By Fr. Anthony Aneke and Chikezie Ogbonna
“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” – Genesis 2:25
This is one passage of the bible that has a relative explicit description of what marriage is and how it should take place. However, recently, there is a rising voice oscillating this actual meaning in relation to our culture as Africans with respect to our Christian obligation.
Christians believe that marriage is considered in its ideal according to the purpose of God. At the heart of God’s design for marriage is companionship and intimacy. The biblical picture of marriage expands into something much broader, with the husband and wife relationship illustrating the relationship between Christ and the church
However, while many Christians might agree with the traditional definition, theological views of marriage have varied through time in different countries, and among Christian denominations.
From the earliest days of the Christian faith, Christians have honored marriage, or holy matrimony, as a divinely blessed, lifelong, monogamous union, between a man and a woman.
The Roman Catholic Church considers marriage a holy sacrament and sacred mystery. According to Canon 1055 paragraph 1, “Marriage is a matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.”
According to the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979), reflecting the traditional view, “Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God, intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture.”
What seem like a controversial debate on the place of African culture and the church obligation when it comes to wedding ceremonies started brewing online as divergent opinions tried to explain how and how not we have been involved in what seemed like two different wedding ceremonies in Africa and Nigeria in particular.
In his usual manner of delving in contested issues through his Facebook page, Rev. Fr. Kelvin Ugwu a catholic priest based in Malawi in a post shared on his platform tagged White Wedding Vs Traditional Wedding, said that the fact that stares us to our faces is what we call “White Wedding” in our part of the world, which could be considered as “Traditional Wedding” by those from whom we copied the wedding from.
Tracing the history of the white wedding when the then Queen Victoria of England in 1840 decided to wear a white gown for her wedding to Prince Albert, Fr. Kelvin tagged it a multiplication of ceremony and something he described as an inferiority for a black man to celebrate what he calls traditional wedding and still feels he is not married until he celebrates the traditional wedding of the Western man (white wedding), wearing three piece suit and his wife dressed in a long white gown under a hot sokoto-like sun.
“The only fact that makes it not to appear like a multiplication is what I call the “Church-ness” or the “Christ-ness” imbedded into the white wedding. I guess this is why people now call it church wedding or Christian wedding. But, even at that, there is a problem.
”The Christian faith as brought by Christ is universal. It can be planted into any culture. The missionary don’t need to carry the culture of his place alongside the faith to others. No culture is superior to the other”, he wrote.
Fr. Kelvin however suggested what he feels should be of more importance in the discourse about marriage as it relates to what it should actually be.
He said; “All we need do is to take out what constitutes the “Church-ness” and “Christ-ness” from the white wedding and put it into our own traditional wedding. That’s the sacramental character of marriage.
One does not need a suit and a gown, a bridal train or best men in suits, flowers girls or even rings, before his wedding could be called a Christian wedding.
One does not necessarily need to come to a church building and take vows before the altar before the wedding could be called church wedding.
What makes marriage is not the wedding suits or gown, it is not the rings, even the priest or pastor is there as a witness. This is why even a deacon can assist in a marriage. And in some extreme cases, where there is no priest or deacon, After due approval, the law of the church allows the diocesan bishop to delegate lay persons to assist in wedding. (Canon 1112.1).
What makes marriage according to the teachings of the church in Canon 1057 §1 is simply the CONSENT of the parties, legitimately manifested between persons qualified by law.”
While acknowledging that marriage as being a sacramental, though could be done anywhere, but must have the backing and approval of the Bishop, however, he took it a step further to lash out at what he described as resource wastefulness by Africans in the name of organizing two weddings at the same time. This he blamed at the mental slavery inherent in Africa.
The Position of the Church – Fr. Chime
However, in an interaction with Rev. Fr. Michael Chime , the Judicial Vicar, Catholic Diocese of Enugu, explained in detail the stand of the Church and called for more theological research to help expand the proper application of the principles of Christian marriage to indigenous cultures.
