A talk on Marriage, at the Morden mosque – Pentecost eve 24th May 2012

Thanks to everyone for being here, to the Ahmadiyya Community for hosting us, and especially to Imam Naib Amir Sahib, national missionary who will speak about a Muslim understanding of marriage, and the Imam of the Morden mosque, Naseem Ahmad Bajwa.

A Christian understanding of marriage has as its foundation, the Bible – Old and New Testaments together. Without a Biblical base, marriage cannot be called “Christian.” There are of course, many other views as to what marriage is. While the Prime Ministers of the U.K. and France and the President of the USA, with some Christian clerics may want to redefine marriage, that is hardly my concern here – although I will not ignore their views completely. Today, together we have the opportunity to review a Christian view and a Muslim view of marriage. My task is to review a Christian understanding of marriage, which will be Bible-based.

I begin with the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Genesis is attributed to Moses in the desert wanderings with the twelve tribes of Israel. The great prophet Moses, or Musa in Arabic, drawing together the accounts of the beginnings of their confederacy and descriptions of the creation of everything, hitherto passed on by story-tellers, down the generations. Moses, who had been schooled in reading and writing, in the royal court of Pharoah.

‘Marriage did not evolve in the late Bronze Age as a way to determine property rights. At the climax of the Genesis account of creation, we see God bringing a man and woman together to unite them in marriage. The Bible begins with a wedding (of Adam and Eve. It ends incidentally, with the book of Revelation and a wedding (of Christ and the church.’ I will come back to that. ‘Marriage is God’s idea. As a human institution, and it reflects the character of particular human cultures in which it is embedded. But the concept and roots of human marriage are in God’s own action, and therefore what the whole Bible says about God’s design for marriage is crucial.’ (Tim Keller – the Meaning of Marriage).

A human institution. This is brought out in a wedding sermon, written by the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonheoffer was in prison for criticising the ruling Nazi party in Germany, he was put to death for his views just before the end of the war in 1945. He could not attend the wedding of a young pastor Eberhard to his wife Renate in 1943, but he wrote to them a letter from prison, in which he said this: “It is obvious, and it should not be ignored, that it is your own very human wills that are at work here, celebrating their triumph. The course that you are taking at the outset is one that you have chosen for yourselves; what you have done and are doing is not in the first place, something religious, but something quite secular. So you yourselves, and you alone, bear the responsibility for what no one can take from you; or, to put it more exactly, you, Eberhard, have all the responsibility for the success of your venture, with all the happiness that such responsibility involves, and you, Renate, will help your husband and make it easy for him to bear that responsibility, and find your happiness in that. Unless you can boldly say today: ‘That is our resolve, our love, our way’, you are taking refuge in false piety.”

There is no time now, to go into a theological exposition about the control that of course God exercises over his creation “inshallah”, alongside our human freewill. Simply, the Genesis account of creation tells us, that humankind is made in the image of God, that we have freewill, that we can choose either to acknowledge God in all things, or to ignore him – as Adam and Eve chose.

Bonheoffer goes on, conscious more than most people who have ever lived of how human selfishness can choose the depths of human pride and selfishness, as he bravely stood against the ‘master-race’ philosophy of the Nazis. He wrote in his marriage letter: “however much you rejoice that you have reached your goal, you will be just as thankful that God’s will and God’s way have brought you here; and however confidently you accept responsibility for your action today, you may and will put it today with equal confidence into God’s hands. As God today adds His ‘Yes’ to your ‘Yes’, as He confirms your will with His will, and as He allows you, and approves of, your triumph and rejoicing and pride, He makes you at the same time instruments of His will and purpose both for yourselves and for others. In His unfathomable condescension God does add His ‘Yes’ to yours; but by doing so, He creates out of your love something quite new – the holy estate of matrimony.”

So, marriage is a human institution, but first it was designed by God, for the happiness and best welfare – shalom, salaam, of humankind. Back now to the Bible and the rest of the Old Testament. The 39 books of the Old Testament incidentally describe our human condition with great honesty, describing those who swing between what they selfishly desire, and their desire to follow God’s way for them. Abraham, Ibrahim, father of both Jewish and Arab nations, called a great hero of Godly faith in the New Testament book of Hebrews, several times is described as failing God. Then, Isaac’s wife is chosen for him, (Incidentally, I love the servant’s words recorded there. Tasked with the job of finding Isaac a wife, the servant said: “I, being in the way, God led me.”)

But then Isaac’s family can only be described as dysfunctional, as Jacob steals his older brother’s birth-right. Jacob has several wives who give birth to the 12 sons who found the 12 tribes of Israel. Marital relations continue to be fluid until the generations of King David. There is in the Bible the beautiful love-story between Ruth and Boaz, David’s great-grandparents. But then King David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent having her husband murdered, are considered great sins before God, denounced by the prophet Nathan. But God still works His purpose in the face of David’s repentance; while the child of the adulterous act dies at birth, David marries Bathsheba and has another son, Solomon, who became the most glorious and powerful of all the Kings of old Israel.

