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REFLECTION: Some Thoughts on Marriage

by Archpriest Andrew Morbey
Printed with permission

Marriage in some form or another has existed in most places. It has taken many forms. Even the Hebrew scriptures themselves, for example, make mention of polygamy, concubinage, levirate marriage, fruitful and unfruitful marriages, adulterous ones, arranged ones, romantic ones, those according to the law of Moses and those not according the law....  Just imagine the varieties of marriage to be found globally in the innumerable cultures and sub-cultures that have made up human society from its beginnings!

Many people, among them church fathers, have thought it tremendously significant that given this great variety, just about all known societies nonetheless identify and privilege committed heterosexual unions, surrounding them with taboos and proscriptions, limits and rules and regulations, rites and ceremonies. It seems likely that societies shape and enforce their cultural expectations of heterosexual marriage in light of the obvious importance of reproduction, nurture, and the transmission of family property and identity. Whether or not God designed us this way, which is the traditional understanding embraced by the Church, simply on a descriptive level, I think we can say this: most societies in most places have valued, privileged and enforced some sort of heterosexual relationship capable of supporting reproduction, nurture, the transmission of family or tribal or cultural identity and, of course, property. The marriage could be polygamous, it might permit sexual expression outside of marriage (especially for men, and even in some cultures permitting same sex activity), it might burden and demean women, but I don't know of any culture that didn't and doesn't place this sort of heterosexual relationship at the very center of society, of law, of public sentiment and personal identity. Tampering with this very human, natural moral ecology is, I think, a very risky business.

In terms of scripture, monogamous, heterosexual marriage emerges from the mix as the privileged, covenanted norm in the Old Testament, and it is taken up and affirmed in the New - although in the New Testament, celibacy in the cause of Christian ministry is also given a new and surprisingly lofty status. Ascetic celibacy is an alternative - a full-fledged alternative - to marriage in the undivided tradition of the Church and in Orthodoxy to this very day.

We should be clear: the Orthodox Church blesses and will bless only certain marriages, that is, those marriages that are capable of bearing the meaning and purpose of marriage as revealed and defined in scripture and the apostolic tradition. This means that the only people whose marriages may be blessed and crowned in the Church are believers who are entering a committed, monogamous heterosexual relationship.

Of course, the world around us has been changing. As David Brooks writes in an op-ed in this week's New York Times: "American culture is shifting away from orthodox Christian positions on homosexuality, premarital sex, contraception, out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce and a range of other social issues. More and more Christians feel estranged from mainstream culture. There is the truth of the matter - there has been a massive change in the culture. But while some people seem to be surprised at this change, I think it true to say that thoughtful and reflective Christians have seen it coming for a long, long time, as a trajectory with its beginning somewhere before the sexual revolution of the 60s - perhaps with the general public acceptance of divorce - and ending we know not where, save that it will likely be a place that has absolutely no use for Christian values, or even Christians."

In any event, the Orthodox Church has a commitment to a moral vision involving the transformation of the natural order of marriage through the blessing and crowning of appropriate marriages in the sacrament of the Church. We have an intuition that the natural order of marriage as experienced just about everywhere, by most people, over the entire span of human existence, is important in its own right, a good thing, even if it is not Christian marriage. Marriage is a natural good that can become something more in Christ. Bread and wine are good and important things in themselves; they are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Water is good; baptismal water and holy water is even better. Oil is wonderful; blessed, it conveys the grace of healing. And so on. In like manner, we understand that the relationship of a man and a woman can become something even greater than the intrinsic good of that relationship - in Christ. May they shine like the stars of heaven, in thee, our God!

While I do not think that it is possible for anyone who actually takes his or her faith seriously to disagree about what the Church teaches and practices with regard to marriage, I do think it possible for believers to hold in good faith different views on the competence of the State to manage its own affairs, even if it manages them in a way that dismays us. I myself do not think that the State has the competence to redefine marriage, but it certainly has the power to do so, and to act beyond its competence. But I understand that other believers might think that the State does have that competence, in this particular society at least, and that the contemporary legal and political and cultural affirmation of same sex marriage is in fact simply the outcome of the expansion and extension of personal rights, of the fundamental value of personal autonomy, of the principle of equality. There are those who feel that so-called marriage equality is a social justice issue and that such matters may inconveniently trump accepted moral norms. Others think that to live in a pluralistic society necessarily requires a measure of moral relativism on the part of government. I think such opinions are wrong, but they can, I hope, be debated with some measure of good faith. The arguments may have more to do with political philosophy than marriage. What does it mean to live in a pluralist society? Or perhaps the arguments mean that we have all gone crazy...

Sadly, the State sanctions, tolerates, affirms, supports, encourages many things that believers should have found morally distressing long ago. But if we live in a truly pluralist society, I would argue it ought to allow different voices, including our voices, the voices of believers, the voices of our ancestors, to be heard.

Fr. Andrew is Rector of the Protection of the Virgin Mary Cathedral (OCA) in Minneapolis, Minnesota and a former pastor in the Diocese of the West.

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