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Churchly Marriage, in All Honesty
I am an Antiochian Rum Orthodox hieromonk. I am often asked my opinion about marriage and about Christian marriage in particular. I would like to start by saying that I do not have a personal opinion in the way that people have personal opinions about issues and questions that they come across. I have a commitment to Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church as Lord and as God. I derive what I say from the teaching of my Church where there is a clearly defined teaching about a given matter. Wherever the teaching of my Church is not completely defined, I rely on my faith and my ecclesial consciousness, the oral and written tradition of my Church and what I see to be the spirit of this tradition within the framework of lived human, social, and cultural contexts. Here I must point out that my Church rarely legislates on practical spiritual or ethical questions, but rather leaves a wide field for the sentiment and conscience in Christ of the faithful to determine the solutions and positions which are appropriate for their circumstances and which express their faith as truly as possible. In addition to this, they seek the guidance of their spiritual fathers.
I will not be saying anything new today if I say that we are in an age dominated to a great extent by individualism. Familial bonds are gradually being dissolved and the group of the Church is diminishing and is clearly inclining towards fragmentation. People are increasingly concocting their own religions or personal beliefs. Only a few feel that they are obligated by what the Church says and what she teaches and many have come to consider it optional or unappealing or backward. The values in which generations are brought up are rarely derived from the fountain of the living tradition of the Church, but rather from the fountain of worldly tradition, powerfully spread by civil institutions and through the media and the free market of ideas and opinions and customs. Worldliness has even pervaded the practices of the Church. Instead of the faithful going forth with the Spirit of God and the Gospel of Salvation, preaching to the ends of the earth, worldly people burst into the deepest mysteries of the Church with the spirit of the world and the temptations of knowledge, and worldliness rots the heart of ecclesial consciousness among the people. Naturally this does not extend to all the practices of the Church, but it violently and offensively rushes into the heart of the temple of God!
In order not to spend too much time defining the general framework of the subject at hand, I will limit myself to saying that worldly symbols have started to fill more of our pastoral and liturgical practices. What do the faithful think? How do they behave? What do they ask for? What do they expect? What are their concerns? How do they deal with the world and with each other and with the things of the Church? All these questions and more have become saturated with a worldly spirit to the point that in general the relationship between people and the tradition of the Church has become a superficial relationship, one in form that is largely devoid of the spiritual, evangelical content in pastoral and ritual practice. As we are talking about marriage, weddings, for example, rarely become in practice an entrance into the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church, as the Apostle Paul defined it in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Instead they are worldly gatherings dominated by the traits of a party, permeated by the spirit of the world, whether with regard to how they occupy the spirit, or with regard to decorations or clothing or gatherings, or a theatrical spirit, or emotionalism, and so forth.
In these individualistic times, everyone has started to act according to his personal preference. Most personal preferences are permeated by the worldly spirit. The Church, with regard to her nature and composition, does not impose herself and has no right to impose herself on anyone. All have according to their conscience have the freedom to act as they see fit in the matter at hand: to get a civil marriage or to enter into a mixed marriage with a partner from another church or even a non-Christian, to have a religious marriage or a non-religious marriage, to practice legitimate marriage or cohabitation. This has become people’s private concern for those who are considered faithful or more properly members of the taifa. Civil law and the practices of the taifas make things easier for them in what they choose or desire in one way or another, or provide them with legal loopholes. Churches are treated most of the time, by pastors and flock, as though they are shops! People usually find what fulfils their desires and pastors think that by going along with peoples requests they are “keeping them”! The result in practice is that the churchly content is increasingly neutralized and isolated and the arbitrary management of the taifa within the bounds of novel customs has become the norm. Naturally, it is not assumed that the Church will encourage her children, or those who are counted her children, in this. However, pastors treat this tide of current marriage practices as a fait accompli because they do not want to find themselves strangers to the mindset of their people or to not be considered modern, if we do not say that they consider it a very normal and acceptable matter. Most pastors rarely find fault with what they do in this matter. Becoming accustomed to error is a new nature. Thus we often find the work of pastors limited to putting on a formal production, within the institution of the Church, or one could say a legalistic, only-on-paper production. They are rarely concerned about, or able to be concerned about, in the midst of the current emptiness and vanity, the grafting of alien practices onto the true tree of the tradition of the Church and its sacraments. And so a yawning gap has emerged between the tradition of the Church and the worldly practices of the taifa.
