Same-sex Marriage II: This Holy Estate

Third Sunday after Pentecost         June 5, 2016

Last week, you may recall, I began to speak about the proposal to amend the marriage canon to allow for the church marriage of same-sex couples. I didn’t get very far. That is, I spoke about what this proposal is not about: namely, it is not about whether or not we accept and welcome same-sex couples. Twelve years ago, our church recognized the “integrity and sanctity of committed same-sex relationships”, and while we are still trying to live into that recognition, we have since followed it up by blessing civil marriages in most of our church, including this diocese.

The question we are debating this summer is a narrower one. It is about marriage, how we understand the Christian institution of Holy Matrimony, and specifically whether it is the appropriate category to understand and bless same-sex relationships. And this is a question we can only answer by examining the theology of marriage.

As many of you know, I had the privilege and responsibility over the past couple of years of serving on the Marriage Canon Commission, charged with preparing the proposal that will be going to General Synod next month. As it turned out, the job of proposing changes to the text of the canon was the easy part. The marriage canon is a nineteen page document: surprisingly, there are only four references to man and woman in it, none of them in key places. Some have suggested it might already be permissible to marry same-sex couples according to the wording of the present canon. If the motion is defeated, expect to see that legal argument being made in the church courts. Adjusting these four references to gender neutral language is easy. By far the more complex part of our work was to prepare a biblical and theological rationale why this is an appropriate change. Does the marriage of same-sex couples truly correspond to marriage as the church understands it?

We began with the Bible. And here of course there are all kinds of marriage customs and stories that have little or nothing to tell us, because they are not at all what we would understand by marriage: polygamous marriages, marriage by abduction, the requirement to marry one’s dead brother’s widow, the understanding that the wife was little more than the husband’s property, and so on. Ignoring that material, it seemed to us that there are two general clusters of theological meaning around marriage in the Bible.

The first of these is rooted in the creation stories in the Bible, and how they talk about male and female, and their coming together, as a fundamental fact of human nature. Genesis 1 talks about how God created humankind in God’s own image, male and female he created them, and sent them forth, like the other animals, to be fruitful and multiply. And in Genesis 2 a different story, how God created the “adam”, which means earth creature; but when it found no companion among the animals, God created from its side another like it:

“. . . bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.’
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

What do these passages mean for our understanding of marriage and human sexuality? Three points, briefly:

• The tradition names sexual duality and heterosexual reproduction as a central fact about our human nature. And so it is, surely: it is part of who we are, gay or straight. After all, we all of us got here the same way, one egg, one sperm. This sexual duality is God’s good gift, and something to celebrate. Remember that the church has not always celebrated sexuality and romantic love. Too often, for centuries, we have seen it as something shameful or sinful. It has been a long hard battle for us to learn to celebrate the love of a man and a woman; we must not lose that hard won accomplishment.

• At the same time, while the Bible celebrates the love of male and female, it does not elevate it to a cosmic principle. Remember that many of the surrounding nations practised fertility religions, that spoke of the male god and female goddess mating and producing the rains and the crops. Jewish and Christian faith is clear: God is not like this, consisting of male and female principles. God is above both male and female; our sexual reproduction does not constitute the ultimate principle of reality. Even our own identity: the most important thing about each of us is not that we are male or female, but a child of God.

Now all this talk of fertility religion may seem a long ways off, but I don’t think it is. When we look at the hypersexual nature of so much pop culture: music videos, advertising, Hollywood movie stars, not to mention pornography, I think we are seeing exactly the same thing the Canaanites worshipped, in a modern form. And our young people compare themselves with the unreal shapes of fashion models, and think they are worthless because they don’t look like that. They need to hear our witness: the world is not all about sex, and your worth does not depend on being some kind of ideal man or ideal woman.

• Which brings me to my third point about the creation stories: just because they celebrate heterosexual marriage as God’s good gift, woven into creation through the means of reproduction, that does not mean that this is a norm that everyone has to adhere to. God’s creation is not a single one-size-fits-all, but rich and diverse, as diverse as every unique individual. Yes, God created Adam and Eve, and it was good; but God also created Adam and Steve, and Annie and Eve, and they are also good.

So much for the creation stories. But there is another rich vein of Christian tradition about marriage, one that has roots in the Old Testament idea of covenant, is expressed in the epistles of the New Testament, and is further developed in the history of the church.

This tradition talks about marriage as a form of Christian life. Christian life is the call to love one another, and we live out this call in all the different relationships we live in, with parents, children, siblings, friends, neighbours, colleagues, and in our church family. Marriage is just one form of that general commandment to love: a relationship that is focussed on one other person, in all the relentless intimacy of daily life, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for the rest of our lives. We call marriage a covenant, because we enter into it with our whole selves, committing all of who we are to the other person.

