Before entering into any discussion of marriage, it is important to draw a distinction between civil marriage, on the one hand, and Christian marriage, on the other. In our culture, with its Christian heritage, the histories of these two rites of passage are closely intertwined, and confusion can be caused by the fact that the same word is used to refer to both things. However, they remain separate and distinct.
Civil marriage is a legal union of two people, and is performed by a registrar or another person authorised to act with the legal powers of a registrar for the purposes of marriage. It is governed by the Marriage Acts of 1949 and 2013, and gives formal recognition to a relationship between two people, who make legal vows to each other as part of the ceremony. It also grants certain benefits and responsibilities in law. Civil marriage often serves as an occasion to gather friends and family to add public celebration and social affirmation of the relationship that has been given new recognition in law.
At St Melangell's, we pray for the long life and happiness of all who enter such a legal union.
By contrast, Christian marriage, also known as Holy Matrimony or the "Crowning" of a marriage, is not a legal ceremony and has no relationship to the law of the land. Rather, it is a Christian sacrament - a purely religious rite - by which a man and a woman enter into a spiritual union, reflecting the union of Christ to his Church. It is a union of the male and female of the human race into one flesh as completing each other for the purpose of their mutual support on the path of salvation, and has a strong (though not exclusive) focus on the couple's participation in God's action of the creation of life. Many of the marriage prayers focus on this unity and completion, as well as the bearing of children.
Christian marriage is performed by a priest, and usually in the presence of the wider church community to which the couple belongs.
If you would like to be married at St Melangell's, please get in touch.
Some important points to note:
- As Marriage is a sacrament of the household of the Orthodox Church, the ideal is to marry someone of that same household of faith. By a concession, the Church will also bless the marriage of an Orthodox Christian to a non-Orthodox believer in Christ. The Church cannot marry one of its children to a non-Christian. It is important to read this in the context of the door to the Church of Christ always being open to those who wish to enter it and unite themselves fully to the Orthodox Church.
- Both parties wishing to marry must be free to do so. That is to say, they must not be already married. The ideal is for marriage to be for life. However, the Church recognises that unfortunate things can happen and makes a concession in those circumstances. If either party has previously been married, they must be able to show that either a divorce has been granted or produce the death certificate of the previous spouse, in case of widowhood. The maximum number of marriages the Church can bless is three, with the third being in extraordinary cases only.
- A marriage may not be crowned on a day of fasting & abstinence, as this would cause an enforced delay to the consummation of the marriage, which is a burden the Church does not place on its children.
- Civil marriage is not Christian marriage. A registrar cannot perform the sacraments of the Church. There is an unfortunate teaching in some churches that it is the bride and bridegroom, and not the priest, who effect the sacrament of marriage. This is not an Orthodox Christian belief and is alien to the teachings of the Church. Couples who wish to be married in the eyes of God are encouraged to approach a priest to ask for the holy sacrament and have their union crowned in the Church of Christ.
- Most Orthodox couples wish for their marriage to be recognised both by the Church and by the state. The usual practice is to have the legal ceremony first as a quiet affair, with just the necessary two witnesses. This takes about 20 minutes at the Register Office. Then the couple comes to church for the Christian sacrament in the presence of the church community, their friends, and their family.
- While it is technically possible to have a Christian marriage without first having a legal ceremony, this is discouraged by most Orthodox clergy for a number of practical and ethical reasons, and is not the general practice of our church.
- Nothing about the male-female nature of Christian marriage is to be understood as a devaluing or denigration of people whose attractions are towards others of the same sex, and who are loved and valued as part of the Church community. In our modern times, we are privileged to see the gradual decline of the old social and cultural forms of oppression of people based on race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, among other things, and there is a greater recognition of the dignity of all people, for which we are thankful to God. However, we run the risk of falling into the thinking that to be equal means to be exactly the same. Within the household of God's Church, not all of the sacraments are received by all Christians. Not everybody receives the sacraments of Unction, Ordination, or Monasticism. These sacraments are specific to particular circumstances in people's lives, and those who do not receive them are no less valued as part of the Church of Christ. Holy Matrimony is no different in this regard.