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Do you remember Princess Diana saying, on Panorama in 1995, “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”. That was clearly a deeply unhappy situation – but I regularly tell couples who come to me seeking to get married in church that one of the major benefits of a church marriage is that it allows a third party to get involved. No, this isn't the Rector getting racy, I'm still very orthodox! What I mean is that getting married in church is inviting God to get involved with the relationship; that this is the most important thing that happens in a wedding in church; and that this has distinct practical benefits in terms of the health and longevity of the relationship. Let me explain.
First off, there is more going on with a church wedding than with a wedding that is conducted through a Civil Registrar, and by that I don't simply mean things like hymns and prayers. Consider the vows that are going to be spoken. With a Civil Ceremony, as you would expect, the emphasis is upon the legal and contractual nature of the wedding. This is a typical example of what needs to be said: “Declaratory Words: I declare that I know of no legal reason why I ………….. may not be joined in marriage to …………..; followed by Contracting Words: I ………….. take thee ………….. to be my wedded wife/husband.” Compare this to the vows that are spoken by each party in a church service: “I, N , take you, N , to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God's holy law. In the presence of God I make this vow.”
I usually remark to couples that the vows are the most important element of the wedding day – everything else, the dress, the cake, the reception and so on, all of that is just setting. Of course, making such vows is wonderful and marvellous and beautiful and a totally reckless thing to do. It is a radical act, a brave act, one that goes against the grain of our culture which doesn't seem to value long lasting promises quite so much as it used to, which has become so obsessed with passing feelings. The vows make the wedding what it is, and it is by holding fast to the vows, no matter what the provocation, that the marriage endures and the fruits of holy matrimony start to show. Essentially what the vows form are a safe space within which a person is set free to be themselves. This other person has stood up in front of all their friends and family and said these remarkable words, which resolve down to 'I promise to stay here' no matter what – and that gives a profound reassurance to their loved one. It is the definition of unconditional love – and it is that aspect which makes the matrimony holy.
All marriages have their bumpy patches, it is an inevitable consequence of being sinful human beings. One of the most practical benefits that inviting God into a marriage entails is that there is a third party to whom conflicts can be referred. Where there are only two people, and when those two people start to fight, it can quite rapidly descend into a simple conflict of willpower – he wants this, she wants that, who will win, who will lose? Very little creative can happen in such a situation. Yet if there is a shared invitation to God to be involved, suddenly there is a meaningful question that can be asked when the couple have become stuck: what does God think about this? Where does God want to take us? How can we best become the people that God is calling us to be – full of abundant life and love? How can we be healed from all of the things that have wounded us until now?
I actually believe that, rather like the grains of sand that end up making the pearl, marriage needs frictions. It is only when we face such frictions in our closest relationships that we are brought up against the reality of the other person, and we have to pause, take stock, and face this wondrous, marvellous, beautiful human being whom God has created and with whom we are walking for a while on this earth. This is where the real work of love begins – this is where a marriage becomes truly holy matrimony – because it is when we see the full, real, unvarnished truth of who another person is – and when at that point we remain committed to our vows and are still prepared to say ‘I love you’ that we begin to know what it means to share in the love of God.
It is in sharing in this sense of unconditional love that a marriage starts to become sacred, for this is how we start to understand what it means to say speak this language that 'God is love'. Does this mean that God is slushy and sentimental and fond of pink flowers and Celine Dion? I think not. For love is not a feeling. Love is not something that can be captured if you buy the right card from Clinton's. Love as Christians understand it is rooted in a decision, a settled choice to act in a certain way irrespective of how we feel. Our feelings will change over time, they will go up and down and all over the place – but love is a decision, a decision to keep faith with the commitments that we make to each other, in the marriage vows most of all.
In the story of creation in Genesis there is a consistent repetition of 'God created... and saw that it was good'. The first mention in the Bible of something not being good comes when God says to Adam that it is not good for him to be alone. We are meant to be in this business of life together, rubbing up against each other, snapping off our sharp edges, breaking our hearts of stone and turning them into hearts of flesh. That's why God gave us the great gift of marriage, a gift that not only keeps on giving, but like a fine wine gets better and better with age.