MU Commissioning Service - Exeter Cathedral 18 Mar 2013 - Full text of Bishop Michael's sermon.(March 23, 2013)
It is good to be with you today to commission your new Diocesan President. Bridget is the fourth person to hold that office during my time as Bishop of Exeter and I would like to begin by paying tribute, and giving thanks, to each of those who have served as Diocesan President of over the past 13 years. Marigold, Chloe and Mary have all given devoted service and thoughtful leadership to this organisation during a time of enormous cultural and societal change, with major implications for marriage, motherhood and family life. And this is a process which does not appear to be slowing down
Our society is in the midst of a number of very serious debates about marriage at the present time. There are, of course, questions about same sex unions and marriage. There are questions around the frequency of marriage breakdown and the pain caused to all concerned. There are questions around the support for marriage and family life through the tax system. There are questions around forced marriages in some sections of the community. There are questions around the renewal of marriages which have run dry of life. There are questions around the wedding industry and the ramping up of the cost of weddings so they become unaffordable. There are questions around the presentation of marriage in endless romantic comedies as being basically an experience of happy ever after.
And in the midst of it all there are those who would want to see marriage as simply a cultural construct, family life as something capable of taking almost any form you might dream up for it, and motherhood both a lifestyle choice and a human right.
As Christians, we have to take a different view. The Scriptures from beginning to end give us a vision of marriage as integral to God’s vision for creation, and God’s gift. Here is a relationship of one man and one woman who commit themselves to each other in love throughout their lives publicly before family and friends and their wider society. That relationship is a relationship of equals; founded on mutual respect and a pledged commitment which is deeper and longer lasting than feeling and emotion, though the emotional bonds of love are there. It is understood as still the best environment in which children may be reared in security and love.
But now, we are faced with proposals that would deeply undermine the understanding of marriage that has been shared by the English Church and State for as long as both have existed. In bringing them forward the Secretary of State for Culture, Maria Miller has spoken of how marriage has evolved through human history. And it has; but one thing and one thing only has remained constant: its application to the union of a man and a woman. There have been many other restrictions on marriage which have varied between times and place with different laws relating to age of consent, number of permitted spouses, termination and what is allowed or prohibited or allowed between members of the same family group. What has remained constant is an understanding that marriage is between male and female, based on the complementarity of sexes.
The very concept of marriage in all times and all cultures is founded on the premise of sexual difference and the potential procreation that this brings with it. Without this there would be no life on this planet, no human beings, no future. Marriage as a vehicle for the ordered bringing together of complimentary sexes has thus been seen as something absolutely fundamental to the health of any society. With this as the unchanging basis, marriage may take, and has taken, many forms, and there have been variations on what has been stressed in its purposes and outworking. The Christian tradition, in an understanding that has hitherto also informed English Law, speaks of sexual union, the sharing of worldly goods, the help and comfort of one for the other, and the procreation and nurture of children. But none of these, on their own, has been understood to constitute marriage. Indeed each of these worthy objectives may be found embodied in other legal arrangements. An agreement to share goods may be a valid contract but is not marriage. Never has each and every sexual union been taken to, of itself, constitute marriage. Family units with children can exist and have always done so, outside of the bonds that are recognized as marriage. And quite clearly there are many forms of human relationship for the support and encouragement of mutual love and comfort, but which are not marriage. Yet it is this that now for the first time the Government seems proposing to make the one and only definition of marriage – a voluntary union for mutual love and comfort arbitrarily confined to just two non-related human beings.
Everywhere and always marriage has been founded on the union in difference of male and female. To say this is not to denigrate love between persons of the same sex, and their desire to offer mutual help and comfort to one another. From a Christian perspective the God of love can be present in every true love. Many societies and faith traditions have had arrangements that affirmed this, but none of them have been regarded as marriage. So, the issue not one of ‘gay rights’ but of a fundamental truth of our humanity which is male and female, not androgynous or hermaphrodite, in which a ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex is impossible because it seeks to cut loose marriage from its grounding in our biological life.
It was the non-religious, humanist philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who observed: But for children there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex . . . it is through children alone that sexual relations become important to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution’
And central to that observation is the importance of Motherhood and mothers. Quite simply – no mother, no child. And it is because of this centrality, and importance of motherhood and mothering, that the word that the Prayer Book uses for Marriage – Holy Matrimony - has its roots in two Latin words: matris munus, meaning “the office of mother." No motherhood, no marriage. This is not to say that in each and every individual marriage there will be children. In many and for different reasons there will not. But in terms of the institution of marriage as a whole, without reference to the concept of mothering the concept of marriage itself become barren and will eventually die.
The Church remains firmly committed to upholding and protecting what has been so precious a part of our social fabric for so long – the life long union of one man to one woman to the exclusion of all others for the procreation and nurture of the generations to come. And it is, of course, the whole Church which shares this responsibility to support the institution of marriage between a man and a woman as part of the God-given ordering of human life, blessed and affirmed by Jesus Christ. More than ever do we need, at the present time, a steady, faithful, compassionate exploration of the Christian understanding of marriage, of what marriage offers and the gift of Christian marriage to the whole of our society.
But within this general calling for the whole Church, there is a very particular calling to you, the members of the Mothers’ Union. In the original vision of Mary Sumner, this organisation was called and chosen into being, as a support for motherhood and family life, and to witness to the values and responsibilities of Holy Matrimony for the Common Good. That vocation – that being called and chosen for this purpose – continues to hold good today.
And there is so much evidence that in so many ways that this is a calling that is being taken very seriously indeed. The modern Mothers’ Union has a range and depth of work that far exceeds Mary Sumner’s original vision of a circle of prayer upholding family life; it now has four million members in 83 countries. I have seen for myself in Africa and the South Pacific, just how good it is in continuing to develop programmes that provide practical skills and information over a whole range of issues affecting the rearing of children and the management of the household and family life. In many countries it is the MU which is at the forefront of advocating progressive policies to improve the lot of women and children, whilst at the same time upholding families affected by poverty, homelessness, imprisonment, relationship break-down and prison sentences. Advocating for women at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations, Literacy programmes in Africa, Away From It All holidays in the UK, all highlight this concern to support and underpin marriage, motherhood and family life which ahs been your vocation all along.
Yet prayer also continues to be at the heart of you witness, particularly as in the Wave of Prayer you maintain a constant chain of intercession across global membership.
There may be times, as you reflect on a membership in the UK today which seems to be getting older, and with more grandmothers than mothers (although don’t forget that historically grandmothers have played an enormously important role in shaping and supporting family life), it may be that you are tempted to become down hearted. But let me encourage you not to be. You have been called and chose for a purpose, and that purpose remains as noble and relevant today as it ever has been in the past. So through your prayers, through your practical action, and most of all through your personal witness may you continue to support and encourage that precious gift which is given to the world in marriage, motherhood and family life.
So, to that end my prayer for you all here is at one with that of St Paul in that lovely passage that you chose for our first reading today. It is: “that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of our Lord, as you bear fruit and please him in every way.”
9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s* will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. 11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled* you* to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.*
The Supremacy of Christ
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.