In marriage, couples still hold the power

January 10, 2010

A friend recently told me about a wedding she attended that began with the bride and groom issuing a lengthy apology for entering an institution that continues to be so unjust for gays and women (the bride was a prominent feminist). It didn't exactly make for a very upbeat wedding, we agreed, but we got her point. Hadn't we both felt apologetic about entering the institution of marriage for those same reasons? And, moreover, didn't we both want a way to convey that to everyone else?

My own ambivalence about marrying stemmed not only from having gay friends who couldn't, but also from a conservative Christian upbringing during which I watched one too many strong, independent women mysteriously transform into the "surrendered wife" often demanded in that tradition. So when my now-husband and I decided to get married last summer, I was strangely comforted to remember that, for its first thousand years, the Christian church was ambivalent about the institution of marriage, too. "Marriage is not an evil thing," assured St. John of Chrysostom in what amounted to a positively ringing endorsement of marriage for its time from a Christian leader.

Granted, much of the early church fathers' rationale for this was their disdain for sexual activity and, well, women. And where they did condone marriage – as some did – it was usually to contain lust, as in Paul's tepid endorsement of marriage: "Better to marry than to burn." But they also rightly saw marriage as potentially leading to self-involvement and neglect of others, a warning you almost wish churches today would issue more forcefully rather than feed the nuclear family fetish.

It was only by the 11th century that the church entered the business of marriage, and I stress the word "business." Wealthy families came to the church to settle marital disputes where property and possessions were at stake, and the church, often ruling with its own interests in mind, arbitrated their cases. And, since civil authority was increasingly unreliable or sometimes nonexistent at this time, the church found itself more and more in the business of settling such disputes and, eventually, also marrying people.

This led to the church's eventual development of marriage as a sacrament and basically its gradual about face on the subject of marriage. But for those first several centuries, it was, in certain ways like any thinking person today, realistic about the risks and shortcomings of marriage.

Which brings me to another episode from church history that strangely comforted me as I prepared to marry: Even when the church embraced and started trying to control marriage, it still couldn't figure out a way to control it entirely. As with other points of canon law, medieval theologians discussed ad nauseum all the minutest details of marriage – grounds for entering it, grounds for annulling it, rules and exceptions to rules and exceptions to the exceptions to the rules.

So inevitably a debate began about when, precisely, a couple could be said to have consummated a marriage. Was it when they had sex, like many people had assumed before the church weighed in? But then what about Joseph and Mary? Alternatively, was it when they exchanged present-tense vows to each other – another point at which people had long taken themselves to be married?

But in a time when the church was trying to exercise total control over people's lives – and rightly saw control over this most intimate aspect of people's lives as an excellent way to increase people's dependence on the church – these means of consummating marriage were too much in the hands of the couple itself. So the theologian Duns Scotus came up with another idea: A marriage was consummated only when a priest blessed it.

That way, just like the other sacraments, whether a marriage was legitimate or not would rest entirely in the hands of the church. But alas, for the church this was deemed impossible to enforce. It rightly recognized that people would continue to marry without the blessing of a priest, much like they had, well, for thousands of years before the church ever came along. This would have entailed the church deeming void from the outset far too many working marriages for any reasonable person to take its pronouncements on the institution seriously.

The upshot of all this is that the celebration of marriage is still the only sacrament that is enacted by the couple and only presided over – merely witnessed – by a priest. I like reminding myself this when I'm doing weddings: I'm just an accessory. The power is in their hands. And it was nice to remember as I was getting married, too. All this may sound slightly odd coming from a Christian priest who represents the institutional church and routinely performs marriages. But that only made such small consolations that much more important. A public apology tacked onto the liturgy may still be worthwhile for some, but, thankfully, I found something of the same thing – written right into its history.

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