Our Rich Liturgical Heritage
The Rt Revd Dr Peter Brain
A number of years ago at the WACA during an Ashes Test I got chatting to a GP who remarked that he was to attend a 50-year reunion of his university cohort. He remarked, ‘All but two of our cohort (whose spouses had died) are still married to their spouses’. I replied, ‘What a wonderful legacy you have given to so many over so many years’.
His simple, throwaway line made me joyful and sad at the same time. Joyful because of their commitment but sad because this commitment is not always nurtured and worked at today.
Without any statistical evidence, I suspect that most of those marriages would have included the ubiquitous promises along the lines of, and shaped by, the 1662 BCP Marriage Service. The words that have been the bedrock and glue of marriage, families and our culture run: Wilt thou have this Woman/Man to thy wedded husband/wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her (obey and serve him), comfort her, honour and keep her/him, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her/him, so long as ye both shall live?
Wholehearted commitment is a great gift of God. It is delivered from being mere stoicism by the gospel, as expressed in the prayers and exhortation, along the lines of, ‘… bless these thy servants, and sow the seed of eternal life in their hearts; that whatsoever in thy holy Word they shall profitably learn, they may indeed fulfil the same…’ and ‘… pour upon you the riches of His grace, sanctify you and bless you … together in holy love until your lives’ end. Amen.’
God’s ways bring great blessings, not least stability to children and communities, whose happiness and nurture depend on committed relationships.
The benefits, encapsulated in the Marriage Service, are built upon commitments that include a life-long promise to pursue God’s purposes above our own feelings and agendas. A leading psychologist wrote that ‘he would rather be a hypocrite to his feelings than his purposes!’ A culture operating out of an ‘alternative Trinity of holy wants, holy feelings and holy desires’ is challenged by the ‘sickness and health, richer or poorer’ affirmations. They are a recognition that, as sinners, we benefit from a public commitment to this other-person-centred lifestyle.
Chaucer’s romanticism that ‘love is blind’ is brought down to earth by the BCP. G.K. Chesterton, building upon this same promise, offers romanticism a reality check, which paradoxically, preserves and nurtures it. Reshaping our minds and reforming our expectations he observed, ‘Love is not blind, that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound, and the more it is bound the less it is blind!’
This is exemplified in the apostle Paul’s insight that marriage is a picture of Christ and the church in his well-known, but largely misunderstood, Ephesians chapter 5, and carefully expounded with other Scriptures, in the exhortation to be read at a wedding service, if there be no sermon. Serving each other in married life, though hard at times, is a privilege and a pathway to freedom, as the prayer, ‘… whose service is perfect freedom’ affirms. By allowing ourselves to be conformed to Christ, we are offering the only workable alternative to the focus on self that is proving so damaging to our communities.
Individuals, single or married, and churches can expect to find God’s grace for obedience to him, and in their love for others. Humility in following Christ’s teaching on marriage remains a great gift we offer our world. Wasting our rich heritage is a disservice to the world and robs us of God’s blessing.