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Robert Hart on Putting the Premarital House in Order
Fifty years ago it would have been terribly rude to ask this question,” I said, “but these days I have to ask it.” Opposite me was a young woman with the face of innocence itself, about the age of my daughter at the time, and a young man. “Have the two of you already begun to have a sexual relationship?”
People coming into a church they have not been attending, because they want to be married, bring with them the errors of the time. Authority figures have held them to a very low standard for almost three decades, giving them no relief from the influence of peers and the personalities of popular entertainment. It seems almost a sin not to be “sexually active” outside of marriage.
“Yes, we are having sex,” she said. It had seemed a silly question to ask a couple already living under the same roof. Nonetheless, it is necessary to clarify such things.
Another basic question to be clarified, even more important than the status of their sexual relationship, is: What do they believe marriage to be? Too many people find in churches an affirmation of their mistaken assumptions instead of higher and better expectations, the sort of expectations that require asking these questions.
The conventional wisdom of our time cautions me to stop before I go even this far. People today can’t be expected to live as if we were still in the first half of the twentieth century, or so I have been told by well-meaning people who offered unsolicited advice.
Exactly so, and that is the problem. I had only just met these two people, a young couple coming to me because they liked the sight of the church and because the young woman had an Anglican background of sorts. With their clouded understanding, just how much would they put up with from me?
“I am not nearly as interested in the wedding as I am in the marriage that follows. So I owe it to you to require something from you.” They were still with me this far. “I want you to promise me that you will abstain from any more sexual relations until the wedding night.” (What I would say next, if they hesitated, would be, “Otherwise, I will not marry you, or allow you to use this building”).
Without batting an eyelash the young woman said, “Okay, we can do that.” I looked to the young man, and saw a small drama unfold in less than a second. He was suddenly challenged to demonstrate his love for her by agreeing to what she wanted and needed. “Yes, that’s fine.”
It is religious deception to prepare a church wedding, but not a Christian marriage. What the couple needs at this point is a radical new understanding.
And so, “That’s not all,” I said. Still they were with me, four open eyes staring back into mine. “I want you to commit to meeting with me in the coming weeks for regular sessions about marriage, and about Christianity.”
It is not always this easy. There was the woman, older than this one, who told me that, after all their years of living together, she and her man knew it was time to get married because they had proved they could get along. That is, living together as if married (in every sense) was the necessary, prudent, and reasonable course before making a real decision; it was like a test drive. Obviously, God would approve. Who wants to marry somebody and commit to a relationship that might not work out?
“Actually, that worries me.” The woman looked stunned as I went on: “You have been living in an experiment, and there is no reason why the formality of marriage would change your habit of treating the relationship as an experiment. Christian marriage is a commitment, not an experiment.”
Those who have heard my standard wedding sermon have heard that every experiment in human relations is doomed to fail at some point, because everybody is impossible to live with. If you do not believe that you are impossible to live with, you need to read what St. Paul says about you in the third chapter of Romans. Experiments in love are no exception. I have preached this and watched scales fall from more than a few eyes.
We live in a time of such deadly assumptions as the one I encountered one day on an elevator in Baltimore. Two men got on the elevator, and it continued its descent to the street level. “I’m telling you,” said one of them, clearly a lawyer, “these days you just have to have a pre-nup.” The more humbly dressed fellow, a client, shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
The suited man turned to me—I was not wearing my collar—and made the mistake every attorney is taught to avoid. He asked a question without knowing the answer. “Don’t you agree sir, that these days a couple should have a pre-nuptial agreement before getting married?”
“No. I am a priest, and if a couple wants me to marry them, and they have a pre-nuptial agreement to provide for a potential divorce one day, I will refuse.” The client brightened up. “That’s right,” he said. I had granted him permission to live by what he knows, deep down inside, to be true. Of course, I don’t know what his attorney charges for “pre-nups.”
Never have I seen a young couple storm off in anger when I laid down conditions that every respectable clergyman would once have set. Imagine being surrounded for years by the noise of the latest rap numbers and then one day hearing music for the first time. Suddenly there is a genuine reason to marry, and life makes sense again.
In an era when young people grow up believing that no one can control his basic urges, it is often a necessary kindness for some authority figure, such as a clergyman, to grant them permission to abstain. In fact, it usually seems that they see that permission has finally been granted, by somebody, for them to put their lives in order.
Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.