Solomon himself of course, in an effort to prove himself better than any other King, had many 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3), a fact to which is attributed the division of his Kingdom immediately after his death. So the Old Testament books continued to be written, down the centuries, most concerned not so much with human marriage and its failings, but emphasising the all-importance of faithfulness with God. God tells the prophet Hosea to use the unfaithfulness of his Hosea’s wife to him, as a parable of Israel’s unfaithfulness towards God. The great prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah all tell the same story of Israel’s unfaithfulness to their God. God longs for His people to be faithful to him, but they let God down, again and again.

In the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi 2:16 God says: “I hate divorce.” Not divorcees, please note, but divorce. God hates divorce between humans, because it echoes unfaithfulness between humankind and God. So here again, the main point of what I am saying and with which I began. For Christians (and anyone who takes the Old Testament authoritatively), our human relationships simply echo, reflect the relationship God has created us to enjoy, with Himself.

So to the New Testament: Jesus restates the Genesis teaching, in the context of a question about divorce (Matt 19:4, repeated in Mark 10) “Havn’t you read, that in the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said: ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’” There then follows a discussion about how hard a ‘no divorce’ rule is. (Which it would be nice to have time to go into, but I don’t have time; someone might want to ask a question later on that). But after Jesus’ repeating the Genesis ordinance for marriage, there then follows what I believe is of huge significance, but is usually ignored: Jesus teaching about the importance of children, also found in Luke 9.

In Matthew 18 and Mark 9, there is further detail about the importance of children, with terrible warning about those who hurt children. I find it amazing, that in all the talk among Western secularists about marriage being redefined, the place of children is nearly totally, and I have to say wilfully ignored.

Anyone who knows anything about Middle East/ Semitic society from Abraham to the present day, Arabs and Jews together, the first place of children in a marriage is a total given. But, and there is a but, that does not mean children become more important than one’s spouse. How can they be, when wife and husband have become ‘one flesh’? Children come first, above all else, to the couple who have become a single unit, but to that single unit, then yes, children come first in order of importance.

Important too of course, is the mutual love and support than one in a couple give to the other. Neither can children come into being at all, without the sexual union of a man and a woman. But it is for the nurture of children that the marriage of two-people-who-have-become-one finds its prime purpose. (And, incidentally, which continues for life, and as I am discovering with great joy, includes the influence that grand-parents can have on the nurture of their grand-children, through support and encouragement to their children and children’s marriage partners. There is also the great advantage that grand-children crying at night, can usually be left to their parents to comfort!)

So, to an crucially important passage half way through the New Testament, in St Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Church. There, St Paul teaches that husband and wife submit first to Christ; then wife to husband, as husband loves his wife as Christ loved the church and gave his life for it. Then in Eph 5:31, St Paul repeats the Genesis passage that Jesus repeated, about a husband and wife becoming one flesh, and then he says: “This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

The use of the Greek word for ‘mystery’ in the New Testament, always means ‘There is a great truth hidden here…’ It is not that marriage in the first place, is a good picture of the relationship between Jesus Christ and the church in the second place, but the other way round. St Paul is saying, that what is of first importance to God in creation, is the relationship of Christ and the church, and human marriage reflects that. Now, no government is going to understand this. Of course not, it is a mystery, a great Bible truth. Assuming the state does not accept the Bible as truth and shape laws accordingly, of course it won’t understand Christian marriage.

And, as I said at the beginning, St John writes this too, in the closing chapters of his Revelation, the final book of the Bible. The new heaven and the new earth will see the New Jerusalem, the church as the perfect, stunningly beautifully, bride of Christ. Of course, this is not the divided churches of the old earth that Christians are part of today. Sadly, some people of course think of themselves as Christians, without ever being part of a church family because of its tensions. There is plenty wrong with the churches as they are, but Jesus prayed for them as he prayed for his immediate disciples and then says (John 17:20): “My prayer is not for them alone, I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one…. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (17:23).

What St Paul and St John are saying, and what Christians who believe the Bible need to recognise is: Marriage is a foretaste of the unity between Jesus and Christians, together in the church – for which Christians believe he died. Now I have to admit, I don’t usually go this deep with marriage preparation of couples who are not themselves Bible-believing Christians. I hardly understand it myself. It is a great mystery. But to go on: we don’t know about the disciple John, he may have been married, but there is no record of his being so. We know that St Paul was not married, and Jesus himself was not. ‘Before the time of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament, nearly all ancient religions and cultures made an absolute value of the family and the bearing of children…. Without children you essentially vanished, you had no future. The main hope for the future was to have children. In ancient cultures, long-term single adults were considered to be living a human life that was less than fully realised…’ But: ‘Jesus Christ was the perfect human being. (Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22 – quoted by Tim Keller). St Paul’s assessment in 1 Corinthians 7 is that singleness is a good condition blessed by God: “It is good for a person not to marry.” It hadn’t been said in such a way before. The early church did not pressure people to marry and in fact supported poor widows so that they did not have to remarry.

