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This article was published in the Summer 2001 issue of The Journal.

Making Love: the first rule of marriage

The British Association of Interchurch Families was very grateful to the Revd Dr Kenneth Wilson, Methodist Director of the Research Centre of the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham, for giving the Third John Coventry Memorial Lecture at Queen’s College on 17th March 2001. We give here a shortened text.

I. God’s relationship with the world
How important is our understanding of God and God’s love if we are to avail ourselves of the riches of God’s grace. God’s love is neither demanding nor intrusive; it is spontaneous, gracious, utterly affectionate, delightful, and actively transformative in its continuously creative self-giving generosity. God is passionately in love with the world in all its wonderful, silly splendour and in all its awful dimensions. God is wholly committed to making a success of the world on which is lavished everything that God is. We could, in more theological language say, as Rahner does, that the world’s nature is graced by God’s presence; but the more immediately powerful way to say it is that God is passionately in love with his world.

The power of God 
As with any lover who is really in love, God’s purpose in loving will be to build the possibility of love, to ‘make’ love, to awaken the love of the beloved. It would be impossible for God to use power to compel rather than win the love of the beloved. God could compel our love. But God cannot nor will God ever seek to do so.

The object of God’s power is not the world, but God’s self. God has the power over God’s self so that God is able to will to continue to be in relation with the world so as to awaken the love of the beloved. This is so whatever the pressures, demands or frustrations that flow from the misunderstandings, anger, selfishness and anxiety of the beloved. God is incapable of acting in a manner contrary to God’s own nature and against the interests of the creation. 

God’s infinite power over God’s self is the basis of God’s freedom, and enables God to dare to give freedom to the world to recognise and respond to God’s love. It is this self-directed focus of power that is the condition of God’s ability to create and makes God the Creator. No power can take away from God the actuality that is God’s self, and therefore God will be who God is – that is love – whatever may otherwise pertain. In contrast we are inclined to seek power over the other because we cannot imagine having power over ourselves or are self-deceived and assume we are in control of ourselves. 

The knowledge of God
God must know absolutely everything – all the subtleties of the world discoverable by scientific enquiry, the technical potentialities capable of being devised by engineers and technologists, the secrets of every person’s mind and heart, all that has happened in the past and will happen in the future. This is irrelevant and misleading when we focus upon the fundamental fact that God is passionately in love with his world. God’s omniscience does not refer externally to other objects, but to God’s self. It is even true for us – only the person who has knowledge of his or her self can reasonably be said to have power over the self. God knows God’s self utterly and absolutely. No one has knowledge of God that God does not have, therefore there is nothing that can be exploited by any other power or person that could diminish God or threaten to persuade God to act in a way that is foreign to God’s nature. God is absolutely and utterly free and able to give everything that is God’s self in a wholly non-self-regarding way to focus on what God wants to do. And what God wants to do, as Christians understand it, is to create. God wants to ‘make love’, to bring love into being. 

Those who begin to understand this are led to want to grow in relation with God because there is nothing to fear. There is nothing calculating or subversive about God’s love of us, which is why we call it passionate. God gives because God wants to give, not because God wants or needs anything. We, therefore, may be said to fall in love with God. God is love, to know God is to know that one is loved and in a special way. One is loved freely for one’s own sake, not because of who one is, or even for what one might become; one is simply loved. And one can love because one is loved. 

Redemptive creativity
Such love is personally demanding, especially for God since God lives with the knowledge that things need not be like they are. For it to be effective such loving has to be renewed on a regular, indeed continuous basis. The beloved may appear to know that he or she is loved, but find that experience frequently brings it into question, so that God has to work at reassurance and even new beginnings. We refer to this quality of God’s creative love when we talk of it as redemptive. I had this in mind when I said that God is passionately in love with creation. I wanted to underline the significance of this Christian claim by trying to tease out the relationship of God and the world so as to show that there are no possible or actual limits to God’s commitment to us. God’s omnipotence and omniscience are over God’s self and therefore reveal God to be capable of freely giving God’s self for the other that is God’s creation. 

