I expect almost everyone here today has some experience in their own life, or in the life of loved ones, of divorce & remarriage or some other different kind of partnership. This, & the fact that those here today are a mixed group of people of all ages, makes being as explicit as I would like to be more than a little difficult. I have therefore prepared a more explicit and extensive paper on this subject appended to this Homily. But if anything I say upsets anyone today, please forgive me, & ask to talk to me, as it is so easy for people to feel judged or condemned, which is the last thing I want to do. Remember what I said last Sunday. To say that something falls below the ideal does not necessarily mean it is wicked or bad. We all live with things in our lives that are less than perfect, and do all we can to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in.
At the heart of the Church’s teaching on the most intimate side of human life is the teaching in the Bible. We heard a passage as our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 6:13-20) today, in which St Paul warns against what he calls “fornication”. But what is more important is why he does so. Sadly this is lost in English, since we use the word “body” to mean our physical body, whereas the word in Greek that Paul uses is “soma”, which means our whole being (physical/psychological/spiritual etc). So the point he is making is that what we do with our physical body affects our whole being. This is certainly the experience of many people who have come to me in tears at various times. From “I thought he loved me but he just wanted the physical side” to “I can’t get those things I did out of my head”.
In the world where Christianity began, there was much abuse of others both inside and outside marriage, including abuse of women by men. The high Christian view of marriage where the husband and wife are called to commit themselves to each other for life in a relationship of mutual respect & care was a challenge to them as to us.
We tend to think that St Paul encouraged the dominance of women by men because he uses the word “obey”. But if you read the whole passage about this. (Eph 5:21-33) you will see a picture of mutual care in which both husband and wife must be prepared to die for one another. The obedience Paul speaks of is like the obedience we owe to Christ, which is one of love not of abuse.
Note also that marriage is seen as a “calling”, not something we just drop into without thinking about it. I still remember the tears of one young woman whose husband had left her three days after they got married. I was shocked, until I asked how long they had known one another. “3 weeks!” she answered. I became less sympathetic! Yes, the word “calling” is meant to make clear that marriage is just as important as being called to something more explicitly religious, like being a priest, or like Samuel in our 1st Reading (1 Sam 3:3-19) & the disciples in our Gospel (John 1:35-42).
The other thing we need to avoid is the idea that marriage requires people to love one another in the romantic sense. Those who have mutually agreed arranged marriages, as in some traditional societies; or those who arrange their marriage first over the Internet, as many more people are doing nowadays ; these people often end up with the most successful marriages, precisely because they are based on mutual respect and care, and not on some “feelings” of “being in love” that people THINK they need to have to stay married to one another.
All this shows is that the traditional teaching of Christianity is right. People should get to know one another first, and be sure of the full commitment of both sides, before they enter into a physical relationship. Last year Pope Francis, much to the surprise of some, conducted a number of marriages, including some where the couples had already been living together, and in one case already had children. It wasn’t a surprise to me, as he was only doing what priests have done down the ages : encouraging people to move towards the full commitment & calling of marriage, rather than condemning people for things of the past.
The most difficult thing for the Church is the situation of those whose second marriage is not yet recognised because of a previous marriage. More often than people realise, this can be sorted out eventually by the annulment process; but it still leaves some people saddened that the Church cannot fully recognise what has become so precious and special to them. There’s no easy answer to this. The Church must proclaim that marriage is a permanent lifelong commitment. To simply accept what has happened without looking into it would give the impression that divorce doesn’t matter. But we all know that divorce is a sad and messy business not least for the children. So simply saying divorce is OK is not possible. Of course there are cases where it has to happen, but we cannot say that it is right just because in some cases it is the best thing to do in the circumstances.
We’re all called to recognise that our physical body is a precious gift from God and that misusing it, or someone else’s body, is to be avoided. I always remind couples nowadays that they need to be aware how most of the intimate relationships presented on films and TV are not between married people. Thus the idea that the physical side of life is unrelated to marriage is pushed deep into our minds without us realising it. So I tell couples that if they are to approach marriage properly they have to fight against this casual attitude to such things, and make a determined and daily effort in their minds to commit themselves fully to the one with whom they have chosen to spend the rest of their lives.
APPENDIX on SEX AND MARRIAGE
Too often people start to explain the Christian view about sex the wrong way round. We should always start by looking at what is the best expression of our sexuality, and only then go on to talk about other sexual practices that might be described as a less than full expression of what sex is for, rather than using that emotive word “sin”.
