In this blog series I have been attempting an explanation of how I have come to a more affirming position on same-sex unions. For various reasons, I am going to interrupt that explanation and jump to a conclusion. I ask those who are wanting more of a defense of how I arrived at the conclusion to be patient. I intend to return to that.
As a deputy to our last General Convention I voted in support of The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant, Liturgical Resources for Blessing Same-Sex Relationships. I consider them equal in dignity and potential sanctity to heterosexual marriage. I support legal marriage equality.
Given all that, one might expect that I would support the proposed resolutions being presented to the Episcopal Church’s General Convention later this month that would revise our marriage canons to make marriage a one-size-fits-all rite regardless of the genders of those making the vows.
But, I do not. Why?
There are several reasons. While I truly appreciate the work they have done and find much of it helpful, I have issues with the Marriage Task Force, their conclusions, and how they came to them. They might have done as well as they could with the time and resources that they had. But, I do not think the result has the heft it needs to do what is being proposed. And they were not able to take into account all they were charged to take into account, i.e., "consult with other churches in the Anglican Communion and with our ecumenical partners." The mandated groundwork is not done. I'll mention other concerns in the comment section at the end of this post.
It is also the case that the proposed revisions to the marriage canons will not change anything on the ground. I understand that there is some canonical messiness in the current situation given the language of the canons when it comes to solemnizing marriages in states where it is legal and the bishop permits. But, as an Anglican, I am OK with some messiness in this era of transition and sorting things out rather than trying to make things too tidy too quickly.
But, more importantly, I have some theological concerns and want to sketch an alternative. That is that we recognize same-sex unions as a sacramental rite equal to sacramental rite of marriage.
Difficulty with Difference
For all our talk of diversity, we don’t do otherness well. There are two common tendencies that get us into trouble when we encounter otherness. One tendency is to recognize otherness but reject, diminish, marginalize, or even destroy the other as a threat. This is the root of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, etc. It also shows up when we assume that all reasonable people will reason like us and then dismiss those who do not as unreasonable. The other tendency is to deny any real otherness and presume a sameness where it does not exist or assume a normal into which the other must be assimilated. One example of this is the assertion that all faiths are essentially the same based on the asserter's presumed ability to see beyond differences to a sameness that denies the significance of those differences
Certainly, those who have found themselves on the short end of "othering" have reason to be wary of appeals to difference used to keep them subordinate or marginalized (the various “isms” above). And yet, our difficulty with difference also messes with us. It has certainly messed with us in both ways in our engagement with sexual otherness. Should we reject that otherness as a threat? Should we deny its reality and seek assimilation?
Or might we recognize the difference and seek to honor it?
One reason I oppose the revisions to the marriage canons proposed for the Episcopal Church’s General Convention later this month is that they seem to be a rush to sameness that may deny us of the gifts and witness of real difference.
I appreciate that the Marriage Task Force included some reflection on vocation. This is important. The vocation of all Christians is to adopt those practices and disciplines that lead to deeper love of God and love of neighbor as exemplified by Jesus. It is pursuing the holiness of God-centered, self-emptying, cross-bearing, other-oriented love incarnated by Jesus Christ and cultivating the disciplines that enable us to embody that love in thought, word, and deed and build up the community. That is, our vocation is sanctification.
It is to that end that God calls us to life together in the Church. Each congregation is a laboratory for that sanctification. Historically, within the larger community of the Church, there have been two main ways of entering into even more intentional communities of discipleship – monasticism and monogamy. Both of these ways are schools of love, involving vows of commitment and self-denial as means of working out our salvation.
At different times one or the other was held in higher esteem, but at our best we have recognized them both as equal and legitimate paths to holiness in communion. They are equally legitimate, but they are not the same. They are different, not just in their respective vows. They are different in the witness they offer to the rest of the Church and to the world. Marriage participates in the order of creation bearing witness to the continuity of creation before and after Christ. Married Christians continue to participate in the social structures of this world where they
build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for their sons, and give their daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
They continue to marry and be given in marriage (cf. Mark 12:18-27).
Monastics bear witness to the new creation in Christ and how it disrupts the usual order of the world. Detaching from the usual social order of the world, monastics seek to live in communities that more nearly anticipate the kingdom of God – giving up private possessions (Luke 14:33) and living in the simplicity of Jesus, neither marrying nor being given in marriage (Mark 12:18-27 again). They witness to a hope beyond the heritage of children. As such, they are a radical contrast and challenge to the usual way of things.
This is an over simplified description, but I believe it still has merit. There are similarities between these two paths and there are differences within them. But all marriages have things in common that are different from monastic life and vice versa. They are not the same, but they are equally valid ways to enter into vowed commitments leading to sanctification.
