4 May 2010

Rod Thomas, Chairman of Reform

In one way, this is not a usual Reform booklet. Since our concern is the evangelisation of the nation through a reformed Church, many of our booklets seek to explore the ways in which we can do that. By contrast, this booklet is concerned not so much with reforming the Church as with safeguarding and promoting marriage.

However, in another way, I hope this booklet will be seen as addressing an issue very much at the heart of our concerns. Marriage has huge theological, societal and personal significance. Marriage is under attack as a distinctive gift of God and it is up to Christians, as never before, to explain, promote and live out the joys and challenges of marriage. Those with the gift of singleness will, I hope, wish to join with their married brothers and sisters, in encouraging all people to see the blessings of marriage.

This booklet seeks simply to encourage us to review what we are doing through our churches to encourage and sustain marriages. It is full of examples, ideas and explanations of fresh approaches. The sheer variety of what is already going on will be a stimulus for more widespread action; the lack of consistency across churches, particularly in the area of marriage preparation, will be the challenge.

Fortunately, as we all seek to be effective in this field, there are a good many resources we can tap. We do not have to keep inventing the wheel! A large number of these resources are listed here - an invaluable guide as we plan for action.

We are publishing this booklet to coincide with Marriage Week UK. It is always good to set aside a particular time to focus on an issue, but our hope is that churches will make the promotion and sustenance of marriage a year-round matter for prayer and action.

In Praise of Marriage

by David Banting with the assistance of Clare McCaughren

The genesis of this booklet is found in Reform’s Covenant document. Reform’s origins lay in the debates of the 1980s and it was launched in 1993 with “A Covenant for the Evangelisation of England”. It still makes excellent reading and is itself the subject of a Reform article (booklet no.20). After a clear statement of the doctrinal and confessional foundation of the Church of England and of the Reform network, the Covenant highlights topical issues of concern in areas of Christian ministry or living.

One section of the Covenant is headed “Our understanding of God’s way of life for his people” and then mentions five issues. Two of them are directly relevant to marriage:

  • The vital importance of monogamous life-long marriage for the care and nurture of children and the well-being of society.
  • The rightness of sexual intercourse in heterosexual marriage, and the wrongness of such activity both outside it and in all its homosexual forms.

In all the debates and conflicts that are increasing over issues of human sexuality, the positive need to champion and cherish both the institution of marriage and individual marriages has received less attention than it should. This booklet attempts to avoid the negative (what we oppose or are concerned about) and affirm the positive (what we value and celebrate of God’s gift and provision). We understand that God’s Word does not describe human beings by their sexuality, but by their gender. Humankind is created, male and female, in the image of God, and marriage is God’s gift for the hallowing and blessing of our sexual desires and for the foundation and energy of family life and society. The married relationship between husband and wife is a unique reflection and symbol of the relationship between Christ and His Church, with profound implications for the ordering and flourishing of the human and divine families.

Marriage and marriages are under enough pressures and strains as it is, at societal and personal levels, without alternatives and substitutes being actively encouraged and promoted. This booklet is a modest attempt to celebrate marriage and encourage local churches to consider how best they might not only prepare couples for marriage, but also seek to promote and champion marriage in the community and the life of our nation. I freely acknowledge the modest nature of this contribution and the limit of its scope. The returns to the questionnaire (circulated through the Reform network) indicate the fairly low opportunity and priority given to marriage ministry. There are some glorious exceptions - I think particularly of some books and courses that have recently been promoted, especially those by Nicky and Sila Lee or Simon Vibert, as well as good thinking and practice offered by Christopher Ash, Michael Lawson and J. John. But by and large marriage ministry seems mostly reactive, i.e. it responds to those who in some way approach the church to be married, rather than adopting a more pro-active, let alone go-get-'em, approach.

To test how robust our teaching is about marriage preparation (let alone marriage promotion), may I recall an approach that I heard of from America? With a divorce rate like that of the UK (approaching 50%), one town determined to face the issue head-on. There were two elements: one, to gather all the agencies and organisations to collaborate in offering teaching and support (e.g. doctors, schools, welfare, police, counsellors, as well as churches and other voluntary groups); and second, blunt realisation in the face of statistics of 1 in 2 failure that, unless marriage preparation persuaded some couples NOT to marry (and therefore avoid the fall-out and cost of breakdown), it was probably pretty useless. How do you react to such a robust aim?! That town community saw the need to prevent disastrous marriages as part of the championing of marriage and good marriages.

