Kevin Ellis, the Vicar of Bartley Green (@vicarbartleyg) tweeted a link to a post on Fulcrum Anglican from Andrew Goddard
on the recent Faith and Order Commission report "Men, Women and Marriage"* saying that he found it a helpful contribution to the debate.
My initial response on reading it was that it was not on the whole helpful, although there was one comment I appreciated, which was acknowledging that "Here [para 26] again the document would be strengthened by saying more as to what “only the opposite sex can bring” and by explaining how the claim that “persons are not asexual, but are either male or female” responds to the reality of those who are intersex." As this was one of my three gripes with this paragraph, I am glad to see that there are those who acknowledge this issue at least.
On rereading it, I have managed to engage with it more. I think my initial response was because it does not acknowledge that the other side of the debate are also faithful Christians. It doesn't say this explicitly but there is a tone and a couple of comments which I find distinctly unhelpful. We are 'revisionists' and 'those who reject church teaching'.** I suspect that he would say if I don't want to be characterised in this way, I should stick to the traditional position. But that fails to understand why I have reached the position I have. Jesus is critical of Jewish tradition where it is harming people and that is what I believe is happening with this debate. LGBT face hostility and abuse for who they are and are denied the benefits of making a public commitment to the person they love before God. In my first Franciscan local group, two of my fellow tertiaries were in Civil partnerships and knowing them and their deeply committed relationships has very much influenced me. Sadly one of the tertiaries became ill and died last year. I still see his partner and know how much he is missed. Defences of marriage do not seem to acknowledge the people who want to marry the person they love, preferring to remain in the abstract and that worries me.
One of my big problems with this debate is that it is happening in isolation from the other major debate of our time in church, that of the role of women in the church & women bishops specifically. It seems to me that the House of Bishops are arguing two different things about women/gender depending which debate they are engaged in at the moment. "Men, women and marriage" makes much of the complementarity of the sexes. Men and women are different and that is why marriage needs one of each to work properly. Now, particularly within the evangelical tradition, this view is held very strongly and leads to a position of 'complemtarianism' and the belief that men and women have equal but different, complementary roles in the church and women should not be bishops. I can understand people who take this view being opposed to gay marriage and to women in authority in the church. However, this is where the House of Biships is being inconsistent. They voted 44-3 (with 2 abstentions) in favour of women bishops. Here they are taking an egalitarian position on men and women and not emphasising how they complement each other.
My other issue with this debate is the fact that many opponents of equal marriage fail to engage with the history of marriage: Goddard writes
. It also faced the challenge of having to appeal to arguments within Christian tradition for sexual differentiation being essential to marriage. This, however, is a view which the tradition has never had to defend before because for two thousand years Christians have understood the witness of creation and Scripture to have been so clear. While criticising it, revisionists have, as noted above, avoided answering its central arguments about sexual differentiation and marriage as God’s gifts in creation and they have not offered a theological alternative.
Here, he is pointing to a fairly homogenous Christian understand of marriage. But understandings of marriage have changed hugely through the Christian tradition. Women are no longer seen as property for a start.
And if we go back to the Bible, the Old Testament has a much broader view of marriage. I discovered an interesting passage in Deuteronomy the other morning, as I did my trick of reading the passages we skip over between one day and the next in the Morning (in this case) Prayer lectionary. It was Deuteronomy 21:15-17 which makes it clear that if a man has two wives and loves one more than the other but had a son first by the less loved wife, he can't disinherit that son, he is the firstborn. Marriage law here deals with men having two wives which rather undermines the idea that God given marriage is only 'one man, one woman'.
Thankfully, Charlotte Methuen (who is in fact a member of the Faith & Order Commission) has posted a helpful reflection on the history of marriage in the Christian tradition. It is unfortunate that for whatever reason this work was not included in the actual document.
I would like to respond in detail to a passage from Goddard which illustrates of the general points I have made.
It is especially defending the claim that “the sexual differentiation of men and women is a gift of God” (para 3, citing Genesis 1.27-8). Rather than condemn and dismiss it for not setting out the views of those who reject church teaching, critics need to refute this central claim or show why it is no longer essential to the church’s teaching on marriage.
