THE GOSPEL IN THE MARRIAGE SERVICE
What makes cohabitation into marriage is the vow of mutual fidelity on which it rests. Here Scripture and civil law agree. The heart of the marriage service is the making of this vow by the couple concerned, guided by a Christian minister, in sight of God, and in the face of (this) congregation. Before this goes a statement of the meaning and seriousness of marriage; after it comes prayer for the married couple and biblical guidance on married life, by sermon or Scripture reading.
Marriage, one might say, is a civil contract: why make a religious ceremony of it? The Prayer Book answer is: because of its place in God’s plan. We must acknowledge marriage as his good gift to us, and seek his help to use it as a means of grace. The service highlights this by setting the contract in the context of three facts.
God’s Holy Ordinance
Fact number one is law — the ideal standard God has set us. The opening declaration tells us that lifelong monogamy in what the Homily on Matrimony calls a perpetual friendly fellowship, with the raising and training of a family for God, is part of this ideal. Marriage, based on a promise of exclusive faithfulness, is God’s holy ordinance for sanctifying and satisfying our mating instincts. The service repeatedly points to God’s Word, ordinance, and laws as setting a pattern for marriage. It warns us that if we flout God’s rules we shall have God against us, both here and hereafter, and urges us only to marry in the fear of God.
Men’s Carnal Lusts
Fact number two is sin — the faultiness of our nature, which makes us prone to lapse from God’s laws. The opening declaration is blunt and realistic to realistic for some about our constant inclinations to unchastity, just as a later prayer recognizes that a life of perfect love and peace together is attainable only by divine gift. But it is a strength, not a weakness, that the service faces so frankly our inability to keep the law of marriage by our own strength.
Giver of Grace
Fact number three is grace — God’s active goodness to the weak and undeserving. Twice the service reminds us that marriage itself is an emblem of this, depicting the love of Christ for his spouse the Church, who gave himself for it, loving and cherishing it. And the burden of the three main prayers for the married couple is precisely that they may benefit from Christ’s love to the full. The first asks that they may be true Christians themselves (sow the seed of eternal life in their hearts); the second, that their family may be Christian too (children Christianly and virtuously brought up); the third, that, after a life of love together, both may inherit thy everlasting kingdom.
Every couple on their wedding day wonder: how can we find the very best in our marriage? The service gives the answer: by turning together to a gracious God.