Marriage is, I think, a wonderful institution. I used to say: Marriage is part of God’s plan for man. Nice and pithy, but nowadays of course you’ve got to say: Marriage is part of God’s plan for man and woman. Men and women have equal status. They’re different of course, and vive la difference! But neither is superior. That’s not what the Bible says of course. Old and New Testaments make it abundantly clear that man comes first: in creation, as we heard in the first lesson, and in just about every circumstance. Man is the head of woman. Even if they’re partners, man is the dominant partner.
For most of the history of mankind – no, of humankind – that’s been so. There remain several religions today and many places, in which it is still the case, sometimes cruelly so. And fundamentalist Christians, without the cruelty of course, would adhere to that doctrine. It’s what the Bible teaches.
And there are many ordinary people – people like you and me – who would say: Well, though we do believe that women and men are equal, it’s part of the natural order that the man in most but not all things takes the lead. In a way it’s part of our inheritance from the animal kingdom: the male has superior strength and is not tied down by pregnancy and birth and suckling.
Well, at last, women now have the vote, and can be doctors, and can be members of the armed forces, and can be prime ministers, and can be priests, and - I hope and pray - can soon even be bishops in our Church of England.
A couple of decades before the millennium the Observer, or maybe it was another national paper – I can’t exactly remember - ran a competition for the best essay about life in the year 2000. The winning entry won on its opening sentence: The Archbishop of Canterbury was in her study. Wishful thinking indeed!
Well, back to the beginning. Marriage is part of God’s plan for man. I’m sure it is. It’s the basis, the foundation of our human society. Marriage and the family is the home of love, the school of love, where love grows and where in children love is born. It’s by far the most important institution in the whole wide world. It’s part of God’s plan for us. And remember: God is love.
One of the joys of my job was taking weddings, having a share with couples in the making of their vows and in the expression of their hopes for their future life together. And I was very glad when some years ago now the opening words of our marriage service used this quotation from the New Testament: God is love, and those who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them. Isn’t that wonderful! God is love, and those who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them.
Do you think that that truth can apply not only to a man and a woman, but also to two men together or two women together? I do, but that’s another matter, and not one I want to pursue here and now.
So, back to marriage. Sadly, as we all know, it doesn’t always work out. For all sorts of reasons, a marriage can fail instead of succeed. And sometimes today the figures seem extremely alarming. Sometimes it’s said that one in every two marriages ends in divorce. But that’s entirely misleading. It’s based on the number of divorces compared with the number of weddings in one year, and takes no account of the vast number of marriages that still exist. In fact it’s just 11 out of every 1000 married people who are divorced. Even so there are approaching 120,000 divorces each year and of course every one of them represents a great deal of unhappiness, sadness and hurt. It is too many; one suspects that with good family, good friends, good counselling and goodwill some of these marriages could be kept alive and well.
Divorce, should it be allowed? That was what Jesus was asked in our reading from St Mark’s Gospel this morning. And in answer he said that Moses, the Old Testament lawgiver, did allow divorce, yet only as a concession because of the hardness of people’s hearts, but really, Jesus said, those who divorce and remarry are committing adultery. That’s pretty uncompromising, isn’t it? In St Matthew’s Gospel, however, Jesus does seem to suggest that it’s OK for a man to divorce his wife if she’s been unfaithful. But that doesn’t get us much further, and indeed to modern ears it is sexist.
So I don’t think we can today base our consideration of marriage and divorce on these very limited passages in the Bible giving us brief recollections of Jesus’ answers to questions which were put to test him. With him I think we surely want to assert that lifelong marriage to one person is the ideal, but then we want to add that, as in so many other aspects of human behaviour and society, the ideal cannot always be achieved. Reality plus compassion for people in intolerable situations tell us that there has to be the possibility of divorce.
I’ve always liked the stance which I believe is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church over this matter, which is that marriages can die: they can come to an end. When there is no longer any positive feeling or commitment between a couple and no possibility of reconciliation, then, though the marriage may still exist in law, in reality it has come to an end. And if that is the case, then it is right that it is possible to end it in law as well. And when a divorce has taken place, then those involved should be free to marry again.
This is not explicitly what the Bible says on this matter, but I believe that it fits in with the Bible’s - that is God’s - notions of truth and mercy and compassion and love.
And I can speak with some experience on this. Not that I’ve been divorced; indeed I count myself as very fortunate, very blest, that Jill and I have been happily married together for 53 years. But over the years I’ve known - and to a degree been involved - with many people who have been divorced and then married for a second time. And the second time has been the right, the good, the successful loving marriage for them, which has brought them much fulfilment and happiness.
Many years ago now, when it was legally possible - but against the Church of England’s rules - to marry divorced people in church, I stuck to the rules; but if couples wanted it, I was happy to give them a blessing in church after their register office marriage that only differed from a full wedding by omitting the legal bits. But then I rejoiced when the General Synod at last made marriage in church possible for divorced people.
Actually, you were supposed to delve into the couple’s past and ask them about their intentions for the future and even refer each case to the bishop, but I had no qualms in ignoring all of that. I just went ahead. These people were as free to marry as people who had not been married before; so what right had I or the church to question their past behaviour or their present motives?
And the couples were so grateful to be accepted and welcomed. It warmed them to the church and, I believe, to God, and a few even became regular, committed worshippers.
God is love; and those, who live in love, live in God; and God lives in them.
At the end of this morning’s second lesson there were some further words, taking us naturally - so to speak - from marriage to children. The disciples were being protective of Jesus: they tried to stop parents bringing their little children to him for him to touch them. But Jesus was indignant. “Let the children come to me,” he said, “don’t stop them.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them. A lovely picture, and an invitation, you could say, to infant baptism.
But he added something else: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdomof Godlike a little child, will never enter it.”
That of course does not mean being childish or infantile. It means having childlike qualities of wonder and awe and openness and trust and wanting to love and be loved. It’s only, says Jesus, possible to live in the realm of God if we retain some of those non-cynical, non-self-seeking, non-closed-off aspects of life.
And couldn’t we apply that truth to the realm of marriage as well? I think we could. It is couples who still, both of them, possess wonder and awe and openness and trust, who will give and get the most out of marriage and share much happiness together.
The juxtaposition of these two sayings of Jesus makes me think that there is much similarity between the Kingdomof Godand a good marriage. For which, thanks be to God.