WPost: The TRUE meaning of marriage vows

From the day GetReligion opened its cyber-doors, we have argued that the liberal half of American Christianity deserves more coverage in the mainstream press. Most of the time, coverage of Christian liberalism turns everything into politics even faster than coverage of traditional, doctrinally conservative forms of Christianity.

That’s simply bad journalism. Progressive Christians have beliefs and they act on them. They deserve to have the content of their beliefs discussed as religion, as a form of faith, not as some kind of political jargon in support of a political creed. Now, I am not saying that the political activities of liberals (or conservatives) should be ignored. I am saying that readers need to understand the role that religious beliefs and faith play in these actions.

This brings me to a recent Washington Post Magazine cover story about marriage, divorce and the ties that bind that inspired several fervent emails from readers seeking a GetReligion post in response.

At the heart of the story was an issue of Christian doctrine that is being debated in this day and age.

The essential question: Is it ever justified for a spouse to divorce his or her mate when, via health or accident, that spouse suffers from dementia and/or some other similar condition or handicap?

The headline on the article settled this issue, one must assume from the doctrinal point of view of Post editors: “A family learns the true meaning of the vow ‘in sickness and in health.’ ” Note the word “true.”

This is a hot-button topic, centering on a question that has drawn newsworthy responses from the occasional conservative public figure (the Rev. Pat Robertson leaps to mind) as well as those on the left (take Bishop Jack Spong for example).

On top of all of that, the long and poignant Post feature involved a former member of the newspaper’s staff. Here is the opening:

The dark-oak farmhouse table where Page and Robert Melton spent many a dinner hour is now laden with vases and framed pictures, fragile pieces of their life together that have to be tucked into cardboard boxes. The movers are coming in the morning and, with much still to pack, Page thinks she could be looking at another all-nighter.

She picks up a sepia-toned drawing of blackbirds. They gave each other art in the early years of their marriage, and this was the first thing Page had given Robert. Next, a photo of Robert standing in front of
the Virginia statehouse, looking every inch the formidable journalist he was, a guy who could intimidate colleagues with a dipped chin and glance over wire-rimmed glasses.

The next photo is one of her favorites: Robert with family members by the porch of their homey Dutch colonial in Richmond on the morning of their younger daughter’s christening, in September 2002. A brilliant fall day, it was exactly one year before the heart attack and collapse that left the 46-year-old father of two with a brain injury so severe he would eventually live in an assisted living facility. How often Page had stared at that photo. Was he ill then? she’d wonder. Was there something she could have seen? Should have seen?

So what makes this a story that requires GetReligion comment?

Year’s after Robert’s collapse, it is clear that he has stabilized in terms of his physical condition. He can talk. He remembers some things, but not others. His wife visits him frequently in his assisted-living home. There is no question that he is being taken care of, with loving attention.

Then a man from the wife’s past comes back into her life and that of her family. Eventually, they face the big question.

Page felt 30 again but was racked with guilt. “I believed my vows so strongly that they just kept ringing in my ears.”

She consulted her minister, who told her that by continuing to take care of Robert, she was still honoring those vows.

And that’s that. That’s all that we learn.

There is, in other words, no other religious content to the discussion. Readers are given no details about the family’s involvement in this church or with this pastor. There are no direct quotes. There is no name, no denominational tag. Is this, for example, a church in which marriage is a sacrament?

This is, of course, THE MOMENT of decision in the story, one of two major hinge points in the plot. This is the moment that fulfills the promise of the headline, as well, the moment that delivers the “true meaning” of marriage.

My point is not to focus on the decision that was made. My point is to say that the religious content of the decision must be explored for the story to make any sense. Where is the voice of the pastor? What did he or she actually say? Is this a progressive church that has formalized any doctrine on this point?

This is a journalistic hole in the story. It is clear, from the many painstaking details in this fine feature, the degree to which the wife, her family and her new spouse wrestled with this decision. But what about the pastor? Where is the religious content that explains this point of view?

Eventually, legal and religious rites open the story’s final act. The location of the wedding offers the only information readers will get:

Page never used the word “divorce” with Robert, but that would have to be the next step. She hired a lawyer for herself and another one for Robert. … The divorce was final in early 2011. Page wanted to remain Robert’s legal guardian, as she had been since his injury, and no one objected. …

On the morning of March 26 last year, Allan and his youngest son, Charles, took Robert to breakfast at IHOP. That evening, Page and Allan married in a small 19th-century chapel at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Richmond in front of about 100 people, including Robert’s father and stepmother, and his brother Will and his wife. But not Robert.

Once again, the issue for me is journalistic. The story pivots on a decision — a natural decision for some believers, a controversial decision for others — with doctrinal content. Readers need to know something about the content of that decision to make sense of what comes afterwards.

