Why did God make marriage?
We live in an age when people are asking big questions about marriage. A number of western nations have legally redefined marriage to include partners of the same sex. In light of this, the Church of England is engaging in protracted discussions about our doctrine and practice of marriage. Big questions are on the table. What is marriage? Who is it for? Who gets to decide?
In Till Death Us Do Part: “The Solemnization of Matrimony” in the Book of Common Prayer, Simon Vibert walks us through the content and tone of Cranmer’s answers to these questions. He begins by examining the Biblical foundation of marriage, focusing on Genesis 2:24. This text, especially in its uses in the New Testament, is ‘a key text for answering the question: Why did God make marriage?’ (p.10).
After a brief overview of the history of the Prayer Book marriage service, Dr. Vibert offers a commentary on the text of the service itself, and it is here that we are shown how Cranmer seeks to distil the biblical teaching on the purpose of marriage into his three famous reasons: for the procreation of children, as a remedy against sin, and for mutual help and comfort.
Of particular interest is the discussion of Ephesians 5 and the idea that marriage between a man and a woman is intended to mirror the relationship between Christ and the Church. A good case can be made for seeing this as the high point of Scripture’s teaching on the divine purpose in marriage. Yet it does not appear in Cranmer’s three ‘causes for which Matrimony was ordained’.
Its impact, though, is felt throughout the service. In the introduction, we are told that marriage signifies ‘the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church’. In the prayer of blessing that follows the exchange of vows, Cranmer writes of marriage ‘that in it is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church’ (the point is well made here that ‘even if the rest of the BCP service is superseded by other liturgies, it would be a shame to lose this central prayer, and it would be good to reintroduce it to all marriage services’, p.34). And in the sample sermon that Cranmer provides, Ephesians 5 is the first and key text expounded.
The changes made to Cranmer’s service in both the Alternative Service Book and in Common Worship are traced, and the more celebratory tone of these modern services is recognised as a positive step. Alongside this gain, though, something is lost in the departure from Cranmer’s language and emphasis. There is no mention of his second cause, as a remedy against sexual immorality, though that is a clear part of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5. And the illustrative aim of marriage, drawn from Ephesians 5, is given less prominence.
These changes, small though they appear, have significance for the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexual ethics in our own day. A final section highlights some outstanding questions raised by the BCP marriage service, including this: ‘Is it possible to envisage that the view of marriage expounded in the BCP could be applied to same sex marriage today? Would it be possible for a same sex couple to manifest the parabolic / mystery nature of marriage?’ (p.48) The complementarity intrinsic to Ephesians 5 and Genesis 2:24 suggests not. If our modern liturgies have obscured the centrality of this purpose of marriage, our current conversations about the practice of marriage will be the poorer for it. Dr. Vibert’s work is a welcome call for our Anglican heritage and its Biblical foundation to once again shape our understanding of what marriage is for.