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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • Orthodox Worship: The Sacraments
      • Marriage
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The Trinitarian mystery of unity in diversity applies not only to the doctrine of the Church

but to the doctrine of marriage. Man is made in the image of the Trinity, and except in special

cases he is not intended by God to live alone, but in a family. And just as God blessed the first

family, commanding Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, so the Church today gives its

blessing to the union of man and woman. Marriage is not only a state of nature but a state of

grace. Married life, no less than the life of a monk, is a special vocation, requiring a particular

gift or charisma from the Holy Spirit; and this gift is conferred in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

The Marriage Service is divided into two parts, formerly held separately but now celebrated

in immediate succession: the preliminary Office of Betrothal, and the Office of Crowning, which

constitutes the sacrament proper. At the Betrothal service the chief ceremony is the blessing and

exchange of rings; this is an outward token that the two partners join in marriage of their own

free will and consent, for without free consent on both sides there can be no sacrament of Christian

marriage. The second part of the service culminates in the ceremony of coronation: on the

heads of the bridegroom and bride the priest places crowns, made among the Greeks of leaves

and flowers, but among the Russians of silver or gold. This, the outward and visible sign of the

sacrament, signifies the special grace which the couple receive from the Holy Spirit, before they

set out to found a new family or domestic Church. The crowns are crowns of joy, but they are

also crowns of martyrdom, since every true marriage involves an immeasurable self-sacrifice on

both sides. At the end of the service the newly married couple drink from the same cup of wine,


which recalls the miracle at the marriage feast of Cana in Galilee: this common cup is a symbol

of the fact that henceforward they will share a common life with one another.

The Orthodox Church permits divorce and remarriage, quoting as its authority the text of

Matthew 19:9, where Our Lord says: “If a man divorces his wife, for any cause other than unchastity,

and marries another, he commits adultery.” Since Christ allowed an exception to His

general ruling about the indissolubility of marriage, the Orthodox Church also is willing to allow

an exception. Certainly Orthodoxy regards the marriage bond as in principle lifelong and indissoluble,

and it condemns the breakdown of marriage as a sin and an evil. But while condemning

the sin, the Church still desires to help the sinners and to allow them a second chance. When,

therefore, a marriage has entirely ceased to be a reality, the Orthodox Church does not insist on

the preservation of a legal fiction. Divorce is seen as an exceptional but necessary concession to

human sin; it is an act of oikonomia (‘economy’ or dispensation) and of philanthropia (loving

kindness). Yet although assisting men and women to rise again after a fall, the Orthodox Church

knows that a second alliance can never be the same as the first; and so in the service for a second

marriage several of the joyful ceremonies are omitted, and replaced by penitential prayers.

Orthodox Canon Law, while permitting a second or even a third marriage, absolutely forbids

a fourth. In theory the Canons only permit divorce in cases of adultery, but in practice it is

sometimes granted for other reasons as well.

One point must be clearly understood: from the point of view of Orthodox theology a divorce

granted by the State in the civil courts is not sufficient. Remarriage in church is only possible

if the Church authorities have themselves granted a divorce.

The use of contraceptives and other devices for birth control is on the whole strongly discouraged

in the Orthodox Church. Some bishops and theologians altogether condemn the employment

of such methods. Others, however, have recently begun to adopt a less strict position,

and urge that the question is best left to the discretion of each individual couple, in consultation

with the spiritual father.

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