Updated: Sep 3, 2019
Our modern US culture is somewhat ambivalent about marriage. We are very earnest to define marriage (or redefine it) but we also seem to like to keep it at arms length (at least until we're older). Talk of marriage in the Episcopal Church has no shortage of occasions. And while the national church has been working hard to make it more accessible, as a parish priest, one of my tasks is to prepare those who desire marriage to approach it more wisely. In that vein, I've been thinking about the introduction and movement of the Marriage liturgy in the 1979 BCP. The last sentence of the opening introduction:
"Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God."
I love the "[not] unadvisedly...but...deliberately" part.
Soon after the intro, the liturgy moves to what is called, The Declaration of Consent, which together with the admonition to not enter into marriage "unadvisedly" seems to be saying something like: When it comes to marrying someone else, choose wisely, choose freely.
The Declaration of Consent goes like this:
"(Name of woman inserted here), will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?"
The woman responds: "I will." This is a free consent to enter the covenant with the person in front of her.
The man is then asked the same series of questions and answers in like manner.
The man and the woman are about to freely declare before God, formally, publicly, and legally a lifelong choice that will alter their lives in every aspect; therefore the Prayer Book admonishes that that choice be made through wise counsel, with deep respect for all that it entails, and with full understanding of God's purposes for marriage.
So why has this been on my mind?
Because it seems like something very important needs to happen before that declaration is made.
Before each party can choose wisely and freely, each party must know how to choose wisely and freely.
At the very least, a person should be able to see the other as clearly as possible. And by see, I don't mean making sure that their contact lenses are clean. Each person must be able to discern or perceive who the other actually is, their character, their conflict style, their priorities, to the best of their ability. Dating is not an interview process per se but in our modern culture it is the most appropriate time to figure out whether or not the other person could be a good lifelong mate.
There's always going to be an element of risk involved in marriage because it's impossible to know everything about another person, but we should at least be able to place ourselves in the best position to see the other person as clearly as possible before entering into a permanent covenant with them.
That means we remove obstructions that would hinder our ability to see them. We clear out any haze. Remove any impediments that would limit our ability to perceive the other person as they are. And in the intoxication of romantic love only a few things could be more difficult.
One major obstruction to clear perception is what I call the sex haze. The sex haze is the intoxicating side-effects of being physically intimate with someone you care for deeply. It's a very good thing, at the right time.
As a priest I have heard people say all sorts of things about having sex before marriage, but most of it seems to boil down to two main things: fear (e.g. fear of losing the other person if they don't offer themselves in that way/fear of incompatibility/fear of being thought of as prudish), and/or the inability to practice self-control.
First let me say that I do not think that just because someone sleeps with their partner before getting married that their marriage will be doomed. Nor do I think that if a couple waits to have sex until they are married that their marriage will automatically succeed. But I do believe that abstaining from sex until marriage allows a person the best opportunity to see the other person as clearly as possible.
I will also quickly add that those who choose not to have sex until they are married but then expedite the process just so they can have sex is as bad of a sex haze as the previous alternative.
I believe waiting until marriage is a strong biblical principle that one should follow first and foremost because God's will, and the historic teaching of the church, has been somewhat clear about it. But practically, I also think it is the best way for one to clearly perceive the other person's character. Perceiving the other as clearly as possible allows one to choose wisely and freely whether or not they want to permanently bind themselves to them. I think abstinence gives a person the necessary room to gain perspective on the character of the other; because within the throes of romantic love, clear perspective is probably one of the hardest things to have. One cannot see clearly in a haze, and one in a haze doesn't always think they aren't seeing clearly.
Additionally, the practice of self-control, a fruit of the Spirit according to St Paul, is a prime basis for trust in a relationship. If a person is able to exhibit self-control in something as strong as sexual desire, it can give a sense of stability and trustworthiness to their partner; both of which are ideal for long-term, faithful relationships. Refraining from sex until marriage allows each person to develop a trust and friendship with the other before the other good stuff takes it to the moon.
Conversely, practicing self-control and allowing oneself to see as clearly as possible can help end a relationship that shouldn't continue as well. Have you ever tried to get someone to see that they should get out of a bad relationship? Damn near impossible. The strength of sexual intimacy makes it infinitely more difficult to end a relationship, which in the right context is a good thing, unless the relationship should in fact come to an end.
Again, I don't think having sex beforehand guarantees doom in the future marriage. And this is not meant to be a guilt trip if your past or current choices do not line up with this principle. I simply believe that if we, as Christians, take the admonition of the Prayer Book seriously, allowing clear perspective and practicing self-control within the dating relationship should be something we encourage.
I believe abstinence is the wisest route for one to make a good and free choice. I think it is a major facet of how one can date really well and enter into a marriage advisedly and reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.
Choose wisely, choose freely, and have fun!