On the 20 November 2007 the Queen was the first British monarch, ever, to have celebrated a diamond wedding anniversary. On 20 November 1947 with 2000 invited guests the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were married in Westminster Abbey, London. But why? Why marriage and why in a church? These are questions many are asking today. It is vital that they have clear answers. The breakdown of marriage that has taken place over the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh's married life is seriously destroying Britain. Iain Ducan Smith has produced an important report Breakthrough Britain which, following so many similar reports, makes it clear that the breakdown of the married family is leading to social disaster, not least for children.
Why marriage and why a church wedding?
"Why do you want to be married in church?" is the first question I always ask couples who are thinking about a wedding celebration at Jesmond Parish Church. There are various answers they give. But the fundamental answer is threefold, because at least three things happen in a church wedding.
First, the couple are calling God to witness their marriage vows.
These vows or promises are right at the heart of the service. So when you marry in church you are saying that you do not only want your family and friends to be witnesses to your vows. You are saying you also want Almighty God to be a witness. The very first words of the marriage service are these:
"We have come together in the presence of God, to witness the marriage of John and Janet (or whoever)."
So that is the first thing people are doing and, therefore, the first reason for being married in church.
A God-given gift
The second thing happening in a Church wedding is this. People are saying "Yes" to Jesus Christ's and the Bible's teaching on marriage.
The start of the service underlines one of the most important truths of this teaching in these words:
"The Bible teaches us that marriage is a gift of God in creation and a means of grace, a holy mystery, in which man and woman become one flesh".
Marriage being "in creation" means it comes before the Fall and so is for all human beings and not just for the Christian. Being a "gift of God" means that it is not just a human arrangement but a God-given institution. And what makes a marriage is not two people privately saying to each other, "I love you and want to live with you." No! It is two people saying to each other, "I love you and want to live with you. But I want publicly to make a promise to live with you for life before witnesses. I then want the law of the land to support me. I then want to make my commitment legally binding by signing a register and receiving a certificate. Then we will have sexual intercourse to consummate the marriage." The Christian following the Bible also says, "I want my love to reflect Jesus' sacrificial love for us on the cross and so be more concerned to give than to get and with duties rather than rights. God has given us the institution of marriage as a great shelter. Within this shelter we can build our relationship and, most importantly, have security for the children we hope one day to have. Yes, relationships go up and down; but marriage does not go up and down. It is not that sort of thing. It is an institution within which relationships can grow. It is marriage that grounds the relationship, not the relationship that grounds marriage."
To say and mean that is to follow the Bible's teaching on marriage. Jesus and the New Testament (the fulfilment of the Old Testament) were also strong on marriage being exclusive and permanent. Their teaching is clear. You should have no other sexual relationships before or outside heterosexual monogamous marriage; nor should you break up your marriage. That is reflected in the vows in the service. In the first set of promises each couple is asked:
"Will you take John/Janet to be your wife/husband? Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others [so no affairs], be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?"
The reply is to be "I will"; and that life-long commitment is underlined in the main vows the man and the woman both promise ...
"... 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."
Men and Women are different. The older Alternative Service Book fills out what "cherish" means for the man and the woman in line with the biblical understanding of marriage. So the man promises
"to love, cherish and worship ... according to God's holy law" while the woman promises "to love, cherish and obey ... according to God's holy law".
The phrase "according to God’s holy law [the Bible]" is very important. It defines the meaning of the words "worship" and "obey" in the promise. "According to God's holy law" there is a difference between the sexes. Also "according to God's holy law" in marriage there is to be a "biblical headship" of the man. This, however, is headship exercised through sacrificial giving and service after the pattern of Jesus himself. It is not male domineering. So “worship” is to be interpreted in its traditional and medieval sense of “worthship”, or giving “worth”, honour and support, self-sacrificially.
Then "according to God’s holy law" (and social realities) there have to be different roles in human society. One of these is leadership, even if exercised rarely and with a light touch; and leadership means some subordination. The medievals, however, distinguished political as distinct from servile subordination. Differences of role are clearly seen in areas such as the State, professional sport, the Church and marriage. In marriage men cannot biologically be mothers or women fathers. Premier [soccer] League football clubs need the roles of chairman, manager and players; and, there, the most subordinate often have the most value – £50,000 or more a week! "According to God's holy law", therefore, "obey" is to be interpreted taking note of its Latin root - "hearing respectfully" - and not of any Greek, Ancient Jewish or Muslim ideas of servile subordination. Nor "according to God’s holy law" can any subordination ever be absolute. For when man orders what God forbids or forbids what God orders, the duty is to follow God not man. Nor can biblical subordination ever be in terms of human value – "you are all one in Christ Jesus". Nor are wives to relate to husbands as children to mothers and fathers.
But, when all is said and done, the Bible gives the responsibility for the spiritual health of the family to the father. There is a spiritual headship. Hence, Adam not Eve, in the Genesis narrative of the Fall, after the man and woman had eaten the forbidden fruit, is the first to be summoned by God. Sadly, since the Fall, husbands have too often neglected that responsibility; so wives have had to take on ensuring the Christian upbringing of children. Sadly, also, too often husbands have not been sacrificially serving, but domineering. Wives, on the other hand, have too often not been respecting, but harassing their husbands. But in the Christian marriage service people are to ignore whatever the fashions of the world around happen to be at the time (these might be repressive fashions as in many Muslim States, or over-permissive fashions as in much of the West today). Rather they are saying, "Yes" to Jesus' and the Bible’s teaching on marriage.
The ring, the proclamation and prayer
In the wedding service as a symbol of that commitment wedding rings are then given and received so that in years to come someone can look at their ring and think: "Yes I made those promises to love as Christ loves me; and God has joined me together for life with my wife or husband; and God has ordained that society at large should give me support through the institution of marriage as a permanent state; and this ring is a reminder." To underline that permanence, in the Church of England service, after the minister proclaims the couple to be "husband and wife" and before the final blessing, there are these words of Jesus himself. They form the last words of the marriage itself:
"Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder."
In conclusion, the third thing that takes place in the service is prayer - prayer for God's help and blessing for the couple.
So why be married? The answer is that marriage is good for children, for the couple and for society. Not only does the Bible teach this, social science confirms it. Why be married in church? The answer should be, one, you call God to witness your vows - you know they are serious; so you want to make that commitment before him. Two, you are saying, "Yes" to Jesus' teaching on marriage, not least about marriage being exclusive and permanent - "till death us do part". And, three, you want people to pray for you.