Weddings and marriage have been in the news a lot recently. Same sex marriage and revising the wedding vows are not unrelated issues but reflect the community’s confusion about the nature of marriage and the place of weddings.
Over the last 30 years Anglican wedding services have evolved steadily away from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. This change in theology and liturgy has undermined the minister’s ability to teach the faith and help couples to understand marriage.
It should be obvious that the Bible is the basis for Christian understanding of marriage. It teaches that marriage is a work of God in creation, symbolising our redemption, just as it speaks of the ways to conduct ourselves in marriage in the light of our creation and redemption.
The Book of Common Prayer(1662) is held by the Anglican Church of Australia to be “the authorized standard of worship and doctrine of this Church, and no alteration in or permitted variation from … shall contravene any principle of doctrine or worship laid down in such standard”.
The Anglican Church of Australia has produced two prayer books: An Australian Prayer Book (1978) and A Prayer Book for Australia (1995). The first of these, 1978 was accepted by the whole Australian church, but the second, 1995 was not accepted by everybody – the Diocese of Sydney rejected it, though certain sections became acceptable variations.
The simple changes in these prayer books involved modernising 17th century English into contemporary wording. The more dramatic change was to offer alternatives. The 1662 book had only one form of each service. The Australian books gave us two or more variations. Generally the 1978 provided a ‘conservative’ form, which was an updated version of the 1662, as well as a completely new ‘contemporary’ form. The 1995 book offered even more variations.
However, it was in the evolution of these variations, such as in the wedding service that the Bible and the 1662 standard were left behind. For the ‘contemporary’ form of 1978 became the ‘conservative’ form of 1995, and the genuinely Anglican form of 1662 was omitted entirely.
The Bible teaches that God made humanity as male and female so that out of the unity of husband and wife would come children who would be raised to godliness as they filled and subdued the world (Genesis 1:26-28, 2:18-25, Malachi 2:10-16, Matthew 19:3-6). Jesus explained marriage in these terms: “He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Marriage is therefore intended as a lifelong, monogamous, procreative union of a man and a woman. Its male and female polarity is God’s intention in creation and reproduction. Its unity is made by God and maintained by each party being faithful to the promises of their common agreement or covenant. Faithfulness rather than love lies at the basis of this union. Marriage symbolises Christ’s relationship with his bride the church – symbolising both the union between Christ and his church and also the diverse responsibility of the groom and bride (Ephesians 5:22-33).
This Biblical teaching is reflected throughout the 1662 service, such as in the introduction when the minister enumerates the reasons for marriage as (i) procreation, (ii) remedy against sin (drawn from 1 Corinthians 7 and 1 Thessalonians 4), (iii) companionship.
Similarly, the 1662 service emphasizes the Biblical teaching on the differing responsibilities of husband and wife. Not only are the consent and vows different for men and women, but also it is only the man who gives a ring and his wealth. At the end of the service we read: ‘if there be no Sermon declaring the duties of Man and Wife, the Minister shall read as followeth. “All ye that are married, or that intend to take the holy estate of Matrimony upon you, hear what the holy Scripture doth say as touching on the duty of husbands towards their wives, and wives towards their husbands.”’ There follows a sermon addressing first the husband and then the wife, using and reading three passages of scripture (Ephesians 5, Colossians 3 and 1 Peter 3) that differentiate the responsibilities of husbands and wives.
The contemporary service of 1978 changed all this. Children became the last reason for marriage, not the primary one. Marriage was now about love: a relationship of “a deepening knowledge and love of each other”. More striking still was the removal of all gender distinctive responsibilities. The consent and vows for groom and bride were identical. Worse still they became vacuous – giving each other the “honour due” as wife and husband without explaining what such honour is.
In 1995 the contemporary service of 1978 became the conservative service and a new contemporary service was introduced. All the services of 1995, even the conservative one, were unisex with identical consent and vows. Totally missing was any teaching on differing responsibility of husband or wife. Now the reason for marriage was first and foremost for love and secondly where children ‘may be’ born.
All this matches society’s move away from marriage, away from life-long monogamy, away from commitment and faithfulness, away from family life towards the romance called ‘love’, away from ‘husbands and wives’ or even ‘spouses’ to ‘partners’.
Sadly Anglican liturgies have given up on the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer. This is not Christianity accommodating its language into the terms of today, or being relevant to changing circumstances. This is Christianity submitting itself to society’s rejection of the Creator and his ways. This is “being conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2).
Family life is where creation speaks deeply and intuitively to people and where today’s unhappy society is so desperately in need of the cross. This is the time and the place to teach accurately the Creator’s purpose and the Redeemer’s actions.