Sydney Morning Herald 29 Aug 2012
Marriage really matters. Thank God we are talking about it. As Professor Patrick Parkinson said in these pages last week, marriage is ”by far the most stable, safe and nurturing relationship in which to raise children”. However, fewer people are choosing marriage as a way of relating to someone of the opposite sex and fewer people are nurturing children in a family with marriage at its heart.
I can understand that. Individualism leaves us with little reason to join our life to that of someone else. Apart from that, for many marriage has become an arena of suffering, exploitation and disappointment. We choose to bypass it. Yet I would say that we need to go back to biblical principles and understand, improve and support marriage rather than abandon it.
I freely admit that for me, the earthly title and vocation I cherish most is ”husband”. It all began with promises, and each day I try to live out the commitment I made. Marriage is not always easy and I know that for some it proves painfully impossible. But, mostly, making our promises before witnesses and trying to keep them is what works best.
Public promises make a marriage. Marriages are founded on promises of lifelong, exclusive bonding. Provided that the promises commit both man and woman in good times and in bad ”till death do us part”, and that both intend to relate only to each other, the promises are effective in creating the marriage. Husband and wife can certainly make identical promises.
But promises can reflect something even more profound. Since they unite not simply two people but a man and a woman – two different bodies for whom marriage holds different consequences, needs, expectations and emotions – the promises can express these differences, and traditionally have done so.
Many of our young people want to be ”wives and husbands” rather than simply ”partners” and in their weddings they come as ”bride and groom” rather than simply two individuals. They believe that expressing these differences, including different responsibilities, makes for a better marriage.
Both kinds of promise are provided for in the Sydney Anglican diocese’s proposed Prayer Book, which has been the subject of commentary this week.
There is nothing new in this – it is the same as the Australian Prayer Book which has been used for decades.
Where different promises are made, the man undertakes great responsibility and this is also the wording of the book, as it has always been. The biblical teaching is that the promise made voluntarily by the bride to submit to her husband is matched by the even more onerous obligation which the husband must undertake to act towards his wife as Christ has loved the church. The Bible says that this obligation is ultimately measured by the self-sacrifice of Christ in dying on the cross.
This is not an invitation to bossiness, let alone abuse. A husband who uses the wife’s promise in this way stands condemned for betraying his own sworn obligations. The husband is to take responsibility for his wife and family in a Christ-like way. Her ”submission” is her voluntary acceptance of this pattern of living together, her glad recognition that this is what he intends to bring to the marriage and that it is for her good, his good and the good of children born to them. She is going to accept him as a man who has chosen the self-discipline and commitment of marriage for her sake and for their children. At a time when women rightly complain that they cannot get men to commit, here is a pattern which demands real commitment all the way.
Secular views of marriage are driven by a destructive individualism and libertarianism. This philosophy is inconsistent with the reality of long-term relationships such as marriage and family life.
Referring to ”partners” rather than husband or wife gives no special challenge to the man to demonstrate the masculine qualities which he brings to a marriage.
Men have to accept the limitations imposed by a commitment to marry. Both husband and wife must exercise self-control and the acceptance of boundaries, although in ways which are somewhat distinctive. My greatest interest in the draft service the diocese has prepared is the high standard being proposed for men.
When a husband promises to love his wife as Christ loved the church and give himself up for her, he is declaring his intention to be a man of strength and self-control for her benefit and for the benefit of any children born to them. Such qualities, properly exercised in the spirit of self-sacrifice, enhance the feminine and personal qualities of his wife.
Each marriage and each era will work this out differently. It is in this context and this alone that the revised marriage service enables a woman to promise submission.
Her submission rises out of his submission to Christ.
It is a pity that the present discussion has been so overtly political. Instead of mocking or acting horrified, we should engage in a serious and respectful debate about marriage and about the responsibilities of the men and women who become husbands and wives. The Bible contains great wisdom on this fundamental relationship.
The rush to embrace libertarian and individualistic philosophy means that we miss some of the key relational elements of being human, elements which make for our wellbeing and happiness. It’s time to rethink marriage from first principles. It really matters.
Peter Jensen is the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney.