The recent political success of the LGBT leadership in revising the definition of legal marriage has caused consternation among conservative Christians. But it is only one rather trendy piece of a much larger shift in family configuration which has been unfolding for at least half a century. Christian leadership has often had a kneejerk and fragmented reaction, clinging to a flawed pattern of marriage and family life best described as a “Leave It to Beaver” fantasy world increasingly remote from reality and, indeed, from sacramental marriage.
Unique in the history of the world is the relatively recent radical transformation of the family from an extended family living together, or in close proximity, to the rise of the nuclear family. Nuclear families living by themselves were a rare occurrence until the Twentieth Century. Today, the nuclear family is the norm in the developed world. It amounts to a sociological experiment on a grand scale in the basic way in which society is organized. Politicians have reacted by proclaiming “family values,” without analysis of exactly what that means. Some of the first generation impacted replaced the extended family with communes of various kinds in an instinctive attempt to find a new form of extended family.
What was it like when extended families were the rule? One of the more cogent and accurate political comments in recent decades was “it takes a village to raise a child.” The isolation of parents, or even more, a single parent, means raising children where all the pressure is on the parent. Former generations had grandparents, aunts, older nieces and nephews around them. The paranoid tendency of today’s parents to see a threatening world out of the door is a contrast with the friendly streets of the village. The perceived need to defend one’s child against the school’s accusations of misbehavior or academic failure is a contrast with the team approach of an earlier day where the community, including the school, formed the child. And few other than the elderly among us experienced a childhood where one could roam freely around town, our parents knowing that adult eyes could be trusted to watch wherever we went. The loss of a parent was compensated for by aunts and uncles who could take over, economic losses could be cushioned by support in various ways by the larger family. The pressure on a couple to fulfill all possible needs for one’s spouse was mitigated by the social circle of family who could absorb some of that need without triggering questions about loyalty.
It is possible to have rose-colored hindsight. Extended families were not without problems and failures. Dysfunctional extended families can experience dysfunction in bigger and wider ways than nuclear families. But in general, it provided a secure and loving supportive environment for a marriage.
The seeds of destruction for the extended family were sown by various forces. Economic policies which herded workers into urban concentrations, often requiring great mobility, scattered nuclear families far from their roots. Social attitudes which saw multi-generational living as negative led to housing designed only for nuclear families. Visions of a glamorous life were hyped to entice people into a “modern” mode, out from under the thumb of the greater family. From mid-century on, society was organized to reject “family values” as experienced in the extended family, and meant the nuclear family. Once the transition was more or less completed, the experiment discovered the intense pressure brought to bear on that couple by having to be all things for each other and the children. Few couples began with a realistic expectation of the heroic measures required. Many relationships crumbled.
The new pattern meant several marriages over a lifetime. Single parenting became a new norm in significant segments of society. Family trees became family thickets as complex step-parenting intertwined multiple families, often with little interaction. “Uncles” came to mean something quite different from the previous generations. Marriage redefined itself as a romantic relationship between any two people, to continue as long as they fancy each other. That definition may soon widen to include additional partners. While child-raising is an option, extended family is not. Legal concerns center on things such as access to pension and health care benefits and spousal rights in case of death or crisis.
Among Christians, there is confusion. Who can and who can’t be married? What is the connection between legal marriage and sacramental marriage? We have been partly distracted by arguments over whether or not marriage is one of a list of Sacraments, capital S. But the important point is that marriage is sacramental, that is, a material way in which God’s grace comes to us, in the context of the Christian community, aka the Church. Whether you are in a denomination which officially recognizes marriage as on the list of Sacraments or not, the average wedding misses much of the sacramental point.
For the first millennium of Christianity, the average wedding was quite different. The wedding ceremony was at the Sunday Eucharist. The civil legal requirements were fulfilled separately from the eucharistic blessing, and were not the Church’s concern. The idea was that the couple, members of the Christian community, received the sacramental grace of God, through the Eucharist, in the midst of the community. As they were sacramentally made one, their oneness existed within the “very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people” (BCP 1928). On the Lord’s earth, from when God first formed humans as male and female, the concept of two becoming one has been there, and the oneness has always been sacramental, a gift of the loving God. When the wedding was detached from the Sunday Eucharistic community, it lost its essential sacramental and communal character and became an individualistic observance centered on the couple, having little to do with sacramental grace, even in those churches which listed the action among the official Sacraments. The remoteness from grace becomes even greater when any celebration of the Eucharist is omitted and when the legal contract becomes the major point, with an added request for God to bless.
With both the sociological loss of extended family and theological loss of sacramental community, it is not surprising that marriage has now descended to its present weakened state of crisis. Many in the Church react instinctively by condemning the symptoms, as expressed in radical legal changes in who may marry whom, in divorce, in the growing practice of simply cohabiting, skipping both legal and church marriage. Since weddings in the midst of the Sunday community of the faithful disappeared a very long time ago, many have no idea of how to fix the problem, only how to judge those who fail to follow recent traditions, which themselves are flawed.
Moving weddings back to Sunday mornings is a start, but will not fix the problem. What needs to happen is the restoration of the Christian community itself. In the many churches which are designed to meet the needs of consumers of spiritual product, be it the inspiring entertainment of a mega-church or to receive a quick communion at a convenient Mass, there is no community. If we can restore real community and place the marriage (not just the wedding) in the midst of that community, we can even overcome the loss of the extended family by letting the Church be that family. The legal aspects of marriage should be the concern of the State, not the Church, as they were for that first thousand years, and still are in many nations (in France, South America, etc).
We can wail and wring our hands about how awful modern life is. Or we can get it, that the failure of the Church to really be the sacramental Body of Christ is a big part of the problem, and changing that into community is an even bigger part of the solution.