The Sacrament of Marriage is the invocation of a special blessing on a man and woman who make a lifelong commitment to live together in selfless love. The love of two people in marriage is analogous to the love between Christ and His church. It is the only state within which sexual intercourse is permitted. Until recently the Church would not re-marry divorced people, reflecting its belief in lifelong commitment (except for bereaved spouses) but this is now permitted, subject to the agreement of a fully informed priest.

The change has come about because the Church recognises that some marriages break down beyond repair with no 'fault' on either side. Some Christian churches have begun to experiment with special liturgies for the break-up of marriage, perhaps recognising that although man may not break asunder what God has joined, perhaps God may.

Although other Sacraments have been differently understood and manifested in differing liturgies, none has undergone such an anthropologically-based trajectory as Marriage. It has variously been: regarded as second best to celibacy by Paul in the shadow of the end of time, leaving a massive mysogenistic legacy; reserved for those with titles and/or property from the early Middle Ages to Lord Hardwick's Marriage Act of 1753; nationalised and laid down as a universal social standard for some 200 years after the Act; suffered decline, particularly as a Christian Sacrament; and is now widely not regarded as a lifetime commitment.

Because the Church of England is established it has little room for manoeuvre in blessing marriages. Ideally, it should only be undertaken after rigorous instruction (as with Confirmation and any vocation) but it is frequently 'stumbled into' or undertaken for social or celebratory reasons.

Biblical marriage was formulated when 60% of children died before two and women were held to be inferior. Today life spans are more than twice those of the early church, there is pressure for equality between men and women, women are not 'tied' to their husbands by inequitable property legislation. Do we believe that a victim of marital violence or cruelty should not be allowed to make a new start? What do we do with people who grow apart on long lives? Here are some underlying questions:

  1. Should a Sacrament be based on an unattainable ideal?
  2. Can our understanding of a Sacrament change radically but still be valid?
  3. What is the essence of Christian Marriage, as opposed to the social conventions of marriage?
  4. Should Marriage be considered like a vocation and not indiscriminately offered?
  5. Should marriage be restricted to heterosexual couples who conform with Biblical laws of consanguinity?
  6. Would extending the Sacrament of, say, 'Union', dilute its value for heterosexual couples?

MC/KC i/06