Bishop Steven's Sermon: 'Upholding Christ’s Teaching on Marriage'

Mother’s Union Celebration: Doncaster Minster 25 March, 2012

It’s very good to be with you this afternoon to celebrate the angel’s visit to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus.  It is good to give thanks for the life and work of the Mother’s Union across the Diocese.  Ann and I see for ourselves week by week the role the Mother’s Union plays in different communities as a centre for prayer and community and faith.  Thank you for all you do.


I want to pay a particular tribute to Sarah, our Diocesan President, to the Committee who work with her, to the Enrolling Members and to your Chaplain for their vision and hard work and dedication to the cause.


I pray that once again this will be a year when the Mother’s Union grows and flourishes across the Diocese of Sheffield.  We need you very much indeed.


I want to focus your attention this afternoon on the first of the five objectives of the Mother’s Union.  They are printed on page 10 of the service booklet and you may want to turn to them.  At the end of the service, I will ask you to re-affirm your vows and promises to support these Five Objectives.  The first calls for special attention at the present time across the whole of the Church in our land.


I will ask you to promise to uphold Christ’s teaching on the nature of marriage and to promote its wider understanding.


Our society is in the midst of a number of serious debates about marriage at the present time.  There are, of course, questions about same sex unions and marriage.  There are questions around the frequency of marriage breakdown and the pain caused to all concerned.  There are questions around the support for marriage and family life through the tax system.  There are questions around forced marriages in some sections of the community.  There are questions around the renewal of marriages which have run dry of life.  There are questions around the wedding industry and the ramping up of the cost of weddings so they become unaffordable.  There are questions around the presentation of marriage in endless romantic comedies as being basically an experience of happy ever after.


The whole Church has a responsibility to support the institution of marriage between a man and a woman as part of the God-given ordering of human life, blessed and affirmed by Jesus Christ and also to listen and respond carefully and wisely to each of these current debates.


The first objective of the Mother’s Union is an excellent summary of what we are called to do as a Church at the present time.  Our focus in public debate should not be about what we are against but about what we are for.  It is not the role of the Church to add to the burden of single parents or those whose marriages have broken down, or the gay community.


But it is the responsibility of the Church to speak simply clearly and realistically about Christ’s teaching on the nature of marriage and to promote its wider understanding.  And by Christ’s teaching we must mean the teaching of the whole of the Scriptures.   We need a steady, faithful, compassionate exploration of the Christian understanding of marriage, of what marriage offers and the gift of Christian marriage to the whole of our society.  If the Church does not put forward a positive vision for Christian marriage, who else will?


The Scriptures from beginning to end give us a vision of marriage as integral to God’s vision for creation and God’s gift.  Here is a relationship of one man and one woman who commit themselves to each other in love throughout their lives publicly before family and friends and their wider society.  That relationship is founded on mutual respect.  Christian marriage is a relationship of equals.  The relationship is founded on a pledged commitment which is deeper and longer lasting than feeling and emotion, though the emotional bonds of love are there.


Marriage is first and foremost for mutual support and friendship and companionship through the whole of life.  A marriage is a place of tenderness and joy where a husband and wife’s physical union strengthen the union of their hearts and lives.  A marriage forms a new family unit in society.  It provides a place where children are born and nurtured and can flourish.  A strong marriage is a blessing to many people over several generations.


Marriage is intended to be permanent: a rock in a changing world.  In an age where bonds between people are often short lived, marriage vows are taken for life: for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part.   Marriage is an exclusive relationship: the couple promise to leave father and mother and to forsake all others to put this one relationship at the centre of their lives.  Nothing erodes a marriage faster than infidelity.


Marriage is a complete commitment.  The most moving moment in any wedding ceremony is for me the exchange of rings.  The bride and groom say to one another: with my body I honour you, all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you, within the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Apart from the bonds between parents and children, there is no deeper human commitment than this.  Marriage changes and evolves over every period of life as a husband and wife continue to get to know one another and live out Christ’s command to submit yourselves to one another in love.


Marriage is demanding.  The qualities which make a good marriage are faithfulness, endurance, perseverance and love.  These are as unfashionable as they are essential.


Certainly, Christian marriage is not for everyone.  Jesus was not married.   The Church teaches that it is absolutely possible to live a full human life without being married.  Certainly, marriages go through difficulties.  In those moments people need care and support to rebuild their relationship and enter a new chapter.  Certainly marriages can break down and end.  When they do, the Church must affirm God’s love and forgiveness for both parties and the possibility of beginning again with the blessing of the Church.


But marriage remains central to our faith and it is marriage which has a special place in the Scriptures as a picture of the union between Christ and the Church: as picture, at its best, of sacrificial love and commitment; of healing grace; of God’s love for all humanity; of the most special of special relationships.


If marriage is under threat in our society it is in part because people do not understand in full the vision for Christian marriage.  We need to renew our commitment to teaching this part of our faith, especially to those who come to be married and who are already married.


A few weeks ago the Diocese was privileged to host Archbishop Tito Xavales for a few days.  Archbishop Tito is from Chile and is the Presiding Bishop of the Southern Cone of South America.  Ann and I hosted a dinner party for him on the first evening of his time with us.


Tito told us about the way in which the Church in his Diocese has grown and has strengthened marriage through developing Marriage Encounter weekends.  Tito began this work when he went to be Vicar in a slum parish in the capital of Chile.  The weekends began from an experience of renewal in his own marriage.  The parish would offer to those who were in stable relationships the opportunity to go away for 48 hours together and really engage with what marriage is meant to be and engage with the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Couple after couple were renewed during those weekends and couple after couple came to Christ.  This work of Marriage Encounter became the principal way of strengthening marriage and the way of growing the life of the Church.  I long to find some people of vision who can develop that kind of resource for the Diocese of Sheffield so that we too can share Christ’s teaching on marriage with those who look to us for support and help.


Perhaps there are those here who will catch this vision.


The Mother’s Union will be needed as much if not more than ever before in the life of the Church.  Thank you for all you already give.  Take seriously today the Act of Recommitment you will make.


And especially look for ways in which you will uphold Christ’s teaching on the nature of marriage and promote its wider understanding.





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