Christopher Idle offers ten ways to help make marriage a continuing reality
‘She’s said it again!’ Don’t ask me who, it could just as easily be ‘he’. Whoever it was, it was the archetypal broadcaster who has just got up my nose once too often. What did she say? Not much. Just, ‘Now we are back in the real world of single parents, teenage pregnancies, and regular divorce.’ We hear it so often we hardly notice.
Obligatory confessions first. Some dear friends of ours come in all these categories and more. We have tried to support where this is needed, and stood by some decisions that were daft, desperate or downright sensible. We have valued their friendship, their acceptance of us. Sometimes we fail. The Church, quite often, does not do too badly on these occasions.
My parents split up. They wrangled through lawyers over the house and the money; it all indirectly hastened my Mum’s stroke and eventual death. But she would want to argue about this real world too.
We recently shared in three very varied silver weddings – half a generation younger than us. Those a bit older are busy painting the town red for their golden or diamond events. Two of our sons are cohabiting with the mothers of their children, to whom in each case they are married and have been for some years. To the women, that is. Another son also lives with his wife; no children yet. Granted, the remaining one is different. He gets married, in church if you please, this year. Now, am I imagining all this? Are these friends and family all in some way unreal?
Put it another way. When did you last hear of a silver wedding (to go no further) celebrated on the media? I guess about once for every hundred or more divorces or splits which are reported with such evident glee. When was the last wedding anniversary enjoyed in a soap? I have no idea. The only one I ever heard or saw was treated as a joke by the adulterous husband; the viewers too were supposed to laugh. What can we do about all this?
Some fine initiatives are coming from Marriage Resource, Christian Marriage Ministries and other groups. But I want to take on the world, not just the Church. This is no criticism of them; just a plea on more basic and even obvious levels.
You are showing the local schoolchildren your church. (I hope you or your vicar sometimes have that privilege.) History, windows, tower, Bible (go for it); they are usually keen to see the font and the broom cupboard. What happens in this strange building? Whatever else you have time to tell them, don’t leave out the weddings! If you had one last month, or are preparing for the next, so much the better. Talk about rings, registers, and bridal dresses; if you can, walk them up the aisle to the music. But whatever else there’s time for, talk about why they have come and what they say and do. It may be the first or only chance some of them have.
(Following on, still with the boys and girls) If you ever get into school with them, make sure they hear about marriage. You may be there as a teacher, school helper, parent, governor, or taker of assemblies. Your audience is different in each case; some may be quite small. Never mind; if they don’t hear it from you, who is going to tell them? At the time of writing you have the law on your side. Example: I say to the assembled school, ‘Some of you are going to get married. Some of you are not going to get married. Either way it’s fine, but this morning…’ (etc). If anyone objects, ask very sweetly if you can check out the school’s Equal Opportunities Policy.
If you’re a teacher, don’t leave it to RE or Sex Education. From Key Stage One to A-levels, literature is full of people who get, and stay, married. Even novelists, dramatists and poets do; scientists also. Some find it hard: discuss.
Call at your corner shop, if any; never mind the Lottery, try the card racks. Bit short on wedding anniversaries? Supply and demand. You demand, sweetly, of course. Wade through Birthdays, Driving Tests, Exams, Divorces, New Home, My Partner, Boy Friend, World’s Fattest Grannie, Mum and Her Husband; you might just unearth a dog-eared Silver Wedding. Ask when the new Wedding Anniversary designs are due; no, not just Anniversary, Wedding Anniversary.
Then, of course, start sending a few more cards yourself than you might have done before you read this. Never mind the ‘Well, they didn’t send to us last year’ nonsense. Whoever is disappointed to get a Wedding Anniversary card? If they are married, that is. Can’t remember the date? Ask them. Start with your family, if you’ve lost the habit. It’s no bad thing to remember your own. When was that, again?
Some people get asked to speak up at Synods or other meetings. Don’t let anyone say, as a Rural Dean once said to me, ‘We couldn’t find anyone to speak for the traditional view of marriage.’ What they got was me; not the best ever, but I found more support from the jeans-and-trainers brigade on the floor than from the sad old fellow-wrinklies bleating on about the lovers and partners they had all had, dumped or been dumped by.
And if anyone tells you that children come through a parental divorce stronger, say it’s a lie. Don’t accept anecdotal evidence; the crime, ill-health, addiction, breakdown and death figures are all on your side of the argument.
You may also be told that the divorce culture is irreversible. Another lie. Where it is booming? America. Where is it being most challenged? America! Some big North American congregations have seen their divorce rates drop to near zero, by majoring (as they say) on getting a ‘marriage culture’ going instead; starting, but not finishing, with full marriage preparation.
The question on the form says ‘Partner’s name’. Simple; cross out ‘partner’ and write in ‘husband’ or ‘wife’. A small thing? Big things are made up of lots of small ones – Einstein.
If anyone stops you saying that children with two parents married to each other stand the best chance in life, accuse them of (a) censorship, (b) racism, and (c) being out of date. You may not think these are the three unforgivable sins, but the chances are that they will. It should make somebody think twice.
What really matters
Why does it all matter? Marriage and family are not God. Yes, Jesus says, they can sometimes get in the way of following him. But sometimes, too, they are among the most enduring signs of faith in any nation or community. They are relationships and realities (I dare use the word) which tyrants and totalitarians hate. Which is not surprising, if God has built them into the human psyche and the divine image in us. That is why he hates divorce – or did Malachi get it wrong?
From New Testament times onwards we can take another step. ‘Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church.’ You can’t say fairer, or further, than that. He is not planning a divorce. His promises are for the real world.
Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark