Thursday, June 12, 2008

The End of Marriage as we know it

The Traditional Anglican service of Holy Matrimony from the Book of Common Prayer reflects the holiness of marriage with solemnity and dignity, including the final blessing: “God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, bless, preserve, and keep you; the Lord mercifully with his favour look upon you, and fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace; that ye may so live together in this life, that in the world to come ye may have life everlasting. Amen.”

The end of the marriage service was altered in 1979 for the book that is used by the Episcopal Church. Their book says: “…that you may faithfully live together in this life, and in the age to come have life everlasting. Amen.” Changing the words of this blessing has changed the meaning, even if it was unintended. This difference, signified by the word “and” instead of “that,” is unfortunately consistent with a wide gulf that radically separates two understandings of what marriage is.

Need for clear teaching

For those who have only a worldly concept of marriage, how the couple will live together has no relevance to eternity. Of course, the end of every marriage must come since everyone dies. But, the end for which a Christian man and woman marry does in fact have eternal significance. So then, how do we protect Christians from a worldly concept of marriage?

Not by silence. No longer can we simply assume that every Christian has learned properly, or that they even know that fidelity in marriage is a moral issue of grave consequence. Christians ought to be well acquainted with the commandments of God against fornication and adultery (and what is fornication, if not adultery before the fact?). And, also they ought to know that divorce is an evil thing.

None of these things should be controversial for any Christian who believes the things that Jesus said, and said clearly. Nonetheless, we have come to a time that requires us to teach Christians, even some devout Catholics and born again Evangelicals, to see the difference between ideas that prevail in this age, and the truth about marriage.

It is wrong to assume that people know how to live together in this life, as man and wife, simply because they are Church people. Pastoral experience has taught me, over many years, that we can no longer assume that children are being taught by their parents at home. Gone are the days when the Church can expect younger parents to be aware of their responsibility. If pastors and religious teachers simply assume they can build on a foundation already laid, they will often be in for a shock. It has not been business as usual for many years now.

And, since nature abhors a vacuum, bad ideas can be found wherever teaching has been neglected, especially in the minds of many who have already reached adulthood. Might the following things need to be spelled-out for some modern Christians, especially those under 40? I am sorry to say, yes they do. Experience teaches me this. What goes unsaid goes unlearned.

Preparing people for marriage highlights this in a special way. Certain things have to be taught, because when they go unsaid, the vacuum fills up with error. We cannot assume that Christians have no need to hear the following, or that the Church has no responsibility to teach them.

The end of marriage is, all too often, the gratification of desire. And, added to this insufficient understanding, uncouth practices are treated as normal and healthy by modern people. This is because they have been indoctrinated by the spirit of the times to accept almost any sexual practice, as if gratification is, itself, moral justification.

For example, it would be wrong for the Christian bride to find herself being treated as a “sex slave.” She should not expect a Christian husband to request or demand “service” that is humiliating and degrading, even if one such practice was popularized by a president in the Oval office, and falsely justified by his warped idea of how to study the Bible.

We should not assume that younger Christians know that marriage gives moral rightness to copulation, and adds blessing to wholesome pleasure, but that marriage is not a license for just any kind of sexual activity that has dawned on the human imagination. “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for God will judge the immoral and adulterous.” (Hebrews 13:4, RSV)

To others, of all ages, the end of marriage may be larger than gratification, but still not good enough. Based on a need for love and companionship, and in some cases security, the end of marriage may be happiness based on what can be received. That may be bigger and nobler than gratification alone, and emotionally more rewarding.

Nonetheless, the desire to be made happy is insufficient as the end of marriage for a Christian. For, this kind of love may be in keeping with eros, and even with phileō. But, it falls short of agape. That is, though it may include all of the emotions we associate with romantic love, and with friendship (both good and necessary things in married love), it falls short of the love described by St. Paul in I Corinthians chapter 13.

