The Church must not promote the idea that marriage is a fairy tale

Sara Pisano, left, and Danilo Spagnoli just after being married by Pope Francis in St Peter's Basilica (PA)

What about those in “second unions”? What about mercy for those who want, need or deserve a second chance? Before attempting any answer, we need to recognise that marital happiness is by no means the norm for humanity. This may sound like a surprising assertion from a Catholic. Part of the legacy of St John Paul II is that the Church, perhaps to correct an earlier emphasis that tended the other way, has spoken of marriage as a blissful and ecstatic union. But is it? Human love is of its very nature imperfect and stained by sin. No one knew this better than Cranmer, who wrote:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.

There is nothing theologically questionable in these words from the Book of Common Prayer, and they are humanly speaking very wise. One notes that the unitive aspect is placed third. And one notes the emphasis on the Fall and sin.

The text of Common Worship (2000), which is used by most Anglicans these days, has the following preamble, which though perfectly agreeable, may well be missing the emphasis on marriage as a remedy for sin. In fact the departure in tone from Cranmer is striking.

In the presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
we have come together to witness the marriage of N and N, to pray for God’s blessing on them,
to share their joy and to celebrate their love.

Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.
It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.

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. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are [born and] nurtured and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad, may find strength, companionship and comfort, and grow to maturity in love.

Marriage is a way of life made holy by God,
and blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ
with those celebrating a wedding at Cana in Galilee.
Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty which all should uphold and honour. It enriches society and strengthens community. No one should enter into it lightly or selfishly but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God.

N and N are now to enter this way of life.
They will each give their consent to the other
and make solemn vows, and in token of this they will [each] give and receive a ring. We pray with them that the Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen them, that they may fulfil God’s purposes for the whole of their earthly life together.

This picture of marriage is optimistic to say the least. It does not say why the couple need the grace of God, nor does it present any hint that the “delight and tenderness of sexual union” may encounter any difficulty whatever, apart from a mention of “good times and [in] bad”. It is a picture of marriage so rosy that one is left wondering why anyone in their right mind would ever want to get divorced.

In these two passages we have not just two different sets of emphases, we have two different approaches to the theology of marriage, and these passages illustrate their head on collision. Is marriage is not some sort of Elysian field to which all have the right of entry? Or is it more like a lifeboat that saves us from drowning?

We are all aware that nowadays many marriages end in divorce; many people who get married should never have got married in the first place; and many never marry in church, or never marry at all. Given that the Church has the mission to uphold marriage, clearly we have not done our job very well. From where I sit, it seems that we as a Church hardly devote any energy to promoting marriage, or spend any time researching the important question of why marriages go wrong. We seem to subscribe to the “fairy tale” theory of marriage: but the truth is that the fairy tale bears little resemblance to the reality that most couples have to live with.

So, what has gone wrong and what can be done about it? We need a greater realism in our preaching and our theology. We are all sinners. Sin causes suffering, to ourselves, and to those who are near to us. Just as the civil law quietly moved to no fault divorce, so the Church has unreflectingly followed the world and moved to the idea that we could live without feeling the effects of sin, the effects of which are most clear in family life.

Desire is not always good. Even when it is for the right things, even then it contains within itself a sliver of egotism. Human desire is fallible, self-sacrifice is essential, and human happiness is precarious – and this is all the result of the Fall.

If we overlook the fact that we are all weak, all sinners and all flawed, two things follow: we have no real explanation to offer when two perfectly nice people want to get divorced; and we have made a rod for our own backs when confronted with homosexuality. In our desire to get away from Jansenism, we have overlooked the obvious truth: the passionate man (and woman) is not a perfect human being.

Faced with Common Worship’s optimism, what would be the best ever description of what married life is truly like? What is the best expression of what it is like to be a couple, thrown into the world, exiled from Eden, like our first parents?

They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Those are the closing lines of Paradise Lost. Like Adam and Eve, we are conscious of what we have lost, aware that we are exiles thrown out into the world; but there is hope and we look forward.

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