblical text? 

For example – 'family values' can conform to the external pattern – but often the family; the Christian marriage, is far from ideal. The church must not idolise marriage but prepare people for the reality of 'relationship' as best it can. 

If marriage is a parable of Christ and the Church, this then is why there is no marriage in heaven.We no longer need the parable when the parable has been fulfilled at the eschaton. Until then relationships will continue to prove difficult because the eschaton is 'not yet'. 

What Christians are called to step into until that day are right relationships - those made righteous through Christ, to know deeply at the level of personhood that we are persons belonging to him, that out of this relationship, other good relationships can be built.

Right person hood is found in him. And how do we know what that looks like? We have the canon of Scripture and we have the testimony of the Spirit to the canon of Scripture. Human person hood is there dignitas peccatoris: it is a sign of our worth, that at the level of our person hood, we are accounted sinners, and called to find our true selves in Christ. Or as the Saint Andrews Day statement (See Application 1) puts it: 

‘In [Christ] alone we know ourselves as we truly are. There can be no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ.’

Rev'd Harris describes how Marriage, rightly understood, is 'an ecclesial event, realized...through the church herself, it becomes something that happens in Christ. The Marriage becomes a particular location, or manifestation, of the communion of Saints - not through the overcoming of the natural, but through its transformation in Christ. Even sex (that most probelmatic phenomenon for the theologians!) is set free from subjection to natural necessity and impulse, and becomes a real means of personal communion between two people. Sex, the ultimate expression of eros, becomes a means of Caritas.' (D Harris, Eros Transfigured: Marriage in the Book of Common Prayer.)

To give the last words of this reflection to Walsh. He explains how,

Valentine’s Day has always been about martyrdom...to properly express the depth of one’s love in the space of twenty-four hours... come home with flowers and your partner views it as validation that your relationship has been reduced to a five-minute visit to the florist.... nowhere are the unrealistic expectations for this day more unforgiving... there will always be martyrs on Valentine’s Day. Twenty-four hours is simply not enough to communicate ...[the] depth of my love...

By promoting the extension of forgiveness Robert Walsh might mitigate against the disappointments that are his readers this Valentine's Day. If the flowers haven't been delivered, we forgive, we are all 'works in progress,' with a rightness to appropriate: Christ's. In Him we know ourselves valued and loved. 

As a friend of mine says "it is never a bad deal to follow Jesus.” 

Here's the church's greatest challenge then: presenting the gospel in such a way that the Spirit can capture more people with the magnetism of Jesus in whom all our needs, whether they be sexual or not, are met.

Stanley Hauerwas points out how celibate Christians are asking that the church better become the eschatologically orientated family that it is supposed to be. (Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Sex in Public: How Adventurous Christians are Doing it’ (1978), in, John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (eds), The Hauerwas Reader, Duke University Press, 2001, p. 499.)

The challenge for the church over the next two years particularly lies in what it is to teach about love, about marriage, about relationship but perhaps more fundamentally than that, how it is to communicate that in Christ all our desires meet their fulfilment. 

How is the church going to communicate the attractiveness of an identity in Christ?

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him at rob@RobertFWalsh.net or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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