The pastor helps the wife make this life-changing decision. Where is the voice of the pastor? Why not allow him or her to explain what he or she believes and teaches on this point? One sentence of content is enough? I think the wife and the pastor deserve more than that.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://cleansingfiredor.com/ Thinkiling

    I have long thought many journalists are very hesitant to delve into what the doctrinal issues are in stories like this for fear of coming off sympathetic to them.

    Ironically, by being conscientious (and perhaps overly scrupulous) they open a journalistic vacuum to those who have *no* qualms about appearing sympathetic to certain doctrinal positions. Usually opposing ones in fact. (and I suppose these two types need not be mutually exclusive)

    But this particular story reads to me like this type of instance: they feel they can’t go into detail about what the doctrine actually says without appearing to endorse it. YMMV.

  • Ben

    Handling these events so lightly seems to require a denial of how sick they actually were. Bad role model.

  • tmatt

    Thinkiling:

    But the Post already has endorsed it in the headline.

    I am not asking for a plus or minus. I am saying that the pastor’s pivotal advice deserves more than a sentence. That is, unless there really wasn’t any more. But, frankly, the wife seems like a very serious person. This was clearly a serious subject for her.

  • tmatt

    BEN:

    I hope that’s a comment on the editors, not the family. If the latter, that’s totally out of line.

    Explain yourself.

  • Julia

    I’m not sure I’d want the press picking through and second-guessing my religious and ethical decision-making in such a situation.

    Perhaps this story is his former colleagues attempts at reassuring the wife that they don’t blame her – and they didn’t want to press for comments that were too painful to share with the public.

  • tmatt

    JULIA:

    So you, essentially, are good with the pivotal moment in the story, the moment behind the headline, getting one sentence — with no actual commentary from the pastor?

    Oh, but, when Pat Robertson essentially says the same thing the press goes crazy? Just thought I’d mention that.

    That is not what I am advocating, as the post makes clear. I think this was a serious decision and its doctrinal content deserved serious attention — with the pastor’s voice being the essential element.

  • Theophile

    Hi Tmatt,
    My first observation wouldn’t have been the “sickness or health”, so much as the death do us part, question. Is her husband dead or not? If we say her position is “it’s like he’s dead to me” then, most marriages at some point during “the years of health” have firm ground for divorce at some level.
    The troubling things about this is like You said, where is the words of the minister? How did he reconcile the scripture “if a woman leaves her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”? Is the minister suggesting the ailing spouse can be considered “as good as dead” when the sanctity of marriage is considered? Does this have religious undertones of approving by convenience at what point a person’s health or ability gives them the legal standing of:”as good as dead”?

    At any rate the scriptural notion of of divorce, was not gender neutral, a woman could “leave” her husband, but only he could divorce, or put away his wife. We would of course want to hear the ministers explanation of that also.

  • Stan

    I don’t always agree with tmatt’s journalistic analysis, but I am with him on this story. The story is heartbreaking and I sympathize with everyone faced with these issues and these circumstances. I honestly don’t know what decisions I would make and I don’t presume to tell other people what decisions they should make. But surely the decision that was made, which is placed in a religious context by the presence of the pastor, needs to be more fully explained in religious terms. There is a real ghost in this story.

  • Julia

    Perhaps the pastor did not feel free to discuss the situation. As was reported in a prior thread, in 2002 the Church of England decided that getting re-married in church after a divorce was not automatic but could be possible. In other words, there is no hard and fast rule in the CoE and probably in the Episcopal Church as well. It’s situational ethics and probably gets into some very personal matters.

    If the pastor didn’t want to talk, the writer could have gotten some kind of quotation from a theologian or spokesperson about the Episcopalian position – not using the particular case as the basis of the statement.

  • http://cleansingfiredor.com/ Thinkling

    tmatt,

    I see your point about the headline. I read it differently that you, as coming from the point of view of Page, who somehow found closure in a certain particular way. Perhaps you are right though.

    No doubt a gap wide enough to drive a truck through, in any event, whatever the reason for it’s absence.

  • Bill

    Heartbreaking story. I see Tmatt’s point. Was the pastor’s advice based on a theological understanding of the marriage vow, or a desire to help ease the pain of a woman in terrible pain? I see Julia’s point, too. Did the pastor remain silent to protect the woman?

    The Post’s headline is a double edged sword. Was Page Melton was right in divorcing her husband? Or was the cost of the vow more than she was willing to pay?

    Two other points I feel reluctant to bring up, but they are relevant: If marriage is not meant to survive this kind of injury, what else will it not endure? Allan has vowed to take care of Robert, and that is a noble thing. But presumably he also took vows with his first wife. Vows are sticky things.

    When the Pat Robertson kerfuffle came out, I asked my wife what she thought. She answered, “For better or worse, in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part.” I must pray for this poor woman. And for strength should I ever have to bear so heavy a cross. Heartbreaking story, heartbreaking story.

