Saturday, March 27, 2010

The end of the human race, or just the progressive Western segment of it?

I am beginning to dip my toes in the waters of the report issued by the TEC House of Bishops.

On the one hand I acknowledge a new dimension in the debate over same-sex partnerships - new at least to me - that proposes understanding marriage as expansionable to include same sex coupling. This is an argument worth considering rather than dismissing because it moves the debate away from "rights", earths itself in the analogy of expansionism of mission from Jews to Gentiles (Acts 15) and keeps in view one aspect of marriage which potentially all kinds of marriage can benefit from, namely discipline of sexuality (cf. Paul's "better to marry than burn"). Thus Willis Jenkins offers these thoughts in his introduction to the House of Bishops' session (reproduced on the blog On Not Being A Sausage):

"The basic argument for expanding marriage is laid out in the preface to our document: marriage is a discipline and a means of grace. Same-sex couples need that discipline and grace no less than other-sex couples. They, like other-sex couples, should not be discouraged from committing their lives to each other nor from giving their commitments to the church. The church is free to bless those couples who present themselves as fit for Christian marriage by their readiness to enter a covenant of self-offering and of witness to Christ’s love for the world.

That argument would be simple and the liturgical amendments minor – a matter of altering a few pronouns – were it not for the deep suspicion that it meets across the church, especially beyond our province. Listening to criticism that the Episcopal Church has not answered that suspicion with a coherent theology of marriage, we have elaborated how same-sex marriage fits within a faithful pattern of Christian life, how it harmonizes with orthodox theology, and how it makes sense within scripture.

Our way of illustrating that fit does not require theological defeat of traditionalists, does not impose cultural change, does not rely on American power. To answer worries that we would demean other-sex marriage, we make painstaking clear how our proposal reclaims and affirms the deepest meaning of marriage. We reaffirm procreation as a purpose of marriage, and the welcoming of children as a gift proper to it. We reaffirm the unitive purpose of marriage, and chastity as a gift proper to it."

In a very cursory glance at one aspect of the traditionalists contribution to the report I notice that again and again they nail the liberals loose, light, and lithesome exegesis (e.g. overlooking that the expansionism of Acts 15 was not the church merely responding to a prompting of the contemporary voice of the Spirit but fulfilling ancient prophecy). Then this passage particularly struck me because it touches on something I think is fundamental to marriage, procreation, and thus arguments diminishing its fundamental role undermine the strength of arguments that same sex partnerships should be deemed to be marriages:

"Procreation is identified as “what the human being shares with the animals,” as if this were a slight on us; for all the talk of bodiliness the argument here has a gnostic tinge. We do indeed share our bodiliness with the animals; here the biologist has something to say to the theologian. What is at stake here is the very nexus of creation and redemption, of which we spoke in our paper. Why should we assume that in matters such as ecology we do well to think and act “with the grain of creation,” but when it comes to the doctrine of the human person, and our sexuality, we ought not to think and act so? Something theologically basic is at stake here which would have major consequences if this anti-breeding drift were to affect our understanding of the human person and of society. To cite but one implication, denigration of procreation leads to the “devaluing [of]…the bearing and raising of [page 74]
children.”9 This needs, for the sake of transparency and candor, to be made clear to the Episcopal faithful in the pews--one wonders what their reception of this dimension of the new teaching might be."

(Note also this footnote at the foot of page 73: "8 At this point, we must dissent from the claim of the liberal side that they and we have no disagreement over the “significance of marriage.” While we applaud their highlighting of a common commitment to charity in this debate, we believe that the liberal transformation of the traditional end of procreation into a personal choice, and the relegation of childbearing to the old eon, amount to a seismic shift in the significance of marriage. Their desire to blunt the sharpness of their argument is odd, given their willingness to follow its radical nature through much of our dialogue. Our disagreement can and should be charitable: in this vein, we welcome their rejection of litigation and happily and enthusiastically endorse rejection of all coercion and prejudice against gay people. At the same time we honor one another more if we take seriously the fact that we have before us a real disagreement on which a great deal rides. To claim that it amounts to a celebratory diversity following from the very persons of the Trinity resonates rhetorically, but hides the fact that discernment means deciding and deciding has consequences. (In fact the advocates of same-sex marriage know this, driving determinedly toward implementation of the revision. In this light, claims that the opposing sides are but complementary perspectives in the spirit of F.D. Maurice seems ironic.")

Go back to Willis Jenkins and notice this sentence:

"We reaffirm procreation as a purpose of marriage, and the welcoming of children as a gift proper to it."

In the citation above I have emboldened "a" in the first clause. It is the weakest link in the chain of the liberals argument. Not only is it weak theologically, it could mean that one day no one will be left to maintain the argument :)


  1. Thank you for pointing us to the TEC bishops' document, Peter. Here at last is a statement of their theological process under-girding the recent changes in policy. Like you, I shall read, mark , learn and inwardly digest both this document and, even more, the scriptures it references. Meanwhile, some initial reactions to your posted comments and extracts.

    1. The report's great strength appears to be a focus on the relational aspects of sexuality, affirming God's intention that sexual activity take place in the context of faithful, committed relationships. This focuses the debate on the nature of marriage, and whether homosexual relationships can be brought within this existing social structure, rather than the nature of particular sexual acts.

    2. Is there really a gnostic tinge to this move away from physicality in defining the essence of marriage? Is childbearing, or its possibility, truly essential to marriage? If so, what do we say to an elderly couple asking us to marry them? Is their marriage second-rate? I look forward to reading the traditionalists' arguments in the report on this point, but it seems to me that one hermeneutical difference between the two camps may be which of the Genesis creation stories is more prominent in their minds: Gen.1 with its command to populate the world or Gen.2 with its statement that it was not good for the man to be alone.

    3. It may be misleading to represent the liberal position as appealing to charity in its treatment of homosexuals. For me, anyway, there is a stronger motivation: my desire to be in a just relationship with others. Biblically, it is a desire for righteousness, to relate to others in the light of God's intentions as we can best understand them.
    Picture this as a possible scenario. One of your children, a mature adult approaching mid-life, after several attempts at heterosexual relationships, tells you that they have fallen passionately in love with someone of the same gender. What would you want for them in response? How would you be praying deep within? Unlike some Christian fathers, I would not be praying for their healing but for them to establish something new in which their "loneliness is eased and their hope reawakened" (our funeral service not marriage speaking there). Above all else, I would want my child to know God's love in their life, and to experience this moment as redemptive. I would want them to feel that my attitude, and the faith behind it, is just, and able to respond to the reality of their experience. Anything that smacked of charity would be a killer!
    What that something new they, and we in relations to them, could establish might be is what I am looking for in this discussion about marriage.

  2. Thanks Howard for your reflections - there is a certain 'gracious restraint' to them which I appreciate.

    I think it is important that whatever views we hold and whatever views we may be moving towards are consistent with being in relationship with our nearest and dearest. I think one can say that without presumption as to what conclusions may be reached ...