One who is carefully rooted in the tradition has the right to wonder in this climate of laxity, emptiness, and perdition: Would it not be worth it for the Church to take the sacrament of marriage, liturgically, out of the market of worldly marriage and to be content with civil marriage for those within the taifa except for a few until a soundly Orthodox churchly climate returns via an awaited re-evangelization of people considered to belong to the Church but are not of it? Do we have the right, or at least is it appropriate for us to neglect holy things or to change marriage into purely a blessing with empty words? I say empty because the blessing has no effect without the faith of the people. In the past the Church faced similar circumstances to what we are experiencing today, with a “spilling” of non-Christians at different times, who brought into the Church many pagan notions that they held previously. What did the Church do? She removed the celebration of the Eucharist from the wedding and later on removed participation in the presanctified gifts and was content to offer the common cup to the couple getting married. Today, the problem is the same once more, even if it is in a different form: should just anyone be admitted to the service of crowning, without regard to the reality of their faith, just because they are members of the Orthodox taifa? This is a descent into chaos and a dissolution of holy things in the acid of the spirit of worldliness! Is it not necessary to distinguish between those who are worthy to undergo the service of crowning and those who are not worthy, on the basis of the content of their faith? Is this question not self-evident to those who are careful, even if today it does not occur to many pastors, since they do not feel that they are mistaken when they consider the faith of the couple being married to be their own private matter and are content with services rather than living liturgy? Naturally, this attitude has something of prostituting the sacraments to it, or in the best cases ignoring them. And so holy things are treated outside their context, in a worldly manner and this pushes the Church to a place she cannot be: within the limits of worldliness, unable to be eschatological!
In the context of this reality, I will say that civil marriage is not healthy for the believer and it is unacceptable from the perspective of the Church. It is only in countries that require civil marriage among their citizens that a believer can contract a civil marriage, however one cannot stop there and must have an actual church marriage. Likewise one cannot contract a marriage with an unbelieving partner. Mixed marriages, that is marriage with a partner considered Christian but not Rum Orthodox, is also unsound and unacceptable from the point of view of the Church. Likewise, marriage to a non-Christian is a falling away from the Church. Even marriage entirely within the taifa, that is between two nominal Rum Orthodox Christians, is inappropriate and delusional from the perspective of the Church. I will say this again leaving everyone the right to act according to his private conviction. However, neither I nor anyone else has the right to dilute what pertains to the Church or to modify it or to use it as a cover for something unconnected to the mind and the Spirit of the Church. “If we live, then we live for Christ…” For the faithful, marriage is in Christ and its final goal is Christ, not man. Otherwise, it is a form of spiritual adultery.
It is not by accident that Canon 72 of the Council in Trullo (692) states that “It is not permitted for an Orthodox man to marry a heterodox woman, nor is it permitted for an Orthodox woman to marry a heterodox man…“ The idea is that there is no mixing in the Orthodox faith and no formalism. Rum Orthodoxy must be wholly adopted or wholly rejected! People’s weaknesses should be regarded from within the framework of total commitment to Orthodoxy, not of a partial commitment. If the effort of the Rum Orthodox family is not towards the fullness of Orthodoxy and within the framework of total effort at preserving this Orthodoxy, then it can only lead to a blow against Orthodoxy and its corruption from within the living primordial cell of the Church itself: the family! If the family is neglected, then the Church is abandoned! The Orthodox ecclesial consciousness is formed in children by the parents within the soundly Orthodox family. The logic that considers mixed marriage to be a virtue out of desire for Christian unity or for civil intermingling, or for humanism among people is not a churchly logic and its outcome is judgment against the Church. Then the subject is not a matter of formal logic but of spiritual logic. The issue is an issue of extending to our children the Orthodox faith in the Holy Spirit, in the Lord Jesus and in His Church, from generation to generation. Laxness in this matter corrupts the ecclesial consciousness and thus Orthodox belief and so distorts and obliterates the true image of Christ! This results in striking Christianity at its heart, that is Christ the Lord, since a distortion of the image of the Lord inevitably leads to toppling his reality and then his presence and finally in erasing the name of the Lord Jesus from our minds or substituting it for something that is not Him. Holding fast to marriage within the framework of Orthodox doctrine, within Orthodoxy, is a necessity for a living church in order to maintain the purity of the tradition and to preserve soundness of faith and to achieve the presence of Christ the Word and to ingrain the Spirit of the Lord within the consciousness! Nothing is accidental and there is no mixing in what pertains to salvation and eternal life!
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar),
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite- Douma
August 8, 2010