More than 20 years ago, I remember a cathedral wedding where the happy couple were joined together in holy matrimony, and their first child was also baptised. At the time, it seemed rather avant-garde and daring. In the circumstances, it made good sense. The family were well churched, although the couple were not regular attenders.
Things, of course, have moved on a good deal since then. A figure was quoted to me the other day that 44 per cent of mothers now are unmarried when their first child is born. Cohabitation is no longer an unusual matter, let alone a scandal: it is becoming, if not the norm, then at least the choice of a sizeable minority.
In the past week, all this has suddenly moved centre stage. The cause for all the media interest was in itself fairly innocuous. After much consultation, and in association with the Church of England’s Weddings Project, we posted on the C of E website some guidelines for clergy who wish to combine marriage and the thanksgiving for the birth of a child or holy baptism within one rite.
As my initial story suggests, many have been doing this for a number of years. The possibility has always been there, but some clergy have been nervous about how one might bring together the two rites. These new guidelines help them to see how best to do this. There was a press release to alert people both to the guidelines and to the possibility of this combination.
The press release was, however, intended to do something more than simply brief clergy. It was a deliberate signal to those who might wish to ask their parish church for such a rite. The press release aimed to show the Church of England as a welcoming Church in the realm of marriage.
As a Church, we always have welcomed people for marriage. Yet changing patterns of relationships in society, and the new regulations making marriage more easily available in church have altered the situation. People who might have been reluctant or nervous to ask for marriage to be combined with another rite — either thanksgiving or baptism — need to be given the confidence to ask. The same might be said of the clergy who will be called to officiate.
WHY ALL the fuss, then? Well, the media have reverted fairly unanimously to that curious phrase “living in sin”. It is, in this context, a pretty unattractive usage, and it is certainly condemnatory and off-putting.
It also ignores the practice, common in medieval times (and much later), of betrothal. Couples would have been betrothed, lived together, begat children, and then would have married later on. There might be a variety of practical reasons for such a custom.
Of course, we still use the term “betrothed to be married” in some circumstances, although increasingly it sounds like an archaism. We easily forget how (comparatively) recently the patterns we have taken for granted have developed.
In 19th-century England, attitudes hardened. Thomas Hardy paints a forlorn picture of two victims of prejudice and injustice. In Far From the Madding Crowd, the corpse of the hapless Fanny Robin, an unmarried mother ostracised by society, is drawn up beside a hostelry by Gabriel Oak. The scene that follows is set there, among much revelling, when Oak bursts in. It is one of the most powerful shifts from comedy to tragedy in English literature.
The refusal to bury Tess Durbeyfield’s illegitimate child in consecrated ground raises similar spectres.
SUCH ATTITUDES did not die with the opening of the 20th century, as the survival of terms such as “living in sin” suggests. Attitudes in society and patterns of relationships, however, change ever more rapidly.
Have we abandoned proper standards in this move? Have we, as Dean Inge once quipped, married the spirit of the age and thus become widowers? Exactly the opposite seems to be the case. At the heart of Jesus’s life and ministry lay an attitude of acceptance. Tax-collectors, sinners, and women of ill repute were all welcomed by him; he would even eat with them, his enemies ruefully reflected. None of this did much to endear him to the religious establishment.
It is interesting to ask what would be the effect of the Church’s refusal to countenance new attitudes to marriage and baptism. It is hard to see how it could prosper Christian teaching and family life. If we refuse access to these sacramental acts, we isolate and shun those who wish to be married or have their children baptised. If we engage with those who come, then we begin a conversation.
In the rites themselves, there are clear statements about the nature of family life as shaped by Christian values. In baptism, there is a clear call for repentance, for a turning to Christ. In the preface to the marriage service, there is rich teaching about life together and the nurturing of children.
The marriage vows are some of the most beautiful and telling phrases in modern liturgy: “All that I have I give to you, and all that I am I share with you.” Marriage places the relationship between a couple into the context of a covenant. The sacramental act is not performed by the priest, but by the couple themselves. In that sense, it is a natural sacrament.
IN ALL this, it is right that the Church should look for the signs of the times. Throughout history, Christianity has engaged with culture.
T. S. Eliot wrote: “Christianity is always adapting itself into something which may be believed.”
By that, he did not mean that the Church was selling out to contemporary values. Eliot was no theological modernist. He meant that the gospel must be translated and accessible within each developing culture.
That is part of the essence of welcome. That is part of Jesus’s offering to all: “All that I have I give to you, and all that I am I share with you.” We limit that generosity at our own risk.
The Rt Revd Stephen Platten is Bishop of Wakefield and chairman of the Liturgical Commission.