To put it in a different way, we might say that God’s creativity is redemptive; God creates redemptively. There are not two stages in the process of God’s relationship with the world, first creation and then redemption, but one continuous commitment of God’s passionate love of the world, which we should think of as redemptively creative. Moreover God knew that creating, since what God was doing in creating was ‘making’ love, would be demanding of everything which God had to offer namely God’s very self. But since God knew God’s self utterly, and God had power over God’s self there was no doubt in God’s heart that the passion was equal to the potential and actual demand. God was prepared. The gift of God’s self is what God promises in his redemptive creating. That is God’s and the world’s delight, to be celebrated and enjoyed forever. God by the fact of God’s very nature, can and does ‘make’ love.

II. Our understanding of marriage
The way in which we think of God’s relationship with God’s creating is central to our understanding of marriage, especially marriages that include more than one tradition of the faith.

In a marriage service, the couple themselves are the ministers; the priest or minister is the witness of what the couple declare as they commit themselves each to the other in God’s presence and to the world. One is celebrating the fact that one is in love, that one has something to give to the other, and that both have something to offer to God in response to God’s love. There would be no love but for the fact that it has been called forth by God. But there is more to a marriage than that. One is mutually and individually, personally and together determined to ‘make’ love. That above all is what one is trying to do when one declares one’s love for the other. It is not a state of affairs that one is reporting, but a determination to transform the present and the future by continuously making, developing and remaking the love you now know. ‘Making’ love is not a matter of exercising power, or exploiting knowledge; it is to do with learning how to exercise authority over oneself so as to win the affection of the other, and thus to be freed to make love in and for the world.

‘Making love’ can concern procreation. To be responsible for the well-being of the future through bringing up children to know God, to take delight in God’s world and to enjoy working with others for the common good, is indeed worthwhile! But that is not all. There is something to give to the wider world; to make love in and for the world – not just for itself. If a marriage and family is to do this successfully, it will be because it is in love with the world. There is the world of other people in all its diversity and interest. Difference and diversity is not a threat to our well-being but a condition of it because it stimulates a sense of identity, of commitment, and of concern that draws us out of ourselves to be ourselves; it encourages us to make love. This making love brings us to a fuller awareness of our common humanity and the opportunities that flow from a commitment to the common good.

There is the natural world of the physical environment. It is impossible to love other people in some utterly spiritual sense without showing concern for their physical, moral, and personal well-being. It implies a concern for the whole physical environment in which we find ourselves. If we are truly to build a new world by making love with others, we must love the world, the real and physical world of which we are all a part. Loving the world involves knowing ourselves, and having power over ourselves in such a way as to give to the world its appropriate freedom to be itself for our sakes. Making love in and for the world is an inclusive matter, beginning with marriage and family, but embracing all other persons and the world of which we are a part. The vocation is one to which we are called by God and supported by God’s grace; it is one to which God has committed God’s self. It is one to which our respective Christian traditions are committed. As communities of faith within the one community of faith, they work to give persons, families and societies the freedom to be themselves and by so doing try to liberate the world, in both its human and environmental dimensions to show the glory of God. They are witnesses to the ministry that the partners have in marriage.

III. Contributing to the coming together of the communities of faith
Called to make love in a marriage across the traditions, we bring to one another our own particular diversity of faithful community with all the opportunities to make love in them, for them, and with them. This is for some the most demanding dimension of the world in which they are called to make love. The Christian tradition in which each stands is of profound personal importance. There is a vast history the impact of which in families has often been destructive of faith and sometimes of love. 

It is in this dimension of their world where married persons of diverse traditions of Christian faith are called to make love that suggested to me the title for this John Coventry Memorial lecture: Making Love: the first law of Marriage. A marriage that does not in the broadest possible sense ‘make love’ in the world is not a marriage. Every marriage must be open to the possibility of making love in the world with other people and with the world of God’s creation. As members of different Christian traditions, we have an opportunity, a responsibility, even a duty to make love between our traditions. 

This is not easy. There is a history of suspicion and tension between our traditions such that ‘conversion’ has often been assumed. Such a relationship is more redolent of omnipotence and fear and the pressure to take over and command than of the sense of making love. Yet where better than in a marriage between persons of different traditions of the faith to begin to work at the hard but vital task of making love between the traditions? 

