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Children and the Public Interconnectedness of Marriage

It is the teaching of the church over centuries that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, a union to extend as long as they both are living, and one that is open to the procreation of new life. In the last century we had heated debates in the churches (Anglican and otherwise) concerning the second of those three characteristics, the endurance of marriage until one of the parties has died, and we have made various accommodations to divorce or to sometimes rather creative declarations of nullity. We have also, more recently, had heated debates and divisions over the first item, that marriage is a union of two persons of, as we used to say, opposite sexes. But we have not, perhaps, thought deeply enough about the third item, the openness of marriage to bringing into existence new life through the union of the man and the woman.

That Christian teaching expects married couples, in normative circumstances, to have children, can come as a surprise. I have known young adults of very traditional or conservative dispositions — people who would eschew, for instance, premarital sex — utterly surprised to learn that whether they have children, once they are married, is not simply a matter of their own decision. When I tell them that if they marry with the intention of not having children their marriage would not be Christian marriage, the news stuns them.

To be honest, I could have been them when I married nearly half a century ago. I too was surprised when a seasoned Anglican priest — a moderate, kindly, widely respected guy — explained his premarital instruction to me. He said that if the couple were not intending to have children, and if all other things were equal (that is, if they were of an age to have children and had no medical or genetic reason to avoid having children), then he would not celebrate the wedding. Full stop. The proverbial feather would have knocked me over.

In fact, this tradition is clear in the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage rubrics. In the 1662 Book, there is a prayer for God to “assist” the couple “that they may both be fruitful in procreation of children” and “see their children christianly and virtuously brought up.” The rubric before the prayer, however, says that if the woman “is past childbearing” it shall be omitted.

The Episcopal Church’s 1979 prayer book allows the petition for children to be omitted — it has a vertical line beside it, the way our BCP generally indicates prayers that can be omitted. Following the lines of an optional prayer in the 1928 Book, the 1979 petition asks God to bestow upon the couple, “if it is your will,” the “gift and heritage of children.”

I have interpreted God’s will in this matter to be something that we discover by using our reason. If both parties carried, recessively, a dangerous gene, that (it has seemed to me) is the sort of thing that could be part of a prayerful and godly decision not to have children. This I would understand as an extension of the traditional recognition that one might avoid children simply by being beyond childbearing age.

It is also the case that sometimes children simply are not given, despite a couple’s openness. There is no Christian expectation, in such a case, that they will resort to special means — which are often invasive and difficult, not to mention expensive — in order to have children. There is no moral obligation to pursue the matter further, and indeed some methods are morally problematic. (Think, for instance, of the vast number of “excess” embryos in cold storage.) The teaching is: be open to children, but hold lightly your hopes and expectations.

But all this I have written about before, in various ways. What has recently impressed itself upon me is a further implication of the importance of children: openness to children connects a marriage to the larger society in significant ways of gift and obligation.

The petition (in both 1928 and 1979) refers to “the gift and heritage of children.” Heritage is significant: parents and children form a link in the trans-temporal biological and spiritual connection of human generations. (Note that to “generate” — to give birth and to father, the word includes both — is to produce “generations.”) To have a heritage is to be connected with realities that are beyond oneself and ultimately beyond one’s control. A couple that has a heritage of children is a couple that lives on after they have died, even as that couple itself bears and enfleshes the inheritance of generations before it. Children, that is to say, are the sacramental sign and rather physical reality of a couple being connected with life beyond themselves.

The 1979 petition goes on to ask God to help the couple rear their children so that they know, love, and serve God. This is the deepest element of the heritage of children: to populate of the kingdom of God, to bring into being new saints for the worshipful, eternal life of paradise. But such a prayer does not look solely to the life that follows our earthly life. Children who know and serve and love God are people who also love and serve other people. The first and great commandment has a second that is like unto it! So Jesus taught, and so the epistle of St. James also underscores: to love God necessarily entails love of neighbor. Thus to have children and to rear them in the Lord is to make new and serious connections with one’s neighborhood and city and, in general, one’s society. The citizens of the kingdom of God, as Augustine said, are also the best citizens the earthly city could have.

