On Marriage

Two interesting articles appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer today:

The first article reports that marriage is on a steep decline in France and in other European nations.  A noticeably increased number of couples are living together, buying property together and having children together, though choosing not to get married.  From the article:

Sandrine Folet and Lucas Titouh have two children, a stylish Paris apartment, and a 15-year-old partnership.

They have no intention of getting married.

"We don’t feel the need to get married," said Folet, 36, who has
known Titouh, 40, since she was a teenager. "I don’t know many people
in our age group who are married." . . .

. . . The trend in France is driven by a convergence of social transitions in
both the demographic and cultural landscapes, including this
generation’s nearly universal estrangement from religion, especially
the Catholic Church.

In a related article on the next page, federal health officials reported yesterday that births to unwed mothers is on the rise in the United States, even as births to teenage mothers had declined. 

Births among unwed mothers rose most dramatically among women in their 20s.

Experts said the overall rise reflected the burgeoning number of
people who were putting off marriage or living together without getting
married. They said it also reflected cultural changes that make having
a child out of wedlock more acceptable . . .

. . . More single women in their 30s and 40s, hearing their biological
clock, are choosing to give birth, she said, and younger women are not
as worried about being unmarried.

And just because a mother is not married does not mean the father is
not around, Ventura noted. She cited 2002 statistics showing that about
20 percent of all new mothers under 20 were unmarried but living with
the father at the time of the birth. That was also true of about 13
percent of all new mothers ages 20 to 24.

Marriage is on the decline.  Though this is not encouraging news, I do not think this is such a horrible thing.  Don’t get me wrong – I think that marriage is a powerful and needed building block of society, and I am a fan of marriage.  But marriage is not the only building block of society.  Our society will not spiral into never ending decay because of the declining marriage rate (there are other reasons we may be heading into never ending decay).  I am postmodern enough (and just plain realistic enough) to recognize that it is altogether possible for couples to have healthy relationships and raise families without being married.  Many couples do so every day across this country.  Marriage is no guarantor of morality, stability or sanctity.

Yet I can hear the conservatives gnashing their teeth, tearing their garments, and heaping blame on liberals for the falling marriage rate.  But do not worry.  They have a powerful ally on their side.  The church?  No.  I said powerful.  Who is this ally?  The $72 billion/year wedding industry.  Just wait for the strategic alliance between James Dobson’s conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family and David’s Bridal, one of America’s leading bridal retailers . . .

To be fair, Americans gave about $88.3 billion to religious organizations in 2004 (more than we spent on weddings) – stats available on Lake Family Institute on Faith and Giving website – and most religious groups support and advocate for marriage.  But somehow I believe that the for-profit wedding industry could do more to encourage marriage than could the disparate religious groups to which Americans variously adhere.

(The ELCA has several paragraphs dedicated to marriage in its 1996 message on sexuality entitled Sexuality: Some Common Convictions.  Though I think the section on marriage is a little thin in this document, I appreciate the honesty, integrity and reality with which it is written.  This, and all of our Lutheran social statements, are written with a keen appreciation of the inherent brokenness of people and their relationships.  Marriage is also part of the ongoing conversations about sexuality, Journey Together Faithfully.)

Of course, for a growing number of Americans their own wedding is one of the few times in their lives that they participate in a religious ceremony.  That’s regrettable, for several reasons.  Why do non-religious people feel a need to celebrate their marriage with religious signs and symbols, when these signs and symbols otherwise have little meaning for them?  Are they being unduly pressured by society or family to do something they don’t believe?  I’d strongly encourage such people to be honest with themselves, go to a justice of the peace to be legally married, and celebrate their marriage in a way that best fits their beliefs, their personality, their love for each other.  You don’t need religion to get married.

In addition to marriage, many people who are otherwise not religious feel the need to have their children baptized.  Just yesterday a woman at my daughter’s day care, after hearing me tell about my daughter’s upcoming baptism, said to me, "Gosh, I haven’t gotten my child done.  Perhaps I can come to your church to do that?"

My point is this – I do not want to discourage people from celebrating their marriage in church nor from baptizing their children.  However, I want these people to know that they do not need the church for their marriage to have legitimacy or for their child to have a good life.  I want them to know that they have permission to not come to church to celebrate rites of passage.  Church blessings at a wedding and the baptism of children are practices of faith for people of faith.  If you are not a person of faith then I would ask, why do you want to do this thing at church?

