The question I raised about marriage and asylum is a deeply challenge and emotive one. I think there are some reasons for this. Here are some further thoughts which hopefully will develop the conversation.
1. We want to show compassion to people and to challenge injustice. What is the right and most effective way of doing that. Is it even right to talk about the most “effective way” or does that suggest a pragmatic attitude? Does our desire to show compassion mean that we struggle to say “No?” I think this is generally true of many of us in church leadership. Yet sometimes we do need to say “No.”
2. We come up against a brick wall. We see something that is good and right -the desire of a couple to get married. We want to help them. Yet, we reach the stage where doing a good and right thing seems utterly impossible. There is no way round. Often church leaders are leaders because they have experience of leadership in life and therefore have a reputation for having the ability to get things done. Particularly when we are getting alongside asylum seekers, pastorally we are confronted with our own powerlessness. When I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I don’t like that. Yet, this is something important. This is one of those moments when God disagrees with me. I am reminded that I am finite. I am reminded that it is God’s plan for the other person’s life that is sovereign and he knows what is beat in the long run.
3. I desire to alleviate suffering. Yet sometimes God’s purpose is to take believers through suffering. Sometimes God needs to use these struggles to teach patience and endurance. Do I really believe Romans 5? It is times like this when I’m challenged to go back to those bible passages that maybe a times I’ve not taken so seriously. As we saw in the earlier article, Paul was willing to tell the Corinthians that there are times and situations where it is better not to marry. Whilst we are happy to use aspects of 1 Corinthians 7 to encourage those who are single, do we really wrestle with the whole of that chapter, not just as a intellectual exercise but for pastoral purposes?
4. I mentioned in the earlier article that there is a difference between “could and should.” Some people will struggle with my insistence that there is no obligation on pastors to carry out wedding ceremonies. It’s worth noting a couple of things here. First of all, I am not saying that they cannot or that they shouldn’t. Secondly, I a not suggesting that the church has no interest in marriage. First of all, we have that responsibility to clearly teach God’s will on marriage. Secondly, it would be a shame and a complete twisting of things if Christian couples privatised their marriage vows and/or did not involve the church family in their decision making and celebrating. One of the challenges here is that I don’t think we really know what to do with the “could v should” distinction. This comes back to the articles last year about “The Guilt Driven Church.” I think a lot of Christians are used to operating under guilt and so we only ever hear “should.” We are used to doing lots of things because we feel under obligation. That’s one of the reasons why we struggle with the “no” answer. We also fear that if people have the option, if it is “could” rather than “should” that they will opt out. I can’t help thinking that this is where we need good Biblical teaching on the Book of Proverbs. You see, a lot of our decision making is about “Spirit filled wisdom.” This will help us to navigate the “coulds” and well as the “shoulds.”
5. Another thing that I think we struggle to fully grasp is the relationship between private and public commitments. We can think about things like marriage, baptism, a call to ministry etc in terms of private/personal decisions before God. However, if we do this, we miss the point that each of those decisions whilst deeply personal are also very public. Marriage involves private/exclusive intimacy but on the basis of a public, witnessed commitment.
6. How we approach these sorts of issues probably also reveal something about the presuppositions that affect or political decisions. Do we generally look at the State as a positive thing or a negative thing? If we see The State as essentially malign, then we are more likely to say “The marriage certificate is unimportant.” I believe that Scripture gives us a balanced and nuanced view of the State. Yes, as we see in Revelation 12-13, Governments can be beastly and represent a human system that stands in opposition to Christ. However, Paul in Romans 13 and Peter in 1 Peter 2 also point to the positive role of the State in rewarding good and punishing evil.
7. A key factor in my thinking was “What do other churches think about his? What is their experience and what conclusions did they come up with?” Actually, I’ve found the responsiveness of others (with a few notable exceptions) challengingly slow. Yet surely, we should have a concern for each other and it is no good talking about fellowship and church unity if it’s just about joint services and nice summer conferences and festivals. We should be seeking to address issues like this together.
These points are important because it helps us to think about the underlying principles that affect the specific ethical and pastoral decisions we make. As I noted in a post-script yesterday, one of the questions we looked at was as to whether there were other means of redress available to couples in this situation -e.g. through the ECHR. We’ve had information back to suggest that this is possible. That might, as the pastor who came back to me suggested, make the points raises here “moot.” But I don’t think it does because the points raised get to the heart of how we make all sorts of ethical decisions.
Here are some other, related things that churches are having to make decisions about. To give two examples which are related to this discussion but spin off in other directions:
1. Asking questions about marriage and the role of the Church is important as we think about how to respond to recent developments on same-sex marriage. Whilst currently the Church of England is barred from offering same-sex marriages and other churches exempt, we cannot assume that this position will stay the same.
2. There are other questions that are raised about how refugees are treated in our country. What happens for example when a refugee needs money and is willing to work but prohibited from doing so? What do we do when a refugee loses their case? We may be personally and corporately strongly convinced by their case. We will also be heavily involved emotionally.
It is important that we think through such questions, Biblically, systematically and compassionately.