The readings this weekend are both challenging and beautiful at the same time, and it is important that we hold them together. In Genesis 2.18-24 we get one of the creation stories. The man beholds the woman and exclaims that she is bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. The point is to underscore the deep unity of the two, a unity so deep that in marriage the two become one. The language of flesh and bone expresses this beautifully: they form one life together, they depend upon each other, they feel through each other. And this, surely, is true marriage. Where it works, the two individuals who enter into it are irrevocably changed. In this sense what is done cannot be undone. Hence the stance of Jesus regarding marriage after divorce. Jesus sets his face against it, and this teaching, upheld by the Church, saddens many couples who know themselves to be truly loving and committed in their new marriage.
Marriage is always a work in progress. But for those whose relationship stands the test of time, the rewards are great. Companionship. Intimacy. And, if you are gifted with children then the shared upbringing of children, whose fulfilment is your common project and leads you often to put their needs first. In short, where marriage works, even if it works imperfectly, it is a living spirituality. Some 1800 years ago the Christian writer Tertullian recognised this. Drawing on his own marriage, he describes husband and wife in these words: ‘Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. They are, in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together … encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God’s church and partake of God’s Banquet; side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations.’
Of course, where the rewards are so great, the risks are also great, and so we should have great respect for all who enter into marriage, whether or not their union stands the test of time. We live in an age where people flee many different kinds of commitment, even in their most personal relationships. But can you build for the future if everything is provisional? Can you give others around you a sense of stability and security if you regard your domestic arrangements as being tentative? In short, there is no replacement for marriage. As a priest I have developed a deep and abiding respect for those who pledge themselves to each other in marriage - for richer for poorer, for better for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish. Without this loving public commitment, we would all be poorer and society would be weaker.
To those who have divorced and re-married, I can only say this: please forgive the Church if it seems hard-hearted towards you. We are trying to be faithful to the teaching about marriage in the gospel today. Because of the failings of clergy displayed in reports over the last few years, you may feel that we are in no position to lecture others. I can only agree. It is a time for humility among church leaders. The final words of the gospel are a reminder of another sacred trust that has not always been respected.