My friend Rex wrote to me recently expressing concern about same-sex marriage, both in the state and in the church. The Episcopal Church has recently approved liturgies for the “Blessing of Same-Gender Unions,” and Rex was concerned with whether we are obligated to recognize or bless these unions as individuals. After giving the issue a great deal of thought, I set down these words:
Thank you for sharing. This may require a conversation in person, which I would be happy to have. In the meantime, a few remarks. For the sake of clarity, I shall try to speak throughout of weddings – a civil contract recognized by the state for financial reasons, primarily property and inheritance – and Holy Matrimony – the sacrament of union between a man and a woman recognized by the church as an effective means of grace.
First it must be said that the Episcopal Church has not recognized any notion of Holy Matrimony between same-sex partners nor would the term “same-sex marriage” be approved. What we have done is given pastors a tool by which they may (should they feel called) recognize the benefits of a same-sex partnership, to the couple and to the community, and ask God to be present with the couple in their ongoing commitment. Neither are we required to recognize the partnerships – either marriage or some other type of union – blessed by the church (except that we are not to commit adultery). I have met several heterosexual couples whose Matrimony in no way seems to me an effective means of grace. I have met people who do not seem forgiven, priests who do not seem in any way effective ministers. Hideously, I even once attended a Eucharist at which I did not feel communion with God. Augustine assures us that sacraments are means of grace when we receive them in a spirit of faith. Thus God may shine through, anyway. Nonetheless, one should never consider a church blessing for someone else to be an obligation upon us. The notion is absurd by any theological standard for the past 1500 years.
Second, somewhat sadly, the Episcopal Church has dodged the issue of a theology of marriage for the past 20 years. I’m told it’s consistently blocked by, believe it or not, the House of Bishops. Luckily we made progress at the last convention and some theological work will be done. I suspect that the greatest challenge arises over the question of whether we would have a Protestant or a Catholic theology. They say radically different things and come at issues of gender and authority in incompatible ways.
The major strand of Catholic theology of Holy Matrimony (sacrament, not contract) comes to us from Thomas Aquinas through the Council of Trent. Aquinas asserts the complementarity of the sexes and the Natural Law concept of marriage. To whit, marriage is instituted by God for the sake of procreation, mutual support, and pleasure. These concepts are beautifully logical and inform the service for “Holy Matrimony” in the BCP. On the down side, they borrow heavily on Neoplatonic philosophy, rather than the Bible, and carry some consequences most of us would consider untenable in the 20th century, much less the 21st. Complementarity comes (in Natural Law) with the notion that women are not fully formed humans. Instead, they are incomplete men, deficient both biologically and mentally. Let us set that aside for a moment and say that 20th century Thomist theologians have found a way around that. I’m not convinced they have, but some think so… The three form purpose of marriage (again, in Natural Law) requires procreation as the first and foremost reason for both sex and marriage. Anyone who cannot have kids cannot get married according to Aquinas; no one with fertility issues, no men with debilitating injuries, no women past menopause. Not only can these people not get married but, if they are already married, they cannot have sex. To do so was considered a sin. Curiously, this sin would have been categorized with “sodomy” in the late middle ages, as non-procreative sex. The Catholic position holds that marriage is primarily about regulating sex and sex is only good in the context of procreation. The Roman Church fudges this by stating that the couple, even if they think they can’t procreate should be “open to the possibility” if a miracle happens. I find “if a miracle happens” arguments disingenuous at best. If a miracle happens, two women can have a child without a man…
We have made a move toward redeeming a Catholic theology of sex and marriage with the idea (alien to Aquinas) that the three purposes can be re-conceived as generativity (having and raising kids PLUS contributing to the community as surrogate parents, teachers and mentors), unity (which anticipates the consummation of our joy in Christ at our resurrection), and joy (the fullness of delight in becoming flesh of one flesh) AND that they can be experienced in parallel, not only in order. Those ideas lay behind the current BCP rite.
