It is pretty clear to me that the Church could be doing a lot more to support our ability to appreciate how God is present in all of our relationships, and especially to help couples to become icons of holy relationship: signifying to the larger community the sacramental character of self-giving love that should be evident in all of our relationships.
In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the Church should treat a couples’ decision to have their relationship blessed by the church as a serious vocational commitment, one that is on a par with an individual’s decision to pursue baptism or holy orders. That is to say, a comparable level of discernment, preparation, and continuing education expected of individual lay or ordained ministry, should be provided to nurture the ministry of couples.
In recent years, the Church has recovered the idea and practice of the catechumenate, a period of intense preparation leading to baptism. By the second century, the Church developed a formal process of prayer, exorcism, scrutinies, instruction, fasting, service and worship to prepare candidates for baptism. This process could take up to three years, culminating in baptism, anointing, and first communion at the Easter vigil. The early Church took seriously the notion that Christians are made, not born, that one had to learn how to be a Christian, and that becoming a Christian was a life changing experience in which one took on a new identity. By the fourth century, due to the pressures of mass conversions the cathechumenate was largely reduced to the forty days of Lent, and by the Middle Ages the predominance of infant baptism lead to its disappearance altogether.
Today, many churches are reintroducing the catechumenate for adult converts, lasting anywhere from forty days to one year in length. This involves a variety of exercises in prayer, community service, worship and learning, and rituals to mark one’s progress toward baptism: becoming a catechumenate, becoming a candidate, and, of course, baptism itself. We also have an expectation that one will continue to grow in ministry, with opportunities for the ritual renewal of baptismal vows at the annual Easter vigil.
I would like to suggest that the Church develop a process of conjugal catechesis for those who choose to live out their baptismal vows through the spiritual discipline of radical proximity, of henosis: two becoming one-flesh as a couple; a formal process of preparation not unlike that required of those who are called to ordained ministry as a further specification of their baptismal ministry.
What might such a process of conjugal catechesis look like?
1. It would be a two-stage ritual process rather than a one-step rite, as in the current practice of marriage and the blessing of same-sex unions. Historical precedents for this lie in the medieval practice of spousals and nuptials, betrothal and matrimony. The intention to marry was ritualized in betrothal ceremonies that actually constituted the couple as a legitimate household, followed by the vows and blessing of the marriage at a later date. Thus, we have intention and commitment in a two-stage process, not unlike the “simple” or “provisional” vows and the later “solemn” or “permanent” vows of monks.
2. This two-stage ritual process allows for a significant amount of time devoted to discernment and preparation between the two rites. I would suggest that one year is not too much time to ask a couple to discern along with the community their readiness for the commitment entailed by marriage or same-sex union ceremonies. This time of preparation could involve several components: the sort of learning that we associate with “premarital counseling,” but consisting of a longer duration and more intense practice of the spiritual disciplines of conjugal life – sexual communion and interpersonal communication as dedicated paths to union with God; mentoring from an older, more experienced couple in the congregation, serving as a resource and guide along the conjugal path; intercessory prayer on behalf of the couple offered in the prayers of the people during the liturgy.
3. This would help to restore the integrity of marriage and the blessing of same-sex unions as sacraments -- as liturgical, and therefore public, expressions of God’s love manifest in a couple’s commitment to place their love for each other in service to the building of God’s kingdom on earth. As a sacrament, the couple’s love is ordered toward the Church’s common life and its unity in Christ. It is a sign of hope for the entire community and a particular way in which the baptismal covenant is lived out.
Furthermore, just as candidates for holy orders must submit their sense of call to the judgment of the Church, candidates for marriage/blessing ceremonies would be subject to the community’s discernment of their readiness for this commitment. Again, the rite is a sacrament of the Church, not the couple’s personal possession, and it is for the upbuilding of the community, not simply the "bride’s big day."
Finally, the Church would commit itself to providing the same kind of continuing formation in the understanding and practice of the faith that it provides for other kinds of specialized lay and ordained ministries. Couples would not be married/blessed and then left to their own devices to figure it out. Rather, they would continue to be supported, nurtured, instructed, and held accountable. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to make a committed relationship work as well.
What I’m calling for here is not a maudlin or conservative reduction of the Church’s mission to defending “family values,” but a challenge to our sentimentalization and privatization of marriage, and our incapacity to see it as a sacrament, a vocation, and a real contribution to the common good of the community. The values of fidelity, truthfulness, forgiveness, responsibility, sharing, generosity, reconciliation, and communion that are forged in the disciplines of conjugal life are values that should permeate all relationships, and thus healthy marriages/unions can be sacramental icons of holy relationship that inspire all of us whether we are married, divorced, single, sexually active, or celibate. They can be signs of God’s self-giving love revealed in Christ, a love that as followers of Christ we are all called to imitate.