Excerpts of the interview with Fr. Michael Chime
In a nutshell, what is the institution of Marriage all about from a canonical perspective?
“Marriage is a natural institution. The natural truth about marriage is common to everyone. So, marriage is a union between a man and a woman, for the good of the couple, for procreation and education of children. Marriage is also supposed to be indissoluble and exclusive; one man, one wife. This is the natural dimension of marriage as an institution established by God.
“Of course, in the bible, there have been abuses which involve a man marrying many wives. This is as a result of human weakness. This abuse was corrected by Christ the Lord, who raised marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament. This is where Church differs. There are two things that make Church marriage different from the others and these would be the focus of our discussion.
“The ordinary idea is that marriage is a contract. But to the Church, marriage is a Covenant. It’s a covenant in the sense that in the Old Testament, the Israelites made a covenant with God and this covenant is still effective until today because God doesn’t go back.
“Marriage as a covenant is like an oath taking. To express the covenantal dimension, a marriage between a man and a woman will become indissoluble when first of all, it is ratified; the two persons involved exchange consent and then, they go home and sleep as man and wife having. This is what is referred to as Consummation. In the olden days, when a covenant is being made, there’s usually bloodshed. It is presumed that the woman is a virgin, so that when the man penetrates, it breaks the hymen and there’s blood. That blood seals the covenant.
“Another important dimension is that there’s no marriage between two baptized persons that is not at the same time a sacrament.
Canon 1055, paragraph 2 buttressed it very well. By sacrament, we touch the life of God. Sacrament is all those things instituted by Christ himself and there are about seven of them, of which baptism is one.
“It is an important matter and that’s why the Church has interest in the marriage of her faithful. The Church, as the bride of Christ is a custodian of the sacraments. The Church gives a kind of security. God enters that relationship. Just as in the Trinity, marriage is between the couple and God, a third party. It seals up that Trinitarian dimension. So, the Church considers marriage as a sacrament. Marriage is a sacrament that is validly celebrated and consummated and nobody has the power to dissolve it.”
Must it be done within the mass?
“According to our Code of Canon law, Marriage can be done outside of the mass. But it is advisable that when you’re going into marriage which is a sacrament, you also receive the sacrament of penance; Go to confession, then, receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. This is the practice here. Overseas, people celebrate mass in the evening. So, yes, marriage can be celebrated outside of mass.”
The bone of contention here is the seemingly two ‘wedding’ ceremonies we do here in this part of the world; The traditional and then the White wedding. What is your take on the concept of these two wedding ceremonies?
“You failed to mention ‘Court marriage’ too. We should first appreciate the fact that Church marriage is supposed to be a sacrament and not just a contract. When you do civil or traditional marriage, as a baptized catholic, yes, people would recognise you as husband and wife but then you have failed in your obligation as a church member because you’re supposed to receive the sacrament of matrimony. You should come to the church so that your marriage will be become sacramental.
“Yes, the sacramental character can be introduced within the context of our traditional marriage if our theologians and liturgists work seriously towards its proper application with inculturation in view. Someone already did it and it worked, just that it wasn’t followed up. The marriage registration at the local government has even made it easier. But the issue here is not actually a seemingly two wedding ceremony. What matters most is the preparation of the couple who are about to enter into the marriage covenant whether traditional or white wedding. Marriage course is very important.
“Until then, traditional marriage has no sacramental character. and so if you do the traditional marriage as a catholic, you shouldn’t live with your wife or husband. The Church position is that before you live together and consummate the marriage, it would be a sacrament. The traditional marriage is a marriage, yes, but it is not a sacrament.”
Based on your experience and knowledge over the years at the Marriage tribunal, could you say there are rising cases of marriage annulment in the Church?
“Of course, there is, and I blame the modern mentality and those of us who should teach more. I have written a book ‘When marriage fails, what next?‘ I tried explaining the problems people encounter. I understood from my little research that the idea people have about marriage is very myopic. We should wake up.