Marriage is usually presented as a natural contract between a man and woman for a life-long union. The Marriage ceremony is a public ratification of this contract or covenant in the presence of witnesses. The two persons (the two parties to the contract) marry each other and are the ministers of the nuptial bond.
When matrimony takes place in Church or under the direction of a Priest or Bishop, then the Church both witnesses to this covenant and also bestows in Christ’s name a blessing on it, with suitable prayers for the couple that they will receive grace to remain faithful to each other and create a Christian family and home.
The first part of “The Form of the Solemnization of Matrimony” in The Book of Common Prayer (1928) of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. is an Exhortation, which is a shortened & edited form of that found in the English Prayer Book of 1662 (for which see below).
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this company, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee: and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly and in the fear of God. Into this holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined."
This Exhortation proclaims and emphasizes that marriage is a holy and sacred state of human life. It was given by God as a divine institution for humanity from the beginning (Genesis 2:18, 24 & Matthew 19:5) and further, it was declared by the apostle Paul to be an expression between a man and a woman of the love that Christ Jesus, the Bridegroom has for his Bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Therefore, matrimony is a unique relation between two persons and is to be entered into by them reverently, soberly and in the fear of God.
In 1979 the Episcopal Church gave final approval to its new Prayer Book which contained a service entitled, “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage”. This is wholly in “contemporary” English and it represented changes in emphasis from the service within the 1928, 1891 & 1789 editions of The Book of Common Prayer in the U.S.A. The initial address in that service made by the Priest to the Congregation is as follows:
"Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commend it to be honoured among all people.
The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God."
The first paragraph repeats what is found in the Exhortation of 1928. In the second paragraph, an attempt is made to state the purpose of marriage as a divine institution. What is stated as a purpose for all times and for all couples is mutual help, comfort and joy through their union. In contrast, the procreation of children is of more limited reference for it is only “when it is God’s will”. The latter expression could mean when the natural desire to procreate actually becomes a reality (that is, where the providence of God causes conception and birth) or it could mean (and has come to mean) when and if the couple decide they want to have children.
The Church of England introduced in 2000 a whole new set of services as alternatives and additions to those in The Book of Common Prayer (1662). The collection which is vast and growing is entitled, Common Worship. Within the volume devoted to Pastoral Services, there is “The Marriage Service”. At the beginning of the service, the minister reads the following:
"In the presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we have come together to witness the marriage of N and N, to pray for God's blessing on them, to share their joy and to celebrate their love.
Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.
The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are [born and] nurtured and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad, may find strength, companionship and comfort, and grow to maturity in love.
Marriage is a way of life made holy by God, and blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ with those celebrating a wedding at Cana in Galilee. Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty which all should uphold and honour. It enriches society and strengthens community. No one should enter into it lightly or selfishly but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God."
Here, as with the 1979 American service, there is much emphasis upon the mutual love, joy, affection and trust between the man and woman. Sexual union is specifically stated as part of the mutuality. However, procreation of children is not directly stated as a normal, specific purpose of marriage. Rather, within the mutuality of the togetherness of the couple, children can be conceived and born or they can be adopted, to be raised in a Christian family. Even so, the duty & possibility of procreation seem stronger here than in the 1979 address.
The only service for use at a marriage available in the Church of England for three centuries was “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony” from The Book of Common Prayer (1662). This service is a revised form of the Latin service used in England in the late medieval period. Here is the Exhortation with which the service begins:
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee: and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprized, nor take in hand, inadvisedly, lightly or wantonly, to satisfy man’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
First, it was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the feat and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined. "
The similarity between this Exhortation or Address and all the others is clear. Marriage is ordained of God and is for the mutual help, comfort, fellowship and joy of the couple.
The difference is also clear. First, procreation is made to be a primary purpose of marriage. Having a family is a normal outcome of getting married unless there are good reasons (infertility, old age and the like). In marrying one intends to have children.
Further, this Exhortation alone sees marriage as a provision in a fallen world, where sexual temptations are common and powerful, for people to live according to God’s will.
Of course, much water has flowed under the bridge of the marriage service (better over the institution of marriage) since the publication of the 1662 Prayer Book. We have seen the acceptance of women’s rights as part of the human and civil rights movement, the arrival of contraceptives making for “safe sex”, the advent of the divorce culture, and the common practice of co-habiting (with or without a view to getting married). In this changed situation, very few people in the church would go as far as to say that procreation is a basic purpose of marriage. They would prefer to say that it is a possible purpose depending upon the desires and wills of the couple. There is no doubt but that the emphasis today is on mutuality and this of course is made possible and sustained by contraception as well as by the divorce culture.
In this context, where co-habiting is common, where couples marry without necessarily intending to have children, where marriage is seen primarily as for self-realization and gratification within mutuality, and where divorce followed by remarriage is common ( as common amongst church members as others), it is not surprising that “same-sex couples” have successfully gained their civil rights in western society and are much on the way to gaining full rights and blessings within the churches.
Perhaps the churches of the Anglican Way need to recover the teaching of the Exhortation in the Prayer Book of 1662.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.)