By the way, I need to say at this stage that there is no such thing as a blueprint for how any one actual marriage works or looks and certainly no formula as to how best to foster marriage. This booklet aims to affirm marriage in our society and to commend its blessings and value to today’s citizens.

The final trigger for a booklet on this subject has been the emergence of NATIONAL MARRIAGE WEEK and the few enthusiasts who have promoted the idea and begun to gather and disseminate resources. I will leave the Marriage Internet Resources web page to offer a further explanation of the week and its associated growing resources. I will simply relate my understanding of it here and endeavour in my local church and parish to use the opportunities it provides.

National Marriage Week was launched some seven years ago, with Prime Minister Tony Blair adding his commendation. The week has been designated as the two Sundays either side of Valentine’s Day on February 14th. That began to give me a twin stimulus: first, to give some annual focus in Sunday preaching and teaching and in midweek celebration to the whole issue of marriage; and second, to galvanize the marriage preparation we were offering to those requesting to get married that year at St Peter’s.

We started by offering two occasions during that week; a dinner for all those planning to get married that year and those who got married the previous year, and then some kind of public event offering insight, celebration and support of marriage. The dinner is relatively easy to set up. In the first week of the new year, we look at who has booked in to get married any time that year, and send them (and all those married in the previous 12 months - we tell them at the time of their preparation) an invitation to a dinner “In Praise of Marriage”. We enjoy an excellent meal together (the couples, the staff team and the marriage preparation team). I am able to introduce the couples to whichever of the clergy will be taking their wedding and to explain our whole approach to marriage preparation. The marriage prep team introduce themselves and the four-week course they offer and the proposed dates. Finally, I offer something by way of an “after-dinner speech” to the title “In Praise of Marriage”. It is usually fairly light, but aims to have some Bible and Christian inspiration and insight to set the whole project alight.

The public event has been more varied and challenging to mount successfully. It has tended to be on a weekday evening (Tues/Wed, when Small Groups usually meet) or Fri/Sat, but always avoiding Valentine’s Day itself! We have been reasonably effective in getting members of our and other churches along, but less so reaching into the community. We issue invitations in our quarterly door-to-door publication, in the local press, and through whatever personal interactions we can. We have had the press present and articles in the local press occasionally.

Roughly in order to date, we have had a speaker and presentation from CARE - largely the social and political issues; an evening we ran ourselves using the Rob Parsons videos and discussions for marriage support and al; a dinner with Anne Atkins, who spoke after the meal on her latest book (on families) and answered questions - it could have gone on till midnight; a different evening, again in-house, but very professional, on stress in modern life, especially families, and ways of de-stressing - ending with a pampering session or two; a spell-binding evening with Andrew Cornes expounding the “Song of Songs” in his intimately personal and uniquely powerful way; and an evening with Simon Vibert promoting his approach in his book “The Diamond Marriage”.

If the evening event is on Saturday, it has also enabled a visiting speaker to preach the next day - e.g. Shaun Atkins on Mark 10, Simon Vibert on Ephesians 5, etc. - which has been excellent for the congregation.

We have a long way to go, but we have made a start. National Marriage Week certainly gives us a space and a stimulus every year to time and plan how we are actively addressing Marriage Matters - teaching, educating, celebrating, campaigning, supporting, cherishing, championing. I hope this little publication will encourage and stimulate others.

This booklet offers a personal and local introduction and then a summary of ideas and suggestions gathered from ministers and churches that replied to the simple Marriage Preparation questionnaire. We received a few contributions from individuals and one of these from Mark Ashton is in appendix iv. National Marriage Week has now become Marriage Week UK (www.marriage-week.org.uk) while Ted Pratt (a member of Reform) is active in Marriage Resource (www.marriageresource.org.uk). Both web sites provide a vast wealth of material and ideas, some of which I have reproduced here. There is a concluding bibliography for books (obviously!) recommended and thought valuable, and other resources/agencies.

