Trevor Jones on the sin of the soaps and the suburbs

MY WIFE ONCE pointed out that I was not, by nature, very good at being married. My temperament and habits, she contended, are more suited to a celibate and indeed institutional existence. It is perhaps for this reason that those who meet me without the company of wife and children assume I am a pedantic fussy unloving celibate. This is good judgement. Those who know me well assure me this would indeed have been the case had I not experienced the gift of love, shared and lived out in the proper context of the grace of the sacrament of marriage, with the consequent children and the rough and tumble of family life.

In this case marriage is the redeeming force, the sacrament of sharing where self is absorbed in love of the other. Marriage is “the gift of God in Creation”1 the means by which we learn the truth about love, that it makes us vulnerable. In loving we give ourselves away, we show who we really are and give that to another person. Marriage thus demands total trust, its vows of exclusivity are frustrating exacting and simply sacrificial. The vows are also essential, for it is in the protection offered by the vows that we learn to trust and thus let our vulnerability show. In the Rite of Marriage the couple offer their protection to one another. The mutual vows, offered before the communities of family and faith are an assertion of love and trust, thus the couple promise to ‘comfort honour and protect’. In this we see the gospel ideal “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”.2 The mutual protection and one fleshness are the things that unite the couple. In the Marriage Rite this is asserted in the bald and unequivocal question “Will you …………be faithful to her (him) as long as you both shall live?”3.

In spite of the solemnity of these vows and the binding of their phraseology into folk-culture newspaper questionnaires purport to reveal that adultery has become a norm in large sections of our society. Secret affairs, open marriage, partner swapping, multi person (temporary) relationships are offered as the reality of other peoples’ experience. They can be weekly fare in the confessional of some Churches. Worse such behaviour has its advocates in the wilder fringes of the Church.

From Madame Bovary to Joanna Trollop infidelity has offered fascination to the ‘modern’ mind. From the struggle for honour in ‘Brief Encounter’ to the casual adultery of early evening soap opera, art has mirrored the growing acceptance of the actuality and indeed, as such media purports, the inevitability of infidelity. But the breach of these vows is both ugly and destructive. Further it is destructive in many ways:

* Adultery destroys the trust and love proclaimed by the couple in the Marriage Rite.

* Adultery destroys the honour of both parties to the adultery

* Adultery destroys the God-given holiness of sexual intercourse by removing it from the context of Sacramental married commitment. * Adultery destroys the family by introducing dis-order, malfunction, betrayal and lies into what should be a shrine of safety and honesty. * Adultery destroys the relationship of the adulterer with the Church, rendering neither She nor He able, in good conscience, to receive Holy Communion without sacramental confession and real resolve not to sin again. It is a mortal sin.

* Adultery destroys love by building a block of pain and agony between the betrayer and the betrayed.

* Adultery destroys prayer by wounding the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the love of God offered for the world.

Adultery is easy – that is clear to any priest who has sat long in the confessional or any friend who has heard the breathless tale of the last night of an Open University Summer School. The fatal mixture of lust with new and illicit love, the childish excitement of being wanted again, the anaesthetic oblivion of alcohol all can lead into a destructive cycle of betrayal and darkness in which the greatest of human gifts, love, the love demonstrated in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is distorted and destroyed.

“You shall not commit adultery.” (Exo 20:14) There can be no clever argument about the text, nor others, “He who commits adultery has no sense; he who does it destroys himself.” (Prov 6:32), “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”. (Mt 5 27-28)

Adultery is the breach of God’s intention that we should live in a partnership of life long commitment. It is a breach of the sacramental covenant between the couple and between them and God. The damage done by adultery is permanent and spiritual. The biblical understanding of the meaning of the sexual relationship is that of a ‘knowing’ a going far deeper than the physical encounter. In an act of intercourse we become one with the other person. The biblical understanding is that this is permanent, we are unable to undo the change that takes place. Because we are thus changed, our relationship with God is changed, our infidelity with another is also a failure of our fidelity to our covenant with God. If we dwell in the sin, and continue in it, we also make a wider breach with God. So serious is adultery as a breach of normal life that the Prophets use it as the chief illustration of unfaithfulness to God, “Because they have committed folly in Israel, they have committed adultery with their neighbours’ wives, and they have spoken in my name lying words which I did not command them. I am the one who knows, and I am witness, says the Lord” (Jer 29:23) Adultery, breach of fidelity to God, lying – they are all are part of the same package. They are destructive of all that is good and wholesome in human love, not least the possibility of self-sacrifice.

In daily speech adultery is expressed as ‘I was unfaithful to her’, or ‘I cheated on him’. This is succinct and accurate, adultery is a breach of faithfulness and an act of cheating. It is compounded by its institutionalisation. “And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10 11-12).

The teaching of Jesus is clear and bears no interpretation other than the obvious. Re-marriage after divorce when the spouse of either is alive is common adultery…no matter how clever or ‘compassionate’ is the self defence gloss. Such adultery, such a deceitful life, must bring with it immense spiritual and moral damage by claiming to be real when it is a dwelling in a dark false realm of self deception. It is a constant dwelling in unrepentant sin, further wounding the love shown forth by the crucified Lord.

The heart of Jesus bleeds for his broken world, pleading fidelity, sacrifice, love. Our adultery, spiritual or moral – with liberal theology (picking out the bits we like); with our neighbour’s wife (picking out the people we like) is a spear thrust into that crucified body. And that is not mere emotion; that is real Gospel.

1 Marriage Service ASB 1980
2 S. Matthew 19.5 RSV
3 Marriage Service ASB 1980

Trevor Jones is Rector of St. Peter’s, London Docks in the diocese of London.