Unwrapping God’s gift
Claiming Christ’s authority (Mt 19), paras 5-12 defend the teaching that “marriage is a gift of God in creation”. Its discussion has been widely criticised for failing to explore the diverse and changing forms of marriage in human history and culture. This misses the point and fails to acknowledge that the report refers to these but refuses to reduce marriage to a developing cultural phenomenon. Rather, marriage is “an expression of the human nature which God has willed for us and which we share” (6).
Those who reject this argument have so far failed to clarify their alternative. Are they rejecting the view that marriage is a divine gift in creation, presumably in favour of a progressive, historicist view where transcending biology is the next stage in our growing enlightenment and gnosis? Or are they offering an alternative and incompatible account of our divinely given human nature?
The final paragraph sets up an unhelpful strawman about 'enlightenment and gnosis' suggesting those of us who disagree are heretical with a suggestion I have not heard anyone argue.
Yes, we are created male and female, but Genesis 1:27-8 has to be read with Galations 3:28, that our unity in Christ transcends gender. Our common humanity is more important than our maleness and femaleness. This has not always been apparent within the Christian tradition and it is only in the last century or so that its implications about women's roles have been fully explored, although in fact women's voices have been more prominent that we might think as Miranda Threfall Holmes explored in a recent lecture. Although the CofE has recognised that it is possible to be a loyal Anglican and disagree with the ordination of women, it has nonetheless ordained women and the majority of the church wish women to be ordained as bishops (although not quite enough of a majority was in favour of the legislation to bring this about). We have rethought what women can do within the church recognising (I believe) what was implicit in what Jesus and Paul taught, but which was lost in the patriarchial culture in which the early church developed. This is one outworking of Galatians 3:28, but is it the only one?
I would also agree that marriage is a gift from God, but that is why I would love my brothers and sisters who love someone who happens to be the same sex as them to benefit from this gift. A poster on the Ship-of-Fools (Josephine), an American convert to Orthodoxy, has often posted about the Orthodox view of marriage as a 'podvig', an ascetic labour, through which we should strive to be become more Christlike. For some people, their podvig is as a monk or a nun, for others it is marriage. By committing to one person to the exclusion of others, living with them, loving them, through good times and bad, character is formed. Patience is acquired (hopefully), forgiveness practiced, love given and received. Does the gender of the two people involved in this make a difference?
If you are heterosexual (and cisgendered) the person you fall in love with and marry*** will be a person of the opposite sex and yes, you will probably have the possibility of conceiving and nurturing your own children. But, not everyone is heterosexual (or cisgendered). If two people, who happen to be the same sex, happen to meet and fall in love and want to commit to each other publically and before God and take on this podvig, why should we stop them? St Paul suggests that it is better to marry than to burn. Now, for LBGT their burning desire is, or maybe, for someone of the same sex, surely marriage can be a 'remedy for sin' in their case - committing to another and loving them.
The gift of marriage is not weakened by extending it to others. Homosexuality exists and attempts to change it fail and often cause much hurt. Some homosexual people, like some heterosexual people, will find that their podvig is a single, celibate life, but others, like other heterosexual people
will find someone whom they love and with whom their share a mutual podvig.
When I was younger, I didn't see a problem with the idea that homosexual people should be celibate because what was so hard about that. But over time, I have realised that that says more about my sexuality than anything. Being asexual, I have little conception of strength of sexual desire which can make celibacy difficult. I also found from my one romantic relationship that there is so much more to a committed relationship than sex. Having that person who is there for you when you get home from work, especially if you've had a bad day; with whom you can share the burdens and joys of life; with whom you can laugh; for who you care is such a blessing. Loving someone and being denied those things because you happen to be the same gender is not having life in abundance as far as I can see.
How can more people wanting to make the commitment of marriage weaken it?
*I have already http://yrieithydd.livejournal.com/
**Interesting that it is Church teaching rather than Scripture given that Andrew Goddard is an evangelical.
***Putting these in that order is perhaps a modern development in the tradition of marriage!