Lionel Atherton reflects on some familiar words

COULD IT BE that the bride’s promise “to obey” needs to be thought about in the context of the obedience of the Church to Jesus Christ ?

Earlier in the Marriage Service there is reference to Holy Matrimony as an “honourable estate …. signifying unto us the mystical union betwixt Christ and his Church.” This is a clear indication that a wife’s future obedience has to do with theology rather than sociology.

It may be that if we also understood Mothering Sunday in theological terms, we should see the bride’s obedience, in the context of the church’s Being, in family life. The symbol of the Church as the Bride of Christ, with its unmistakable understanding of intimacy, equality, and trust, gives a robustness to rejoice in his Gospel, while engaging with the sins of the world. The symbol of the Church as Mother Church would replace the tendentious wistfulness which makes Mother’s Day the gooey sentimentalisation of our Mums, with the responsible task of giving children a faith by which to live.

If ‘the Bride of Christ’ is a good symbol to denote Christian obedience in loving relationship as equal partner with Jesus Christ to the Love of God the Father, then a bride’s promise ‘to obey’ becomes, not subservience, but self-confidence. She has the potential to experience what God the Father experiences; namely, begetting. God is the Father who has the Eternally-begotten Son. Men are excluded from this Mystery : their Fatherhood depends on the opposite sex. They are, as it were, ‘taken down a few pegs’ in theological terms by not knowing this Mystery of the Godhead. It is accessible only to women. Men need (well, at least this author does!) to know that the woman who has begotten their child will not leave him because of this Divine fact. Biologically he’s made it possible, but now he’s no longer needed. The woman’s promise ‘to obey’ is his assurance that she will not dominate, as if a god(ess?).

If ‘Mother Church’ is a good symbol, it follows that Christians are, in equally good symbolism, her children. The church’s task is, as it has always been, faithfully to point her children through her own existence to that of God’s. In other words, a ‘successful’ church can be one that presents keen and enthusiastic members to the world, as if being ‘the Church’ were an end in itself ; but a faithful Church is one which brings her children to the reality of the Father, and his need also to be loved. (A personal God can hardly not have this need). Holy Mother Church is being faithful to her vocation when she brings up her children to acknowledge and love the Father. A temptation is ever present that the Church as a human institution may so overlook the Eternal Reality beyond Herself that God may not even be related to. This is the reason for the tradition that ‘faithfulness’ is more important than ‘success.’

This theology unpacks into family life. A mother-to-be has no need of the father-to-be after conception. She can be a great success as a mother without him. Indeed, there are signs that some contemporary women look upon this state of hers as highly desirable. In such a case, this kind of ‘single mother’ is like a church that exercises her care for, and nurture of, her children as a task she can do of, and by, and for, herself. This model, though, is at variance with that of the reality that humanity is bi-sexual. Full humanity can be observed only in two sexes; hence a human family involves both. It is a community of persons voluntarily and out of mutual love and respect for one another, sharing one another in joy and intimacy beyond biological necessity. Unless a mother voluntarily involves the father, he will not be loved by the children; neither can he learn to love the children. This, I believe, is the theological obedience which is all part of the Mystical Union of which the Prayer Book speaks, and a partaking in the life of the Trinity, for the Trinity, too, is an Obedience of Love, given, received, and shared.

So far as Mothering Sunday is concerned ; it is to do with the children of the spiritually free-born mother, inheriting the same privilege of spiritual freedom. This is understood by S. Paul, as the experience of Christians. This experience is opposite to the lack of spiritual freedom which is the experience of Jews. Despite Paul’s best endeavours, the Jews did not and do not believe that Jesus was, and is, the Crucified, Risen and Glorified, Messiah. If our Church of England Mothering Sunday services concentrated on theology, so that ‘a woman’s place’ as a mother were to reflect the obedience of Mother Church to God, the freedom of the Sons of God, and the bringing about through herself, the spiritual joy of father and child loving one another, then the bride’s promise ‘to obey,’ gloriously reflects the church’s vocation to be obedient to Christ.

It’s worth pointing out an addition in the A.S.B. The promise ‘to obey’ is made after the bridegroom has promised ‘to worship.’ That is an extraordinarily strong word. It means, I believe, the ‘giving of (full)worth.’ I don’t know of any theologian who speaks of God’s worshipping his Church; but the very fact of Pentecost would persuade me that God at the very least, values his Church. He awards it ‘worth.’ The Church could hardly function without this confidence. A wife’s obedience is the same. She must know absolutely that the children whom she has begotten can be entrusted to their father and that that knowledge starts with herself. She must know that she is ‘worshipped.’ That is her right so that she may be a full and equal part of the ‘Mystical Union,’ obedient to her husband’s right that he, too, needs to love and be loved by, both her and the children they have created.

Lionel Atherton is Vicar of St Peter’s, Chorley in the diocese of Blackburn.