Valentine: Martyred for Marriage   Leave a comment

Seascape Valentine, date unknown

Seascape Valentine, date unknown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I always look forward to Valentine’s Day. Not just because it’s the first cause for celebration in the New Year, but also because it’s often been a momentous day in my life. In 1980 I led a demonstration of international students outside the Welsh Office, receiving a police caution for doing so inside, after meeting with the Under-Secretary of State. Apparently, we needed permission to walk on the pavements in the civic centre in Cardiff, and the hearty and good-humoured chanting of ‘occupy the Welsh Office’ which I had nevertheless tried (unsuccessfully) to hush had reached the ears of the chief constable at the South Wales Police HQ nearby. Like many of his predecessors, he was not amused by our protest! Ever since, I’ve had to declare this long-spent caution on every application form I’ve filled in! Ten years later, on February 14th, 1990, I left my home in Coventry to begin my working and married life in Kecskemét, its twin town in Hungary, to which I returned this year after fifteen years in the UK and France. For me, Valentine’s Day is not just about erotic love between partners, but also the willingness to express ‘philos’, love between brothers and sisters which is the heart of civic life, and, of course, the love of God, ‘agape’ in Greek and ‘caritas’ in Latin, giving us the word ‘charity’. ‘Duw Cariad yw’ (‘God is Love’) was painted among the Welsh language slogans when I arrived in Upper Bangor in 1975.

It’s difficult to determine who Valentine was, but he was probably a Bishop in the early church in the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Claudius had issued an edict that soldiers should not marry, since domesticity reduced their fighting potential, but Valentine performed weddings in secret. When he was caught, arrested and imprisoned, he fell in love with the gaoler’s daughter, leaving a note for her when he was led out to his death, signed ‘Your Valentine’. The day became very popular in England after the Restoration of the Monarchy. In 1662, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

This morning comes in W Bowyer who was my wife’s Valentine, she having held her hands over her eyes all the morning that she might not see the painters who were gilding the chimney.

A tiny 2-inch pop-up Valentine, circa 1920

A tiny 2-inch pop-up Valentine, circa 1920 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although Mrs Pepys took Mr Bowyer for her Valentine that year, the previous year the first man she met, who therefore, according to tradition, became her Valentine, was Sir W Batten, who sent her ‘half a dozen pairs of gloves and a pair of silk stockings and garters’. These were very popular gifts and were always accompanied by sweet words on a pretty card on which a pair of ‘gloves’ could indicate a pair of ‘loves’. These early Valentine cards were all hand-made until the development of colour printing and the expansion of the Post Office made sure that two hundred thousand more letters were received on Valentine’s Day than on any other day. The Penny Post in 1840 and the Halfpenny Post in 1870 led to the employment of three to four hundred workers on February 13th. In the early twentieth century the Christmas card became more popular, but the Valentine’s card made a comeback with the growth of specialist greeting card shops later in the century. It would be pleasant to think that this commercial imperative is not the only motivation for the revival of the custom, but is accompanied by a heart-felt longing for the romantic element so essential in human relationships, so well exemplified in the saint’s simple little private note, ‘Your Valentine’ before his very public sacrifice and martyrdom at the hands of the Roman Empire for the sanctity of Christian marriage.

Esther Howland Valentine, circa 1850: "We...

Esther Howland Valentine, circa 1850: “Weddings now are all the go, Will you marry me or no”? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my favourite hymns is ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’, and we sang this at our pre-nuptual Meeting for Worship in the Quaker Meeting House in Bournville, Birmingham, on 6th January 1990. Since the ‘real business’ of our legal wedding was to take place in Kecskemét on 17th March, our ‘Meeting’ was for celebration and blessing, including everyone from my Humanist family and friends through to my Quaker ‘Friends’ and colleagues to Hungarian Calvinists, Irish Presbyterians, Welsh Congregationalists, Coventry Baptists, Brummie Anglicans and Catholics. It contained very diverse forms of worship, including silence, hymn-singing, organ-playing, readings from D H Lawrence, prayers and blessings; a really positive celebration of all forms of love, human and divine. It had to be carefully planned and negotiated, however, to make sure that, while inclusive of all beliefs and none, it excluded any formal registration of the marriage on behalf of the state. All those present were left in no doubt that there was to be a clear separation between religious blessing and legal wedding. And yet it was clearly a public act of celebration for two public servants, teachers, from Coventry and Kecskemét, for whom civic and personal relations were inseparable. It seems to me that this is where there has been both a lack of legal clarity and a failure of human charity in the recent debate about marriage in the UK.

St Valentine's Day card, embossed and printed ...

