The University’s Father Tim Curtis, Senior Lecturer in Spiritual Studies, shares his views on modern life…
The social media world has between alight with news last week of a woman in the USA marrying God. Thirty-eight year old Jessica Hayes of Indiana USA became a consecrated virgin but the way in which this has been reported has caused much confusion. In one piece, she has been married to God (Mirror) and in other places, she has married Jesus (Daily Mail). Even the respectable press reported in this manner (Independent). In the context of the recent debates and shrill outcry about same sex marriages destroying civilisation and that people would be free to marry anything, including animals and your own sister, it seems to be pretty unbelievable that someone would be allowed to marry someone who doesn’t exist for many people. So how does someone get married to God?
Really, no-one can get married to anyone other than another human, let alone marry God. No marriage has happened at all. It’s a shame that the Catholic Church that undertook this service allowed it to be reported as such. God can’t marry any human because He exists outside space and time, and is totally unknowable to human beings. No one can marry Jesus either. Jesus exists as God who became human, but he didn’t marry whilst he lived in human form, despite the fictitious claims of Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, He no longer exists in human form, so He still can’t get married. Indeed, in the symbolic theology of Christianity, the Church is the Bride of Christ, (the Bible, in the books called Ephesians Chapter 5 and Revelation, Chapter 21) as well as representing the Body of Christ (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 10, 12; Colossians 1), not an individual human (Danielou, 1964).
But the Church has been quiet confused about marriage, because the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England have often spoken about single, celibate priests being married to the church, and even wear wedding rings as a sign of that. Jessica Hayes attended the church service wearing a white wedding dress, although it wasn’t clear whether her father was there to give her away.
So in what sense is Jessica Hayes a ‘bride of Christ’, which the rite of consecration mentions? She isn’t becoming a nun, because nuns don’t have to be virgins- some nuns are widows, for example. Indeed, nuns can also become consecrated virgins if they have never been married or had sex. Nuns are also specifically called to a life in a community and of constant prayer, and yet Jessica intends to continue her work as a teacher. More confusingly, nuns are also active in the world, and are not constantly engaged in prayer. The nun and saint Elizabeth, the New Martyr of the Russian royal family, niece of Queen Victoria, was a widow and also deeply engaged in creating and running hospices and care homes. Another example is St Maria of Paris, who was criticised by her fellow nuns because she was always late for, or skipped, prayers because she was busy caring for the sick and homeless. So, Jessica could be a nun, but she has decided not to be.
Instead, she has decided to be a consecrated virgin. She has not been married, and by becoming a consecrated virgin has indicated that this is a permanent situation. She doesn’t hope to get married one day, if the opportunity comes along. Because, for Christians, marriage is a permanent state, Jessica is indicating that her status as a virgin and unmarried is permanent. She will wear a ring on her finger to indicate to the world that she is no longer available, and never will be available to begin a relationship with another human.
In this way, like monks and nuns, like single priests, she will be at the service of all the people of the church, without the additional duties of family life. She will be an example to the world that sex, despite what most people seem to think, is not the most important thing in the world. She will have friendships, perhaps be very close to a few people, but sex will not be a part of her life, fulfilling and rich in love that it most certainly will be. Jessica hasn’t married a non-existent being, instead she has used the ideas that we understand about marriage to indicate that there is more to life than sex and marriage, and divorce.
This does not denigrate marriage in the slightest. In the Orthodox Christian Church and the Anglican Church, priests can, and mostly are, married and have families. They serve the church alongside monks and nuns, as well as caring for their spouses and families. Monks and nuns have also used the imagery of marriage as part of their life to demonstrate that both the married life and monasticism are equally valued in the church. The church cares for those who choose to be single and celibate, and the Roman Catholic church calls them consecrated virgins.
Unfortunately, Christianity does really know what to do with those people who are single through no choice of their own. Over 40 per cent of the adult population of the USA lives alone and 29% of UK households are solitary . This seems to be growing. Divorce rates seem to be part of this story, but increasingly people are just not getting married- recently marriage rates have risen from a low point of 2008. Very few of these single people are Christian and wish to become monks and nuns, and even fewer are virgins or wish to live entirely celibate lives for the rest of their lives. Singlehood is not always what some well-meaning Christians call ‘a gift’. It is often a burden in communities where marriage is considered to be the most important life goal, and something that marks entry to adulthood. The focus of the resources and discipleship in most churches is focussed on marriage and the family ‘blessed’ with children. Very little attention is given to those who are single by choice- very few churches these days promote monasticism as a viable and enriching choice, and no attention is given to those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves single. They are not given help, advice, discipleship or even receive any form of blessing or prayers for their situation. The church has more work to do to understand this new feature of modern life and respond positively.
 Daniélou, J. (1964) A History of Early Christian Doctrine Before the Council of Nicaea: The theology of Jewish Christianity. Darton, Longman & Todd