In preparation for the Great and Holy Council to be held on Crete in June, 2016, the Orthodox bishops have issued a document on the sacrament of marriage. In this brief essay, I will begin by identifying the main features and themes of the document and then comment briefly on some of the more notable and contentious comments.
The document’s main thrust is to illuminate the core teaching on marriage and its sanctity from the Orthodox perspective. Marriage is a dominical institution reserved for a monogamous union of man and woman (1.1). The document refers to marriage as “the oldest institution of divine law” and Christ-centered, since it is “the image of the unity of Christ and the Church” (1.2). The document’s second theme – lament over the decline of family life and a deep desire to protect family’s from external threats – shapes the remainder of the document’s positions, as demonstrated by the following excerpt (1.5):
The protection of the sacral nature of marriage has always been of crucial importance for the preservation of the family which reflects the communion of those tied by conjugal bonds both in the Church and in the whole society. Therefore, the communion accomplished in the sacrament of marriage is not simply a natural conventional relationship but a creative spiritual force realized in the sacred institution of the family. It is the only force that can ensure the protection and education of children both in the spiritual mission of the Church and in the life of society.
A good example of the document’s emphasis on protection is the language prohibiting a fourth marriage and defining a civil marriage as lacking “sacramental nature” (1.9). The Orthodox practice of permitting second marriage has been taken up by PrayTell, and this is a good opportunity to remind readers that second marriages are permitted with deep reservations. The possibility of receiving permission to marry a second time should not obscure Orthodoxy’s preference for the ideal of the eternal bond of marriage between one man and one woman.
Readers will not be surprised to learn that the document prohibits same-sex unions and extramarital cohabitation (1.10):
The Church does not deem it possible for her members to contract same-sex unions or enter into any other form of cohabitation except marriage. The Church exerts all possible pastoral efforts so that those of her members who enter into such unions may come to true repentance and love blessed by the Church.
Readers should note that the document avoids pejorative language about LGBT people, which distinguishes this preconciliar text from more vituperative statements one can find in the Orthodox blogosphere. The document’s terse statement about pastoral efforts generating repentance is notable, as an explanation of one’s capacity to change one’s sexual orientation is absent.
The document states the marriage of an Orthodox Christian with a non-Orthodox Christian is forbidden and cannot be celebrated in the Church, though it can be “blessed out of indulgence” if the children of marriage will be baptized and raised Orthodox (2.5a). This particular point may be the most challenging pastoral matter for contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in North and South America and Western Europe, where Orthodox Christians are small minorities within the Christian population. In my lifetime, I have attended dozens of marriages between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians celebrated in the Church without ritual restrictions (except Holy Communion). An attempt to implement this initiative pastorally would raise serious questions, especially given that “intermarriage” is easily the norm for most Orthodox. Limiting marriages to communities of Orthodox people is a step away from ecumenism and towards sectarianism.
There are also issues the document does not address, but remain relevant. First, what pastoral initiatives might be created for widowed and divorced clergy? Second, what is the vocation of the single person in the Church? Is marriage expected of single people? Is it morally permissible for a single person to pursue a wholly Christian life without seeking monastic tonsure? As Orthodoxy seeks new ways to dialogue with postmodern society, it will be necessary to expand the discourse beyond the question of marriage and its impediments.