A sermon preached at Marlborough College Chapel
7th October 2018, Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Quite a controversial reading this morning, I suspect – I hope! When I looked at the reading suggested by the lectionary, my first thought was to choose another one. Although some of you may agree with my interpretation of this reading, I am almost sure that what I will say this morning may upset and offend some people. Others may think that I am plainly wrong. For someone who doesn’t like an argument, that’s not great.
But then, I realised that this is precisely contrary to what I keep saying in my classroom: Religious Studies and Philosophy are so useful, because they help you to disagree well. I hope to encourage each of you to articulate your opinion, even if others don’t agree. And encourage a good debate, trying not to offend or upset, but yet, to learn from and with each other. So, here we go.
Two obvious issues to talk about here this morning: divorce and same-sex marriage. To start with the slightly easier one: divorce. Jesus’ words ‘Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder’ are spoken at every Church wedding, when the bride and groom are proclaimed husband and wife. The Roman Catholic Church still teaches that divorce is impossible. A marriage can only be annulled, which means effectively that it has never taken place. And only recently, the Church of England has approved the marriage of divorcees, although they still have to have an additional interview with the vicar, who can refuse.
I had one of those conversations not too long ago, with a couple who both had been married before, the man twice. I have to say, it’s an awkward conversation, poking into someone’s personal life. But two observations I would like to make. The first one is that I believe that by far the majority of people when they get married, believe that they are making a commitment for life. So yes, they do take their promises seriously, but circumstances in life change, and in some, tragic cases, it may mean that divorce is the only remaining realistic option.
What I do think is important when people get married again, is that they can articulate what is different this time. And often that means that they themselves have changed. They have learnt from the mistakes they have made, and are now ready to – again – make a commitment for life. So that is how I hold the two together: the intention for marriage to be a life-long commitment, and the realisation that because we are not perfect, this does not always work.
The other obvious issue is of course whether relationships between partners of the same sex fit within the Christian understanding of marriage. In this morning’s reading, Jesus refers to the Old Testament understanding of creation, where God created human beings as male and female: different but compatible. One of the main arguments to exclude relationships between two men or two women from marriage.
I think that complementarity is an important aspect of marriage, but I think this can be achieved in relationships of two people of the same gender as well. The other main argument is that pro-creation, having children, is one of the main aims of marriage, so hence, the spouses need to have the potential to have children.
Here, it may start to get technical, as what would this mean for a man and a woman in their sixties who would like to get married? Or people who are unable to have children for medical reasons? And what about people who raise children on their own?
Without going in too much detail, I agree – and here I am probably being old-fashioned – that both raising children and having a sexual relationships belong within a committed long-term relationship between two people, maybe even going as far as saying that they should aspire to be in a marriage. However, by saying that raising children is best done within family unit in which the parents are married, I am not saying that every marriage must lead to having children, nor that there are no exceptions to this general principle.
What I think one can say, is that at the heart of the Christian doctrine of marriage is that in their love, the spouses share in God’s love. Marriage is a vocation, these two people are made to be together. So I think that whatever the situation, if two people feel a love for each other which is real and genuine, they should be able to enter into a marriage.
So, I think both re-marriage and same-sex marriage can be defended from a Christian point of view, but I know many others disagree. Currently, the Church of England is having a series of difficult conversations around the latter, with deep disagreement between different factions. It is not easy, and I think that as with all disagreement, the most important thing is to listen to what the other is really saying.
Don’t dismiss others too easily when you don’t agree. I know that’s hard, and it can be painful, but a place like this is not a bad place to learn how to do it.