The essays you read here are based on my own preparatory notes with some of the conversation from the class considered.
What follows is part FIVE. This will be our final foray into this topic (for now). These are my personal thoughts on what we’ve been discussing.
For part ONE of our discussion, which focuses on the Bible and how we Episcopalians view/read it, please click HERE.
For part TWO, which looks at what the Bible has to say about “homosexuality”, click HERE.
For part THREE, which looks at marriage in The Church and how it developed over the centuries, please click HERE.
For part FOUR of this discussion, which looks at the Marriage Canon itself, click HERE.
We’ve looked at the Bible from a few angles, we’ve looked at the history of marriage, and at the new marriage canon itself, along with its history in The Episcopal Church.
To conclude this series I felt it was helpful to offer my own personal thoughts on the matter (at least more so than I have throughout this series).
Firstly, we Episcopalians need to be better about proclaiming and knowing our own understandings on the Bible. We let ourselves get trapped in conversations where the rules are determined by views differently than our own. We don’t play by those rules, nor should we.
Secondly, we need to be much more generous to those who disagree with us.
It is very easy to be dismissive. And this is true of both sides of this debate/issue. Indeed, the very reason for this series was to articulate where the pro-same-sex-marriage camp is coming from so that we can know that they come from a place of deep commitment to scripture and their faith as Christians.
Now, I feel that I do need to express some concerns that I have for the work of the Taskforce on the Study of Marriage and the direction of The Episcopal Church in general.
My biggest area of concern: that only one party needs to be baptized.
This concession was made in the 1946 revision of the Marriage Canon. The Taskforce continues to uphold this for a variety of reasons, even recommending that the Declaration of Intent be removed. As they write in their report:
"Since baptism is required for only one parter to the marriage, the [Declaration of Intent] may force a false compliance on a nonbeliever or a person who holds to a tradition with a different theology of marriage or no theology at all."
However, the Taskforce goes on to say two paragraphs later: "In lieu of the declaration, the proposed revision expands the essentials of the required pre-marriage counseling, basing the counseling upon the vows the couple will pledge to each other…" [Emphasis mine].
Here's the thing about those vows: in the same-sex liturgy (entitled A Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong they are EXPLICITLY Christian.
They say: ”I will support and care for you by the grace of God: enduring all things, bearing all things. I will hold and cherish you in the love of Christ:" (to be fair, there is an option that doesn't mention Jesus, but even then the vows are theistic which excludes atheists from this).
For starters, the Witnessing and Blessing liturgy is more explicitly Christian than the BCP’s marriage liturgy. This says, to me, that the job of the Taskforce is to double-down on the definition of “Christian marriage” while extending it to same-sex couples. In other words, the Taskforce (and Houses of Bishops and Deputies that passed their amendments) is reinforcing that such a thing as “Christian marriage” exists and is to be part of our life in The Church.
But then to allow for only one baptized member of the couple is to cut this off at the knees.
If we're going to do all this work about defining and reasserting marriage as the joining of two people in “mind, body, and heart/spirit,” how is that possible if we're going to allow the beginning of the "journey of marriage" to be divided in matters of both mind and spirit?
Further, if we're really interested in removing clergy from the role of agent of the state here (see more below), that means we are further interested in imbuing a Christian character to marriage—meaning we only bless marriages that have a specifically Christian vocation in mind (be they hetero- or same-sex marriages).
I just don't get this concession unless we're going to continue seeing ourselves as agents of the state. Otherwise, what's the point of defining (further) "Christian marriage" if we're going to allow for the couple to not both be Christians?
This seems contradictory and not-fully-thought-out to me.
As mentioned above, the role of clergy as “agent of state” is something that we need to revisit and, hopefully, do away with.
Marriage is currently the one place where the line between separation and state is completely blurred. As a priest, my proclaiming a couple as married carries actual legal weight. My signature on the marriage license makes it a binding document.
What this means is that the legal concept of marriage is mixed up in religious concepts of marriage. (Which, I’m convinced, is why the negativity toward same-sex marriage even exists—had The Church never become a political entity we’d not have these problems.)