So Christian families become positive additions to their neighborhoods and cities. Similarly, families have a claim upon the help of their neighbors and cities. Here is a special place for marriages that, for whatever reason, have not been given the gift and heritage of children. They can be special enclaves of support for the children of others. Here also is a special ministry to which single people are often called: to assist and become friends with children and their parents in their church or neighborhood or city.

I will speak personally here. My son and his wife and their children live in a different city from my own. A friend of mine moved to their city. This friend is a single woman. I introduced her to them on a particular visit, and she became for them a special friend for as long as she lived there: driving a granddaughter to dance lessons, for instance, and visiting their home for dinner, and inviting them over to her home from time to time, and so forth. She was a great gift to them, and they to her.

In a sense this is very ordinary. But it is also truly divine. And what we must see is: this is how marriages are connected to society, both as contributors and recipients. Children are integral to marriage because they connect marriages to society at large.

The church needs to point this out more than it does. I have some theological friends who describe nonmarital sexual relations as “private sexual relations.” Their point is that couples who are sexually intimate but not married — and who, thus, at least in contemporary upper-middle-class lives, are living without desire of children — have privatized their sexual relationships. These relationships are not in any significant way connected with society at large. They can get together and they can break up, and society neither cares nor notices.

But to have children — or to want to have children — means there is a marriage, or there is a desire for something that marriage has traditionally entailed. This is something public. It is something that makes a claim upon, and offers a contribution to, the world outside the private confines of the two people involved.

Children, thus, give us another way to see the public importance of marriage — another way to see why and how marriage is a good thing. And it is an especially good thing — indeed, a necessary thing — in the lonely society of late capitalism and extreme individualism in which so many people we know live today. We do not need to redefine marriage so that “private sexual relations” are re-described and blessed. This will not address the underlying loneliness. Rather, we need to offer people, who (alas, understandably) see “private sexual relations” as the best thing that is possible in their lonely world, a higher vision of public interconnectedness. We need to speak about the importance of children.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Amen to this. I suspect every cleric has a “stock” wedding homily. I certainly do, and it is in many ways summarized by this post. I compare a wedding to an IPO on Wall Street–an endeavor that had heretofore been private now “going public,” and inviting the public (“Will all who witness these vows …?”) to own “shares” in the relationship. Marriage is a vocation, and a wedding is the public embrace of that vocation.

  2. I would be curious to hear how the author would respond to the choice my wife and I have made (we are both in our late 20s) to adopt children rather than conceive biological children. We reached this decision after an extended period of prayer, and both of us feel called by the Holy Spirit to this role. Our desire to welcome adopted children is grounded in personal experiences of child abuse and a commitment to protecting unborn life. It is challenging for me to believe that this choice delegitimizes our marriage.

    • Stephen Holmgren, in “Ethics after Easter” (in the Church’s Teaching Series), understands adoption as a profound act of Christian charity: here is a child who needs parents. I would affirm that married people can be called to that act of love by God. I would deny that it delegitimizes a marriage.
      What needs to be clear is that adoption does not provide a child for adults who want to have children for their own self-fulfillment. But to adopt, as you have, to provide what given children need, is godly indeed. May God continue to bless you.

  3. Thank you very much for this reminder. In my writings on economies, I like to point out that human communities devise economies to ensure two essential things: short-term survival—food, shelter, etc.— and long-term survival centered around child-rearing. Both require cooperation. Marriage is understood to be the building block of any economy, since Aristotle. For most of our species’ existence, having children was considered a requirement for everyone, except vowed religious (not just Christian…).

    Your article is therefore a reminder that having and rearing children is essential to any human community, and therefore enters the moral realm.

  4. This is the type of counter-cultural direction young religious people are looking for again. As a young married 20-something Episcopalian with a child on the way, I’m looking for the Church to give traditional authoritative direction on how to live my life in my marriage and community. We want the fences back up to say this is why it was here in the first place. There are already too many options and decisions out there to make, we need our bishops and priests to help us live faithful orthodox lives again. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights on this important topic.

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