Marriage – a Methodist Perspective

While the Church of England is focussed on the outcome of ‘Living in Love and Faith (LLF), people of other Christian Churches are contemplating its effect on their own theology of gender and sexuality – primarily with their place in a proper consideration of the custom of pair-bonding in a marriage relationship.

Methodist theologian, Rachel Starr, tutor at The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education in Brimingham, U.K., in her article on ViaMedia, posted here below; suggests that marriage – being an institution of ancient pre-Christian origin – may have more significance than the bonding of two heterosexual persons for the purpose of procreation A paragraph from her article draws on the wisdom of no less a Christian than Aelred of Rievaulx to make her point:

“Rather than describing marriage as a sacrament or covenant, perhaps a more helpful, inviting image for today is that proposed by the medieval English theologian Aelred of Rievaulx, who described marriage as a rickety boat, which takes constant work to keep afloat, and which, if it is to survive, must be focused on the common good“.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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What is Marriage? Living in Love and Faith… and Denial

Posted on September 8, 2022 by Helen King – Via Media Blog

by Rachel Starr, tutor at The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham

As someone shaped by Methodist tradition, it has been an interesting experience engaging with Living in Love and Faith (2020). As you may know, the Methodist Church in Britain has spent the past few years debating its own report on marriage and relationships, God in Love Unites Us (2019). There are some similarities, and of course many differences, between the two reports. Both in their own way seek to reflect the changing social context from which and into which they speak. And yet there is little acknowledgement of how church teaching around marriage and relationships has had a limiting and sometimes deadly impact on women and other marginalized groups throughout the centuries.

My own study of theologies of marriage began while living in Argentina. It was there that I began to see how the everyday violence that many women (and some men) experience within the context of intimate relationships, was legitimated by dominant church teaching around marriage and gender relationships. Living and studying alongside Latin American women theologians and activists helped me to see the everyday violence that occurs in homes, on the streets, and in other contexts. Many of our interactions, structures and institutions are formed and maintained through violence. Such violence may not be obvious at first, but once seen it is difficult to ignore.

Living in Love and Faith presents an idealized view of marriage, which fails to account for problems perpetuated by Christian teaching on marriage. As one example, the document makes reference to prophetic descriptions of the covenant as a marriage, but does not acknowledge the violence of this metaphor and how it has been used to justify domestic violence over the centuries. This despite decades-long discussion of the violence of these texts by scholars such as Renita Weems.

To read either Living in Love and Faith or God in Love Unites Us is to be presented with a view of marriage as a vocation, over which churches are divided as to who can be called and who is able to benefit from the gift of marriage. But what if marriage was less of a gift and more of a problem? Of course, marriage can offer stability and friendship, as well as significant social and financial benefits. But some studies suggest that women who marry have a lower life expectancy than single women, whereas men who marry have a higher life expectancy than single men. Such studies suggest that for women marriage is, at a very basic level, life-limiting.

My concern with how marriage is presented in Living in Love and Faith is that the negative impact marriage can have on women is not acknowledged. While the report does make mention of domestic violence, it seeks to contain what is an everyday reality for one in three women worldwide by literally ‘containing’ the brief discussion of domestic violence (written by myself) in a text box. As such it does not inform the wider discussion of marriage.

In my own work, Reimagining theologies of marriage in contexts of domestic violence (2018), I explore Augustine’s notion of the good of marriage. Augustine proposed that marriage should be valued because it can generate fidelity, children and lasting union, a view which continues to shape the church’s understanding of the purpose of marriage. In contrast, I suggest that a good marriage is one that is concerned with the bodily wellbeing of both partners, and that contributes to the positive transformation of the wider community. The need for marriage to be life-giving for those both within and beyond it is reflected in Willie James Jennings’ criticism of what he sees as the church’s obsession with married couples. In his commentary on Acts, Jennings argues that for a marriage to be good, it must locate the couple in the wider community, so that there is a shared sense of purpose and distribution of resources. Jennings’ words came to mind recently when I read about the marriage of actor Sophia Bush and social entrepreneur Grant Hughes which took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2022. The couple designed their marriage celebrations around their commitment to social justice, inviting guests to spend time with local activists and artists, all the time asking how their marriage might generate more sustainable, equal and inclusive ways of living.

In Reimagining Marriage, I look also at two models of marriage which dominant western Christian traditions: marriage as covenant and marriage as sacrament. Both of these are present within Living in Love and Faith and God in Love Unites Us. Yet neither report critically assesses these models or acknowledges their limitations. To summarise from my own research: the covenantal model is marked by exclusion, inequality and violence; and the sacramental model encourages self-sacrifice and limits access to divorce.

While I recognise the importance of equal access to marriage, I wonder whether it is really the goal many perceive it to be. Is marriage unavoidably problematic, a relationship built on inequality, restriction and control?

The new Methodist service of marriage, designed for the celebration of marriage between any two people, is a hopeful sign that marriage can be reimagined in more equal ways. The marriage party enter the church together; and since the couple is non-gendered, there are no assumptions about who speaks first.

Alongside more equal forms of marriage, I suggest that marriage should be reimagined as a place of grace, in which bodies are honoured, everyday struggles are acknowledged, and new more just and equal ways of relating are anticipated. Rather than describing marriage as a sacrament or covenant, perhaps a more helpful, inviting image for today is that proposed by the medieval English theologian Aelred of Rievaulx, who described marriage as a rickety boat, which takes constant work to keep afloat, and which, if it is to survive, must be focused on the common good.

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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1 Response to Marriage – a Methodist Perspective

  1. Pingback: ≫ Matrimonio: una perspectiva metodista

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