A means of grace

Modern Christians need to be taught in order to truly understand the good things that God the Holy Spirit can give to a husband and wife through one another. Not every Christian is comfortable using a word for marriage that we, as Traditional Anglicans, use. That word is “sacrament.” It may be a waste of time to try to sell everyone simply on that word; but, we should not hesitate to make an effort to sell all Christians everywhere on some of the theological meaning of that word as applied to marriage.

First of all, to put it very simply, when an unmarried Christian man and an unmarried Christian woman say their vows before God and human witnesses, this constitutes a form of words that state the clear intention of entering into a union that is, itself, God’s own doing. The fact that marriage is the work of God himself is the teaching of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 19:6: “What God has joined together”). After the consummation, the joining is complete.

Contrary to the spirit of the times, since the body is holy, the occasions of coming together in intimacy have their place in grace and sanctification also. Happiness and pleasure do not, in themselves, contradict holiness. Always, respect for the body includes respect for its nature and power of procreation.

We need to consider the Greek word charis (often in the form charisma) that is usually translated “grace,” and in many places as “gift.” The New Testament usage of this word consistently refers to both special and extraordinary graces given by the Holy Spirit. St. Paul teaches Christians to desire the gifts that best fit the need or occasion (I Corinthians. 12:31), and this leads directly to the famous chapter on charity. We should want the graces or gifts that are most beneficial to others, consistent with divine love.

Christian marriages have to them more than human commitment. The Holy Spirit works by means of this union. He gives grace through faithful spouses to further growth in virtues and sanctification. Daily activities and all of the changes of this transitory life, are the context of that ministry to one another over a period of years.

The husband and wife are God’s agents to one another, to aid salvation, and sanctification. Furthermore, all spouses are called to aid each other’s gifts and vocations in this world, and in a special and obvious way in their joint responsibility should they be so blessed as to become parents. Such a life, in turn, may often lead to a Christian couple being a witness to the world of the love between Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:32).

My advice to Christian couples is to pray together often (which is best when it is initiated and led by the man), perhaps as part of the daily offices of prayer, according to the practices of specific church traditions. The end of marriage, as we know it, is that the husband and wife love one another as aids to everything good and eternal by the work of the Holy Spirit. Then the blessing applies. “That ye may so live together in this life, that in the world to come ye may have life everlasting.”


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, even the 1928 BCP waters down the universal understanding of the Church regarding marriage. Better the nuptials in the 1662 or 1549, which explicitly teach the purposes of the institution as understood by the undivided Church for a millennium.

Paul Goings said...


I admire your courage in addressing this. It is not an issue which most conservative or orthodox Anglicans are willing to discuss, and, to my mind, this weakens their credibility in terms of other controverted issues of human sexuality. To be blunt, it is simply hypocritical to hear a denunciation of sodomitical congress given by a priest who is living in open adulterous concubinage with a woman who is not his wife. I should say that this is not, to the best of my knowledge, prevalent in the various Continuing jurisdictions, but does seem to exist in Canterbury Anglicanism, of course, and also even among those who have realigned with the various "Global South" organizations.

In terms of specifics, which must necessarily be spoken of during the course of marriage preparation and in the confessional, what moral theology would you tend to recommend?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

In terms of specifics, which must necessarily be spoken of during the course of marriage preparation and in the confessional, what moral theology would you tend to recommend?

Hard to say, because we have arrived in a time when confusion and misinformation has taken the place of a generally well taught Church and well informed public. The classic works on moral theology assume this knowledge to a degree, and fail to speak directly to such well known practices as "the Clinton preference" (no respect intended, former president or not). We have children in school talking about oral "sex" and learning that to be "responsible" means, "wear a condom."

Just about any of the classic works on moral theology are worth using, RC works very much included, but only to build on with some direct up to date teaching. That teaching may have to be done with extreme care, because it often involves overturning the authority of school teachers, doctors, even parents (in terms of what they have taught, by word or example). In fact, it even creates skepticism about the wisdom of (dare I say it?) celebrities.

