Douglas Dales offers thoughts on marriage, morality and chaste living
The current moral crisis over sexuality affecting all the Western churches has been provoked by the perceived right of many people in modern society to live as they please, within the framework of law and without any social pressure or stigma. This is actually a new situation within the long perspective of human history, in many ways a product of affluence and urban living. In the past, social pressure to create and sustain some form of marriage, and to provide for children and for the economic survival of the family was paramount and inescapable; and this is still true in much of the world today. The significance attached to romantic love as the principal basis for marriage is a relatively recent phenomenon in western society. Within this social reality, in all its many forms, the Christian Church has asserted that Christian marriage is a loving relationship intended for life, freely entered into by two equal partners, a man and woman. This vision has its root in the Bible and in the faith of the Jews. Its unique character in Christianity, however, is derived from the gospel and the explicit teaching of Jesus, amplified by that of St Paul in the New Testament.
Christian ethics in this area of human behaviour are built around three principles: the Lord’s own teaching about the nature of marriage (Mark 10.1-12); his teaching about inner chastity of the heart as the root of all morality (Mark 7.15-23 & Matthew 5.27-8); and his emphasis upon the centrality of children in the Kingdom of God (Mark 9.35-7 & 10.13-16; & Matthew 18.1-14). His sternest words of condemnation were for those who damage children and abuse them. In practice, these three principles interlock and interpret each other. Chastity should therefore be rooted in the heart as it governs all Christian behaviour, and this is why we pray each week at the Eucharist, ‘cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit.’
In Christianity, chastity means a deep, disciplined, and sensitive respect for the other person as a child of God. It applies to all relationships and not just to sexual ethics. In fact, all the four forms of love identified so lucidly by C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves rely upon chastity in order to flourish. Christian chastity precludes bullying, possessiveness, jealousy, deceit, cruelty, in fact anything that could damage another person, or act as an impediment to God’s love for them. St Paul teaches that Christians within a marriage are to love each other as Christ loves the Church; and also, to love children as God Himself loves them as their heavenly Father (Ephesians 5.20-6.4). Marriage and the care of children is a preeminent example of chastity in action in order that all parties feel secure and truly loved for themselves, and never exploited. So important is marriage and the care of children that Christian chastity, which means no sexual relationships outside marriage, prepares the way for the stability of these relationships, before and during marriage, and within family life. Chastity has also to govern the conduct of clergy, teachers, medical staff, and all those with professional care of others, and especially of the young.
‘The Word became flesh’ (John 1.14). How should the human body be respected and valued? The Christian principle of chastity applied to sexual behaviour is not a negative prohibition, but rather a profound affirmation of the value and purpose of each unique human person as a child of God in the totality of their being and relationships. The tragic scandal of child abuse within the life of the churches and society is a sign that this principle has not been understood, upheld, or respected. In modern society, the widespread use of contraception has also enabled many people to relate to each other sexually without the risk of procreating children that they do not want. Sexuality and its expression has become an end in itself. It is regrettable that in the modern Anglican marriage service, children now come last in the list of the priorities of marriage. Christian ethics, however, are essentially child-centred.
The Christian principle of chastity thus underpins the Christian sacrament of marriage and all sound friendships and relationships, including those within monastic life. Chastity is of critical importance in the loving nurture and safeguarding of children, within the family, in church, and also in schools. Chastity matters because it is the foundation of holiness, to which all Christians are called. It recognizes and respects the revealed truth that the human body belongs to the Lord, who created it, and who has revealed his purpose for it (I Corinthians 6.19). Chastity protects the integrity and health of a person in the years before marriage, and also the respect necessary within a Christian marriage itself. Chastity safeguards the soul for its ultimate union with Christ, who is its true Bridegroom (Revelation 21.2 & 9). No Christian, heterosexual or homosexual, should seek to undermine this principle and spiritual possibility, which is revealed in the Bible, and demonstrated in the lives of the saints, most notably in the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well as in many Christian families.
