Three-fold culture follow-up


After scribbling last week about environmental friendliness in terms of a three way division of the cultural mandate, I point out that we can do the same for marriage.

It was a big bonus to get back from my uncle’s wedding yesterday to hear of Sarah and Jon’s engagement, so it seemed appropriate to shoot off first, of the things which flickered to mind on the train, a point about marriage.

I suggested before that culture could be split into social pursuits, physical, and intellectual. A culture makes things, discovers things of beauty, and in the form of friendships creates worthwhile interactions which last. Marriage is given for the common good of society, as I have heard in two gatherings this weekend, and families can be understood as precisely the ordering of society which further the cultural mandate.

I was given this idea by Caroline yesterday when I remarked that the ordinary Anglican BCP spiel about marriage is a bit negative, using Cranmer’s admirable three-point refutation of Catholic marriage which he wrote to ensure that all parishes could move on. It is true that marriage has a triple purpose of support and affection, babies, and avoidance of sin; and, the original RC motivation doesn’t make it feel too polemical. Somehow, I would prefer if could be reminded a bit more often the pre-fall context of marriage, right in Genesis 1 itself. That would see marriage firstly as a good gift for the reason that a permanent bond between a man and woman is the right way in the current age to pursue our goals of fellowship and society, of beautiful ideas and the non-physical exploitation of creation, and of material fruitfulness.

Along these lines, we can see fellowship as covering all our acquaintances and bosom companions, when we do not despise but see the role that all our friendships play, shallow with the people we simply cannot have time to know well, and deep with those we spend much of our lives with. From this angle, marriage is a wonderful part of that arrangement of relationships, the most intimate and long-lasting of all fellowships, not making friendship obsolete once it comes into play, but taking its place as a necessary part of society and enlarging the context of all relations. Secondly, as we make maths and music, art and philosophy, we create without building, exploiting in our minds one large domain of creation. Teaching is a large element of this, and it seems to me that bringing up children is one of the most important ways that ideas advance, new thoughts are generated, and in the earliest couple of decades of life the enterprise of producing and passing on emotional and intellectual pursuits is most clearly epitomised. Thirdly, children of course make, build and entail building more things, from cots to the houses they eventually leave to inhabit. Marriage is the ordering of society which in the long-term organises these two spheres of cultural activity.

I think this is perhaps helpful from another direction too. At every wedding now, there are bound to be divorcés, and we have to be sensitive enough to avoid the easy choice of spinning a marriage as a happy-clappy sure way to bliss. On the other hand, we would much rather talk about marriage as a joyful sharing than in terms of its thorns and thistles and as a way to avoid sexual immorality. The slice I suggest we take is to look at marriage in terms of the cultural mandate (which most certainly continues after the fall), painting it with the glossy sheen we want in that way, and shade it compassionately with its current darker side by pointing out the way all our efforts are frustrated by the fall.

In conclusion, we want to declare marriage good, which we can do by remembering that for all time it has been God’s way of ordering all societies as a vital part of the diversity of fellowship we enjoy, and as the context in which our thoughts and possessions would be rightly generated and perpetuated.

As an addendum to affirm, marriage is definitely for all people. It is not a convenient contract of society of which Christian marriage is some special type; Christians are special individually, and a marriage is a marriage is a marriage. As Christians, we recognise particularly the significance of declaring our covenants before God, but the societal institution of marriage has still got basically all the essential features. A marriage is “an exclusive covenant between man and woman, ordained and sealed by God” (Stott), which is on offer for all men and women because God has ordained it for man, not in spite of the fact that this is the Christian God’s ordinating.

Covenants are solemn commitments, guaranteeing promises or obligations undertaken by one or both parties, sealed with an oath. They publicly bring into the community a contract of duties and obligations, but strengthen it beyond being an ordinary contract by removing the exit provisions and invoking the whole of one’s character by means of vows. Non-Christian marriages do form a covenant, but often greatly weakened: they allow easy dissolution (no-fault), and ignore the divine ordaining of the oath which supports such a vow being made, in turn opening the door to allowing society to pick and choose other criteria for establishing marriage equally validly. (Aside: Christian literature can sometimes get hung up over the differences between contractual and covenantal views of marriage. A book that makes an opinion out of the distinction is being excessively and unhelpfully pedantic, or pretending the difference is bigger than it is. A specifically covenantal view of marriage barely represents a viewpoint, so don’t stress about it.) Nevertheless, we can still insist that marriage is right and good for all on the basis of its establishment as an ordering pattern of the universal cultural mandate, and extend compassion personally and in civil legislation by recognising the effects of the fall. To conclude the addendum, a covenant which binds together men and women into families is ordained by God for all people to enjoy and wholesomely compose society, so that by God’s grace to everyone there should be in every country fruitfulness according to his abundance, as he promised from the start and sealed with his very own oath.