The major strand of Protestant theology of weddings was set forth by the early reformers and Lutherans. They insisted that only Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist (the “Dominical Sacraments”) were certain means of grace. The other rites should not be viewed that way. They insisted that marriage was nothing more than a civil contract, a wedding that the church could not initiate, but could bless. The pastoral question only arose when an already married couple approached the church, wishing church blessing for their contract. This sort of thinking appears clearly for Episcopalians in our catechism (back of the BCP) which lays out two sacraments and five lesser rites commonly known as sacraments. It also appears in the very clear rubrics (BCP page 422) that marriage must conform to the laws of the State. Once again, the position is logical, but opens itself to a number of abuses. It fails to ask if grace is present and it awards undue authority to the State. Should a priest not marry a mixed race couple, even if the State says no?
I would have preferred an honest conversation about heterosexual marriage and theology before even starting a theology of same-sex relationships. Alas, we have not allowed ourselves to have one. Pastoral needs and the legalization of same-sex weddings in several states forced the church’s hand. Now, same-sex couples face a double bind. If we have a modern Catholic theology, then the appropriate questions is this: do same sex couples show the grace of God in their life-long commitment? Further, Catholic theologians have held for at least 600 years that the church can only recognize Holy Matrimony which is initiated by the couple. On the other hand, in Protestant theology, the state initiates and the church blesses. Well, the state has initiated… As one bishop said, “I can bless a dog and I can bless a truck. Why can’t I bless a committed couple.” We have blessings for friendships, sports teams, sororities, soldiers, even guns (scarily enough). If an individual priest has the leeway to bless these things, why not a life-long partnership of two women, or two men. As soon as we commit to one or the other, same-sex couples will have an avenue of argument. In the meantime, no solid arguments can be made because no ground rules have been set. That’s problematic. There may be an argument – I can think of several – but they haven’t been made because we haven’t settled on a theology. In avoiding a theology of marriage, we’ve managed to stave off logical arguments about whether it should be between a man and a woman. To be honest I consider most of the literature available to be shamefully naive theology and exegesis. If you want something solid, check out “To Set Our Hope on Christ,” the Episcopal Church’s official theological response to the Windsor Report (http://www.integrityusa.org/StudyGuide/index.htm) and a great book on St. Paul and sexuality called Dirt, Greed, and Sex, by L. William Countryman who taught New Testament at Nashotah House and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Bill’s a little more liberal than I, but far wiser – truly an amazing man and solid scholar. (You can also access official resources – “I will bless you, and you will be a blessing” – in the General Convention Blue Book under the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. http://www.generalconvention.org/gc/prepare. I’m sure it will be more easily available in the near future.)
Third, I feel a need to respond to the material you forwarded from ChristianAnswers.net. I was not impressed with the details, but would like to respond to the general themes presented.
MALE AND FEMALE
“And the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.’ -Genesis 2
This seems exceedingly clear to me. Many people have made the argument that men should be with women and vice versa. It’s terribly important to separate out the arguments here.
1) It is not good that the (human) should be alone. [“Adam” is not yet gendered at this point in the Hebrew Scriptures.] I believe this in my heart of hearts.
We are all called to live in society. It would be placing unreasonable burdens on the people to block them from forming loving relationships. We should – of course – test everything to see if it really manifests the gifts of love in society. This applies to marriage, friendship, monastic communities, even states.
2) The Bible does not say every man should have a wife. Marriage and procreation are wonderful blessings, but the idea that every man should have a wife and every woman a husband is an import from other forms of philosophy. Indeed tradition is abundantly clear in the examples of Jesus, Paul, and countless saints. There seems to be a strange notion that procreation is an obligation in Christianity. It is in Judaism, but Jesus and Paul both argue for celibacy (vowed singleness). Modern thinkers have argued that “biology is destiny.” We’re built that way. As an evolutionary biologist, let me say that we are also built for promiscuity, selfishness, and greed. Christian testimony has been unequivocal on this; we are more than our bodies. Whether you say, “biology is destiny” or “natural complementarity” or “the design of our bodies” you have made a profoundly anti-Christian argument.
