As the recent debates and the interminable consultations on same-sex union in the Anglican Church of Canada amply attest, there is nothing quite so vexed as Christian thinking about marriage. Vexing because Christians, eager to support the church’s historical teachings and what they construe to be The Biblical Position, often describe an experience so lofty that it would be hard to imagine any couple living up to it.
What would it look like if Christian theologies of marriage began, not with the perfect ideal—of one flesh, of means of grace, of mystical union, or that lovely line from my prayer book, on “delight and tenderness in acts of love”—but with the quotidian reality of marital failure? Of the pressures that finances, children and time inevitably bring? Of the erosion of good will and communication that accompanies these pressures? And of the unrealistic expectations that are heaped higher than the tiers of all the wedding cakes that Pinterest has to offer?
What if we were to tell our parishoners as they come before us for marriage preparation (Do we even do that any longer?), that they should lower their expectations radically? That they will fail to make one another happy much of the time. That they will fail to act tenderly or mercifully. And that they will fall short in both sickness and in health, in richness and in poverty, and that by the time old age comes, they may well, as the Apocalyptic writings of Meatloaf put it, be “praying for the end of time…”).
What if, for one moment, we put aside all analogies to heavenly banquets and began our pastoral greetings with something humbler, like, “Well this probably won’t work—you only got 50/50 odds—but good for you for hoping! But if you fail, and if the years don’t add up the way you wanted and the way you promised, well, we are a church, after all, of losers. We’re the least, not the greatest. We’re the sinners, the tax collectors, the widows, the orphans, the poor, the diseased, the afflicted. We are the divorced.”
Wouldn’t a theology for losers be a much more apt entrée into Christian marriage than the triumphalistic and doomed march of our theologies? Shouldn’t we be giving away our illusions of mastery and eternity if our weddings are truly to be Christian? And shouldn’t we be a little less inclined to celebrate the perfect beaming couple, and offer more love to the celibate, the eunuch, the widow and others whose sexuality fails to conform to our social dictates and norms? And if our nuptial theologies were to begin this way, why would we ever fear extending our celebrations to persons who are LGBTTQI*? When we turn our triumphalism about marriage around, all of a sudden marriage becomes far more interesting—more Pride and less prejudice.
This is not to argue that marriage is outmoded or irrelevant or an institution that no longer makes sense to the church. I would contend that Christian marriage remains a great source of blessing and of hope, but this is not because it has espoused an ideal, but because it has embraced failure. Christian marriage ought to be the kind that looks at hate and bitterness and despair and death in the face of one’s spouse and in the mirror, and in spite of this says, “Yes.” Few of us prevail to love in the face of hate and death. Some of us will love conditionally; some of us will check out; all of us will love imperfectly. Marriage remains a possibility not through our success, but through our failure, by the grace of God.
As usual, the poets know more than the theologians about such things, and so I conclude with the words of that great prophet and priest of the Church of the Broken Hearted, Lucinda Williams (better downloaded than cited) from her song, “Plan To Marry.” Williams may sound a tad triumphalistic here with her conquerors and weapons talk, but the conquerors are lovers and the weapon love. Let the marriage theologians take heed.
When leaders can’t be trusted and heroes let us down
And innocence lies rusted, frozen beneath the ground
And the destitute and isolated have all been forgotten
And the fruit trees we planted are withered and rotten
….Why do we marry? Why do we fall in love?
Keep on believing in love
Because love, love is a mighty sword
Love is a weapon. Love is a lesson
And we, we are the conquerors
We are the soldiers
We are the lovers
That’s why we fall in love
That’s why we believe in love
That’s why we marry.
Lucinda Williams, “Plan to Marry,” Little Honey Album (2008)