A hundred years ago there was no significant difference between Anglicans and Roman Catholics regarding sexual morality; and no apparent change took place until the cryptic line about "other methods" from the 1930 Lambeth Conference. This was taken to mean that a slight opening of the door to contraception, though under very limited circumstances, had occurred. Everybody condemned that opening, from Baptists to Roman Catholics. The Washington Post published a scathing editorial.

Look, any who doubt, to where that opening has led.

Anonymous said...

Well said!

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Henry VIII?

You died, I thought, before your daughter Elizabeth was able to find men who would begin what would become Anglicanism.

poetreader said...

I'd begin the way the banks begin teaching about counterfeit money, with a solid study of the real thing.

We can examine Scripture and traditional moral teaching and come up with a really good descriptuin to measure all the issues against.

A mini-catechism:

What sexual activity has God promised to bless?

Sex within a lawful marriage in which a major objective is the bringing forth of children, should God so grant.

What is a lawful marriage?

The indissoluble union of a man and a woman with the purpose of forming a family and bringing children into it.
That is sufficient information to answer almost all questions about sex and marriage.

Is it within marriage?
Is the marriage fulfilling God's intent? Is it permanent?

Is the sexual activity of such a nature as to be seeking the birth of children?

Compare it to the real thing. If it doesn't pass that test, we need no further evidence to declare it less than blessed.

If we understand what God intends sex and marriage to be, we need no Scripture to condemn homosexual practice, to condemn premarital or exramarital sex, to casr an extremely unfavorable eye toward divorce, to ask really hard questions about contraception and other 'variant' activities designed to prevent children.

None of that fits what is eligible for His blessing. Therefore none of it is acceptable.


Paul Goings said...

Mr Pacht,

While I appreciate the discretion of a phrase like "[s]ex ... in which a major objective is the bringing forth of children," it must be admitted that it does a disservice to those who sincerely wish their married lives to be pleasing to God, but still have specific and detailed questions. Unless we are prepared to adopt a tutorist approach, we must be prepared to answer these, and so I don't think that your formulation comes anywhere near to answering almost all questions about sex and marriage.

There are, it seems to me, two possible readings of your formulation:

1. If a couple's married life is generally oriented toward the bringing forth of children, then any particular acts are permissible, irrespective of whether the acts themselves are so oriented; or,

2. The specific acts themselves must be so oriented.

Could you give us an idea of which reading is correct?

I realize that it might not be appropriate or desirable to discuss the technicalities of marital congress on a semi-public forum. In which case I would simply hope that we could agree that such discussions are vitally necessary on some level.

poetreader said...

Mr. Goings,
I do believe that, when we get down into the specific details of what goes on within marriage that it is an informed conscience rather than specific rules that needs to be the guide.

On your two choices, I believe #1 to be absolutely necessary. Many moral theologians would regard absence of that as a general intent to be quite sufficient grounds for annulment, and I have read (I don't remember where) theorizing to the effect that it could well be sufficinet to convert an apparent marriage into a legalized fornication. I'm not sure how far to go with that.

#2, on the other hand, is a question the couple must be asking themselves constantly. This is the case with all of our activities, sexual or not. They must be esamined. I don't believe the church can healthily inturde far into such delicate matters if conscience.

However, if one wants an opinion, mine would be that sexual acts contrived to avoid children are probably always less than holy, and should not occur. As it happens, I am a very old-fashioned conservative in such matters. I don't even really approve of the "Rhythm method".

I do contend that asking those questions, under properly spiritual guidance is sufficient to lead to almost all answers of omportance. I don't believe that a catalog of what is acceptable and what is not can come anywhere near doing that. Humans are inventive, both in holiness and in sin.

I'm in complete agreement, however, that such matters should be discussed, and perhaps in considerable detail, with the couple's priest, as I am not convinced that modern people, especially the young, have the necessary depth to make such decisions entirely unguided.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

I am not sure that Ed read Paul Goings' point #1 carefully. I think he assumed that the it was asking only about the act of copulation. The question was whether or not point #1 is correct, that point being:

If a couple's married life is generally oriented toward the bringing forth of children, then any particular acts are permissible, irrespective of whether the acts themselves are so oriented...