St Valentine’s Day card, embossed and printed in colour, with silk panel and printed message “My Dearest Miss, I send thee a kiss”, addressed to Miss Jenny Lane Lowe, or Love of Crostwight Hall, Smallburgh, Norfolk, and inscribed on the reverse “Good Morrow Valentine” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the one hand, Christianity should not need the official support of civic society to worship and celebrate anything in human relations. On the other hand, Humanists, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Atheists, can and should surely make clear their solemn commitment to public service by acts of reflection and affirmation, as an appropriate way to approach to nurturing relationships of whatever kind. That is not to say that every relationship has to be given the same status in law. Marriage, as well as providing a proper context for erotic love and companionship, is also concerned with the civic duty of bringing up children. That’s why those who don’t want this role should have the freedom to enter into a civil partnership, regardless of their sexual orientation. As Christians, we cannot separate our family lives from our public duties. We approach both with sense of vocation. We don’t do our jobs simply to get paid, nor do we get married and have children simply for our own personal gratification and satisfaction. It is our form of ministry, just as in government this is indicated at the highest level by the use of the word ‘Minister’. Public administration and Christian ministry have always been two sides of the same coin in British life. MPs have been paid a salary for less than a century. Before that it was seen as a voluntary service, but one which excluded people who had to work full-time for a living. Therefore a change had to be made in order to ensure that all could have equal access to that ministry, not to do away with their different backgrounds and roles in society.

When I worked for Devon County Council in Hungary in the mid-nineties, the role of councillors in Britain as essentially charitable in nature, was a difficult concept for their professional, salaried, counterparts to understand. So, it is entirely appropriate that public meetings in Britain begin with an ‘act of prayer and affirmation’, unlike in Hungary and France, where, for historic reasons, there has been a strict separation in law and practice between Church and State. Religious ‘Liberty’ and ‘Toleration’ in Britain is upheld by a carefully ‘engineered’ compromise between the churches and the state. For this reason, the exemption given to the Church of England and the Church in Wales from the requirement to register same-sex marriages is paradoxical. Whilst the Queen in Parliament has the right to grant this exemption to the national churches, the ‘non-conformist’ churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, now have no protection from the requirement under European Law, if not the Law of England and Wales. The Toleration Act of 1689, guaranteeing freedom of worship, has been undermined by the passing of a flawed bill which allows Quakers to marry couples according to their conscience in a Meeting for Worship, but does not give equality of rights to local ‘dissenting’ congregations, ministers and bishops, to appoint and conduct acts of worship (which is what church weddings are)  in accordance with the biblical teachings of Jesus Christ, as interpreted through their consciences. No doubt, the aggressive atheists would be pleased to see the division this has created within the Danish Lutheran Church happen in the UK, thus picking apart the carefully woven cloth of five centuries. Already there is pressure on the German government to follow ‘the British Example’.

It is said that Charles Wesley got his idea for his hymn from a popular song of the day, ‘The Song of Venus’, which comes from John Dryden’s play, King Arthur, set to the music of Henry Purcell:

Fairest isle, all isles excelling,

Seat of pleasure and of loves,

Venus here will choose her dwelling, 

And forsake the Cyprian groves

John Wesley changed the second line of his brother’s fourth verse from ‘Pure and spotless let us be’ to avoid suggesting that Christians could achieve a sinless perfection in this world and indicate that sanctification, like justification, stems from the reception of God’s universal grace, which perfects us only when we take our place in heaven, ‘lost’ in the Love of God. Until then we remain both saints and sinners. However, through His ‘loving spirit’ in the here and now, our hearts are ‘set…at liberty’ and we are called to ‘pray and praise….without ceasing’ and to glory in His ‘perfect love’. Nowadays, the hymn is sung to two great Welsh Hymn tunes, ‘Hyfrydol’, by Rowland Hugh Pritchard (1811-57), a loom-tender’s assistant in a Holywell mill, and Blaenwern by William Penfro Rowlands (1860-1937), to which my Welsh friends also sang ‘Calon Lán’, the Welsh hymn which equates a happy heart with a clean, honest one, ‘whiter than the whitest lily’. If Dryden’s words remind us of the ‘excellence’ of our own island, the other two hymns remind us of our own human imperfections and our need for the help of a more divine love in our service and ministry to others. An acceptance that some of us ‘do do God’ in public life and that we feel the need to witness to this, is based on an understanding that Christians accept their own shortcomings, not that they occupy the moral high ground. If more ‘politicians’ adopted this more modest attitude, rather than an arrogant belief, stemming from aggressive atheistic attitudes, in their own superiority and invincibility, they might recover some of their standing in the public eye and help us recover a position of moral excellence and leadership as an island of tolerance and liberty, a model of multiculturalism and integration. Equality cannot be imposed from above, it needs to grow from below, in all its diversity. The traditional, organic, worms-eye view of society is also the most radical one.

Thankfully, in Europe at least, our faith is no longer tested through persecution, and we no longer need to win over an Empire, but the example of Valentine witnesses to our need to keep ourselves as clean as possible from the demands of warrior states and to reflect divine love in the love between humans, whether fraternal or erotic.

 

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