Marriage – the gift and challenge of enduring commitment

Peter Seal, 14 August 2016

Hebrews 11: 29–12: 2; Luke 12: 49–56

From a service that celebrated the diamond wedding anniversaries of John & Dorothy Dennis and Geoffrey & Jo Burnaby

The year was 1956 – that’s 60 years ago. Along with many other couples, John and Dorothy Dennis and Geoffrey and Jo Burnaby were married that August; with them we give thanks and rejoice before God. I want today to think with you a bit about marriage. It’s an understatement to say that lots has changed in the past six decades. The world we live in is, in some ways, quite unrecognisable from the mid-1960s. The way we see relationships between people of the opposite sex, and indeed of the same sex, is radically different. The public acknowledgement of same-sex relationships was unthinkable until comparatively recently, and as a society and a church we’re still trying to assimilate this development. It’s now very largely completely acceptable for couples to live together before they’re married. The marriage application forms for the vast majority of the church weddings conducted today show the bride and groom as having the same address. Marriage in church after divorce is now almost commonplace.

In the lives of many of us here today, the society we live in is hugely different from 60 years ago. We’re faced with new thinking about human sexuality and what it means to be male or female. We’re discovering that to have a sex change is absolutely right for some people and can bring wholeness and healing. With all that’s changed, and goes on changing, it’s hardly surprising that at times the world we thought we knew, but now find to be rather different, causes us to be confused, even quite badly wobbled.

What hasn’t changed, of course, is the nature of God; and my sense is that new insights from psychology, sociology, medicine and – yes – theology too, continue to draw us into a truer picture of God’s good purposes. In all this I hold on tight to the vital importance of commitment. For me the litmus test of the ongoing changes in the nature of human relationships is how two people understand and live out their promise of commitment.

When a couple come to me to talk about getting married I always ask them, ‘Why do you want to get married?’ and ‘What difference do you think there is between living together and being married?’ The discussion that follows often focuses on wanting to make a public commitment in front of their families and friends. They have a strong sense that somehow being married will make a difference. And I’m sure they’re right. The institution of marriage is something that supports and strengthens love, especially during the hard and testing times.

During the Second World War the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in prison. He received a wedding invitation from a friend. He wrote back thanking his friend for the invitation, explained that he was in prison and could not attend, and added: ‘Up until now it has been your love that has supported your relationship; once you are married it is your marriage that will support your love’. I believe that this is a profound insight. It means that when a couple feel ‘out of love’, or perhaps that they don’t really like their partner any more or, even worse, that they’re really not sure they can continue any longer – it’s then that being married and recalling marriage vows can be a huge strength, and indeed can carry a couple through the toughest times into a better place.

Up until now it has been your love that has supported your relationship; once you are married it is your marriage that will support your love.

The marriage service begins with this wonderful Bible sentence from the first epistle of John: ‘God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them’. This is the most wonderful biblical scene-setter for a wedding. Earlier this year I was talking with a middle-aged couple about their wedding plans. We were discussing the service and the family and friends they would be inviting. The bride latched on to that wonderfully inclusive sentence from the first epistle of John. Her concern was that their wedding was inclusive of the whole range of relationships present in church on their wedding day.

Any member of the clergy will tell you that conducting a wedding, whilst always a joy, is also quite challenging. In any congregation on a wedding day you have people who are happily married, unhappily married, widows or widowers, separated or divorced, longing to meet the love of their life and feeling lonely, contentedly single, gay, bisexual, transgender. To try and ensure that no one feels excluded is so important.

Our human relationships can be both strong and vulnerable at the same time. Our call as a local church is to be as welcoming as we possibly can be, always upholding our belief in the gift and challenge of enduring commitment. So many people have had bad experiences of the church, or the clergy, or other Christians. When someone comes to us feeling hurt and vulnerable and unsure, it’s so vitally important that we offer real, genuine kindness – kindness that does not judge, or put up barriers, but always welcomes and proclaims the possibility of healing and new beginnings.

In the wedding service there is a wonderful question that the priest asks the congregation: ‘Will you, the families and friends of Louise and Fred, support and uphold them in their marriage now and in the years to come?’ Today what we as a congregation are saying to Dorothy and John and to Jo and Geoffrey is this: ‘Yes, we will seek to do our bit to go on supporting you …’. What we as a congregation can continue to do for one another is to go on being kind, gentle and supportive. In a fast-changing and, at times, wobbly world, local church communities can continue to support marriage and committed relationships of every kind.

In the introduction to the wedding service it says: ‘Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty which all should uphold and honour. It enriches society and strengthens community.’ We know this to be true, and together we can shout out a collective and resounding ‘Hoorah’ to the preciousness of relationships that endure through the decades. In the 1928 Prayer Book Order of Service, at the giving of rings (almost always just one ring 60 years ago) the man said: ‘With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.’

At nearly every wedding these days there is an exchange of wedding rings, with each saying to the other: ‘I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage. With my body I honour you, all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you, within the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.’ For many people the most striking words are, ‘All that I am I give to you’. Without using those actual words, that is what married couples commit themselves to each day, as they live out their relationship.

In conclusion, ‘All that I am I give to you’ also works in our relationship with God. And it is, of course, within the love of God that each of us lives out our daily lives and discovers the miracle of God’s never-ending, sustaining presence. To God be the glory.