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The Rector: The Wedding at Cana of Galilee

Second Sunday of Epiphany
19 January 2020
10.30 Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

It would not be an exaggeration to say that marriage has been dominating the headlines in the last week

Despite the conflict in the Middle East and the beginnings of an impeachment

It has been the marriage of Harry and Meghan which has stolen the show

At the same time, it has focussed attention on the Royal family

The old constitutional arrangements are being strained by the new

The journalist Alexandra Schulman said in the Daily Mail last week

“There is no doubt that the main force behind the change will have been Meghan. She is a driven American woman who comes from a can-do, kick-ass culture”.

Whether you agree or not, Harry and Meghan not only divide the family but also public opinion.

Can the Royal Family keep all this together in the light of their new matrimonial arrangements?

Given the difficulties with the Royal couple, the New Testament reading this morning seems remarkably timely

The marriage at Cana of Galilee is a well-known story in the life of Jesus

It is his first accredited miracle which has an enduring appeal to this day

And also provides an insight into the relationship between Jesus and his Mother

But the wedding at Cana of Galilee is not quite what it might seem to a millennial observer 

It was a Jewish wedding and was separated into two halves

First came the betrothal [erusin]; and later, the wedding [nissuin].

At the betrothal the woman was legally married, although she still remained in her father’s house

It was only after the payment of a dowry that the marriage would proceed further

In essence the marriage was arranged

Today it is not unreasonable to surmise that such a wedding might fall foul of the Forced Marriages Act 2017

But marriage is undergoing change like never before – and across the generations

Recently, a couple getting married asked me to say something about the nature of marriage which would make everyone at the wedding feel at ease

I understood where they were coming from and was more than happy to accede to this request 

I am conscious that there will generally be, not only married and unmarried couples in Church, but possibly same sex couples as couples as well

I want everyone who comes to Church to feel included and to know that the Church welcomes everybody, without judgement

The conservative position taken by some in the Church of England however often leaves the younger generation bemused

My daughter (18) and her school friends look on in disbelief

Like so many friends of ours in middle-age, we remind our children that

“Granny comes from a different generation”

We try and find a way to hold the family together

But the challenge to marriage is not just at the younger end of the Church

A few years ago I took was a wedding service for two members of the Church who had been widowed

They had found a new relationship in the aftermath of their grief

It was, deservedly, a time of great joy

I was asked to use the Book of Common Prayer and, as you probably know, the prayer book sets out the basis for marriage very succinctly

As I went through the service beforehand, I was asked me not to mention the “bringing forth of children” as “they were too old for all that”

And so I went into the service having dropped one of the three conditions set out by Thomas Cranmer

A few months later, an elderly friend of ours also got re-married

They made it clear, publicly, that the marriage was for the purposes of companionship and nothing more

I have no reason to criticise

However, I was conscious that, in a world of increasing longevity, the grounds for marriage envisaged in medieval times, were subtly changing too

This time at the other end of the generational divide

One of the historic difficulties with marriage was that Jesus took a very hard line on divorce

But this, in turn, spawned a certain creativity by the Church in finding a loopholes –

As we know from Henry VIII and his attempt to divorce Catherine of Aragon

There were immensely detailed pleadings based largely on the Book of Leviticus

The early Church decreed that a couple was married upon the solemn commitment of one spouse to another (St Augustine of Hippo)

However, as time progressed, there were others who took a different view, not least because Royal families married off their infants

Based on the text in Genesis that a man and women “become one flesh” (Gen 2: 24) consummation was then treated by the Church as the moment when marriage became a sacred mystery

But it is clear that, in this age of increased longevity, this might not necessarily be the case either

Furthermore, those of us who have practised matrimonial law know that a marriage is not necessarily void in such circumstances – merely voidable

But this reference to the MCA 73 shows that marriage is not the sole preserve of the Church

It is also up to the State, and in that regard, the reforms since the millennium have been immense.

In 2004 we saw the introduction of Civil Partnerships for same sex couples

David Cameron’s Government passed The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013

And, this has been superseded by the introduction of Civil Partnerships for all in 2019/2020

This became available to opposite-sex couples in Northern Ireland this very week

“Marriage” is evolving at an alarming rate and right in front of our eyes

This, in turn, has left the Church reeling

In an attempt to shore up its position, the Lambeth Conference in 1998 demanded

“faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and…abstinence…for those who are not called to marriage”

Nevertheless some Anglican Churches have gone on to ignore Lambeth and celebrate same sex marriages

As a result, the Global Anglican Futures Conference in Jerusalem (GAFCOM) was held as a rival to Lambeth in 2008

There is another Lambeth Conference this year and, for the first time, Bishops in same sex relationships have been invited

Who knows what will happen next?

But where does this leave us in 2020?

At the heart is the question of authority in the Church which takes us back, peculiarly, to the 16th/17th Century

At one level it is about governance and church polity

There is also the eternal riddle of scripture, reason and tradition

As a liberal catholic, I think that the Church must strive to find an accommodation with the secular to avoid being dashed on the rocks of modernity

Marriage is clearly evolutionary and the Church has been continually creative with marriage throughout the ages

Furthermore who knows what Jesus might have said about the marriage at Cana of Galilee today?

On the other hand, there are those who would disagree, and with equal conviction and authority

Put simply, there is a division

Which brings me back to the marriage of Harry and Meghan

We see a family divided – in a sense, like the Church – where the old and new threaten to tear the fabric

But there is the question of unity in the midst of all this

Next week sees the start of the week of prayer for Christian Unity where we seek to address the scandal of division in the Church

After all, we all make up the body of Christ and, to tear it apart for any reason, is deeply offensive

But one new participant to the Lambeth Conference this year has put the problem thus

The most important thing that bishops should address…is how can we walk and serve together as Anglican family apart from our differences! God is love and there is no way we can help and encourage each other if we separate mission and love”.

This sanguine advice seems so appropriate for the Royal Family and Royal Priesthood

May we all hope and pray that we find a way to “walk and serve together” and that all our families stay united in 2020 and beyond