Go to - enjoy marriage and promote marriage and the family.

Appendix i 

Marriage Preparation Example Questionnaire

(sent out to Reform churches and clergy in 2005)

1. How many weddings do you take a year?

2. What preparation can you offer?

3. Do you have any ideas or strategy as to how to support marriage or to promote marriage 
a) in your church?
b) in your community?
c) in the public arena?

4. Do you know of National Marriage Week?
Do you support it in any way in the parish?
If so, how?

5. Do you run or are you thinking of running any events / courses to celebrate or support marriage?

6. How do you teach about marriage and relationships?

7. What other things do you do / can you think of that promote marriage
a) in the Church
b) in the community
c) in society

8. Press/Media - any stories or ideas to repeat?

9. What resources would you recommend?

10. Please be as imaginative and bold and practical as you wish in any other ideas or suggestions, comments or questions.

Appendix ii

Marriage Preparation Survey Responses

Preparing Engaged Couples for Marriage

Number of weddings taken in a year: 

Number of weddings Number of churches Percentage of respondents
0-5 10 42%
6-10 9 38%
11-15 3 12%
16-20 2 8%

All but one of the churches who responded were able to offer some form of marriage preparation, for instance through lending relevant books and materials, at least one meeting between the vicar and the engaged couples, and courses ranging from a day or an evening to several weeks. These courses are often lay-led and in the context of “home groups”. One respondent also mentioned that they have had some success with encouraging the couples to attend the morning service, which all do for a few sessions, and some stay on once they are married.

Preparation Number of churches Percentage of respondents
One session preparation 6 25%
Short marriage preparation 4 17%
Longer marriage “course” 11 46%

Three churches replied that they used their own “home grown” marriage preparation courses.

A couple of respondents were able to go into further detail about exactly how their preparation works. The “In-House” Day at St Giles‘ in Derby runs as follows: first a discussion on how the Bible deals with sex and relationships between men and women. The couples are then taken through Two Ways to Live, The Marriage Service and the Five Languages of Love. Another church’s course runs like this: “The main session is 3-8pm on a Sunday. We do 45 minutes on the service itself, 1 hour using Parsons’ video, 30 minutes in seminars with married couples, 15 minutes for questions, 1 hour for a meal together and then 1 hour 30 minutes for the evening church service.”

Some churches had very encouraging stories to share, for instance St Mark’s in Southwark: “This year we prepared 30 couples through marriage preparation courses - half of them had had no previous connection with the church.” St Catherine’s in Tranmare, Chester have recently had two women come to faith through their marriage preparation course. Ideas and suggestions about marriage preparation from those who responded to the survey included:

  • Advertising marriage preparation courses as widely as possible (for instance in doctors' surgeries, gyms etc.) and offering marriage preparation through registry offices.
  • Make the most of the contact you have with non-Christians looking to get married in church, perhaps by promoting Alpha or Christianity Explored courses alongside any preparation that you do with them.
  • Make attending some form of preparation a prerequisite to being married in your church - as one respondent radically suggested: “Have General Synod enact that all couples seeking Church of England marriage may be required to attend preparation at incumbent’s discretion; bookings only provisional until preparation complete!”

Promoting Marriage

St Thomas‘, of Garrets Green in Birmingham, wrote about people’s objections to marriage: “It is substantially about money. The direct and indirect costs of marriage must be reduced.” To help overcome the possible financial obstacles associated with getting married, St Thomas’ does the service for the £240 statutory fee and provides the music, flowers etc free of charge, with the children’s club helping with the flowers.

All respondents wrote that they promote and teach about marriage and godly relationships as the theme naturally occurs in the course of Sunday preaching and at wedding services. Two churches specifically set aside time in the year to dedicate to the topic of marriage: St Mark’s in Southwark does “one Sunday sermon each term, geared appropriately to couples and families in the morning, and singles and recently marrieds in the evening”, while St Andrew’s in Truro uses a Sunday around Valentine’s Day, as well as 3 or 4 other Sundays in a year, to focus on marriage.

