Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Marriage as an estate. . .

In the olden days when marriages were announced by the publishing of the banns, marriage was understood as something sacred entered into by a man and a woman.  Yes, I know that this is considered borderline hate speech today but please keep reading.  The presumption here was that marriage existed as an institution, an order, and an estate before the particular couple chose to be married.  A man and a woman would enter the estate of matrimony, a holy and honorable estate which was established by God and which symbolizes the union betwixt Christ and His Church.  The bride and groom did not establish the marriage but sought to enter into the holy estate.  They did not so much act as the priests of this sacramental union but their priestly act of consent was the first step in the conferral of the estate.

Marriage has gone through many changes over the years but the most profound evolution has turned marriage from an estate to be entered into a private relationship between consenting individuals.  In effect, marriage has become a solely private relationship and an estate defined by those who desire to be married.  While there are many ways in which this is illustrated, few are as clear as the idea of destination weddings that take place not only outside the Church proper but apart from family and friends.  These have become the epitome of a private ceremony.  That they are presided over by people who may be authorized for sole purpose of this wedding or by the self-officiant (as Washington, DC, allows) is further evidence that marriage is no longer seen as an order or estate into which a bride and groom enter but solely a private estate or relationship.  Those outside the Church are not the only ones who have begun to think of marriage in this way.  Christians are also beginning more and more to see marriage in this light.

The changes in marriage then are not so much to an institution but to the freedom of the couple to define for themselves what it means to be married.  So the liberalization of marriage to include same sex couples (and other versions across the spectrum of gender and identity) is not the only change or even the primary change in marriage we have witnessed in modern times.  In truth, this change in who gets married could not have been possible without the privatization of marriage first of all.  In the past it was not the choice of whether to marry or not (marriage was almost universal) but only who to marry.  Marriage was a public estate and the bedrock foundation of the society as a whole and the shape of culture presumed marriage as just such a public estate to which individuals might enter but an estate larger than the couple and one that pre-existed the desire of this man and this woman to marry.

Where marriage once had a standard meaning, today the word itself no longer belongs to the Church or even to the society as a whole.  It has been surrendered solely to the domain of those who marry to define.  Who marries and what it means to be married now are added to the list of responsibilities resting upon those who marry.  They must negotiate the shape of this relationship, how long it will last, and the factors by which it will be judged worthwhile or successful.  It is worth noting here that the old concepts of fidelity and procreation are nowhere to be seen in the basic blueprints of marriage from which each couple defines for themselves what marriage is and how it is lived out.

Christians and Lutherans have, in some respects, already surrendered to the individual couple the right and responsibility to define for themselves what marriage is to be.  In the marriage rite itself, the Church has conceded to the couple the freedom to define what will be included and what will not (like the word obey) as well as the vows that form the promises witnessed by the congregation.  In fact, it could be said that the old lines that once began the rite (in the presence of God) are now mere formality without any real substance or meaning.  Even the presence of witnesses has some to mean little more than spectators who will later be guests at the party that follows.  The idea that the people sitting in the congregation have any duty to pray for or help hold the couple accountable to their marriage when the worse, poorer, and sickness tests the bounds of their commitment.  In essence, the idea of a no-fault divorce was the first fruits of such a privatization of marriage and the effective presumption that the couple being married are in charge.

To reclaim marriage means at least to re-establish the fact that marriage as an order, estate, and institution exists apart from and prior to the decision of and the rites that bind this man to this woman.  That marriage is public and not private is the greater battle -- greater even than the battle against the idea of same sex marriage.  Those churches refusing to allow same sex marriage may have already surrendered the reasons why marriage is between one man and one woman by ceding the privacy of marriage against its public nature and identity.  We would all do well to think about this as we attempt to hold our ground against the press to marry whomever wishes to be married.  If marriage is private, no church has the right or authority to define who is included or who is excluded.

1 comment:

William Weedon said...

Hence, the strength of the old Lutheran rite for holy marriage from Luther’s own pen. It’s hard to beat, in my opinion.