3) Not all people are called to celibacy (I Cor 7:8-9). This has never been about whether a woman should find another woman to marry or find a man. It is a question of pastoral advice for her. If she has no romantic, emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual attraction to men, should she live alone, or do we give her an option for an intimate relationship with another woman. Can a pastor bless and advise a same-gender romantic relationship? The church has said yes. In the Anglican Tradition, we say “all may, some should, none must.” Many relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual are unhealthy. Some heterosexual relationships are healthy. The church has said to priests, if you believe (with due reverence, prayer, and study) that a particular same-sex couple has a healthy relationship – you may bless and advise that relationship.
SEXUALITY AND DISEASE
This is an old chestnut. True, homosexual males appear more prone to disease than heterosexual males, as heterosexual females appear more prone than homosexual females. Were we to apply this argument, the natural conclusion would be that all men should be straight, and all women lesbian. The point is simply laughable.
WHAT THE BIBLE ACTUALLY SAYS
Read Romans. Please sit down, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the letter. Nothing expresses better the fallen nature of humanity, the need for grace, and the utter futility of judgment. If any book of the Bible argues against rules of righteousness, it would be Romans. “All have sinned and all have fallen short.” We are saved by grace alone. That means we each, in fear and trembling, must present our lives and labors to the Lord and act as we feel called. If you need advice on how to express your own sexuality, Romans might apply. You cannot use it to judge another.
As to the rest of the New Testament, we are faced with two words, arsenokoitai and malakoi. Sadly, these have been translated as homosexuals (only in the last century or so) and sodomites (for a while longer). Note, for the record, that those are apparently different sins. They appear rarely in Greek. I have seen them most commonly rendered as men who use sex as a tool of domination (as in Sodom) and male temple prostitutes. For a full discussion, see Countryman’s works on the subject. Neither could have been intended to mean people who are attracted to other people of the same sex – a concept that apparently wasn’t in popular usage until the late 19th century.
THE HISTORY OF MARRIAGE
Few things seem so ludicrous to me as the idea that marriage is in some way an eternal concept. I believe that Holy Matrimony represents a fundamental and perpetual gift of grace to humanity – though truthfully, I don’t have a solid theological defense of that. It’s more hope, really. The Biblical Testimony varies dramatically. Holy Matrimony appears nowhere – our sacramental theology of marriage only appears in the High Middle Ages. Genesis and Leviticus make it clear that marriage and procreation are duties inherent on all Israelites. There is a profound concern that people multiply. At the same time, it’s entirely clear that one man may have multiple wives. He’s even obligated to take on his brother’s wife if his brother dies without offspring. Genesis is explicit about the animosity that polygamy causes (between Sarah and Hagar, between Rachel and Leah) forcing us to see that the authors did not see it as a sign of grace, but as a contractual obligation. On the other hand, Song of Songs presents an image of profound, even sexual, intimacy between lovers as a model for our relationship with God. The Prophets, likewise, compare God to a jealous spouse, highlighting an exclusivity quite contrary David’s polygamy. In fact, none of the patriarchs is given as a model for healthy/happy marriage. Abraham uses Sarah to seduce local kings, David kills a man so he can wed Bathsheba after he already has a number of wives. Repeatedly foreign wives (plural) and concubines lead the kings of Judah astray. Paul, on the other hand treats wives as property of their husbands, following Hellenistic custom. Think about his audience. He’s not trying to explain marriage with God metaphors. He’s trying to explain God using marriage metaphors. Christ owns and commands the church as a husband owns and commands a wife. He’s arguing for mutual love and support, but he’s very much leaning on the local culture. Marriage has become a property arrangement. Personally, I’m not willing to go back to that – nor, I think would Paul be willing, were he with us today. He elevates the aspects of grace to be found in that custom.
Tradition gives us even more fodder and even more confusion. The end of polygamy, the awkward union of church and state near the end of the Western Roman Empire, the dynastic disputes of the middle ages, degrees of spiritual affinity… By the high middle ages, marriage had become a rite primarily celebrated by the aristocracy as a means of cementing alliances. Marriage was political, guaranteeing treaties and clarifying successions (primogeniture). Modern scholarship suggests that lower classes simply moved in together and had children. St. Augstine’s common law wife would be an excellent example. It’s not until the rise of the mercantile class in the Renaissance that we begin to see concern for regular people getting married. It generates lively debate, primarily around who has the right to decide. Roman Catholics settle on the idea that only the couple can decide (in principle) while Protestants hand the whole thing over to the civil authorities again. As far as I know, only the Eastern Orthodox Churches actually believe that the priest plays an indispensable role. Well into the modern era, some grooms were paying bride-price as a way of purchasing a woman.