I’m an advocate of separating Church and state. Mostly because I don’t want the State in my Church (one of these days I’ll write a piece on my feelings about flags in church).
I would prefer that we clergy return to what we’d have done in ages past, which is to simply confer a blessing on a marriage. Honestly, this saves a lot of trouble (I could tell you all kinds of stories that have to do with people getting married in a church simply because “that’s what you do”).
Thirdly, I think that we need to do a better job of talking about sex (I’ll contradict myself a bit in the end here, but work with me for the moment).
One of my friends, after the House of Deputies vote made the new resolution on marriage official, said “alright, now we need to teach this.”
What he meant by that was that The Episcopal Church reaffirmed marriage (which itself is amazing and praiseworthy—we could have caved to the wider culture and made marriage completely arbitrary, but instead we reasserted it). Because we reaffirmed marriage, we need to start talking to people about why they get married.
This means saying that, as a Church, we believe that sexuality is reserved for the marriage relationship.
We can no longer just sort of turn a blind eye and act like anything goes. If we’re going to reaffirm and expand marriage, then that means we need to start having difficult conversations about the relationships among the people in our congregations.
Now, here’s the part where I’m going to come across as contradictory from what I just said above:
I think that we’ve largely gone about this the wrong way from the get-go. The same-sex marriage conversation, in The Church, has never been adequate. Indeed even the words of Immorten Joe (from Mad Max: Fury Road) come to mind: mediocre.
This is because we got caught up in sexuality.
In perhaps the most basic terms possible, the same-sex marriage discussion has really been about whether or not it’s okay that people act on the stirrings in their genitals.
Growing up in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist environment and then becoming an Anglican Christian in college (while attending an evangelical university), I’ve talked far too much about sex.
As a teenager the question was always some degree of “how far is too far?” Then it became “when is it really sex?” After which it was “is sex like being married to someone?” And finally “if I love them I can have sex with them, right? The intention was marriage so…”
Every person of my age and background has had these conversations. We went to youth camps where they were discussed. We were force-fed books that talked about this.
It was all, really, “I want to have sex, but I want to have sex correctly in the eyes of God.”
The way we’ve approached same-sexuality in The Church is no different from this. We’ve been asking, for thirty years or so—regardless of sexual orientation—“is the sex people want to have okay with God?”
And, so, for that entire time The Church has been obsessed with sex. Ironically we criticized TV shows for focusing too much on sex while never once acknowledging that we talked about it just as much and with as much focus.
Sexuality is a psychological term, the product of the 20th century. Perhaps the most famous writers on the subject are Freud, Kinsey, and Foucault. It is defined nowadays, more or less, as the brain-chemical process one experiences when they look at or interact with another person.
This notion of “sexuality” gave us the psychological concepts of “attraction” and “orientation.” Some people are attracted to members of a different sex (or, more archaically, “gender”), while others are attracted to members of the same sex. Still others found that they were attracted to both.
That attraction was defined under the umbrella term of “sexual orientation.” People attracted to members of the same sex or gender are homosexually oriented. The same logic follows for heterosexual orientation and bisexual orientation.
The problem with all of this is that human beings are in danger of being reduced to a process of brain chemistry. The kind of person that I am is largely defined by what my brain does when I’m around a particular human being.
The result of all this talk of orientation and attraction is that it permitted a couple of key phenomena:
Firstly, one could distinguish between orientation and action. This is expressed in the Catholic Church’s teachings on same-sexuality, that acting upon one’s orientation is the sin but the orientation itself is not sinful.
Secondly, and following the above bifurcation, a focus on brain-chemistry-as-personhood-definer does not provide a satisfactory case for the acceptance of same-sex persons for The Church. Because one could easily argue (and have argued) that orientation might be the process of a chemical imbalance. Therefore, one’s sexual orientation might be akin to a handicap or a disease that needs to be cured or corrected. And from here we find ourselves in a circular argument destined to go no where.
Instead, how The Church ought to be talking about this is in terms of love.
Case in point: David and Jonathan.