More suggestions for effective ways to promote marriage:

  • Put up a “Bridal Exhibition” easel at the church, as a weekly visual reminder of the celebration of marriage.
  • Ensure that teaching about marriage is included from the earliest age in children’s and youth work.
  • Include discussion about marriage in baptism preparation.
  • Parenting courses run in schools and children’s centres can also cover marriage issues.
  • Use the resources, facts and statistics to show that a) more marriages survive than fail, and b) “Marriage is the most successful form of cohabitation yet devised.”

Supporting Marriage

There are many courses, designed in a similar way to marriage preparation courses, but specifically to help couples already married. A total of 9 churches who responded run such courses, with material from Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), Alpha, Rob Parsons and Care for the Family. St George’s of Ripon and Leeds offers the HTB marriage course as a follow up once couples who have been through their marriage preparation course have been married a while. St Mary’s in Cheadle, Chester, advertises “Marriage Enrichment Weekend”, but they also open their marriage preparation events to any couple, not just those preparing for their wedding.

Holy Trinity in Rochester replied that it was very important to be open to talking about marriage, to share yourself and your experiences in order to help and encourage others. Support between members of the congregation is vital - both Holy Trinity and St Mary’s, as well as other churches, cited the importance of home groups in the role of teaching, counselling and supporting married couples. One church aims to “arrange as many ‘get togethers’ as practicable, particularly for young marrieds.” They also “encourage the congregation to make their chief friends in the church and love one another fervently.”

Another popular way of supporting marriage was through holding celebratory events for special milestones: 10 of the churches who responded specifically mentioned the increasing popularity of al of vows, and big anniversary celebrations (i.e. 30, 40, 50 years).

Other ideas and suggestions include:

  • Holding a “couples' evening” at church
  • Gift Christian books to Christians or other receptive couples.
  • Other courses not directly related to marriage (eg. parenting courses) are also helpful in strengthening it.
  • Send wedding anniversary cards.

National Marriage Week

Do you know of National Marriage Week?      Do you support it in any way?

  No. of churches % of replies   No. of churches % of replies
YES 16 73% YES 5 23%
NO 6 27% NO 17 77%

The majority of churches who do support “National Marriage Week” celebrated with special prayers during the Sunday services. St Mary’s in Cheadle, Chester replied that “The main marriage service is held on the Sunday closest to Valentine’s Day and the evening has a marriage/invitation theme”.

Problems and Concerns

A number of churches have come across obstacles to successful marriage preparation and promotion. One church who has offered non-obligatory courses has found them to be poorly attended, “possibly because the majority of engaged couples are already co-habiting and see no difference in the relationship”, and therefore no need for extra preparation. Westham Parish Church in Chichester agreed and cited the need for “a course which took into account that many couples have been living together for some time.”

A few churches named such difficulties as low numbers of both young marrieds and people willing to run the courses or be a support for them. Sometimes couples live outside of the parish (using a parental address as their residence) which means they are not around for preparation.

Such difficulties also extended to running events or courses to celebrate or support marriage: the majority of churches would like to be able to do this, but regretted a lack of knowledge and resources, a scarcity of people to run the courses, too few marriages taking place, and general lack of interest in attending such events.

More than one church acknowledged that completing (or trying to complete!) this questionnaire had caused them to realise how little time and thought is often given to promoting and supporting marriage.

Appendix iii

Recommended Resources

Websites

The Reform web site has a page with all the links below and also some specific resources that can be downloaded: click here

Bristol Community Family Trust: www.bcft.co.uk
Care for the Family: www.careforthefamily.org.uk/marriage/
Marriage Preparation Questionnaire: www.foccus.org.uk
Marriage Resource: www.marriageresource.org.uk/
Two ways to live: www.matthiasmedia.com.au/2wtl/
The Jubilee Centre: www.jubilee-centre.org

Courses

Holy Trinity Brompton Marriage Preparation Course / Marriage Course (http://relationshipcentral.org)
Peter Jackson: Preparing for Marriage (www.thegoodbook.co.uk)
The FOCCUS Questionnaire (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study) from nickgulliford@btopenworld.com (highly recommended by St Mark’s, Battersea Rise, but needs training to conduct it)