If "any particular acts" refers to practices other than normal sexual intercourse, then the answer is that the point is wrong. A couple is not free to engage in "wicked inventions," such as oral "sex" for example, or use of the "back door." Some things are simply unnatural, and therefore not licit. Even if they are "generally oriented toward the bringing forth of children" and usually engage in wholesome sexual intercourse, such "extra curricular" acts as I have mentioned are still unclean and sinful.

Also, not every sexual act can be expected to bring forth children, especially among older couples. But, marital relations are still perfectly good. And, we do have Biblical precedent for the possibility of Divine power creating life where it requires a miracle (John the Baptist and Isaac).

Albion Land said...

Fr Hart wrote:

If "any particular acts" refers to practices other than normal sexual intercourse, then the answer is that the point is wrong.

A couple is not free to engage in "wicked inventions," such as oral "sex" for example, or use of the "back door." Some things are simply unnatural, and therefore not licit.


I am afraid that I have to take strong issue with Fr Hart here, though I don't know to what extent because he has not fully catalogued what he considers to be "unnatural acts."

In my view, those practices in which a couple engages that are done lovingly and with the purpose of giving pleasure to the beloved are not practices that any God I know would condemn. (I recognise that I lay myself open to the charge of supporting sado-masochism, but let us be reasonable, people).

I would ask that Fr Hart tell us under what authority he speaks, and where the full catalogue of unnatural acts he has in mind is forbidden. I can certainly recall nothing I have ever read in the Bible that I can imagine as supporting such an exclusivist position, if you'll pardon the pun.

And if we take this argument to the extreme, then we must logically insist that every time a couple engage in intercourse, they must be seeking to create a child, or otherwise they sin.

Paul Goings said...


Since this is your 'blog, at least in part, and since you appear to be comfortable with a technical discussion of the issue, I am happy to be more direct, which also should cause less confusion.

It would seem that it is obvious that intercourse in marriage is not generally a series of strictly mechanical acts. That is, the husband and wife generally do not simply remove their clothing, achieve penetration, and work diligently at the act until climax, after which they again dress, and then resume the other activities of their day. This is not to say that this does not occur in some marriages, only that it does not seem to be all that common, nor necessarily the only morally correct way to approach this expression of marital affection.

Thus it is probably more correct to agree that marital "intercourse" also refers to acts of affection that occur before and after the actual act of copulation. The question then needs to be asked whether certain expressions of affection fall outside of what is morally permissible for Christians. These acts include intimate kisses and caresses, manual stimulation of the breasts and genitalia, and also "oral sex" (fellatio and cunnilingus). If, as I believe you assert, there is to be a blanket prohibition of everything that is not directly procreative, then it would seem that even (deep) kissing would be prohibited. If not, then where is the line to be drawn, if anywhere?

The position seemingly taken by most Roman theologians today is that all such acts are permissible in the wider context of an act of marital love, but it is necessary that the actual copulation should be oriented towards procreation; that is, the man should deposit his seed in the woman's vagina during an act of natural intercourse. This avoids drawing a bright line, but has the disadvantage of being too permissive in some people's opinions. However, I have not yet seen any real middle way established by someone who rejected both of the above perspectives.

Where do you stand in this spectrum?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

It is not desirable to set up some list of regulations. Obviously, intercourse is part of a sexual relationship that includes quite a lot of affection, and that is also the main event after foreplay (without which, it is often impossible). Because the sexual relationship is part of marriage, the whole idea of casual sex is an outrage against the sacrament of matrimony.

Furthermore, in a healthy marriage sex is always present even though sexual acts cannot be always present. The man is always the man, and the woman is always the woman. I say the man and the woman, for so they are to each other. The bond is always there, and so should be the expression of romantic love, unique to that one relationship, never shared with any other party.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Unnatural acts, to answer Albion's question, consist of climatic genital acts that cannot possibly ever produce life.

Albion Land said...

Fr Hart,

We are still lacking in this discussion citation of the authority by which you declare acts to be natural and unnatural, licit and illicit.

Albion Land said...