I love the passage in Hebrews 2, where ‘Jesus, made like his brothers and sisters, brings many children to glory.’ The Christian church, brothers and sisters in Christ, is tasked by the New Testament with the responsibility to bring many sons and daughters to glory. For some it will be in a marriage relationship, conceiving and nurturing a few children – population growth these days demanding that we limit the number of children we conceive. For everyone else, still the responsibility of nurturing children in society, as St Paul argues that those who are not married are free to take on work that those who are married cannot do. My wife Hilary and I, we had four children, but then were in a position to welcome three other children into our family, hence my email address: SkinHicks. I have to admit it meant a great deal more work for Hilary than for me. For couples unable to, or who do not wish to conceive children, then for some there is the option to foster, or adopt children, who would not otherwise have the security of nurture within a loving home.  Whether in the home, or just out in society. teachers, social workers, politicians, as good neighbours; we all have a responsibility to care for children and to work for what is best for them, ie in upholding marriage which has to be by far the best environment for the successful nurture of children, by the parents that conceived them. And not of course for a moment ignoring the needs of older, vulnerable people as well.

I am running out of time. I have said nothing said about same-sex marriage, the hot topic being bandied about by politicians at the moment. Very briefly: having run youth-clubs, camps, house-parties for teenagers for nearly fifty years, It is clear to me that for many teenagers, boys particularly, sexuality is not fixed, the young male of our species is generally promiscuous in thought. Unless any society strongly encourages heterosexual, life-long marriage as the basis for the next generation of stable, happy adults, I believe it writes its own death-warrant. Western society has much to learn from Islam as well as the Bible about this.

I have said nothing about co-habitation, again a much bigger problem for Western society without the Bible, than for Islamic society, where the statistics show that marriages are generally less stable if preceded by cohabitation. I am sorry to contradict the Roman Catholic church, but contraception used responsibly within marriage must make sense in a world where we must have reached maximum population level for the well-being of all, as well as the planet itself. So I could go on, but my time is now up!

To sum up: Canon 34 of the Church of England:

1. Marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

2. The teaching of our Lord affirmed by the Church of England is expressed and maintained in the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony contained in The Book of Common Prayer.

3. It shall be the duty of the minister, when application is made to him for matrimony to be solemnized in the church of which he is the minister, to explain to the two persons who desire to be married the Church’s doctrine of marriage as herein set forth, and the need of God’s grace in order that they may discharge aright their obligations as married persons.

Grace = the infinite love, mercy, favour, and goodwill shown to humankind by
God. The condition of being free of sin, e.g. through repentance to God.

Back again – with St Hilary

Several months since my last blog, no more grand-children, but lots of family responsibilities to compete with many parish ones.  Hilary did not realise she was standing in front of a clock on the wall when proudly holding Maeva, our first Skinner grand-child, after 11 with other surnames!

Among more mundane responsibilities, is to find the best person to fill a vacancy in the Morden Team, at Emmanuel. Team clergy tend to stay awhile in Morden, but Andy Flowerday heard the call to a Brighton parish, with walking on the South Downs nearby to keep him and Frances young.  Interviews are planned for early July for his replacement.  We are in Southwark diocese, which covers most of London south of the Thames.  It has long been a haunt of crazier clergy than usual, hopefully that will not put off saner applicants, just those who want a quiet life.  Sadly, a device attempting to keep the Church of England from going off the rails completely, has failed – the Anglican Covenant did not get enough support in the dioceses.  I proposed to my 45th and 46th AGM’s here (I have two a year, one for St Lawrence, one for the team parish!)  that we debate the possibility of subscribing to the Jerusalem Declaration.  http://fca.net/resources/the_jerusalem_declaration

One church ‘elder’ in one of Morden’s team churches does not like the idea because of where it comes from (Anglicans don’t have ‘Elders’, but I hope the person concerned does not mind the informal description);  but I have little problem with GAFCON (the Global Anglican Futures Conference) held at Jerusalem nearly the same time as the last Lambeth Conference of worldwide Anglican bishops.  A few bishops went to both, many did not go to the Lambeth conference, because they did not wish to be identified with the Episcopal Church in the USA which elects bishops in same-sex relationships.  Those who consider such a stand to be narrow or sectarian, do not have a clue about the cost of Christian witness in many parts of the world, let alone any understanding about Semitic cultures out of which both Bible and Qur’an emanate.  I don’t believe the Church of England needs the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans yet, but it could be useful to have it ready in the wings, if revisionist church leaders continue to ignore orthodox Christian teaching.