Wednesday, 10 October 2012

On Love and Marriage

If you're an avid Church Times reader (and surely, who isn't?), you may have noticed the article in last Friday's edition, reporting the views of Phillip Jensen, the Dean of St Andrew's cathedral in Sydney in Australia. He had expressed his opinions in a piece for the Sydney Diocesan website, in the context of the debate there about a new marriage service, which gives the bride and groom different vows to make..

Dean Jensen was reported as bemoaning the fact that modern marriage services are too much about love rather than commitment and faithfulness. Here's what he wrote in full.

Now, ordinarily I wouldn't be very bothered by the thoughts of someone from the Diocese of Sydney, where  the tendency appears to be so conservative that most British conservative evangelicals would look liberal by comparison. But it just so happened that the readings for Sunday morning's Eucharist were centered around the theme of marriage, so someone from the Anglican communion saying controversial things about marriage seemed an ideal peg to hang my thoughts on. The readings in question were Genesis 2.18-24, and Mark 10.2-16. Jensen refers to two of these in his article (except that he actually cites Matthew 19.3-6 instead of Mark - but the passages are such close parallels that it makes no difference in this context).

Now Jensen wants to say that these passages demonstrate that "Marriage is therefore intended as a lifelong, monogamous, procreative union of a man and a woman." This is based on the "promises of their common agreement or covenant. Faithfulness rather than love lies at the basis of this union." The bemoans the fact that modern services have moved away from giving procreation as the first and foremost reason for marriage, and instead have placed "the romance called love" at the centre.

However, as I argued in my sermon on Sunday morning,it seems that Jensen has failed to read his Bible carefully or seriously, and has instead imported into it the things he wants to read there, that suit his purposes. For there is nothing in either the Genesis 2 passage, or Jesus' use of it, that suggest that procreation has anything at all to do with marriage. Now don't get me wrong, children and family life are certainly important parts of what makes marriage what it is. There's lots of good theology behind saying that. for example, a family of parents plus child(ren) is a model of the Trinity, with love shared more openly then in a binary relationship.

But it's pretty clear from Genesis that God's purpose in creating the woman after the man was for "a helper as his partner" (NRSV) or "a fitting helper for him" (NJPS) (2.18) - this presumably in the task of tilling and keeping the garden of Eden (2.15). Nothing here about procreation. And to prove that procreation is not in mind, we have an account of God creating all the animals and bringing them to the man. Only when none of them are deemed suitable for a "helper as his partner" does God make the man fall into a deep sleep, so that he can take a rib and create woman (by the way, we might note that there's no "common agreement or covenant" between the man and the woman, as Jensen presupposes).

If had been all about procreation, God would surely have made the woman first of all. Or perhaps the man would have seen the giraffe, and said, "Look at the legs on that - that's the one for me!" (lots of species have huge differences between males and females, after all). If it had just been about tending the garden, then surely an ourang-utan would have been ideal for looking after the trees while the man did the ground-level work.

But no. This was about finding a companion; it was about the relationship which should exist between man and woman. In other words love comes first. Which is hardly unexpected when it comes to the Creation of the God who is love, and who has made us in his image. It's not, as they say, rocket-science to work this one out.

Why does this matter? Because Phillip Jensen and his ilk want to use the alleged priority of procreation in marriage to exclude same-sex couples from getting married. If marriage is about procreation, those who cannot procreate have no part in it. Except of course that marriage between a couple where the woman is past child-bearing has always taken place.

If society has moved on, and now wants to place love at the heart of what marriage is, the Church should welcome it. Or perhaps it's that the Church has actually already done this work in creating the newer marriage services. Love is at the heart of Christianity ("God so loved the world" &c. &c.). What the Church cannot afford to do is to misread the Bible in order to bolster prejudice.

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