Sunday, April 24, 2005

Advice number 7 of the Elders at Balby

7.-That as many as are moved of the Lord in his light to take a brother or a sister in marriage, marriage being honourable in all, and the bed undefiled, let it be made known to the children of light, especially to those of the meeting of which the parties are members: that all, in the light may it witness to be of God. And being by the light made manifest to be of God let them be joined together in the Lord and in his fear, in the presence of many witnesses; according to the example of the holy men of God in the Scriptures of truth recorded, which were written for our example and learning; that no scandal may rest upon the truth, nor anything be done in secret; but all things brought to the Light that truth may trample over all deceit, and that they who are joined together in the Lord, may not by man be put asunder, whom God hath joined together. That there may be a record in writing, (witnessing, the day, place, and year, of such things) kept within [that meeting] of which one or both of them are members; under which writing the witnesses present may subscribe their names, or so many of them as be convenient; for the stopping the mouths of all gainsayers, and for the manifesting the truth to all that are without.

Comment: To take a "brother or sister" in marriage meant, of course, taking another Quaker in marriage, not a biological sibling. It is my understanding that in this period only marriages within the established church were clearly recognized in law. That presented a problem for Friends, who regarded the established church as not a true church and not competent to perform or witness marriages. Some critics of Friends began to say that the Quakers were sexually libertine and that they "went together like rude beasts" as George Fox reported some had said. The Friends themselves, however, believed in marriage as a deep and solemn commitment that should be made before God and also in public. It was decidedly not enough that two Friends simply believed themselves to be married or that they made a private commitment between themselves. Rather they were to declare themselves to the meeting, and to proceed only if the meeting could "it witness to be of God". The wedding, when it took place, should also be public, and the parties should actually sign the promises they made to each other. This was not to be a temporary or provisional arrangement, nor to be lightly undertaken. It was to be done in the presence of God and "in his fear" and it was understood that those thus joined by the Lord could not "by man be put asunder".

Echoes of all this survive in the Quaker marriage meetings of today, in which the couple's promises to each other begin with the words "In the presence of God and these our Friends..." The degree to which the underlying assumptions of the early Friends are still understood and accepted may vary from Friend to Friend and meeting to meeting. I have sometimes (not often) felt that couples who came to my meeting looking for marriage have thought of the approval process as more or less a formality. I also know of some Quaker couples who have begun to regard themselves as married without ever seeking either legal status from the state or recognition by the meeting. Divorce, of course, is common and separation even more so. In this we share much with our non-Quaker neighbors. A rigid enforcement of the 17th century discipline would hardly solve these problems, only change their form. Yet surely something has been lost. This 7th advice seems to me one of the most challenging to Friends today. (And no, I do not think that marriage between people of the same gender is anywhere close to being our problem).

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Robin Mohr said...

My current dilemma regarding marriage, not my own, but in principle, is whether Meetings can in good faith and good order, continue to allow and/or encourage Friends to use the words "as long as we both shall live" since we don't seem to believe that anymore. We don't expect people to stay married if they don't want to, for whatever reasons seem good enough to them. There's a bluegrass song I enjoy, except for the line, "If you're thinking of leaving, and needing a reason, well, that's reason enough." At first hearing, I thought, well, would I want to be married to someone who didn't want to be married to me? And then I realized that this is the basic problem of modern marriage - we don't accept that sometimes you don't want to be married anymore, (or brush your teeth anymore, etc) but you have to work through that, with Divine assistance, as we also say in our vows. I agree there are valid reasons for ending a marriage, but they would generally be under the headings of abuse, fraud, coercion, or incompetence to enter the contract.

Which brings me around to the question of why marriage is still the major bastion of the entanglement of church and state? Why are the church and state in the position of enforcing each other's marriage contracts? Why can't we have one civil union contract for all couples, granting them the rights and responsibilities in the eyes of the government, and a diversity of church based marriage, depending on the beliefs of each religion? Which would leave Friends open to celebrating the covenants of all couples who choose to enter into marriage as a spiritual vocation, but not impose this on any other church.

1:43 AM, April 26, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Robin Mohr discusses two important issues. First:
"My current dilemma regarding marriage, not my own, but in principle, is whether Meetings can in good faith and good order, continue to allow and/or encourage Friends to use the words "as long as we both shall live" since we don't seem to believe that anymore. We don't expect people to stay married if they don't want to, for whatever reasons seem good enough to them."
Second:
"Why are the church and state in the position of enforcing each other's marriage contracts? Why can't we have one civil union contract for all couples, granting them the rights and responsibilities in the eyes of the government, and a diversity of church based marriage, depending on the beliefs of each religion? "

On the first, I think that meetings should indeed continue to not only encourage but actually require couples being married under their care to promise mutual love and faithfulness "as long as we both shall live". Although Robin has made exactly that commitment herself and is apparently glad she did, she says "...we don't seem to believe that any more. We don't expect people to stay married if they don't want to, for whatever reasons seem good enough to them."

My experience is a little different. I have served on numerous marriage clearness committees over the years and virtually every couple I have known seem clear that they are committed to lifelong faithful union with each other. One couple I knew did seem reluctant to "promise" because of how unknowable the future always is, and this troubled me. Interestingly, though, they are still together after something like 30 years of marriage.

No doubt there are many people who don't think lasting commitment is possible and who assume that even the deepest relationships in their lives will come to an end at some point. For the most part, though, these folks do not seek to be married - or at least not under the care of a Friends meeting.

No doubt, too, there are many sad cases of Friends whose marriages do not endure despite the promises with which they began. (And probably even more cases of Friends who in the course of their marriages have not been as faithful as they originally promised). This leaves other Friends with the question of how to react when this happens. Robin says "we don't expect people to stay married", but I think the more common reality is that we don't know enough about a couple's private life to really understand what goes wrong or how to fix it. This means we run the risk of seeming to condone the breaking of promises, but I think that's a less serious risk than assuming an all-knowing righteous pose and wading into a private relationship in order to determine who's at fault. Why this should be different today than in the time of early Friends I cannot say, but it feels to me like it is.

Robin's other point - about separating the question of civil unions from that of religious marriage - seems very sound to me. I would like to comment on it further, but will have to do that later.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

11:41 AM, May 01, 2005  

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