By Catherine Sider-Hamilton
Why does marriage matter? What is at stake in changing the marriage canon? In the reflection that follows I will address these fundamental questions by reading Scripture as ‘This Holy Estate’ (henceforth, THE) invites us to read it. The biblical narrative, I will argue, locates marriage at the centre of the history of a good creation, a creation gone awry, and God’s redeeming action; to this narrative, further, sexual difference is essential.
“Interpretation is the practice of locating ourselves in the biblical narrative of God’s unfolding purpose to redeem the good creation that has fallen through sin” (THE 5.1.1). Marriage, as it is treated in the biblical narrative, invites us to do just this: to locate ourselves in the biblical narrative in and through marriage, and so to locate ourselves in God’s redeeming purpose.
Marriage runs deep in the Christian narrative. God gives it to the man and the woman in creation: “This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”; “Therefore, a man leaves his father mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:23-24; cf. 1:27-28). Sin distorts marriage in particular: “in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). The wedding feast is the place where redemption begins to break forth upon the world, in the water made wine at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-12). Indeed, the wedding feast serves as harbinger and pledge of the peace at the end of all things: the final harmony of a redeemed creation with its redeeming God in the marriage feast of the lamb (Rev. 19:9, 21:1-4, 21:9). The biblical witness places the marriage of man and woman at the center of God’s purpose in creation and in redemption.
The marriage liturgy in the Book of Alternative Services (as in the Book of Common Prayer) recognizes the centrality of marriage. Marriage, the rite begins in the BAS, “is a gift of God and a means of his grace, in which man and woman become one flesh” (p. 528). Their union (“one flesh”) stands now as a sign of redemption — because the union of man and woman, given in creation and distorted in their turning away from God, is in Christ restored. In Christ, they may again “know each other with delight and tenderness in acts of love” (ibid.). The distortion of relationship that follows from the act of the man and the woman in Genesis 3 may in marriage be redeemed. In their redeemed union the man and the woman stand as sign and beginning of a larger redemption, the world’s return to communion with its God. It is a return to communion known in the union of Christ with his Church, a union that (the biblical witness declares) marriage signifies (Eph. 5:25-31).
The whole sweep of the Christian narrative is thus encompassed in marriage.
What we say about marriage, then, matters. Marriage cannot be separated from the Christian narrative of salvation, the narrative that moves from God’s work in creation through the brokenness of sin to the dawn of redemption: creation restored, communion given again.
This is the first and central point. Marriage is given by God as a lived sign and enactment of Christian hope. It is a central expression of our faith; it is a witness to God’s redeeming action in the world. What we say about marriage, what we do about marriage, must be faithful to this hope.
The second point is this: sexual difference is fundamental to this sign. Woman and man we are made, and this bodily difference constitutes marriage in particular: “‘This one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’ Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:23b-24, emphasis added). To become one flesh in the physical union of marriage belongs to the nature of man and woman; the marriage union follows from and is a fulfilment of their natures.
Genesis 1 implies the same thing. “So God created humankind in his image … male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Gen. 1:27a, 28a). The sexual union that, in law, is necessary to the existence of a marriage follows from the male-female distinction. Further, it is in this male-female complementarity that we enact (in part) our nature as people made in God’s image: as man and woman united in marriage, we are able to bring forth children. “Be fruitful and multiply”: in procreation man and woman in marriage share in God’s creative work. In the biblical narrative, then, the male-female distinction belongs to the nature and purpose of marriage.
There are many other purposes for our lives: prophet, priest, teacher, friend, even celibate; in the New Testament, celibacy’s witness to the absolute priority of the kingdom of God is at least as important as marriage, if not, as Paul suggests, more so (see 1 Cor. 7:25-40). But insofar as marriage is given to us in creation as the purpose of maleness and femaleness and the sacrament of God’s image in us, and insofar as marriage is given to us in redemption as sign and beginning of creation restored, it is given to us in this particular way: as male and female, in this difference of body as well as of mind and soul. Preserving the distinction of the sexes in marriage is not discriminatory, in the negative sense. It defines marriage.
Creation and Christ alike thus tell a mystery: that the body matters. And this is the final point. That God loves us body and soul, that Jesus gives himself for us body and soul, that we, who are thus loved, are called to live for him with our body as well as with our soul: this is the Christian faith’s constant song. We “locate” ourselves in the biblical narrative only by attending to this point.
To take the body out of marriage — to say that sexual difference does not matter — is to take the heart out of our faith. It is this world that God made and loves, flesh and bone, tree and rock and river, bodies beautiful and broken, groaning for redemption. It is this world, flesh and bone, that God saves: on the wood of the Cross, in the pierced hands of Jesus the Christ. The Cross is real. It has the hard edges, the inescapable particularity, of sin and pain and death and life. So, too, with marriage.
Why does sexual difference in marriage matter? Because it speaks to the fullness of God’s purpose, the great hope that is ours: that God in Jesus the Christ loves this world body and soul, that God in the Word made flesh is redeeming this world body and soul. All flesh shall see the salvation of our God, and the world one day — this beautiful creation, every rock and tree and suffering body — will be made whole.
To walk through the biblical narrative as This Holy Estate asks us to do is to discover that marriage in God’s purpose has a particular shape: a shape that speaks to Cross and to redemption; a shape to which sexual difference is necessary. As the union of one man and one woman in body, mind, and spirit, marriage recalls God’s work in creation and the human tendency to turn away from God — a tendency known first precisely in the man and the woman; as the union of one man and one woman in body, mind, and spirit, marriage announces to the world in Christ its redemption.
To change the marriage canon so as to ignore sexual difference is to tell a different story — no longer God’s story, the narrative of creation and sin and salvation given in the biblical witness and reflected in the church’s canon and marriage liturgy, but a story we spin for ourselves: marriage that can lead us only back upon ourselves, marriage divorced from the narrative of sin and the concrete saving purpose of God.
The Rev. Dr. Catherine Sider-Hamilton is priest-in-charge at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Toronto, and assistant professor of New Testament and Greek at Wycliffe College.
The introduction and links to other essays in “Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’” may be found here.
The featured image is “Pathfinding” (2013) by Flikr user Pranavian. It is licensed under Creative Commons.