Thursday, December 10, 2009

Marriage is not Holy Matrimony

Tobias Haller has written a nice blog posting that rightly distinguishes between marriage and the sacrament of Holy Matrimony:

[There is a] subtle distinction between Holy Matrimony and Marriage. The terms really ought not be used interchangeably, though they often are. However, marriage, properly speaking, is a human phenomenon (as part of the creation; and as many believe, thus instituted by God). Even given that source, there is wide variability to the form of marriage in many cultures and countries, through time and space, including the Jewish tradition out of which the Christian tradition grew. In many respects the Christian understanding of marriage was as much influenced by prevailing Roman custom (and law) as it was by Jewish understandings.

Holy Matrimony, or “Christian Marriage” is a particular subset of these various forms of marriage. The Canons of the Episcopal Church (I.18.1) attempt to preserve this distinction, limiting Holy Matrimony to marriages that are “entered into within the community of faith,” that is, within the church. (As a side note, I will point out that the BCP rubric, page 422, allowing “Christian marriage” in which only one of the parties is a Christian, pushes the envelope considerably, and is arguably discordant.)

The Exhortation at the opening of the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, on the other hand, supports the distinction, noting that “marriage” has existed since the Creation, but that what the assembled body has “come together” for is Holy Matrimony. The Catechism, page 861, continues this clarification by stating, “Holy Matrimony is Christian marriage.” ...

Thus our church recognizes the existence of
marriages which do not come under the law of our church as Holy Matrimony.

Read it all.

I note that Tobias points out the following rubric on page 422 of The Book of Common Prayer:

In the Episcopal Church it is required that one, at least, of the parties must be a baptized Christian ...

I've always found this rubric to be rather odd. How exactly does our Church expect an unbaptized person to live into a vocation whose vows deepen and contextualize the meaning of our baptismal covenant vows and which (as I understand Holy Matrimony) signifies a particular response to our Lord's invitation, "Follow me"? And on what grounds do we allow the unbaptized access to the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, but not to the sacrament of Holy Eucharist?


The Underground Pewster said...

Paul tried to address this problem in 1 Corinthians 7. Although this passage raises some issues with the issue of divorce.

12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Bryan Owen said...

Actually, Underground Pewster, if I'm not mistaken, in 1 Corinthians Paul is addressing the issue of persons who have become Christians after they're already married. It's possible, I suppose, to make the argument that the basic principle here could apply to persons who aren't yet married and who are preparing to marry non-Christians.

I have no idea if such an extension of this Pauline principle was the justification for this particular Prayer Book rubric.

I do know that, according to the on-line Catholic encyclopedia New Advent, Christian marriage is defined as "marriage between baptized persons."

plsdeacon said...

I've also thought it strange that only one person has to be baptized for the priest to solemnize the marriage (turn marriage into Holy Matrimony).

But IIRC, the priest is not hte minister of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. The husband and wife are the ministers in this sacrament. All the priest does is to offer God's blessing on the union and (at least in the US) fulfill the legal requirements for the state. So, it is not a matter of the Church offering the Sacrament of Marriage to an unbeliever and withholding the Sacrament of Eucharist from the same unbeliever. The Church does not administer the sacrament of marriage.

If we look at Matrimony this way - that it is not church nor the clergy who administer the sacrament, then it makes sense for the priest to solemnize the marriage between a believing person and a non-believing person. You could almost say that the marriage is a sacrament for the believer and not a sacrament for the unbeliever. I'm not sure I like that, but there it is.

On a practical note, it probably allows the priest to celebrate at the marriage between the grande dame's daughter (or grand daughter) and her unbelieving beau.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Points all well taken, Phil, but Tobias' observation that the canons limit Holy Matrimony (as opposed to marriage) "within the community of faith" that is the Church remains a sticking point. While it is true that the ministers of the sacrament are the two persons making the vows, it's also true that the Church (represented by clergy and the gathered assembly of the faithful) play an indispensable role here. I note, for instance, the Prayer Book rubric which require "that the ceremony be attested by at least two witnesses" (BCP, p. 422). But then again, this rubric does not specify that the witnesses be baptized persons.

I still don't have a good answer to the question about what the implicit call to (deeper) discipleship that distinguishes Holy Matrimony as a "holy union" from marriage can possibly mean for an unbaptized person whose wedding ceremony is conducted using this liturgy and with the blessing of the Church on the union (BCP, p. 424). I have yet to confront this issue in my own ordained ministry, but if I were starting premarital counseling with a couple, and one of them was unbaptized, I would want to talk about the implications of making the marriage vows in the context of a sacramental rite. Is the person willing to take on what it means to enter into a sacramental way of life with the intention that the relationship be a living icon of "the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church" (BCP, p. 423)? And what does it mean to go through with this ceremony using the Prayer Book liturgy if one has no intention of becoming a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ?

Of course, I am again assuming that a particular way of following Jesus is central to the meaning of Holy Matrimony as opposed to marriage.