Ad Clerum on Church Culture and Marriage
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. (Hebrews 13:4)
It was my first experience officiating at a Nigerian wedding. The bride-to-be was the daughter of a Nigerian Anglican priest who was a part of CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North America) and he had asked me to preside. I was delighted to do so, and we arrived at the church half an hour before the appointed time. The building was deserted and I began to wonder whether we had a mistake about the location, but I eventually found a janitor who assured me that we were at the right place ... but still there was no sign of the wedding party nor any guests. I double-checked the invitation and confirmed that we had the correct time, and then I saw the father of the bride – he greeted me with a big smile and assured me that all was well. It seemed that no-one, except me, took the invitation time too seriously – another example of differing cultural expectations! Eventually the bridal party and the groomsmen appeared, and the wedding got underway about an hour later.
It was a glorious celebration with a very enthusiastic congregation, and we followed the traditional Anglican pattern until just after I had declared, “Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” At that moment a group of Nigerian women – I quickly discovered that they were all members of the Mothers Union1 – came forward and warmly greeted the newly married woman. They gave a brief speech of welcome to this world-wide community of married women. They then assured her of their love and support as she entered into this new life of marriage, and after a brief prayer they returned to their seats. While Angela and I were familiar with the Mothers Union from our early years in England, and our time in Nigeria, we had never witnessed it in action in quite this way.
The service continued with more prayers, music, and speeches. We were not able to stay for the reception but on the way home reflected on the importance of what we had witnessed. Through the Mothers Union the church community was expressing its support for the couple and their marriage from the very beginning – we found it quite refreshing. It prompted us to reflect on other ways in which the church can and should support marriage.
During our early days of ministry at St. Paul’s in Darien, Connecticut, I had developed a course of pre-marriage instruction for all those wanting to get married. I invited a mature couple from the congregation to join me with each pair, and this created a mentoring relationship from the beginning. I encouraged the newlyweds to invite Angela and me to their home for dinner on their first anniversary, so that we could not only enjoy time together but also review ways in which our preparation could be improved. This became a delightful pastoral initiative, and we continued this practice in our church plant in Lafayette, Louisiana,and added an annual retreat for all married couples. All of these initiatives came from our conviction that the “nuclear family” operating in isolation is neither healthy nor biblical. We need each other if our marriages are to reflect the love between Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32)
We saw this truth demonstrated rather dramatically during a weekly visitation one Tuesday night in Lafayette. We had just driven up to the home of a recent visitor to our church when the husband came stomping out of the house yelling and carrying a suitcase. Unwittingly, I had parked across the end of their driveway, blocking the quick exit that he seemed determined to make. I introduced myself and asked if we could help ... he muttered a string of expletives about his wife and his determination to leave her for good. By this time she had appeared at the door looking distraught and in tears. I offered to pray with them before he left, to which she nodded and he, calming down a little, grunted, “Sure.”
I suggested that we go back inside to pray, and we did! By the time we finished, he was in tears as well, and a very necessary conversation began. After a while they agreed that running away wouldn’t help, and a process of reconciliation began... it didn’t happen quickly and there were many more tears and prayers, but their marriage began to be restored. Much later they both agreed with a smile that it was no accident that the church came to visit at just the right time.
Keeping marriages strong during these challenging times is never easy. It requires commitment and a dependence upon the grace of God working through the people of God, if we are to thrive. At every Anglican wedding the congregation is always asked the question, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” To which the congregation responds, “We will.”
But do we?
One local resource that I highly recommend is Steadfast Marriage – a ministry led by Bill and Dana Henry of St. Stephen’s Church, Sewickley, that “guides couples towards discovering and living into the full beauty of marriage.” www.steadfastmarriage.com
It is my hope and prayer that all of our churches will be communities in which marriages are strengthened and God is glorified.
To God be the glory,
1The Mothers’ Union was first established by Mary Sumner in 1876 in the Church of England parish of Old Alresford, near Winchester, where her husband was rector. She was inspired to start the movement after the birth of her first grandchild. Remembering her own difficulties when she was first a mother, Sumner wanted to bring mothers of all social classes together to provide support for one another and to be trained in motherhood, something which she saw as a vocation. Its four million members are now spread throughout the Anglican Communion with the majority in Africa and India. Particularly concerned with the plight of women in the World, its projects include literacy and development, parenting, micro finance and campaigning against violence against women and the trafficking of women.