What is marriage about?

Over at the Covenant website, Nathan Humphrey has reposted an essay on Sacraments and Innovation. In it, as he explores whether a gay union can be blessed, he makes the following comments:

I would argue that marriage is valuable to the Church only insofar as it edifies the couple (and any children the couple is blessed with through birth or adoption) and the wider community of the Church itself (and not just the local community of faith in which the couple lives out their marriage). Further, marriage, like all the sacraments, is a contingent value; that is, in heaven “sacraments shall cease.” As Jesus says, “In heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels…”

Without edification, marriage makes no sense; there is nothing intrinsic about it that compels the Church to conform its institutions to those of the wider society, which is passing away and at the end of the ages, after all.

As I’ve written before, I want to suggest that this is an inadequate understanding of the purpose of marriage. Surely Paul in Ephesians 5 points us to the fact that marriage between a man and woman signifies the union of Christ and the Church. That then is the sense of marriage, that it is not just about the two who are married but that it points (and has been designed to point) to a far greater spiritual reality.

Simply saying that marriage is validated by edification of those married (and others) is a highly anthropomorphic perspective. Taking Ephesians 5 as the central point of marriage presents the institution as a much more theocentric phenomenon and that is, in my opinion, a far better starting point for good theology.

To summarise, the BCP Marriage Service explicitly draws from Ephesians 5 and in doing so distinguishes between husband and wife in their unique roles in signifying the union of Christ and the Church. The sexual imagery is deliberate and points to a higher truth beyond the married couple. It is an understanding of sexual activity that has dictated the Church’s response to all other forms of copulation and was still part of the guiding theology in the 1990s revision of the Marriage Service.

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