While not a sacrament in the Uniting Church tradition, marriage holds an important place in church life. As a discussion paper prepared by the Assembly Doctrine Committee puts it, “the light of God’s face is turned towards marriage in a peculiar way; that there is an intimate and mysterious bond between the human speech-act of promise and the divine speech-act of blessing; that as two human partners speak words of love to one another, God bestows a word on both of them and makes them one.” Insights spoke to couples, marriage counsellors, and theologians to address the question, “what makes for a godly marriage?”
Reverend Dr Peter Powell is the director of the Pastoral Counselling Institute (PCI). He told Insights that his experience in this role (and marriage of more than thirty years) had taught him that, “a godly marriage is one that models the way of Jesus.”
“So the kind of qualities seen in Jesus and are described in Scripture would be essential to the way a godly marriage operated,” Dr Powell said.
“Basically what we read in 1 Corinthians 13. So there will be equality and respect of persons, a gentleness and listening and so on.”
Kaye and Andrew Crook worship at Blacktown Uniting Church, where they have been involved in running a marriage enrichment course.
“I see a godly marriage as one with three partners: God, husband and wife,” Mrs Crook said.
“Each spouse has an individual relationship with God as well as a ‘couple’ relationship with God. When each person sees the other as a special child of God, the marriage focus will be on supporting and building each other up to be the best person God wants then to be.”
“After we attended a marriage course, we were asked to consider joining the presenting team (something that excited me a lot). As we continued to attend courses, our relationship changed and grew stronger,” Mrs Crook said.
“That led to a desire to share with others. So we looked for a course that we could run at our church. We found the Marriage Course from Holy Trinity Brompton was an easy course to run and supplied couples with practical tools. Each time we run a course, we learn something new about each other and our relationship continues to grow. It is a great feeling to see others catch some of those benefits too.”
Andrew was more reluctant to begin with, but came to share Kaye’s enthusiasm.
“When we were offered the opportunity to be a part of the presenting team, I hesitated,” he said.
“It was way outside my comfort zone. However, I could see that Kaye was very excited by the prospect and so I agreed to take the challenge. The benefits we both experienced from learning about and conducting marriage courses, were tangible to the point where people at church would comment about our relationship.”
Maintaining a godly marriage is a challenge. According to Dr Powell it is, “probably one of the hardest tasks any human being can undertake.”
“The key challenge to godly marriages is that we are not godly enough,” he said.
“Following the life of Jesus personally and corporately is tough.”
“We have a simple process at PCI, if you are more irritated than curious with your partner you cannot sustain a healthy marriage. So curiosity is critical to our notion of marriage, as is the need to be flexible. If you’re curious and flexible you can live happily with Attila the Hun.”
“[There is] obviously no place for male or female control, domestic violence, sexual control, [or] financial control,” Dr Powell said.
Assembly to talk about marriage
The triennial assembly meeting (8-14 July 2018) will consider how the Uniting Church defines marriage.
Same sex marriage became legal in Australia on 7 December 2017.
Uniting Church Ministers are given legal permission to conduct marriages under the Rites of the Uniting Church in Australia, and these rites cannot be changed until the Assembly Meeting at the earliest.
The Assembly’s Working Group on Doctrine have prepare a discussion paper on marriage. The report and proposal is available here. Uniting Church NSW and ACT moderator Simon Hansford recommends reading the report ahead of Assembly.
Don’t forget singles
Dr Katherine Grocott has previously researched the theology of singleness, something that she says is a God-given gift.
While researching her Bachelor of Theology Honours Thesis A Singular Focus, Dr Grocott found that, “the Evangelical Church has elevated the status of marriage and family well above that of singleness.” She told Insights that she had heard many anecdotes during interviews that reinforced this.
“Single people are often denigrated and ignored by a theology that understands the nuclear family as the God-given norm,” Dr Grocott said.
“When that happens, the theology is in error. Singleness, just like marriage, is a good gift from God. Both have struggles, joys, temptations and benefits. There may well be practical advantages for single people, however, especially in relation to freedom for kingdom ministry. The teaching of both Jesus and Paul views single people as whole and valuable, made in the image of God and able to do much in the kingdom.”
This, she says, has implications for the church and how we treat single people in our congregations.
“Instead of making unhelpful judgements or assumptions about single people in congregations, churches need to get to know them as individuals,” she said.
“Find out who they are before assuming that they’d love to babysit or have loads of time to dedicate to the flower arranging ministry. Then include them in church in ways that are actually meaningful and respectful for them.”
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor