(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.)
According to Orthodox canon law and theology, the ideal Christian marriage among laypeople is union between faithfully practicing virginal male and female Orthodox Christians who intend through marriage to grow in oneness with each other and God, aid each other in striving towards salvation, and faithfully grow their household as a “little church” and an icon of God’s love. The couple continues this way in peace, marital chastity, oneness, and mutual uplifting even after the earthly departure of one spouse. Indeed they are “worthy!” of “crowns of glory and honor” when this is the case. With increasing frequency however, many marriages may be a canonically aberrant, religiously mixed, repeated event, which may be preceded by pre-marital cohabitation or disrupted by divorce. While marriage between two Orthodox remains the ideal, those who have married outside of the Church, marriages between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, and marriages otherwise canonically impeded can be accepted with varying stipulations (primarily regarding baptism and children) through ecclesiastical economy and may authentically serve as a means of salvation and unitive participation in divine love. The ways in which this economy and authenticity are acknowledged requires a clear and consistent response, especially liturgically.
Even though the circumstantial variations for economy are seemingly infinite (and it would be contradictory to the spirit of economy to try and make them uniform), it is paramount to have a hierarchically agreed upon response to sanctify the canonically anomalous marriage and its participants to the greatest extent sacramentally and ecclesiologically possible. Without this, theological ambiguity takes root. Current liturgical practice, for example, in receiving and blessing the marriage of converts and those married outside the Church varies among jurisdictions to a degree that appears theologically unclear—ranging from no specific acknowledgement of the marriage, to the offering of a full wedding service. Liturgical variation between jurisdictions is not problematic except where it articulates confused or divergent theology. One can only imagine what variation there might be if no consensus is made in indicating the theological status of marriages and their participants, when the potential union is between an Orthodox and a non-Christian—a pressing reality that remains for further discussion. Although the Church cannot accept the marriages of all as realizing the same sacramental fullness, nor can it accept without penitence those who do not respect the practices and theology of the church, ways for more consistently blessing and praying for all who present themselves united before God with humility and a desire to grow in knowledge of divine love through marital union should be explored.
The history of the Church and even the canons regarding marriage themselves attest to a tradition of ministering to the needs of the members of the Body of Christ—both to those who pursue the Orthodox Christian ideal of marriage, and those who are nearly oblivious to or canonically barred from it. The canons outlining impediments to marriage point toward a theological truth of marriage which must continue to be affirmed through reflection and liturgical practice. The possibility of developing prayers expressing intercession and blessings for both spouses of otherwise non-canonical marital unions should be more deeply explored to liturgically voice the justification for economy, situate the participants in relation to the Body of Christ, and compassionately articulate the theological hopes and concerns of the Church for such a union.
Ashley Purpura is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Purdue University.