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Get a Life: Speech at Launch of National Marriage Week

Monday 5th February 2007

The Archbishop spoke about the importance of marriage at the launch of National Marriage Week [beginning 5th February] 2007, which was held in the Jubilee Room of the House of Commons. Other speakers included the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP and Anne Atkins.

Thank you very much for the invitation to be here this morning. One of the phrases that a slightly younger generation than mine likes to use a lot - I have a nineteen year old daughter - is 'get a life'. And you might be surprised to hear that I do occasionally hear that from the younger members of my family. 'Get a life' is said to people who are clearly meshed into narrow, boring, obsessive, forms of life. People who have no horizons beyond their immediate concerns, their immediate hobbies, they are pedants; they are bores. And it occurred to me thinking about this morning, that all of that presupposes that people have quite a vivid idea of what real life is like; it's a life of discovery, it's a life of surprises, it's a life where you don't quite know what's going to come to you, but you go forward with some degree of expectation that you are going to be enlarged and challenged and enriched.

As I thought about that, I thought well actually, that's not a bad slogan for a National Marriage Week: 'Get A Life'. Because when we're talking about the marriage relationship, we're talking about a relationship, which constantly unfolds over time, which allows you to build on difficult experience, to work through it, to move, to mature. It allows you to have a story to tell about yourself, a story that is not just about how I wanted this, and I got that, but a story about how I discovered and moved through time to something more like the humanity that I'm capable of. Get a life, have a story, move and grow because - to abuse yet another popular phrase - marriage is for life, not just for Christmas.

Marriage is for life; and that doesn't just mean life-long, important as that is. It means for life; that is for an enhanced kind of human experience. We're supposed to be, I gather, celebrating commitment in National Marriage Week, and it seems to me that commitment is essentially about 'getting a life'. Marriage is a relationship in which my commitment to somebody else, my risky, high risk, commitment to someone else, is matched and met by their risky commitment to me; and as already quoted from the significant source for our understanding on this, let me cap that with something St Paul says about how husband and wife belong not to themselves, but to each other. They really are giving some sort of ownership in themselves to another person, and that is so phenomenally risky that it's only the mutuality of it, the shared promise of one to the other, that makes it doable. If someone comes along and says 'give me your life' you don't normally just say 'okay'. You enter into a covenant, a relationship of mutual risk and mutual promise - and that's how you get a life. You know that someone else has a life invested in yours, as yours is invested in theirs. That seems to me really the bottom line of why marriage matters, not just for this society, but for any human society. That risk of investing yourself on another person, letting them invest themselves in you so completely, that's about how we grow, about how we become human. And unless that relationship models for the whole of society what's possible for human beings, we have a desperately impoverished society - and you've heard already this morning something of the nature of that impoverishment.

Think this through for a moment: the committed relationship of husband and wife in marriage says to people around and, most importantly of all, says to the children of that marriage, it's quite possible to live as a human being, not afraid at any moment that you're going to be let down, abandoned, left to yourself. Someone is actually committed to be there for you. That's what marriage is about, and modelling that kind of unconditional being there, that sets the foundation of stability, trustworthiness, which allows children to grow up confident that whatever goes wrong, for them, in them, through them, there's something beyond that to hold them, to give them room, time, space, fresh air, to grow. The tragedy of the kind of social situation that we've already heard so much about this morning, is fundamentally a level of anxiety and abandonment among so many people who don't and can't believe that there's anybody truly there for them; who don't believe there's anything trustworthy, apart from those transient and fraught, intense and violent relationships which was described by Iain [Duncan Smith] in his speech about the 'gang culture'. If that's the only kind of stable background people know, well we can expect the disasters that we see. One of the things that Camilla Batmanghelidj, my great heroine, has taught me - seeing her at work, talking to her - is precisely the absolute significance of that background of trustworthiness. Here is someone who is for you; and marriage which says between two people, I am for you and I am for you, says to children, says to those around, that's the ground on which you grow, that's the security, that's what guarantees you, the air, the space, the time to move on.

So what we're up against at the moment is a society that has painfully and disastrously low expectations of relationships. I really liked the 'ambition about relationships' phrase, which came up earlier. We need to be ambitious about our relationships, ambitious for life, in both senses, ambitious for life-long relationships, ambitious for the kind of depth of human experience, the life that marriage can give. And as expectations spiral downwards then it's not only the one relationship with marriage that suffers, it's everything in sight that suffers. We can't legislate this into being, but we can go on challenging the imagination of society and saying 'aren't you being desperately unambitious about what you are capable of? And what those close to you are capable of? Aren't you lowering, lowering and lowering the sights because actually you are capable of much more than you think you are? When you think that millions of people every year embark on this extraordinary enterprise called marriage, without any exceptional sanctity or heroism, they just do it and they just carry on doing it, doesn't that say something about the ambition that we can rightly have? And at the risk of sounding slightly sentimental, I think it's quite important to look back to an earlier generation, remember parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and think there were a lot of very ordinary human beings, not especially saintly, not especially holy, who did this, who 'got a life', who worked through all of this with that prosaic heroism that brings out the best in people, that trained a new generation, that shaped the world which had some trustworthy limits, which had some recognisable moral geography to it. Were they wasting their time? Were they living out an illusion? Well if they were we are in a very strange position now, because we are trading on the achievements that they created for us. And that's of course one of the sad things about some of the debates we have about marriage these days; that a great deal of the running is made in commentating in reflective terms by people who don't perhaps fully see how much they are trading off the inherited capital of a stability and yes, a prosaic heroism that's evolved over generations. And the fluidity and changeability of relationships and the transience of marriage may look perfectly fine if you belong to the commentating classes of north London, but you don't have to go very many miles to see what the cost is for people who can't take that sort of thing for granted.

So we are celebrating commitment this week, we are doing so because it's about life. 'Get a life': let's say that to our society, let's say it loud and clear, if you want to grow, to move, to expand, to be enlarged as a human being, if you want to pass on that enlarged sense of what humanity is all about to another generation, well this is the way to do it.

© Rowan Williams, 2007

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