The strange notion of courtly and later romantic love develops gradually from perhaps the 15th century onward and yet most people seem to think it the most important component today. I’m sure that’s part of the problem leading to the high divorce rate. Yes, this means emotional attachment is not enough for marriage, but it also means that marriage is not some ideal boon perfectly conferred upon some couples. Marriage must be worked out as a strange compromise between individuals, working with the norms of family, community, and state. It’s simply misleading to say that marriage is only composed of emotion plus some abstract religious ideal. As with all else in Creation, God has called us to work this one out in the light of confusing and trying circumstances. I cannot say why, only that this seems to be our task.
For every complex problem, there is a simple solution … which is wrong. Holy Matrimony is a powerful symbol and effective ritual for bringing about the Kingdom of God. For good or ill, the church has chosen to limit that to commitments between one man and one woman – at least until we have done the hard theological work of understanding God’s will for us. It turns out that Scripture and reason have left us with conflicting impulses, while tradition speaks in favor of keeping the status quo. (Mind you, tradition always speaks in favor of the status quo.)
At the same time, the Episcopal Church has recognized that some same-sex couples exemplify and spread the grace of God in their unity, commitment, and love. We want a way to celebrate and encourage that manifestation of grace with the community. It’s somewhat of a stopgap while we figure out how we feel about Holy Matrimony. Among other things, we really need to rethink the explicit connection Holy Matrimony = civil wedding, which has been entrenched in our theology from the time when (over 200 years ago) we were a state church. [Do you know that Church of England priests cannot refuse to marry people in their geographic region unless they have canonical cause?]
I think the Episcopal Church can continue to lead in this area, but it will mean educating people in the hard truths:
1) Marriage is not simple.
2) Same-sex affections cannot be swapped for opposite sex affections.
3) We’ve been avoiding the hard theological work for so long that we no longer have systematic theology that matches our beliefs.
(And we wonder why the church is shrinking…)
4) We are not a state church.
5) The state and society at large will not enforce our morality for us.
6) We abrogate our responsibility as Christians every time we allow the state and society to dictate our norms to us.
No church that takes the Bible seriously can duck the issue: how do we deal pastorally with gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians? What advice do we give them when God calls them in ways unfamiliar to us? How do we support them in their relationships? If they are called to celibacy – which I think most are not – how do we support them in their celibacy? Good heavens, the Roman Church, with all their history, resources, and power can’t seem to even uphold clergy in celibacy after 9 years of seminary, yet they expect those young in faith to simply accept it as a given of life. No church that takes the Bible seriously can honestly assert that we are each called to heterosexual marriage and procreation. If we are not, what then? Faith must propose options.
Not only has the Episcopal Church shown restraint, we have flirted with apathy, choosing the state and the church over the people. After many years of debate, after attempting to do the hard theological work, though refusing to deal with the most important questions, faced with a sea change in popular culture, we found hundreds of people to craft and review same-sex blessing materials and then authorized them FOR TRIAL USE. How much more cautious could we be?
These are real problems, hard problems, problems that strike to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. I get that. The Anglican response is – as it has always been – to bring the fullness of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength to do the work, exploring the issue in a way that brings us into deeper conversation with scripture, a fuller knowledge of our tradition, and a better use of reason. I cannot advocate strongly enough for the use of Anglican resources that make this commitment – and they can be found arguing for many different positions.
So, I have to say – I think the church made the right call on this one. I think we’re moving in the right direction. Let us see where the Holy Spirit is leading us. Let’s ask the hard questions. No one has to agree with General Convention, but if you don’t I really encourage you to read the excellent arguments that have been made. Few decisions have been made with more prayer, thought, study, and (yes) faith.