Books

Christopher Ash, Married for God (IVP: 2007)
Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (IVP: 2003)
James Dobson, Love for a Lifetime (Multnomah Gifts: 2007)
James Dobson, Love must be Tough (Multnomah Publishers: 2003)
J. John, Till Death Us Do Part (Philo Trust: 2004)
Michael Lawson, The Better Marriage Guide (General Publishing Co: 1999)
Nicky and Sila Lee, The Marriage Book (Alpha International: 2000)
Rob Parsons, The 60 Minute Marriage (Hodder & Stoughton: 1997)
Alexander Strauch, Men and Women: Equal Yet Different (Lewis & Roth Publishers: 1999)
Simon Vibert, The Diamond Marriage (Christian Focus Publications: 2005) 
Ed and Gaye Wheat, Intended for Pleasure: Sex Technique and Sexual Fulfilment in Christian Marriage (Scripture Union Publishing: 2000)

Articles

in New Directions (search archive here)

Appendix iv

Sabbatical Report on Marriage 
September 2000
Mark Ashton (St Andrew the Great)

This report is focussed on the general area of marriage and the family, and more specifically on marriage breakdown within the Christian community.

The Theological Framework

  • God’s sovereignty over His creation is mediated through the human race. And it is a task that could not be fulfilled without the creation of both man and woman. Every marriage fits into that framework. God brings a man and a woman together in marriage in order that they may be His image, filling and subduing the earth.
  • We must encourage couples to change gear spiritually at marriage. This will entail their discussing and praying together about what God means them to do for Him as a couple that they could not have done when they were both still single.
  • Without this wider theological perspective, our folk will not be able to understand things like the “Marriage Foundation Year” (as a time for the couple to thrash out before God what His purpose for their marriage is and how they can most effectively serve Him in their marriage). It will also help us in a biblical way to move beyond companionship in marriage. Marriage simply cannot support the emotional expectations that are heaped on it by many people today.

Pressures On Marriage

  • Throughout most of human history, men and women have depended on a whole network of relationships in the wider family and community to satisfy their many emotional needs. Today we tend to depend on a single relationship to do so. It has been claimed that our culture places a greater burden of expectation on marriage than any other society at any time (Margaret Mead). Commitment is no longer enough. We are supposed to be on a perpetual interpersonal “high” in our marital relationship. But no one person can meet all the needs for intimacy and emotional support of another.
  • It is necessary to establish meaning and purpose in marriage; in other words to look outside the marriage itself for the factors that can give it stability. Rodney Clapp commented, “Paradoxically, a family is enriched when it is decentred, relativized, recognized as less than an absolute”.

Marriage and the Christian Life

  • So, we need to help our couples establish the goal and purpose of their marriage, beyond intimacy and meeting each other’s needs. They need to see it as one of God’s good gifts to them (1 Cor 7:7) - and, because it is a gift of God’s grace, it is, like all the rest of God’s gifts, not so much for their own private benefit as for the benefit of the whole Church (1 Pet 4:10).
  • Marriage is analogous with the rest of the Christian life. We persevere despite our continual and seemingly unending failures, moral lapses and falls into sin, because “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ” (Phil.1:6). So, in marriage, we are to hope in God and not think we can make them into good marriages by our own efforts. We are to persevere in working at our marriages because they come from God and are part of God’s purposes for us.
  • The whole of the Christian life is a painful process of sanctification and the experience of Christian marriage is right at the heart of that. At a number of American churches I asked experienced counsellors what was the single, most dangerous spiritual feature of a marriage. The answer I got back most consistently was: the theology that teaches us, “God just wants me to be happy”. If that is what our gospel message consists of, then, when my marriage makes me unhappy, God can’t mean me to remain in it. But, if marriage is to do with getting to heaven, then we must look beyond present trials to a future hope, which is the only perspective which can make sense of the whole of human life (Acts 14:22). A married couple are called to a work beyond themselves. We are called to be companions to one another in caring for God’s creation. The goal of marriage is the glory and service of God, not self-fulfilment and communication.