The Christian understanding of marriage is that it mirrors something profoundly true about God’s relationship with human beings. In the Old Testament, Israel was often spoken of as the Bride of God, and the poetry of the Song of Songs is the epitome and apogee of this vision. In the beginning, God created human beings as male and female together in whom His image and likeness might be expressed (Genesis 1.26-7): this is the foundation of marriage. Our Lord himself confirmed the authority of this fundamental text in Genesis when he upheld God’s intention that such a marriage should be lifelong and freely entered into on an equal basis (Mark 10.6-9). Paul’s teaching in the letter to the Ephesians articulated a deeper and spiritual understanding of marriage by showing how the love between husband and wife enables them to participate in the mystery of Christ himself, by experiencing more deeply his self-sacrificial love, obedience, tenderness, and faithfulness. Marriage is therefore a demanding relationship for learning Christ-like love, and for discovering the way in which male and female uniquely united in such love can begin to express the image and likeness of God at the heart of the Church’s life. It is on this basis that the Church accepts and welcomes all lawful monogamous heterosexual marriages; and Christians who are married by civil authorities should abide by these Christian principles of marriage.
Inasmuch as most marriages have children, this deep belief and sensitivity determines the way in which children should be valued and understood, and how they should be related to in love within a stable marriage. The example set by parents and the quality of their own relationship of love is thus of critical importance. The solemn marriage vows certainly apply to the demands of having children, ‘for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health,’ and for life. Nurturing the well-being of a child, or children, is the single most important duty laid upon any Christian, and this duty extends beyond the family into the life of the Church; it also governs the spirit of Christian education. The principal and ultimate purpose of human sexuality is the procreation of children, who are made in the image and likeness of God. This is why human sexuality is to be safeguarded as essentially holy – pointing to the possibility of an act of co-creation of another person with God himself.
It can, of course, be argued that today, as ever, chastity is honoured in the breach, and that there are some marriages that for various reasons are childless; and also, that too many marriages become hidden tyrannies that break up in considerable numbers, at great cost to children and wider society. Why, then, uphold these three inter-related principles of Christian chastity, Christian marriage, and the centrality of children in Christianity? A Christian principle is not vitiated by its neglect or breach: it stands as a point of reference, aspiration, and direction to which people can return when they have failed to live up to it. These three principles hold out the hope of repentance, forgiveness, and the calling to a deeper love, as they express the heart and reality of the gospel. They also provide a secure guiding vision for Christian young people growing up. They remind us that Christ came into the world to heal human relationships with God and to restore the spiritual chastity essential to that relationship: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5.8).
The duty, therefore, of bishops and clergy and of all who teach Christian theology is to maintain and communicate these three principles, and to understand why they are so important in every generation and social situation. No society and no church has ever been able to live up to them all the time. But like a golden seam of redemptive love, their truth and reality lie at the heart of the Christian faith, because they spring from the Incarnation itself: they embody and express the ethics of the Incarnation.
In the spiritual teaching of the Church, chastity, marriage, and the care of children each point beyond themselves to the way in which Christians are called to encounter and be changed by the love of God for them as His children. No person’s life can be fulfilled by another human being, however happy that relationship. Only God can fulfil a person at the deepest level of their being, and this includes their sexuality. The commitment to chastity, however demanding, points beyond itself to this deep and central truth, and this is as true within a marriage as it is outside marriage, for example in the conduct of Christian ministry. Chastity must therefore govern the ethos of all Christian relationships, even if at times it seems to be a sacrificial and very demanding path.
Christian belief challenges the common assumption that sexuality is primarily about self-expression or self-fulfilment; it also challenges the manipulation and degradation of human sexuality into forms of entertainment and self-gratification. The endless and inconclusive obsession of modern society with sexuality and gender identity is a symptom of deep disorder and unhappiness. Because it has more than a basic biological function, human sexuality will always provoke the question, ‘what is it really for?’ Does it have the capacity to fulfil a person and if so, how? Or has it been turned into a form of idolatry by the relentless promotion of sex in and for a consumer society? Why is it always so easily corrupted?
Augustine said that God has made us for Himself and our hearts are empty and restless until they find their rest in Him; the language of the psalms in the Bible makes this abundantly clear. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost, not least within this painful area of widespread confusion, which is not just a modern phenomenon. God wishes to restore lost spiritual chastity to all his children who have fallen away from him, to enable them to love and worship him with purity of heart, ‘in spirit and in truth’, and to love and respect others in that spirit and for his sake. The challenge and demands of Christian belief, discipleship, obedience, and sexual practice that are determined by these three gospel principles, remind all of us that Christ came into the world to enable us to participate in the mystery of his Incarnation: to be found in him, and to be indwelled by his Spirit, for the sanctification of the whole human person in all their relationships with others and within the life of the Church.
The Revd Douglas Dales is an author and parish priest working in the diocese of Oxford. He was for many years Chaplain & Head of RE at Marlborough College.