A Sacrament. An outward visible sign of an inward invisible grace. A ritual, which shows us that something we can’t see is going on. So the important thing, arguably, isn’t the sign itself, but what is going on.
If I have to conduct a funeral for a baby which died very shortly after birth, I believe that baby will be loved and acknowledged by God despite the fact they were not baptised in the minutes after they were born. The baby is a much loved part of God’s family, and me or any other priest splashing water about and making signs of the cross with oil blessed by bishops will not make the slightest difference to that love.
Of course if a baby lives, then parents might well want to acknowledge and celebrate God’s love for their child by bringing them for baptism into the Christian family. And readers of this post will have no problem, or some issues, or many problems with that. But if baptism doesn’t happen at a few months old, but at a few years old, or in adulthood, it still doesn’t mean that person wasn’t loved by God prior to baptism. Of course they were. And the Spirit was moving in their lives – which they may have noticed or not. Baptism makes formal and acknowledges that which was already happening. Baptism matters to us more than it matters to God. It is a God-given sacrament, given to humans who need reminding of God: Creator, Redeemer and Comforter.
So what of marriage? There has been a great deal of heat generated on the subject, much steam released from ears, many tears shed, and bluntly, not a lot of love in sight. But again, marriage is a sacrament. An outward visible sign of inward invisible grace. Grace. Not much of that about at the moment in the Church of England debate. I’ve heard plenty of vitriol, plenty of querulous complaint, plenty of anger. I’ve heard lots about “Biblical” marriage. Which particular Bible figure would you like to pick? Jacob, Rebekah or Leah? Abraham, Sarah or Hagar? David or…..you get the point. None of them conform to the apparent ideal in which a woman and a man, neither of whom has had sex with anyone else, give themselves to each other exclusively for life. Even Mary was pregnant by the time she married Joseph – and that really WAS a sign of God at work.
About 95% of the marriages I am privileged to conduct are of couples living at the same address. Many have children. Some have been together for years. Marriage is an acknowledgement of grace already being lived for them. So what is so different for people who happen to have fallen in love with someone of the same gender? Anglicanism calls for the application of Scripture (pick your verse. Jesus never said a word about it, St Paul had plenty to say about marriage and against sex with someone of the same gender, for someone who was as far as we know, single); Anglicanism calls us to honour tradition (now there IS the point at which I give a nod to the equation that marriage = 1 man + 1 woman); Anglicanism calls us to use our reason. There has been a great deal of research into gender and sexuality in the last couple of hundred years. We know so much more than we did about physical and psychological development. Reason tells me that two gay (wo)men may have a much more stable relationship which “enriches society and strengthens community” than many a man and woman.
So when I watched ‘Rev’ earlier this week, as Adam picked his way through the current messy marriage minefield, I didn’t weep. I cringed with embarrassment. And prayed quite hard that no-one will ask me to marry them unless I am allowed to. The really sad thing is that makes me a coward.