WIT again welcomes guest poster Sarah Elizabeth Smith. Sarah’s bio can be found at the top of her first post with us here.

I often wonder at why our culture celebrates people for getting married having only known each other for a couple months, maybe even a year.  Maybe it’s media influences like the Bachelor or ridiculous love stories we saw as kids like Beauty and the Beast. There is a national trend for getting married later in life, but when I was growing up in the South my friends were getting married as young as 18 and definitely by their early 20s, right after college.  Marriage seemed to be something folks did so they could have sex as fast as possible (i.e. a wait for marriage purity ethic), instead of actually cultivating a healthy relationship and not to mention even knowing one’s self at all.  

I don’t think necessarily that waiting longer is the answer to helping our marriage and divorce rates in our country.  I think we romanticize marriage so much that we idolize it and see it as a good goal for most people. Putting together two imperfect people into a life-long commitment?  It would be nice…maybe? I’m not so sure. But I do want to argue for one thing in this piece and it is this: let’s take marriage more seriously in the Church.

Don’t hear me wrong, though.  I’m not saying we should present it as the BEST thing there is in life.  I’m saying let’s give it more accountability and attention to building a healthy relationship.  I’m all about love and falling in love and having sex and making babies and merging bank accounts but those are the romantic things that don’t really have anything to do with knowing one’s self or one’s partner.  I’m talking about doing the real work of relationality, spiritual relationality before the Church signs off on marriage licenses. I propose we un-make this idol and talk about the real things, the flesh and blood and spirit things that actually do the relationship. One way we could do that is to look at our relationship with the sacraments.

As I have been journeying toward the Holy Orders process in my tradition, I’ve noticed how similar the two sacraments of Holy Orders and Marriage are in comparison to one another.  They both involve a life-long commitment and vows to service and a relationship with the Holy. We often talk about Holy Orders as being a sort of marriage to the Church Herself. One has to take on a set of beliefs and practices to live into these particular calls on one’s life.  But why do we take more time and care to the Holy Orders applicant than we do to folks entering the sacrament of marriage?

My thought then is what might the discernment process towards the sacrament of Holy Orders teach us about preparation for the sacrament of Marriage?

Before one even begins the official process of ordination in the Episcopal Church one has to be in conversational discernment with one’s priest for at least a year (if not several years).  After one’s priest says they see a call in you for ordained ministry then can you start the official paperwork. The paperwork is lengthy—asking for biographical information including how your relationships are with your family, your spouse, and an even longer section on your spiritual practices and theological beliefs.  After submitting the paper work, the church that sponsors you files additional paperwork affirming this decision. It’s not just a one-way, single person decision, it’s a collective, joint decision. The church must be willing to walk with you in the process. Just as a future spouse would walk with you in marriage preparation.

Next, after all of your documents are processed and reviewed you get to become an aspirant.  The aspirancy is a one year discernment time where the applicant meets with a committee from their home church once a month or more to chat about life, ministry and theology.  Think of this as the pre-marital counseling. You meet with the church and make sure you are both on the same page about everything. There’s a back and forth, a push and pull, a working out of the relationship.  After this year discernment time then comes the postulantcy.

To become a postulant, your church must sign off that they affirm your call to ordained ministry.  This affirmation goes to the Bishop who makes the final call of whether you can proceed in the ordination process.  Once he/she approves you then you can start another year or more of discernment with the Bishop’s committee. This is a committee of more lay and clergy folk along with the Bishop who put you through the ringer again.  During this time, the applicant must undergo extensive background checks, psychological evaluations, and extensive questioning. During this time, postulants are allowed to preach in their worship communities and take on more priestly duties in a sort of apprentice role.

Also during the time of postulancy, one must go to seminary!  The seminary degree, MDiv, is a three-year program. The MDiv includes all the basic theological education a priest would need plus practical experience in a particular field of ministry.  Many folks do a CPE unit or what is called Clinical Pastoral Education where they serve as chaplains, usually at a local hospital. During seminary, students are mentored and pastored through even more discernment.

After discernment as a postulant the Bishop’s Committee affirms the call once again and moves the applicant to the status of candidate for holy orders.  This means the applicant will be ordained and a date is set. In my tradition, all candidates are ordained as deacon first and then ordained 6-12 months later as priest.  The first job the priest will get is called a curacy. It’s minimum pay and funded partly by the diocese and the sponsoring church. It’s a sort of official apprenticeship.

Now notice I didn’t give any parallel experiences with the marriage relationship after the aspirancy stage.  Maybe the Bishop’s committee could be analogous to having your partner meet your family and close friends. You all are in an ongoing relationship and spend a lot of time together.  Take some family vacations and celebrate some holidays together. But there is really no official rigor or protocol besides pre-marital counseling (maybe!) that folks do in the church to get ready for marriage.  Again, the church lets folks get married quickly. It’s like “oh good, ya’ll in love? Perfect, let’s meet and chat 8-10 times (maybe!) about your financial goals and maybe about how ya’ll get along with one another and we will call it good!”  What is that? What are we doing here?

Love has to be more than feelings.  Love takes time. Love must be cultivated.  Love must be worked out in community, in relationship.  Love is also so complex. There are many layers and moving parts to establishing healthy relationships.  It can’t be done in 6-12 months. The priesthood takes 6-12 years. Literally. I started discerning my call 4 years ago and I become an aspirant this summer.  Luckily I already did seminary so my path won’t be as long from here but in total it is as long as any other applicant. So why don’t we have some sort of process for folks who want to dedicate themselves to a lifelong service to another human being and potentially more human beings?  If we hold marriage in such a high regard culturally and in the Church why on earth don’t we give it more attention? Actually prepare folks for their relationship and what life is going to throw at them? What would a marriage apprenticeship look like? My parents are of the mindset, as are many more progressive Christians, that a couple should live together before even getting engaged.  Try it out. And why not have some sort of discernment meetings for a year like we do for ordination candidates? Have couples meet with lay couples who are married and clergy and close friends/family and go through a curriculum of building healthy and conscious relationality.

It’s a different ball game, the marriage relationship and the priesthood.  There is a different commitment and responsibility that takes one’s entire spirit, energy and time.  It’s not just a feeling, it’s a dedicating of one’s life to a covenant. It’s a merging of one’s entire life with someone else’s.  It’s all day every day considering another person or people. You are no longer your own. You belong to each other. You are accountable to and relied upon.  These two sacraments are insanely beautiful. They are outward signs of God’s invisible grace of Her relational character with us and the world. The divine dance, as it were, the Trinity as Fr. Richard Rohr would say.

I think secular culture has influenced the Church too much when it comes to marriage.  We must take it back and treat it as sacrament and really think about what that means when we decide to bless and ordain folks into Holy relationships.  Relationships that should mirror and be an example for what we believe God’s love and relationship is like with us. And it starts with how we prepare folks for these relationships.  We can’t be productive with our love if we don’t know how to do it properly. If we don’t know how to love ourselves and our god how on earth are we supposed to even begin to love someone else? Let’s do better. Let’s talk about the journey and not just the event.  

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