Because of its particular intensity, its covenantal nature, marriage has come to be seen as a reflection of God’s love for us. We are called to love each other with that same accepting, forgiving, tender, compassionate love that Jesus showed us. And so marriage is one place where we can potentially experience something of what God’s love means. That is why in some traditions it is called a sacrament. Let us say that marriage has a sacramental quality: through it we can experience God’s love.

Marriage is distinct from other forms of Christian love also because it involves our sexuality. Marriage is that relationship where we can trust another person enough to be completely naked with them, in body and in soul. Because our sexuality is not so much about having exciting adventures, as Hollywood would have us believe; much more fundamentally it is about that deep human need to be cherished by another, to be found beautiful, to be loved as that unique individual you are, when you can let down your mask and be the real you.

So the Bible leaves us with two distinct traditions of marriage, two – I won’t say competing, but complementary – understandings of what marriage means theologically. On the one hand, it is about Adam and Eve, heterosexual fertility, the coming together of male and female to produce new life as a wonderful gift of God. On the other hand, it is an order of Christian life, a school of love, a particular context where we are called to live out Christ’s commandment to love one another. If you are married, or have been, I wonder where you recognize your own marriage in this? Are you Adam and Eve? Or are you fellow Christians learning daily the lesson of what love means? Or perhaps a bit of both? For many of us, the two traditions about marriage fit together seamlessly.

But what do we say about same-sex couples? How do these understandings apply to them? It seems that if we think about marriage as a discipline of covenanted Christian love, a permanent and exclusive commitment to one another that gives a safe space for friendship, compassion, and sexual love, then that applies just as much to same-sex couples. But if we understand marriage as a celebration of heterosexual love, and the wonders of reproduction, then it is more difficult to see how it relates.

In our work on the Commission, we saw basically three options for how we could understand same-sex marriage. We could say that marriage for same- and opposite sex couples is exactly the same in all respects, touching on exactly the same range of meanings. There is an abstract equality in this kind of thinking that appeals to our sense of justice. The problem with that is it ends up being a kind of lowest common denominator situation: we would have to simply forget about Adam and Eve, and only emphasize the part of the tradition that applies equally to both. In effect, we think that if we understood the changes to the canon in that way, we would be changing the meaning of marriage in some real way; saying that some of the ways the tradition has looked at marriage were wrong or no longer relevant. As well, we would be making assumptions about same-sex couples, demanding they understand their relationship as fitting in with the heterosexual understanding of marriage – and we didn’t feel it is the church’s business to make those kinds of assumptions.

The alternative to this “one-size-fits-all” understanding is to think of same-sex unions as a “separate but equal” form of Christian partnership: as many ordinary heterosexual folks are saying, “just don’t call it marriage”. The problem with this, as we saw it, was that if we are naming same-sex blessings as something different than marriage, we have not recognized how completely these relationships fulfil the second understanding of marriage: that they are a covenant of faithful love that have a sacramental dimension, as a reflection of Christ’s love for us.

So there’s the dilemma: understanding them as either absolutely identical or fundamentally different appears equally inadequate. Could there be a third option? Well, the third option, we decided, was not to think about this so much in terms of abstract logic, but to look at what God is doing. That is, that it seems we have a long-standing institution of Christian marriage that continues to be a good gift of God for heterosexual couples; and that at the same time, God appears to be calling same-sex couples into this institution on their own terms.

And in fact, there is an exact precedent for this kind of inclusion: God had a centuries-old covenant with Israel, his chosen people; and yet God at some point in history, through the coming of Jesus, began to call all nations – us! – into the covenant. The original covenant was not revoked or changed, but stands today; and yet those who were excluded are now included, not through circumcision and the Torah, but on their own terms. And this, we suggest, is how we should be thinking about changing the marriage canon: not to change the way in which heterosexual couples understand marriage, but to make room in the one sacramental covenant for same-sex couples on terms that apply to them.

This is, I freely admit it, a conservative proposal, in what I consider the best sense of the word: conservative in that it seeks to respect all that the tradition has to offer us, in all its richness; conservative in that it does not seek to engineer relationships on abstract principles, but to appreciate and nurture what is growing organically; conservative in that it attempts to discern what God is calling us to; conservative in that it sees committed, permanent, faithful relationship as the ideal for all couples.

Through my work on the Commission I have personally come to believe that marriage is the proper way of welcoming and supporting same-sex couples – although I was agnostic going into the process – because that seems to me to be exactly what God is calling these couples to.

I know, as I said last week, that opinions vary in the church, and that there will be deep hurt for some if the motion fails to pass, and deep hurt for others if it does pass. I can only remind you, that when any members of the body of Christ are hurting, we are called to share that pain. Because we too, in the church, are bound to one another in a covenant of mutual love, just as married couples are. When there is discord and pain and disagreement, then the very same virtues we look for in marriage are called for also in the church. So let me conclude by quoting the letter to the Colossians, a reading commonly heard at weddings, by actually written for the church community:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”