A Hymn for Holy Matrimony

It is a curious thing that for all our culture’s love of weddings, our hymnals stand remarkably short on hymns for this blessed occasion.  Perhaps people had a tendency to choose other favorite hymns; perhaps weddings were not frequently celebrated with hymnody back in the great hymn-writing centuries; perhaps weddings have long been too secularized (at least in popular mindset) for enough people to dare consider singing a wedding hymn from a hymnal.  Blessed be the ties that bind is the only hymn I can think of that’s even marginally popular for weddings, and some hymnals don’t even put it in that category!  It’s appropriate, for sure, but it’s not specifically (or exclusively) about holy matrimony.

So let’s take a look at a hymn that is specifically about marriage: O Father, all creatingYou may notice that it’s also explicitly trinitarian, verse by verse.

O Father, all creating, Whose wisdom, love, and pow’r
First bound two lives together In Eden’s primal hour,
Today to these thy children Thine earliest gifts renew:
A home by thee made happy, A love by thee kept true.

O Savior, guest most bounteous Of old in Galilee,
Vouchsafe today thy presence With these who call on thee;
Their store of earthly gladness Transform to heav’nly wine,
And teach them in the tasting, To know the gift is thine.

O Spirit of the Father, Breathe on them from above,
So mighty in thy pureness, So tender in thy love;
That, guarded by thy presence, From sin and strife kept free,
Their lives may own thy guidance, Their hearts be ruled by thee.

Each Person of the Holy Trinity is called upon to bless and sanctify the marriage.  As each has been revealed in Scriptures to relate to and interact with us in particular ways, so this hymn prays for their respective forms of presence and guidance upon the married couple.

It is perhaps a “no-brainer” to most of you who follow this blog that a marriage needs the guarding and guidance of God to survive in a holy state and bear spiritual fruit, but it should be observed that the way many weddings are celebrated, even among Christians, often tends to focus upon the marvellous love the couple holds for one another.  This is all too often exaggerated to the point where the binding force and strength of marriage seems to be their mutual love; God is hardly more than a formal afterthought, a patron to invoke for the sake of custom and respect.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say this hymn (or similar songs) should be required at every wedding we officiate, but the prayer and sentiment it puts forth is definitely and sorely needed, not only in the ears of our congregations and wedding-goers, but on their lips as well.

Let’s see how the last verse ends it:

Except thou build it, Father, The house is built in vain;
Except thou, Savior, bless it, The joy will turn to pain;
But nought can break the marriage Of hearts in thee made one,
And love thy Spirit hallows Is endless love begun.  Amen.

Drawing from the language of Psalm 127, this stanza narrows in on the complete dependence of man upon God.  Note particularly that last line, “and love thy Spirit hallows is endless love begun.”  Divine-inspired love between husband and wife is not perfect love, nor love fulfilled, but still only love begun.  The world will not be saved by spousal fidelity, no matter what some false teachers say.  Rather, a holy marriage is only the beginning of a picture of salvation.  When God makes two hearts into one, a glimpse of his divine love is introduced, not consummated.  Only continual reliance upon that strength and foundation will survive the course there begun.  As St. Paul wrote, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3).

Most of my friends’ and family members’ wedding anniversaries seem to be either in June or August, which is why this Customary appoints the two Matrimony Hymns in the 2017 hymnal in early June and early August.  Feel free to move them around in your own use of this order for daily hymnody, as songs like the one we’ve looked at here are great prayers for your own marriage, or those of your friends and family!

Book Review: Common Worship Pastoral Services

Welcome to Saturday Book Review time!  On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value.  Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.

The next volume of Common Worship is Pastoral Services, the book that provides the liturgies for “Wholeness and Healing”, Marriages, and Funerals, with some re-printed materials for Emergency Baptisms and Thanksgivings for a Child.  As I noted in reviewing the previous volume, Christian Initiation, it is interesting to see the Healing services here cover the anointing, visitation, and communion of the sick here, but for the Confession/Absolution rite to be place in the post-baptismal context.  This book, too, comes with a theological introduction and rationale, making this more than just a liturgy book, but a more formulaic catechetical document as well.

common worship

As is characteristic of all the books of Common Worship so far, this book provides a lot of optional material with which to supplement or personalize a wedding or funeral ceremony.  There are also printings in the book so they can be celebrated within a Communion service if desired.  Not insignificantly, an “alternative” form of the Marriage and Burial rites is offered at the end of the book, which are basically just the 1662 Prayer Book services.  Traditionalism is thus offered as a concession, not the expectation.  Still, that’s better than how the 1979 book in the USA handled this sort of thing.

A quick survey of the primary contents of this book suggest that the theologically-liberalizing tendency in the Church of England is not especially prominent.  The address at the beginning of the Marriage Rite, for example, is still a loose paraphrase of the traditional Prayer Book exhortation, rather than a complete re-write.  Most of the complaints of modernization that one might raise against this book can be applied to nearly every 20th century Prayer Book as well.

The ratings in short:

Accessibility: 3/5
Like Christian Initiation, this volume is set out in a decently useable format, with several instances where one has to combine its use with another book, such as when celebrating one of the rites in the context of a Communion service.

Devotional Usefulness: 1/5
Unless you’re in the Church of England, none of these liturgies are authorized for your use, and there’s hardly anything in here that can be imported into other contexts.  This is mostly a pastor’s handbook, and the extra prayers and canticles sitting around are almost not worth the effort of looking up.

Reference Value: 1/5
Again, there’s very little worth studying in and learning from this book.  Its theological statement on the healing service may be of some insight, and (like all the volumes) its index at the end can be a handy tool for comparative study – especially where its liturgy does similar things to our own – but ultimately this is probably the least useful book in the Common Worship set, unless you’re actually in the Church of England.