Wednesday, October 01, 2008

More Thoughts on the Parish, Marriage, and the Family

Yesterday's post on the parish, marriage and family life inspired (if I may use that term) a number of very interesting and though provoking comments. Before I respond to the substance of at least some of those comments, let me first say that I am thankful to everyone who posted but especially to Chris and Matushka Mary. Both of them, each in their own way, brought home to me the lack of precision in my language. For this, and for any offense or confusion that I may have caused, I ask your pardon.

I think Chris is correct when he says that "It is one thing to say that we could do more to encourage healthy marriages and families but it is quite another to say that the purpose of the parish is fostering and sustaining marriage and family life." This is one place where my lack of linguistic precision has caused on necessary confusion. I do not mean that the sole purpose of the parish is to foster marriage and family life. Again as Chris rightly points out, these are vocations within the Church, but they do not exhaust the vocational possibilities for Christians. I would add, and here I speak as a married priest, marriage and family life do not even exhaust the vocational possibilities for those so called.

Whether or not a secular service organization can foster marriage and family life, and here I would gently disagree with Chris, is a debatable proposition. What social service agencies do best, I think, is respond to crisis, as well helping people overcome the negative effects of chronic deprivation of one kind or another. It is not at all clear that secular social service agencies as such are particularly good at fostering healthy marriage and families and this for no reason more profound that we do not have a societal consensus on these matters.

But even granting for the sake of discussion that secular social service organizations can foster marriage and family life, this does not exempt the Church from pursuing this as a central part her own vocation to care for those entrusted to her by Christ. And this is actually my central point in the earlier post: It is not all together clear to me that the Church is fulfilling her mission to prepare, foster and sustain the Christian vocation to marriage and family. With W. Berry's comments in the back of my mind, I wondered out loud (a very bad habit that gets me in a great deal of trouble!) if in fact there is this lacunae in the Orthodox Church's pastoral ministry, might not this be a symptom of a more basic problem. As I said yesterday,

Much like the larger society, Orthodox Christians have retreated from a public discourse about sexuality. If Berry is right in his analysis, this retreat points to an underlying deficiency in our own community life. Or, more on point, a lack of community in our parishes. More often than not, and again as with the larger society, we have privatized conversations about sexuality even while we formally affirm the sacramental nature of marriage and family life.
This at least perceived lack of community in the parish is, I would suggest, one possible explanation for the attempt by some Orthodox Christians to replicate monastic life in the parish. I would add to this what (to me at least) seems to be a fair amount of distrust in the Church for those in positions of authority, and I wonder if we a ore sustained conversation and commitment to fostering, in a holistic manner, marriage and family life might not offer a means to restore the trust that ought to underlie our shared life in Christ.

Again, whatever good might emerge from the more intentional commitment of parishes to marriage and family cannot, and must not, come at the expense of those Christians who are not married or who do not have children. Chris's experience is an essential cautionary note here. We worship the Most Holy Trinity, not the marriage or the family.

Matushka Mary's comments do a better job than I did of highlighting the centrality of the family in human life. Rightly she points out that

Everyone is part of a family, regardless of their state of life. Single people are still adult children and often siblings, aunts & uncles, grandchildren, nephews & nieces, cousins, etc. All of these are "family" relationships that affect our emotional and spiritual growth to varying degrees.
She then adds what I think is a critical point (at least for Orthodox pastoral ministry): the "'family' is not merely a biological creation, but has a spiritual component as well. I have God-children and/or spiritual friends who are as close or closer to me than my blood relations. Surely a healthy parish should strengthen these relationships as well." Orthodox spirituality rather consistently broadens the family beyond the limits of biology. Indeed, and I pointed this out with less the stellar clarity yesterday, we make of familial imagery and language to express our relationship not only with God the Father, but also with one another.

I would argue that even a cursory reading of the Scriptures highlights for us the centrality of the family in salvation. Beginning with our First Parents in the Garden, the Gospel is often (though not exclusively by any means) announced to, and through, marriage and family. The logical conclusion of this, for the Orthodox at least, is the evangelistic (and so necessarily, prophetic) character of marriage in Christ that St Paul articulates for us in Ephesians:

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (5.15-33)
Christian marriage is not only a prophetic and evangelistic vocation, it is also one (if I read the above correctly), eschatological. The concrete relationship in Christ of this man and woman, points beyond itself. It points "backwards" to the foundation of the world and the creation of our First Parents. It also points "forward" to the eschatological consummation when, in the words of the Apostle John, there is ushered in a new heaven and a new earth:

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away." Then He who sat on the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new." And He said to me, "Write, for these words are true and faithful." And He said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." (21.1-8)
John use language that is not only geographical, but also cosmological and liturgical. In using liturgical language, and in emphasizing the gathering of a new, "holy city," his language is also ecclesiological and, I would argue, conjugal. Indeed, like the Apostle Paul (and the Old Testament before them both), for John the relationship between Christ and the Church is expressed in conjugal language.

Even if our neglect is a rather benignly intended imitation of the culture's ceding of these to the private sphere, all of this means, or at least I would suggest for purposes of discussion, that in neglecting marriage and family life the Church fails to attend to her own identity. If this forgetfulness becomes habitual, we risk losing the ability not only to care pastorally to those called to marriage and family life, but indeed to the vocational needs of ALL in the Church whether young or old, male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, married, single, celibate, divorced or widowed, with children or without, clergy, monastic or laity living in the world.

Reading through the comments offered by Any Mary, Chrys and Ben, and thinking about things a bit more, I wonder if the monastic emphasis in some parts of the Church is not an attempt to recapture the self-identity of the Church in the parish.

And if we have become forgetful of who we are in Christ, how can we proclaim the Gospel? What do we have to offer except the testimony of our own lives?

Again, and as always, thank you for your comments and questions. They are not only appreciated by me, they are actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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