By way of starting the discussion on authority, I suggest that we look at I Corinthians 7, in which St Paul lays out extensive teaching on marriage.

And I will be provocative by saying that I do not see how an honest reading of this chapter can be intepreted in any other way than I alluded to in my previous comment:
those practices in which a couple engages that are done lovingly and with the purpose of giving pleasure to the beloved are not practices that any God I know would condemn.

Anonymous said...


Fr. Robert Hart said...

It does not fit I Corinthians 7, or any part of scripture, to replace the two becoming one flesh with kinky inventions. The two are made one flesh, says St. John Chrysostom, in the child. One plus one equals one. Even if St. John Chrysostom's interpretation does not convince someone, it is very clear that what God has ordained in marriage is that the two are to be made one flesh. It is also clear that St.Paul relates this directly to sexual intercourse in the very same Epistle, I Corinthians.

But, various forms of mutual masturbation (involving genitals with something other than the genitals of the opposite sex, exclusively one's spouse) do not make the two into one flesh. Such practices are no different in principle from homosexual practices, even if between a man and woman who are married.

poetreader said...

Father Hart, perhaps I was a bit over-cautious in my remarks, intending to follow Mr. Going's lead, and seemed to include less than I meant. It is indeed the whole range of actions I meant.

I find the distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" acts to be decidedly unhelpful. It can be argued that what can be done is "natural". especially when it does occur in "nature" outside the human species. Yes, there are philosophical points that can be brought forward, but they end up not communicating to any who do not hold the particular viewpoint.

I also find that the tendency to catalogue what is or is not permissible leads into some strange waters, and prefer not to go there.

I'm further not going to poke my nose into a married couple's bedroom and begin to judge them.

I'm led back to my original premise that we need to find in Scripture and in Tradition what it is that God has promised to bless -- like the bank clerk we need to study the real thing.

Albion, I'm not sure the discussion in terms of authority is really on track here. I do not find the Bible to be speaking of specific acts, whether to permit or to forbid, but I do find an overall pattern in what Scripture says positively about marriage and sexuality that should be leading Christians to examine every aspect of marriage, including but not limited to the mechanocs of sex, with the question, "What does God want?"

The question is not what I want, pr what makes me or another feel good, or, conversely, what I distinctly dislike or find to be icky, but it is what fits the pattern God has in mind. Things that feel good, or that make someone else feel good, are not necessarily things that God blesses.

On such grounds, though I do not wish to stand as judge, I have to state an opinion that "alternate" acts of congress, such as have been discussed, and contraception (even the rhythm method) don't appear to fit the pattern I find in Scripture, and thus should, at the very least, be strongly questioned.


poetreader said...

Fr. Hart,

we cross-posted, and while I was writing, you were saying pretty much what I was thinking. Does it fit God's pattern or not?


Paul Goings said...

Unnatural acts, to answer Albion's question, consist of climatic genital acts that cannot possibly ever produce life.

Fr Hart,

Your statement reflects what I understand as the position of most conservative moral theologians in the Roman church. It is specific enough so that conscientious married persons can know without scruple whether or not their intimate acts are consistent with what the Church teaches, but neither does it attempt to provide an exhaustive list (which would be impossible, as Mr Pacht reminds us above).

I would point out, however, that what you have said here does indeed permit what at least most people would refer to as "oral sex," assuming that it is anticipatory to natural intercourse (where at least the husband's climax would occur).

Miss McColl,

I sympathize with your embarrassment, and I apologize for the necessity of this technical discussion on a semi-private 'blog.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Your statement reflects what I understand as the position of most conservative moral theologians in the Roman church.

Well, from what I have read it reflects the Fathers also. But, also, I believe the scriptures speak of the man and wife becoming one flesh as, to use Ed's way of putting it, what God blesses.

at least most people would refer to as "oral sex," assuming...

Rather than the technical term, I was hoping to stick to using the phrase "the Clinton preference." Look, if that is a normal rung on the ladder, then I'm not normal, and don't want to be. Certain things just don't seem meant for each other, and that's two of them.