  • Jerry

    The two commentators who said this is a heartbreaking story let me to a different conclusion. The story to me is basically from Page’s perspective emphasizing the emotional roller coaster she went through. When I read the piece, I felt like I was reading a true story from a magazine, not a news story.

    The story was written, at least from my perspective, to invite everyone who is married to consider their marriage vows and what we think we’d do or should do if we were in her place. For many, the answer would be to consult our pastor.

    It appears that others don’t believe that bringing theological content into the piece would have lessened the impact but it would have for me.

  • sari

    Agreed on the ghosts. One religious bit missed, her statement that things would resolve in the world to come.

    “For years after Robert’s injury, Page was sustained by the notion that she would see him again after she died, the man who turned her head in the press room and loved poetry and handed her their newborn babies. “We’d be able to talk through all this stuff, and I’d be able to say, ‘Well, I hope it worked out okay, that the decisions were the right ones, and that you were happy.’ “

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I guess I’m not nearly as bothered by the seeming minimization of the theological content of this as I’m supposed to be. Any Catholic discussion of this is going to head straight out into the rough seas of casuistry, and the Episcopalians (whom I gather are those actually consulted) would surely be sailing in their wake, if not arriving at the same port. It’s pretty plain they aren’t RC, so Catholic dogma is irrelevant; even from the most conservative Anglican, the response is going to be more nuanced and personalized. I question how well the moral reasoning could be expressed in this article without overwhelming it.

    Also, there is an obvious difference of seriousness between Pat Robertson spouting off about hypotheticals and the actual story of a woman trying to live out her commitments in a difficult and unique situation. One might have wanted some expansion of her discussion with her pastor, but the article is so suffused with religion that “ghost” is the wrong word when it means the dead traces of what was once present, but entirely accurate in illuminating the essentially spiritual content of the whole matter.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I would point to the discussion with the author and Ms. Ivie, including the revelation that Sandra Day O’Connor was put through a somewhat similar situation when her husband developed Alzheimer’s and had to be put in nursing care.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I personally would have liked more information on the pastor’s reasoning, if not from the pastor directly, then from someone who could accurately describe it, possibly with a little critical thinking thrown in. I am especially interested as a Catholic, since “what is vowed” is essential for knowing whether or not there was a valid marriage. In Catholic vows, the “sickness and health” bit appears in a string, not as a thing vowed unto itself, but as a deeper clarification of “I take you as my husband/wife…until death do us part.” In many non-Catholic settings, the vows could be almost anything and I would not be very surprised to find out that traditional wording was not even used in this case. That is something else that could have been clearer, as traditional wording could very well appear in this story only to add drama.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to start a Catholic discussion or any discussion from a specific angle, just relating why I feel the absence a deeper religious perspective in this piece.

  • Mike

    Poor journalism, perhaps, but very accomplished polemics. The author manages to treat a religious question without bringing religion into it, which was her intent. The entire piece was designed to make the reader empathetic and ultimately to approve of the decision the woman made. The meaning of the vow is whatever she says it is based on whatever she feels good about. Then it isn’t any vow at all. Creeds have no credence, and faith is a warm and fuzzy feeling.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    We seem to have some new readers to the weblog who do not realize that the purpose here is to discuss journalistic issues in these posts, not the doctrines that are involved (unless, of course, you are trying to argue that points of doctrine have been INACCURATE covered or unfairly represented).

    Thus I have spiked several MASSIVE tomes on why the religious views of the people in the story are wrong. This is not the blog for that discussion.

    Let’s try to stay on journalism issues.

    It would be different to argue, let’s say, that the Post managed to ignore both the religious views of the pastor making the pivotal advice to this wife and the views of those who might differ.

    However, I don’t think this kind of people feature is the place for a knockdown battle on doctrines linked to divorce in churches on the left or right. That’s a big story, but that is not essentially what this Post mag story is about.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    re 17: I have seen this “intent” statement in several other places, and honestly, I don’t see that. The “problem” in that regard isn’t that the article doesn’t spend enough time on religious issues (or more precisely, it appears, getting boilerplate official policy statements from uninvolved and, given that it’s clear she isn’t Catholic, irrelevant clerics). Assuming that she was already Episcopalian, the way this sort of thing is argued out there would not be pleasing to the marital absolutists; really nobody Anglican is going to approach any moral issue with such a Mosaic absolutism.

    But the problem with the narrative (at least as I read it) is that it presents a woman who did/does take her vows seriously, but not absolutely. I don’t think the story is being presented as an argument against the sanctity of marriage, except that the complications of real life present such arguments. It was presented, obviously, because of its novelty and because of the window it provides into how people deal with the problems of their lives. If her solution is attractive, that is a difficulty for those who want to explain it as a moral transgression; I don’t think the reporter has a responsibility to take up that cause, and in any case the weight of those vows rests upon practically every sentence of the piece.


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