Friday, 11 August 2017

Secular and Religious Marriage

I lived in France between 1987 and 1990, studying and working as a classical singer, mostly in opera and oratorio.

During that time, and in Australia in the years before and after, I did what classical singers do - I sang at countless weddings. In Australia, this tends to be during the "Signing of the Register", something I always thought of as the Singing through the Signing! In Australia, this is when the Celebrant (religious or civil) coordinates the signatures of the people being married and their witnesses, and then fills in the paperwork as the presiding approved and authorized person. Singing at the wedding, in Australia, is about being the 'fill' during the legal (and boring) bit.

People come to witness vows and pray for couples. People come to lend their presence as supportive and celebratory community. People participate in an act of Blessing and encouragement. People are less interested in the paperwork.

In France, there are usually two ceremonies. One takes place at the Church or in a garden. The other takes place at the Marie (Town Hall). Often, they can be on different days. I have gone with couples to the Marie or, in Australia, to the Births, Deaths and Marriages Office. It is usually a short and solemn ceremony. The civil authority (a person) does a professional and calm, reasonably tasteful job. The event feels like it has the same kind of significance as signing a Will or Exchanging Property Contracts. Indeed, the main ramifications are about property ownership and legal rights about such property.

At religious marriage ceremonies, something else happens. The venue often holds more people. Less focus is on the legal contract in favour of signs, symbols, actions and speech about responsibilities, feelings, commitments, concerns, joys, behaviours... (just to name a few). Religious rites are not held simply in front of human witnesses, but invoke holy, sacred and divine expectations. There is a sense that the 'beyond' intersects with a 'life moment'. Somehow, there is a sense of deep significance. There are existential questions and concerns about: Why are we here? Are we seeking life's purpose? What will partnership and companionship mean within the Life Journey? These are more than legal concerns. These are about more than property.

Within the Australian community today, the concept of religious marriage and sacred union has wafted away, almost beyond reach. It has disappeared, along with the sense of vocation. Just as ministry has been reduced to the jobs and tasks ministers do, marriage has been reduced to arguments about rights, rather than holy relationships.

My husband and I treat our marriage as a sacrament. Yes, we are in love, but our marriage is more than being about us. We both love God and try to honour God in our marriage. We live out our marriage as a sacrament (sacred moment within eternity) that offers grace to others, including family and friends. Our marriage is about hospitality and good news for others. We seek to live out our marriage as a sign of the good news God has for all.

At the moment, we are staying with a delightful couple I had the privilege of blessing in a religious ceremony last year. They were legally married in New Zealand and their friends and family gathered in Australia so that all could witness their testimony to one another and to God. They live their lives hospitably, caring for others vocationally, and supporting one another in lifelong love. They contribute to their wider communities, with significant expertise, in healthcare. Theirs is the kind of marriage that forms the building blocks for a healthy community.

It grieves me deeply that we argue about basic civil rights for people. We have made a political sport out of dehumanizing anyone who could be vulnerable to our barbs. Such dehumanizing inevitably leads to the diminishment of God's Creation. That anyone could use speech or action to dehumanize others in the name of Christ sounds to me like blasphemy. My prayer is that we can all learn to live into the calling to extend grace rather than judgment, encouragement rather than criticism, blessing rather than indifference.

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