For Christians, the best expression of our sexuality is an activity where a man and a woman who are deeply committed to one another use their sexuality to strengthen and enhance that relationship, and in the process, and when the time is right, produce children that they can then bring up together in a good family life. Notice that this kind of sex is not principally a way of getting pleasure but of giving it. We may well get pleasure in the process but this is not what it is for. Recreational sex (as it is called) where one or both of the people simply wants to get physical pleasure for themselves (even in marriage) is therefore an imperfect expression of what sex is for.
Imperfect expressions of sex vary in their imperfection. We would all agree that using a child to get sexual pleasure is wrong, whereas when a wife allows her husband to have sex for pleasure, even when she doesn’t really want it herself , provided she is not being forced into it, then this sex is simply less perfect than it could be. The Church has a technical term for anything that is less than perfect. That term is the word “sin”. But the world thinks that “sin” means something evil, which is simply often not the case. Many many things that we do are less than perfect, but only some of them can really be described as evil.
We then have to look at a whole range of sexual activity that is less than perfect. Clearly the nearer sexual activity is to the perfect expression of it, as described above, then the less sinful it is. So sex outside marriage between two people who really love each other, and where neither is pretending love, is quite near to really good sex, but its problem is that full commitment isn’t there, and too often one or other of the people involved hasn’t really committed himself or herself as fully as they should. This is hard for young people who really think they love each other and then get let down, so to wait until marriage is the best way, but it is understandable when people fail here. But this less than perfect expression of sex can happen inside marriage too, and it is worth remembering that the Church would say that if it can be shown that one or other of the partners in marriage never intended full commitment then that marriage can be annulled.
Other kinds of sexual activity become more and more imperfect the further they move from its perfect expression. The Church would describe all such activity as “sinful” but note what I have already said about that word “sin”. Failing to be perfect is part of being human. God wants us to move towards what is perfect, not spend our time agonising or feeling guilty about what is less than perfect. So for many things like this, we will go to Confession, as part of the process of asking God to help us move towards a more perfect expression of our humanity. To concentrate on our sexual failings, and ignore other failings, like anger, deceit, greed, unkindness is to have an unbalanced view of ourselves.
The Church argues that the best way to stop having too many children is to use the Natural method. That means using something like “Persona” that can be bought in most Chemist Shops, where the couple can identify the wife’s natural cycle of fertility, and then abstain from full sexual intercourse for the short period each month when she is fertile. This method can also be used by couples having difficulty conceiving making sure they have sex at the optimum time. As for the Pill, most women would surely prefer not to have to put a drug into their body over a long period if there was some easy alternative. In the same way most couples will tell you that having sex with a condom is not as good as having sex without it. In both cases the Church is arguing that such means of contraception are a less than perfect way of having sex.
The best sex is when a couple do not have to worry about whether the woman might get pregnant or not. It is pleasure freely given to one another, and open to the possibility of a child if one should come along. This is the kind of sex the Church encourages, but the Church understands that this perfection is not always reached : that we all have to live with what we are as humans, and accept the need for God’s love and mercy in every aspect of our lives, not just the sexual one.
It is worth pointing out that of all the explicit sex portrayed on Film and TV, there is little is shown where the couple are married. We are therefore presented from quite an early age with the idea that this less than perfect sex is the normal way of having sex. This must affect our sex life when we begin to have sex with a permanent partner, and we need to be aware that this can lead us into the temptation to be unfaithful in certain circumstances. Being faithful to one’s partner is an attitude to be worked at, not something we should take for granted.
We have therefore to face the fact that we may well have all sorts of sexual feelings. Most men (I can only speak for men) tend to have feelings about having sex with people other than their partner, but would not want to be defined by these desires. In the same way those who have homosexual or bisexual feelings or desires are actually restricting their freedom if they decide to be defined by these desires. But Jesus warns us to be aware that we do have certain feelings – like anger or lust – and that we need to face the fact that this could lead to putting those feelings into action. That is why the Church encourages people to share these feelings in the Confessional, not least because it is a way of honestly facing up to them, rather than hiding them away until they come bursting out at one of our weaker moments.
To talk further on this:-
Contact Father Martin Flatman , Priest at St Peter’s, Abbey Street, Eynsham OX29 4HR firstname.lastname@example.org