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Books on marriage and relationship

13 April 2018

Philip Welsh considers two books relevant to the marriage season


PAUL THOMAS has put parish clergy in his debt with his admirable and concise handbook Marriage Ministry. Well-organised for easy reference, it covers marriage from the point of view of the liturgy, the law, and mission, all set within the context of pastoral care.

Don’t be tempted to skip the antiquarian opening about Anglo-Norman marriage, the Bury St Edmunds Missal, and the Sarum Use, which the author uses ingeniously to point out some of the fundamental continuities in the Church’s theology and liturgy of marriage. He also explains the bride’s former vows “to be buxom in bed and at bord”.

He follows this with a sure-footed guide to the development of marriage provision in the Book of Common Prayer (1662 and Series 1) and Common Worship, and pays attention both to liturgical principles and to the practicalities of conducting services. He even recommends the use of a stout prayer book to avoid losing the rings.

I echo his grumble about the excessive provision of wordy alternatives in Common Worship, but I am surprised at his caution over the congregational “We will” that Common Worship introduced, which surely is an important and happy innovation if cued effectively.

Wise advice about using the liturgy is then followed by a clear summary of the many and various legal aspects of marriage ministry, held within the important affirmation that dealing confidently with this aspect is in itself an expression of pastoral care.

The section on marriage and mission is suggestive but much briefer, and focused on opportunities for encouraging couples to be drawn into a fuller relationship with the Church. No mention is made of the congregations at weddings. We never know what is going on in their minds as they hear — or overhear — the words of the liturgy and of the preaching, and set them against their own happiness or disappointment in marriage, and their own faith or doubt. But enabling many strangers to the Church to find that what takes place in church can feel important and real is surely a crucial expression of mission.

Thomas’s emphasis is on the arranging and conducting of weddings with pastoral effectiveness, and he does not discuss at length the purpose and content of marriage preparation. He does, however, contend that “a comprehensive wedding preparation booklet is a must-have”, and provides a substantial outline. Some clergy may find this, and the recommendation of six specific meetings with couples, to be a counsel of perfection. Sometimes, excellence may mean making optimum use of the two sessions that are possible.

Marriage Ministry reflects mainstream church practice as exercised by a very experienced incumbent who seems to be — as he advocates — “friendly but firm”. The combination of liturgical guidance, legal information, and pastoral good sense make it an indispensable resource for those setting out on marriage ministry, and a useful reminder of good practice for old hands.

Marriage, Family and Relationships presents a selection of academic papers from an international conference of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Theology and Research, and is written against two horizons. The first is the explicitly Evangelical standpoint of the contributors; the second is the passing in 2013 of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act.

Half the papers offer scrupulous biblical examination (indeed, “full-canon, diachronic biblical theology”) of topics including: The sexuality of God incarnate; Are we sexed in heaven? and Developing a biblical theology of singleness. The other half are more doctrinal and include: African perspectives on marriage; violence against women; late-modern cultural assumptions about sexuality; and such a glorious phrase as “heteronormative gender essentialism”.

Contributors consistently arrive at conclusions that endorse a conservative position on marriage and sexuality, and yet they do so with great care and awareness of other viewpoints. And there are some surprises. Oliver O’Donovan very cautiously makes space for (while not advocating) a recognition of same-sex unions, provided this is understood to be a pastoral accommodation to the traditional Christian doctrine of marriage (as, for example, the marriage of divorced persons is), but not if it is claimed to change the fundamental understanding of marriage.

Stephen Holmes argues that “We urgently need a renewal of the vocation of celibacy in our churches, particularly for straight people, so that we have visible lived testimony that the lies about sexual activity being necessary to human flourishing are just that.”

This collection will not only be important for Evangelical students in this field. It could also be useful for those who hold a very different view as Christians, if they are willing to let their assumptions be challenged by radical, scholarly, and unfashionable conservatism.

Casual browsers should not be beguiled by the title into thinking that this is a pastoral book. The word “love” scarcely occurs, though in the index it would fit neatly between liturgy and lust.

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London. He was formerly Vicar of St Stephen’s, Rochester Row, Westminster.


Marriage Ministry: The essential guide
Paul Thomas
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70


Marriage, Family and Relationships: Biblical, doctrinal and contemporary perspectives
Thomas A. Noble, Sarah K. Whittle, and Philip S. Johnston, editors
Apollos £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

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