Sermon for a service of Thanksgiving for Marriage
(1 Cor. 13, 1-13)
A couple of weeks ago, just when I’d started thinking about what I might say in this address, a copy of Optima dropped through my letterbox; and on the cover, underneath a picture of white carnations and two wedding rings was the question ‘Is marriage relevant in this modern world?’
The article inside reviewed the change in attitudes to marriage in the late 20th and early 21st century, so that there is no longer a stigma in people living together and raising a family without being married. It gave a series of statistics, tracing the decline in the number of marriages per year, and within that, the rise in the proportion of civil marriages; and spoke about moves to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, since some people feel marriage has overtones of treating women like property to be handed from father to husband, and of a religion to which the partners don’t subscribe.
But not all the statistics about marriage were gloomy. Marriage is far from dying out. Divorce rates are falling in spite of (or perhaps because of?) the rise in the number of co-habiting couples, and married couple families still outnumber cohabiting ones.
The article quoted Harry Benson, the research director of The Marriage Foundation. He said marriage would continue to be relevant and essential as long as people want reliable love, something he believes most humans are looking for. “They want someone who will be there for the next day and the next and the day after that. You only have that if you have a conversation about your future and make a plan for it. Marriage sends a signal – it becomes an act of mutual intent”, he argues.
My husband and I are looking forward to celebrating our Golden Wedding Anniversary later this year. There is no denying that marriage has changed enormously in the last 50 years. When we got married, there was no discussion about what marriage was – it was just assumed that everybody knew. But changing social patterns mean that everything, including marriage, is now questioned.
But even back then, when everyone thought they knew what marriage was, marriages were not all the same. One of the things that we did together for many years was to lead sessions of the Marriage Preparation Course in the parish church we worshipped in at the time. This consisted of working with groups of couples who were getting married in the church over the next few months, using questionnaires and group discussions to explore their expectations of marriage. We noticed a lot of changes, particularly in the living arrangements of the couples over the 15 years or so that we were involved in this ministry. One of the questions we always asked, which threw up the reality of change, was ‘Will your marriage be like your parents’ marriage?’ to which the answer was almost always ‘No’ and often ‘No way!’
So, if marriage is constantly changing, and all marriages are different and unique, what is it we are giving thanks for today?
Soon after we came to Rickmansworth, through teaching locally and work with Churches Together, I was privileged to get to know Dr Jack Dominian, a consultant psychiatrist, and an expert in the psychology of marriage, who wrote a number of books on marriage from a Christian point of view.
Perhaps surprisingly, he makes very similar points about marriage to Henry Benson from the secular Marriage Foundation. Dr Dominian describes marriage as the second act in a two-act play, showing how humans grow and develop into the mature and loving adults that God intends them to be. In the first act, ideally, parents provide the stable, loving support, which enables the child to grow. For those who get married, marriage provides the continuation of that environment in which the partners can continue to grow.
He talks about the partners sustaining each other, showing appreciation, making each other feel wanted, recognizing and valuing their spouse as the unique person they are.
He talks about marriage providing an environment where the hurts of childhood and adolescence and the wounds suffered in the world outside can be healed. He speaks about marriage as an environment where growth in wisdom, self-esteem, maturity and the ability to forgive can take place, encouraged and supported by the spouse who is the person who knows you best in the world.
This is not easy. It demands commitment, because although often joyous, is sometimes hard work.
All of this can only take place within an environment of absolute trust: a relationship which is permanent, reliable, and continuous.
In all of this, he say, marriage reminds us of the presence of God: the God who knows us at the depths of our being, recognizes, affirms and loves us without conditions; the God who offers us healing; the God who forgives us without limit. Human love is a reflection of divine love, and marriage and family as a community of love both reflect the covenant relationship between God and humanity, and direct our gaze to the mystery of the Trinity – a community of love between unique persons, living in absolute unity and harmony.
The words of St Paul we heard earlier were not written about marriage – Paul didn’t seem to think much of marriage in some of the things he wrote. They were describing the love of God, seen in the life and death of Jesus. But insofar as we reflect that love in our marriages, they remind us of what it takes to do so.
The marriage we come to give thanks for today is of course, first of all, our own marriage, in all its specialness and uniqueness, and the person with whom we share that unique relationship. And then also the marriages of our parents and children, and those close to us. But we also come to give thanks for marriage as a holy covenant, a sacrament through which God take something that is common to all human lives and through it reveals divine grace. In that sacrament, we who are married are the ministers, first of all to each other, but also with the enormous responsibility and privilege of revealing to the world through our marriages the grace of God and the glory of the coming Kingdom.