In the Bible is a story of same-sex love. Whether or not it was romantic or platonic is still a matter of (significant) debate. What is not up for grabs here is whether or not the story reflects two men sharing love for each other. This latter notion is made explicitly clear throughout the story, where we are told no less than four times over a number of chapters and in two books, that David and Jonathan share love for each other.
Many Christians get uncomfortable with this story because it’s been made a matter of sexual orientation. In short, we don’t know the sexual orientation of either David or Jonathan. All we know is what the story tells us. We can speculate, sure (which is what makes studying the Bible fun), but we can only walk away with what the story says.
And the story gives us love. And not only that, but the Bible endorses this story of love implicitly—by including it in the canon of scripture.
So the question for us Christians becomes: can we bless love between two men or two women?
And this is a much more honest field for discussion and thought and prayer. Because sex is a very small part of marriage. Sex and sexuality are only a small part of what makes us who we are, as people.
Are there Christian teachings and views on sex? Sure. But that’s not what is being asked when a couple comes to The Church seeking a blessing on their marriage. What IS being asked is a blessing on their love for each other and the life they want to share with each other.
If marriage was a matter of blessing sex, then every pre-marital counseling series needs to include an investigation into what kind of sex a couple is interested in and then it needs to be held up to what the Bible teaches.
To be blunt, these conversations would need to address things like: Can BDSM be part of a Christian marriage? What about role-playing (is it effectively adultery since you’re pretending to be someone else)? Toys? Can one use toys? Any positions that might be problematic?
Is there a place for this? Yes. It’s for married couples to discern and pray and discuss. Because it is in marriage, for Christians, that sexuality finds its fullness. But Christian marriage is not simply a blessing of one’s sexuality. It is the blessing of a relationship. It is a celebration of love, putting that love in concert with the love expressed by Jesus toward The Church.
So, again, the question remains: can we, ought we, bless love between two men or two women?
Because we have canonized the story of David and Jonathan we’ve already given a resounding YES to this question.
Love utterly changes the conversation.
When we approach this topic through a lens of love, we begin to see a redefinition of our old interpretations of things.
The old proof-texts get a new gloss. Leviticus 18, Romans 1, etc. maintain their traditional integrity because what they reflect is not love—and is, thus, truly sinful. Comparing their contents to the example of faithful same-sex love—David and Jonathan love—reveals their intent. The Bible will always condemn lust, abuse, perversion.
But Scripture always affirms love.
As one of the wedding readings for Episcopal Marriage liturgies says: “I am now taking this kinswoman of mine, not because of lust, but with sincerity” (Tobit 8:7).
We’ve always condemned blessing lust. We’ve never blessed lust. We recognize that lust has no part in Christian marriage or morals. Love reveals the evils of lust.
Leviticus 18, Romans 1, these are not speaking of David and Jonathan. They are speaking of lust. Of perversion.
No one is asking The Church to bless what’s discussed in Leviticus 18 or any of the other proof-texts. Instead, we are asked to bless love.
And so our task, as The Church, is to affirm what is already affirmed in Holy Scripture: love can be found between two people of the same sex. And that love is honorable and to be remembered and celebrated.
What’s cool, to me, in this, is that scripture is always true.
We aren’t required to do any crazy interpretive gymnastics with the Bible. What the Bible says remains true. What is condemned by Paul in Romans, I Corinthians, I Timothy remains condemned—we don’t say “well, Paul was wrong here and we now know better.” No, instead we get to better understand what it is that Paul is condemning.
When this is about love we can hold things up to the Bible and see what the Bible is saying. And we then get to affirm something new and profound while letting the Bible speak its truth evermore!
When two people come to The Church with their love, we bless it. We bless it and send them on their journey—supporting them with our prayers and the hope that God is working transformative things in their lives together.
It was never supposed to be about sex.
It’s always been about love.
I hope that this series has been helpful. Please reach out if you have any questions or whatnot.
Blessings to you all!
HOLD ON! This is Fr. Charles coming to you from the future, the year 2018 to be exact! And in that future we have more to say on this topic, thanks to the 79th General Convention. You can find part SIX by clicking HERE.