Sacraments and Sacramental Rites
Catholic Anglican though I am, I appreciate that the Articles of Religion (Article XXV, BCP p. 872) and the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP p. 857-861) maintain that there are fundamentally only two sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist. These are the sacraments of the body of Christ. Indeed they are where the body of Christ and new members of that body are made. These are the two that are required of Christians.
According to the Catechism, the other five of what are commonly call sacraments (and officially so by the Church of Rome), are “Sacramental Rites.” While they are “means of grace”, they are not “given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace,” as are Baptism and Eucharist.
In fact, over a thousand years of Church history went by before the Roman Church recognized seven sacraments – the Councils of Lyons (1274), Florence (1438-1445), and Trent (1547). While the Eastern Church sometimes refers to the “seven” sacraments, it is not as much a part of the dogmatic teaching. In fact Orthodox theologians have suggested other sacraments along with the usual seven, e.g., monastic profession, the consecration of a church, the crowning of a ruler, icons, relics, the giving of alms. (Anthony M. Coniaris, Introducing the Orthodox Church). According to Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World, the whole of creation is meant to be a sacrament or at least sacramental.
If we accept this and we recognize that the covenanted sexual unions of gays and lesbians can be means of grace, wouldn’t it make more sense to bless them as a distinctive sacramental rite alongside the sacramental rite of marriage? Or, perhaps they are, along with heterosexual marriage, subsets of Holy Matrimony along the lines of the distinct orders of the Sacramental Rite of Ordination?
I suggest this a more fruitful approach than simply folding same-sex unions into the existing reality of heterosexual marriage. For one thing, if we recognize that sex can be a faithful aspect of sanctified and sanctifying relationship beyond heterosexual marriage, we don’t have to work to make everything fit the same mold. And we are free to experience – and benefit from – the distinctive witness of each.
I wonder if, as with traditional monasticism and heterosexual marriage, there might be significant distinctives as well as similarities between heterosexual and same-sex relationships. Rushing to the conclusion that vowed and covenanted gay and lesbian relationships are the same as heterosexual marriage might lead us to deny, overlook, and miss the particular witness of same-sex relationships. There are obvious similarities. But, it is also evident that there are differences (see Gay Marriage: Same, But Different). Might the differences bear significant gifts and witnesses to the Church that might get lost if same-sex covenant partnerships are simply folded into marriage as the same thing? Some gay people I have spoken with or read (along with some straight authors) have made that case. For example, as the article referenced earlier suggests, might there be particular things committed sexual covenants between two men or two women witness to that are significantly different from heterosexual marriage? They have characteristics of both non-sexual same-sex friendships and conventional marriage. And given that pregnancy is not an inherent possibility in same-sex sex, such relationships share characteristics with monasticism that most heterosexual marriages do not. What does it mean for their relationships that they are less likely to be bound together by children and then only by deliberate choosing?
Identified as sacramental rites of their own integrity might there be biblical and theological themes to which they bear distinctive witness? Here are a couple of suggestions:
If heterosexual matrimony is the imitation of the unity of Christ and the Church, might Same-sex unions be the imitation of the unity among the believers through Christ? Might they be a witness to the Holy Spirit's work in building up and uniting the Body until we shall be one as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one? If heterosexual unions witness to the unity between Christ and the Church, perhaps same-sex unions show the unity of the Church through the Holy Spirit.
The rush to sameness also ignores or denies the peculiar history and contours of heterosexual marriage. For all its various forms and meanings in different times and contexts, marriage has always been about the joining of male and female. I do not think we can ignore as easily as the Task Force suggests the basic givenness of sexual differentiation and complimentarity. To do so is a sort of modern Gnosticism–an overspiritualization–that denies our embodiment in particular kinds of bodies. No doubt gender is more complicated than many of us are used to thinking, but it does not follow that it is insignificant.
With that is the reality that for most heterosexual sexual encounters pregnancy is a possibility. Marriages that do not include biological procreation are not less for that. And same-sex partners also become parents. But pregnancy and procreation are an inherent aspect of heterosexual sex and thus of heterosexual marriage. It is not the only or primary good of marriage, but it is one we should not ignore. Not least because it is generally only relatively affluent and educated people who can afford to ignore it.
And, given that heterosexual marriage has its own history of theological witness, I wonder if it fits or does justice to the particular shape and witness of same-sex unions. Or vice versa.
There are similarities between same-sex and opposite-sex couplings. And there are as many varieties within each as there are couples. But the two are not exactly the same. And we do not need to try to make them so.
No doubt, this proposal has its own problems. But, revising the marriage canon would leave us with a bland sameness that does not honor significant distinctiveness along with real similarity. It seems to me to have at least as much theological integrity as the proposed revisions to our marriage canons.
Next: Part 6. Back to the Bible