The Marriage Foundation Year

  • The right application of Deuteronomy 24:5 (“If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married.”) is that the first year of marriage should be regarded as special.
  • For the twenty-first century Christian, the equivalent of the Israelite man not being “sent to war or have any duty laid on him” is to have a year in which he is not expected to play a foremost role in the spiritual battle. That battle is a battle for souls and a reasonable interpretation is that married couples should not be expected to look after other people spiritually during their first year.
  • But this is not an extended honeymoon, a holiday nor an opportunity for backsliding. It is preparation for future service. It is a year in which the couple need to learn to communicate and to handle conflict in a way that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their marriage. The first stage of a marriage is the development of intimacy, but the marriage must not get stuck in this stage. The second stage is the fulfilling of the goal or purpose of the marriage. So intimacy is not an end in itself: it is to equip us for service.

Observations from the American Christian Community

  • While prevention must be better than cure, we cannot put all our eggs into the one basket of marriage preparation. Much of what is said in marriage preparation prior to the wedding simply cannot be taken in by the couple at that stage. It must be repeatedly reinforced during the early months and years following marriage if it is going to be significant in shaping the marriage and protecting it from trouble further down the track.
  • Some American churches ask very searching questions on spiritual issues right at the outset of their marriage preparation. For example: How can you be sure that X (the person you’re marrying) is a Christian? How do you know that X is putting Christ first? How do you know that you are ready for marriage? How do you know that this is the right time for X?

Roles Within Marriage

  • Until a couple grasp the importance of a joint, God-given task for their marriage, they will find it hard to work out appropriate gender roles within the marriage and, particularly, gain a right understanding of careers. The complementarity, rather than identity, of the sexes is clearly taught throughout the Bible. It is an equal but asymmetric relationship. The headship of the man within the home is also clearly taught.
  • There is clearly an idolatry of the career rampant in our culture. The whole world of work is only a part of the God-given task of Genesis 1 and all human work must be assessed as to how much it is “in the image of God”. All work is done by the Christian, not for its own sake, but as worship to God and as a way of proclaiming, establishing and extending His kingdom on earth.
  • Moreover, the command to “fill” the earth precedes the command to “subdue” it in Genesis 1:28. The raising of a family is every bit as significant a way of “being in God’s image” here on earth. We are all aware how much that aspect of our God-given task in marriage has been attacked by our culture, and how the dignity of motherhood, in particular, has been scorned.
  • But does the Bible offer clear guidance as to whether a wife should pursue a career or not? Clearly the woman of Proverbs 31 was economically productive, entrepreneurially involved, and contributing in a major way to the financial welfare of her household. But from verses like Titus 2:4-5 (“Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no-one will malign the word of God.”), while they do not preclude earning, they do clearly place the women’s activity within the home. So, insofar as the Genesis God-given task to be God’s image on earth requires wage-earning, and insofar as our culture dictates that wage-earning takes place away from the home, the husband should do it. Career-minded wives need to look for ways to work from home, where they can still focus on the family and the household.
  • We must help our wives above all to build their esteem from their relationship with God (still ringing in my ears from many years ago are the words of one senior wife in our congregation, “I will never gain my children’s respect, Mark, until I go back to work”).
  • If we tackle the issue of the “working” wife and mother merely with a prohibition on her being the primary wage-earner, we are not doing justice to scripture, which is clearer about the location of the wife’s work than it is about the nature of her work. The problem for the Bible is not the house-husband; it is the absent wife and mother. We must be biblical and not cultural. We must also derive our teaching clearly (and not vaguely) from scripture.

Bibliography

Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage (Christian Focus: 2002)
Rodney Clapp, Families at the Crossroads (IVP: 1993)
Kent Huges, Common Sense Parenting (Tyndale House Publishing: 1996)
Tony Payne & Phillip Jensen, Pure Sex (Matthias Media: 2003)
Garland & Garland, Beyond Companionship: Christians in Marriage (Wipf & Stock: 2003)
Steve Ayers, Sex and Sensibility (IVP: 1997)
Linda Berg-Cross, Couples Therapy (Routledge: 2001)
William McRae, Preparing for your Marriage (Zondervan: 1980)
Dave Leal, On Marriage as Vocation (Grove Books: 1996)
Oliver O’Donovan, Marriage and Permanence (Grove Books: 1978)
Jay Adams, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible (Zondervan: 1986)
Larry Crabb, Connecting (Thomas Nelson: 2004)