Modern Challenges to Traditional Orthodox Perspectives on Marriage

by Paul Ladouceur

(This essay was originally delivered as a public talk at the June 2015 Fordham/OTSA conference on the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It was part of a panel on canonical impediments to marriage.)

It will no doubt be useful for the Council to focus on harmonizing canonical impediments to marriage – especially marriages where one spouse is not Orthodox. But the Council risks not seeing the forest because of the trees. Other questions relating to marriage in the contemporary world are far more important.

1) First, the Church’s attitude towards common-law unions – couples living together without being formally married, either in the Church or civilly.

This is a growing social phenomenon, not only in Western Europe and North America, but also in countries of Orthodox tradition.  Many countries now assimilate common-law unions to legal marriages, with the same rights and obligations.  In the official English translation of “The Basis of the Social Concept” [of the Russian Orthodox Church], we read: “While insisting on the necessity of church marriage, the Synod reminds pastors that the Orthodox Church also respects common-law marriage.”

Lest we think that the Russian Orthodox Church has suddenly become “progressive,” the term “common-law marriage” is incorrect here, since the Russian text clearly refers to “civil marriage,” not common-law marriage as usually understood in English-speaking countries. Orthodox Churches and clergy typically apply the policy reflected in the quaint Victorian expression “living in sin,”4 and deny such couples access to sacraments, especially communion. What should be the attitude of the Orthodox Church towards unmarried couples?  Does the Church have anything to say to such couples other than “Get married”? It is time for the Church to look at its message to unmarried couples in the light of contemporary social changes and pastoral requirements.

2) The second issue is the involvement of Orthodox Churches in the “marriage business” acting as an agent of the state by performing legally-recognized marriages. This issue has come to the forefront around the question of same-sex marriages. The Orthodox position on homosexuality is one issue, but the question of the legal recognitionof same-sex marriages is a slightly different and ambiguous issue – it is a clash of ethics and rights in pluralistic societies. In pluralistic, secular societies, the separation of civil and religious marriages can be good: the Church no longer acts as an agent of the state with which she is in profound disagreement concerning the very basis of marriage as a free union of a man and a woman.  The Church becomes completely free to establish its own rules for the celebration of a religious marriage and not be somehow acquiescent in secular attitudes towards marriage. In those countries where the Church performs legally-recognized marriages, the Orthodox Church should get out of the marriage business.

3) The third question is the separation of the marriage ceremony from the Divine Liturgy. In the Byzantine Empire for many centuries the marriage ceremony was integrated into the Divine Liturgy. In 793 the Church was given sole responsibility for celebrating marriages of free citizens, and in 1095, marriages of slaves. But because the Church was obliged to celebrate marriages where one or even both of the spouses were not Orthodox, about the tenth century the marriage ritual was celebrated apart from the Divine Liturgy. Formally, the practice of celebrating marriages within the liturgy now subsists only when a bishop celebrates a marriage.

At best, some jurisdictions and clergy celebrate marriages after the Divine Liturgy, not within it. When both spouses are Orthodox – which likely applies to most marriages celebrated in the Orthodox Church – there is no reason why the marriage ritual cannot routinely be integrated into the Divine Liturgy. This should be the rule and not the exception. This would reinforce Orthodox theology of both marriage and the Eucharist.

Paul Ladouceur teaches Orthodox theology and spirituality at Trinity College, the University of Toronto and at Université Laval.