First, there is the fact of two persons who are in love, each from a different tradition. It could be that we are bearing witness not so much to the fact that it is possible to cross boundaries, but that in crossing boundaries we are bearing witness to a common humanity and in a powerful sense to a common faith. If this is so, then of course we are each in being ourselves with our tradition, giving and receiving something of each other’s tradition that can confirm our common Christian faith. 

Secondly, in talking through our personal Christian faith in the public and private context of our marriage we actually extend the possibility that traditions may become aware of their common origin and seek to make progress towards a common goal. By demonstrating the real possibility of conversation between and about the traditions in the context of a marriage, we can begin to incarnate, to realise, to make a reality of the love we have for one another in the love we show to our respective Christian traditions. And that is something that we can invite others to share with us as together we try to make love in the world. 

Thirdly, as we become attentive to one another’s traditions, and open ourselves to the depths of the loving truth which lies behind them, we are drawn to the importance of getting back to the origins of faith, to the sources of the traditions. We are drawn also to the huge hope that lies within them and in us, if only we could bring things together into a common focus. Can we be in love with each other, can we want to make love a reality with others in God’s world and not together bear witness to the God whose loving presence drew out the possibility of love within us and encourages us in our lives with one another? Does not God, therefore, live in our conversation and in our ‘making love’ both between and within the traditions? Certainly God does, as far as our experience is concerned. But it is very tough going, or can be. There are the suspicions, the anxieties, the hostilities, the misinterpretations, even the downright deception, as well as the natural perplexities and confusions. So we look for encouragement and support as we share in the work of redemptive creation.

So fourthly, there is the ecclesiastical perspective. The communities of faith in which we stand are powerfully important to us, and naturally it is to them that we look for nourishment and new life. Since the betrothed are the ministers of their own destinies in marriage, the faith communities in which each stand are the witnesses to the couple and the family, of their shared personal united ministry. The faith communities do not just witness independently to the one who happens to be the member of the Church whose priest celebrates the marriage. Each faith community is not only witness to the marriage of the couple, but wants to ensure its success. The communities must actually be trying to secure the success of the marriage, not just believing that with luck and against the odds it will succeed.

God is in love with the world and wants to make love. God knows that this is a matter of gaining the willing co-operation of his world because love cannot be ordered into existence, but only won. Marriage embodies the possibilities which God’s loving presence offers. The betrothed are in love and by their loving want to make love, both in the world of human affairs and in the natural world which we properly think of as God’s creation. By engaging in this process we align ourselves with the work of the Spirit of God. We share in God’s purpose for the world. God’s love is redemptive, that is, always willing to begin again, to try to win back what has been lost, and to give without thought of return. God does this because God is who God is; it is simply his nature to behave in that way. We, of course, are not always so inclined. However it is the power of love in marriage that we are inspired to begin to understand that this is how we too would like to behave. We want to make love, to bear witness, if you like, to God’s marriage with the world, and to live out that witness in all we do. In so doing we recognise the profound truth of the claim that the first law of marriage is love. 

There are many who would find the Eucharist the happiest of contexts in which to share their commitment to God, their love for one another and their sense of faithful responsibility for making love in the world in Christ’s name. It is only natural that we should look to our churches to encourage us in this witness. The Eucharist is the real sign of the redemptive love of God for the world that we believe we embody in Christian marriage. 

We should be reminded of the importance and special character of marriage itself. Rather in the manner of Luther who, in doubt about his faith and above all perhaps his faithfulness, was driven back to the regular assertion: baptizatus sum. Perhaps we should affirm more regularly the fact that we know very well, we are married. The grace of Christ given to us in this ceremony, witnessed to at the time by the Church, is a fact of our continuing relationship. The grace of Christ allows us to bear witness to God’s love of his world, and to share in the making of love to which God has committed God’s self, and to which we are called. Of course we want to share in the celebration of God’s presence in the Eucharist; we want to share the one bread and the one cup. We shall continue in conversation, in prayer and in making love between and on behalf of our traditions until and including such times when our unity is shared by the communion of the traditions in which we stand. We were never told it was easy; maybe this too is part of the way in which we share in God’s redemptive creativity.

Kenneth Wilson