Couples and Christian Life
by The Rev'd Lloyd Prator
Rector, St. John's in the Village
What are the implications, for Christians, of being in a loving relationship with another person? As a parish priest, I bring about twenty years of pastoral experience to this project. Examining Scripture, the creeds, and the Christian tradition, with a view toward answering the question "What do these say about loving another person?", some theological insights seem to loom large.
I make these observations as one who has loved and been loved. I saw a good marriage up close during my parents' forty-four years of loving devotion and common life. For eleven magnificent years, I delighted in the gift of a loving relationship which sustained me and made me a more loving person and a better priest. Only death could end such a relationship, and only death did. So, I have had some experience of love. This is not just a theological reflection, but a reflection, as well, upon personal experience.
The intimate love between two people is a type of Christian community. Of course, the concept of community goes back to creation, when God pronounced, in the Genesis creation story, that it is not good to be alone. God used the family of Abram and Sarah as a vehicle for the unfolding of his promise of land and progeny. Jesus' first act as he began his public ministry was to call disciples and establish a community. The spirit of God was poured out upon a community in the story of Pentecost in Acts.
We reach our highest and best purposes as human beings when we are in relationship with one another. God speaks to us and relates to us in terms of what theologians call a covenant: a solemn, witnessed promise of mutuality between two parties. Covenant communities are an important part of God's plan for salvation; we speak of the Hebrew covenant in the Old Testament, and of Jesus' new covenant with the church as the new Israel. The marriage liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer speaks of marriage being a "bond and covenant." Thus scripture and liturgy both seem to suggest that the love shared among Christian couples is a sign of that redeeming action of God called the covenant.
It seems to me that a couple sharing in such a covenant is a part of a dynamic force which is designed to show the love of God to others. A couple who builds a household, for example, and exercises an ordinary ministry of hospitality is participating in a dynamic form of community love which reaches out to include others. I suspect that this kind of dynamic, outreaching love is what is being described when the Prayer Book asks that a newly married couple be given "...such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others." Love creates a dynamic community.
When Jesus came on the gospel scene he came proclaiming the beginning of the kingdom (or realm, or reign) of God. The idea suggests that God is in the process of breaking into human history in a decisive way. There are lots of ways in which Jesus effects these little "breaks." The healing stories are this sort of "in-breaking". So are the feeding stories in the Gospel. These are all signs that God's realm has been initiated, and is being extended. In the Prayer Book wedding liturgy, the couple are prayed for, asking that "...their life together [may be] a sign of Christ's love to this sinful and broken world." (Prayer Book, page 429). Any loving relationship shows to the world that the couple in it have chosen fidelity over promiscuity, loving over merely using, and common life over isolation. A loving relationship is a gift of God, but also a part of God's plan to redeem the world, step by step, person by person.
The next theological point which seems to speak to loving relationships is one which has run into some trouble in recent years because it has been seen as subjugating women. And, no model of theological thinking which induces submission of either partner can be allowed to stand unchallenged. But the idea of Christ's self giving for the world, nonetheless, is compelling. In the marriage liturgy, that self-giving is alluded to by the line which speaks of the "mystery of the union between Christ and his Church." The mystery of the union between Christ and the Church is the mystery of self-giving love. I argue that this is still a good model for thinking about loving relationships as long as the principal of mutuality is observed. From my own personal experience, I conclude that most loving relationships operate in what I might call a sequential manner. There may be a period when one partner puts his own career needs aside in order to benefit the career development of the other. And, then five years later, the positions may be reversed. Decisions about moving to new jobs may be made along those lines. In my own case, my partner decided that my career was more important than his ("You have a career, I have a job," he would say) and so in the arena of career, he was more self-giving than I. On the other hand, he was closer to his family than I, so decisions about that arena of life were made with a decided bias toward his parents and brother and his extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. The task in this case is to engage in a frequent dialogue about the overall parity of the arrangement so that needs and hopes are fully heard and considered.
Human love is creative, and as such, it is a part of the activity of God the Creator. One obvious sign of this creativity is the gift and heritage of children. But, in fact, love itself is creative, whether or not there is even a glimmer of hope of offspring. I can think of at least two ways in which this is so.
Love shared mutually continues the creation, development and redemption of those who engage in it. I know for a fact that I became a better and more complete person by being in relationship with those who loved me. I saw the effect which my sinful behavior had upon them. I learned the effect of my words, and the importance of those little gestures, those little private signs of intimacy, those small extensions of thoughtfulness which mark a vibrant love affair.
And, then, too, there is a spill-over effect by which the love shared by a couple has an effect upon the community. When I have performed pre-marital counseling (which is required by the canon law of the Episcopal Church) I have always surprised people with my explication of that prayer in the Prayer Book which asks that couple be given "such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others." (page 429). The lasting icon of this kind of "spill-over love" was a couple I knew in San Francisco, a Protestant minister and his wife who, despite their previous ecclesial background, found their way into the extremely Anglo-Catholic parish which I then served. Together, they worked on the parish homeless shelter each winter. She was, at one time, the junior warden, with responsibilities for the buildings, and he was in charge of one night's supervision at the shelter. Together, they worked to make the facilities serve the guests better each year. That was creative love in action, shared mutual affection which spilled over into the parish community and into a city which so needed their ministry. At the altar, on occasion, they would receive the hosts into their palms, and then exchange them, hers going to him, his to her. Their mutual self-giving even had a ritual shape.
What makes Christian loving different from other loving is God. It is not enough to say that it is a nice thing for Christians to love. It is not enough to say that God has said that we must love each other and when we get the "love" item checked off on our clipboard, then we can go on to other things. Loving is a part of the very nature of God's own self.
One of the side benefits of the concept of the Holy Trinity is that it serves to remind us that God is so all-fired enthusiastic about loving relationships that he is in fact such a relationship in his own very essential nature. God is the creator, and we share in that creative act by our own creative loving. God calls us into community, just as he called Abram and Sarah, Peter, James, and John and Mary Magdalene; and just as he calls you into community with the man or woman you love.
God's realm is always breaking into human history, and it does that in creation, in the calling to Israel to be God's people, in Jesus' incarnation, and in the love you share with your beloved. Christ gave himself for the world on the cross, and you continue the pattern by acts of self-giving love to your beloved. In this way, as with so many others, the human activity is a stage upon which the interactive drama of creation, redemption and renewal are acted out.
A special note for same-sex couples
At St. John's in the Village all our members, single or coupled, gay or straight share fully in its ministry and leadership. We not only accept and affirm same-sex couples, but lift up and celebrate loving relationships, inviting couples to leadership as a witness to the redeeming power of God's love.
A special note if you are considering a wedding at St. John's in the Village
In the context of Christian life, marriage is not simply a romantic event, but also one in which the covenant between the couple echoes and and symbolizes God's covenant of love for us all. The sacrament of Holy Matrimony, according to the rites of the Episcopal Church, is offered at St. John's for couples who intend to continue as members of our faith community. Prior to the wedding, the Episcopal Church requires that the couple engage in a series of pre-marital counseling with the priest. When a member of St. John's marries a non-Christian, the marriage may also be celebrated in the church. Interested couples may call the Parish Office and speak with Father Prator, who will also provide helpful information about having a wedding at St. John's, arrangements for music and reception, and details about our wedding service.