I regret that vestiges of Christendom continue to exert a significant cultural pull in our society.  Once upon a regrettable time, the church was the one and only power in town.  But that is not the case any longer, thank God.  Our society and our church are better for it.  But the vestiges linger.  And that is our challenge – to navigate, discern, and remove those meddlesome vestiges that interfere with people’s live, our civic life, and the life of our religious communities.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

9 thoughts on “On Marriage

  1. I’ve found it interesting that at the same time that homosexuals want the blessings of a marriage ceremony, a number of hetrosexuals forgo this ritual.
    But couples may also be giving up a number of legal rights, or rights for their children, depending on the laws of the state and country in which they reside. In some cases, if one of the pair dies, the non-legal partner can’t even make funeral plans. Or the dead person’s hostile relatives can cut them out of any part of a funeral. And what about inheritance if there is no will?
    Regarding a church wedding, sometimes it is like the so-called chicken soup that the chicken flew over. But, just as with funerals and baptisms, it is an opening, a chance for seed planting. But there has to be meetings with the pastor for seed planting time. Our pastor has refused to be part of marriages and refused the use of the church for people who just want to blow into town at the last minute to use the building with no counseling or pre marital discussion.

  2. I’m glad you brought in the connection with baptism. The statistics say that most people in America, even the ones who never step foot in a church, believe in God. It’s easy to be cynical about just what this means for them, but I think the cameos for baptism and weddings give kind of a hint as to what it means for them. They want God’s blessing on their lives. So they show up at these key times, get the blessing and go about their lives.
    I have this idea that we’re transitioning into a time when church congregations will serve the same sort of role in our culture that monastic communities did in the early middle ages. We’ll perhaps be seen as eccentric or maybe even fanatical, but we’ll provide critical guidance to society. Worse things could happen.

  3. Andy,
    You are much. much more gracious than I. I would just want those who have no real interest in religion to simply butt out and leave religion for the religious (I know there is a slippery slope argument to be made, but lets leave that for another day).
    Yet I love the image you give, that of the medieval monasteries. I have often wondered if Christianity, if churches, need to get weirder, more in tune with the foolishness of the cross rather than with the wisdom of the world. Your use of the word “eccentric” and the image of the medieval monastic communities is much more gracious and beneficial than my desire that everyone else just butt out of my religion.

  4. This is well written. I particularly like the jab at the wedding industry; more and more I feel that weddings are about the EVENT, elaborate and costly and choreographed and staged, rather than about the commitment. There’sone theory that the amount of money spent on the wedding is inversely proportionate to the duration of the marriage . . . . Blog on, brother!

  5. Yes, to what Nancy said. I heard about some sort of post-marriage-ceremony-letdown. Can’t remember the exact name, but it is a sort of “What now?” depression. It takes a lot of work to spend $25,000 on a 2 – 5 hour event.

  6. I had a prof at LTSS who suggested that the church turn inward a bit on some of these things, particularly weddings and baptisms. His argument was that it was dishonest, and perhaps even blasphemous, to hold Christian rites and sacraments for those we knew would break their vows. So with baptism, if you know a couple would not rase their child in the church, then you should decline to baptize the child. Same principal applies with weddings.
    I think I a much more open than that, in the sense that I won’t turn a child away from the font, regardless of the parents. I see it as a good time to talk about baptismal vows with parents and at least say to them that they are promising certain things. For some folks, it gets them thinking about Christianity and the church in a way they may not have had to do in the past.
    With weddings, however, our church as a whole has adopted some really strict policies about who may get married at our church. This is due in part to the fact that we have a very traditional building with stain glass etc and people will just stop in off of the street wanting to get married in the building, and if we didn’t put in some controls, then we would be doing weddings every week during the spring and summer.

  7. LZ, you give some stats concerning singles living together at the time their child is born. I am curious what the stats are concerning the couple’s living arrangments say, five years after the child is born.
    I tend to think along the same lines as Andy in his comment above. People’s desires to have marriages and baptisms within the community of the Church, even though they may not be regular church going people, does not necessarily mean God isn’t central in their lives.
    I think this type of situation is an example of the Church needing to be intentional in teaching and modeling a Christian lifestyle. It is also an opportunity for the Church to do some self examination to see where it is lacking in being a central part of people’s lives as well.

  8. Some people only come through the doors of the church for funerals. Just think what kind of emotional associations they will have with the church building and with some of the symbols. Therefore, let’s give them something else to associate with church: blessings of the baptisms and marriage. But, done with counseling and seed planting! And let the church/people follow their part of the vows: invite these kids to Sunday School at the appropriate time.

  9. I have found that many couples will turn away from our church for their wedding because we do require counseling. They see us as a building to be rented, and often little more.

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