A Sermon from Sherborne

Kingdom rules

A sermon for Mattins at Castleton Church, preached on Sunday 7 October 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


In the last two or three months, I have been deeply involved in a passionate email relationship with two young ladies. They are passionately in love with their fiancés and they passionately want to be married in the Abbey. One is ex-Sherborne Girls, and the other ex-The Gryphon School. But both have the same problem. Each lives and works in the United States of America, and each has fallen in love with an American citizen. And the omens for their getting married in the Abbey are not good.

It’s not the Church’s fault. Until 2014 I could have arranged for them to be married by Archbishop’s Special Licence. I have done that many times before. But in 2014 our Government and that of the United States began to tighten-up on marriages with foreigners, and nowadays I can only offer a relatively easy access to marriage in this benefice between a British citizen and a citizen from the European Economic Area. That’s not the EU, by the way. The EEA is slightly bigger than the EU and includes Iceland and Norway. Whether or not it will still exist post-Brexit is anyone’s guess.

So I have had to respond to my two Sherborne young ladies as follows: It is now extremely difficult to marry in this country as a UK/US couple. It is probably going to be easier for you to marry in the States and have a service of blessing in this country. Any person who is a non-EEA citizen may now marry only after civil preliminaries – no church preliminaries are possible at all. Only main designated civil registrars are authorised to deal with the preliminaries even then, and the nearest around here are Southampton, Bristol, Winchester, Exeter and Swindon. There are none in Dorset or Somerset.

You will both have to live in the registration district for seven days, then attend at the registrar’s office, and this must be done within a minimum of 28 days, extended in some cases to 70 days before the wedding takes place to allow the notice period to run. So it normally involves two trips home for the wedding, which is a huge expense and difficult for many. I am so sorry.

 And so the politicians make it increasingly difficult for couples to build good and lasting relationships. But even when I can get the couples married, I know that half of all marriages in the UK now end in divorce. That is a staggering statistic. And I’ve yet to meet anyone who has been divorced who doesn’t still have the emotional scars somewhere. It is a wounding and a damaging business.

Well, I cannot do anything about the legalities. But I wish the Church had more answers about relationships. We don’t. It’s hardly surprising, considering that the churches are just collections of ordinary, flawed human beings. We have some precious insights into what love, real love, looks like, because we see it modelled in the life of Jesus Christ, and in the lives of a great many of his followers down the ages. And we also have a fair bit of experience of preparing couples for marriage, and of helping them through difficult times. But we seem to be fighting a losing battle against the modern demand for ‘instant’ everything: instant gratification, instant success, instant happiness. Point out that marriage is something that has to be worked at, and that the inevitable problems need to be worked at together, and many young people look at you as though you are a dinosaur. “Remember, love”, one father said to his daughter as he waited to walk her down the Abbey’s aisle, “if it doesn’t work, divorce is easy nowadays.” Can you believe it?

In today’s Gospel [Mark 10.2-16], Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees about marriage, or rather about divorce. As usual, they are seeking to trap him into saying something against the law. He turns the question round and they are the ones who produce the official line. Later, with his disciples, he seems actually to strengthen it, make it more rigorous. And many Christians want to stop there and say – well that’s it, isn’t it? Jesus has endorsed and emphasised the Old Testament rules about marriage and divorce, and that’s the end of it. But wait. What happens next?

Having simply repeated the Old Testament law about divorce, Jesus looks beyond the Pharisees and sees parents bringing their little children to him, and the disciples stopping them. And that makes Jesus indignant. He raises his voice and demands ‘“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

Do you see what Mark is doing here in this Gospel passage? He has Jesus repeating the Old Testament law about marriage and divorce, and then moving straight to his own understanding of relationships within families, and with God. And the most important thing is to approach these huge challenges and responsibilities with an almost childish trust and love.

I am sure that the secret of a long and happy marriage (or any relationship) is that the couple should enter imaginatively into how the other person is feeling. They should try to understand and share their hopes and their fears, their anxieties and their disappointments. They need to be alert to the danger of drifting apart. They must recognise the issues which threaten to come between them, and talk about them and, if possible, laugh about them. They should never get trapped into long periods of sulky silence, but be prepared to compromise. Above all, each partner needs the grace to admit that sometimes, just sometimes, he or she may be the one who is in the wrong!

Yet I cannot help but remember that Jesus was a guest at a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and we do not read that he shared his tips with them, or laid down the law to them, or told them solemnly of their obligations. No – he concerned himself with their wine supply. It seemed a shame to him that their special day should be spoiled, and their marriage get off to an unhappy start, because something was missing which he could remedy. And remedy it he did, with six stone jars of water turned into wine. Each jar, we read, contained between twenty and thirty gallons apiece. If we take an average, that’s 150 gallons of wine. And not just any wine, but the ‘best’ wine.

Today it is not just married relationships which are under stress and strain. It is all relationships. And I believe that the Church’s primary duty about relationships is not to be legalistic about them and surround them with rules and restrictions – but to delight in them and help the members and partners in those relationships to delight in them too. And that means meeting them with a generous heart. That’s why I am saddened that we are now saddled with a marriage system of Byzantine complexity which sometimes compels me to send couples empty away.

And what of other couples, deeply in love, deeply committed to one another, who happen to be of the same gender? The answer is, I do not know. The House of Bishops instructs me to “respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstance of each case” – but gives me nothing to offer beyond sympathy and a smile. I am the one at the wedding feast who can do nothing about the shortage of wine; the one who, when asked for bread, can offer only a stone.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not demanding this or that sudden change in the institution of marriage and how it is perceived and understood by the Church. But I do know this, that we have to engage with these issues as a Church, and that we need to do so with care, with sensitivity, with generosity and with gentleness. We need to be careful not just to lay down the law or quote ancient doctrinal formulations or shout down those with whom we disagree, but rather humbly and prayerfully to seek the mind of Christ. Speaking entirely personally, I am not at all confident that as yet I know the mind of Christ in this matter. But what I do know is that he longs for all his children to receive the wine of happiness, a foretaste of that wine he has promised he will drink new with us in the Kingdom of God. And everything we do as a Church and as individual Christians must be fashioned to that end.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 07/10/2018
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton