On the Estate of Marriage



In August, 2003, Peter started a three year leave of absence from Wilmot United Church in Fredericton to become Moderator of the United Church of Canada.

I have been married for 30 years, but I'll not put that forward as any sort of qualification.

Experience is not the same thing as wisdom. Wisdom is like a guide and grandmother to the changing, exploring, learning mind. Wisdom says that it's a good time to change your mind when it widens your heart.

I have changed my mind about marriage and had my mind changed by marriage many times in 30 years. It isn't over yet.  I could say the same thing about my many years of interpreting and articulating the treasures of the sacred scriptures.  I suspect that the aim of scripture is not so much fixing the mind as it is widening the heart.

Marriage, whatever it comes to be in Canadian law and society will not benefit from excessive sentimentality.  While I would be the first to encourage a joyous and festive celebration of the marriage rite, I know that in most of its moments,  marriage is less like a celebration and more like a trade.

Marriage lays a foundation, constructs a framework, and builds a house for love.  Since constant perfect love is impossible (that is another story) marriage provides a structure, a habit of being together, a promise of faithfulness to carry us through those times when we know we must act with love but we do not feel like loving.  Eventually the house becomes a home, the wedding becomes a marriage, and the relationship becomes a habit of the heart.

Marriage functions the way any good habit or discipline functions. It helps us hang on through short-term ambiguity on the way to long-term freedom. The ambiguity is in the conflict between feeling and commitment. The freedom is in knowing there's a place to stand beneath the ambiguity common ground. Common ground is not the same as having things in common, but you find that out in time.  

Because it is a habit of the heart, marriage should be hard to get out of - and into.  Marriage is not casual, just as any good house is not casually built.  That's what the old tradition of an engagement is about. It's a probationary period. 

In most jurisdictions, you can't get a license and be married on the spot.  The law requires that you afford yourself sufficient time to consider and reconsider.

Thus, marriage is not a spontaneous relationship, but a formal one. This is why a couple plans a wedding carefully and sets the wedding in significant traditions, of people, place, clothing, and language.  The marriage is constituted by promises given and its will to survive is sustained by a dependence on grace, that gift beyond explanation. It is not temporary. Not casual.  Not for convenience.

We fail to take marriage seriously when we think of it as the private "experience" of two people. It's more than an experience. Marriage is an event that holds a couple from within and from without.  The within part has to do with the love and commitment the couple generates.  The without part has to do with society's investment in marriage as a carrier of stable relationships, social cohesion, and shared values.

The Christian tradition to which I belong has called marriage an "estate".  This estate is a reality into which two individuals enter.  In the act of marriage, they leave one estate and pass into another estate.  Taking this passage changes both of them.  It is a transformation they enter willingly and knowingly (well, at least they know in part). They are transformed from individual artists into a collaborative work of art. It is a transformation that is much too perilous an undertaking for those who are concentrating only on having their needs fulfilled. It is also a transformation that can never be fully realized if the depth, strength, and mystery of marriage are defined exclusively in the language of human rights.

The estate itself is not perfect (not to mention its occupants).  Divorce happens.  It hurts.  Life must be reoriented.  People must find a way to love again.  For all its good and humble powers, marriage cannot banish the alienation that haunts the human condition.  Marriage is, nonetheless, a good house that shelters the imperfect human's quest to persevere in love.

In the tradition to which I belong, we bring faith to the discussion of marriage.  More importantly, it is faith that brings us to this discussion.  Faith prompts that old question that stands at the heart of our experience as followers of Jesus; the question that runs like an aortic artery through the writings of the New Testament; the question that has haunted us from the very beginning and haunts us still:  "Who is in and who is out?"

Christian faith brings us again and again to this question, as it brought our ancestors and will bring our children:  "Who is in and who is out?" Our faith brought us here in the question of the ordination of women in the early years of the United Church of Canada. It brought us back again in the debate about divorce and remarriage in the 1960s.

In the current discussion about marriage, the question looks like this:  "Who will be invited to enter and live in good house? Who will be welcome to give themselves to transformation by love in the honourable estate?"

This is not a question that can be answered adequately by relegating it to "the marriage file" in Ottawa. Certainly any body who has been married knows there is no way in God's green earth you can put that experience in a file.

As we await the responses of the Supreme Court of Canada to questions raised in "the marriage file," it is a good time to think and pray and talk about marriage an estate that in one form or  another has been with us since time immemorial.

The General Council of the United Church of Canada has made clear its response. All those, regardless of sexual orientation, who are willing to give themselves to transformation by love in the honourable estate are welcome in marriage. I am aware that among ecumenical and interfaith responses to equal marriage, the United Church is mostly alone.  Nevertheless, and with great respect for our partners and friends, I believe that the General Council has made the right response, true to the gospel and true to our tradition.

We hope for the widening of the heart.  We believe that when you give yourself to following Jesus, you are led to a place God alone can see, in other words, to that same place marriage leads those people who give themselves faithfully and willingly to it.

How, then, shall we be faithful to marriage?  Not by forbidding change.  Change is the only medium in which faithfulness can really be faithfulness.  Faithfulness is to an unchanging environment as autopilot is to flying.

So let me express my hope and my prayer for all who are married and for all who stand at the gate of the honourable estate.  Love is always a risk.  So is life.  But we believe in marriage as a good house that shelters the presence of the greatest of gifts.  It is a good house for all the people and an honourable estate from which no one should be turned away.

The Right Rev. Peter Short is Moderator of the United Church of Canada 

From the "Comment" section of The Globe and Mail, Saturday, January 31, 2004, page A13