As I write, the deputies and bishops of the Episcopal Church are meeting in Salt Lake City for the triennial General Convention. One of the items before them is a proposal to change the way that marriage is defined in the church. It’s a misguided proposal, and as at least one bishop has said, the theology on which the the proposal rests is “not compelling.” In addition, the task force that framed the proposal is said to have lacked diversity–suggesting that its members came from one side of the contentious debate concerning the proposal.
When I read the materials on this matter produced by the Task Force on Marriage, I get the sense that I’m reading a political document aimed at convincing the rest of the church to accept something that is a foregone conclusion. A scholarly search for the full truth is not evident to me, but an agenda speaks loudly. That feeling has been confirmed by discussions at General Convention, where the Book of Common Prayer has already been compared unfairly to the Confederate Flag because it does not recognize gay marriage.
Another proposal before the Convention has to do with new visions for the Episcopal Church. Delegates are struggling with the question of how to change the church so that it speaks of Christ more effectively. I applaud those who raise this question. One good place to start would be to become a church where the voices of all concerned are truly valued, not just heard. Dissent should be recognized for what it is: a possible call from the Spirit to move more slowly, with better theology, and with more shared reflection.
As a teaching theologian who can often be found grading papers, I must confess that debates in the church often have all the sophistication of a college freshman’s research paper–one who is not a particularly strong student. Conservatives point to scripture and demand literal adherence while progressives point to unlimited evidence for injustice in nearly every activity in which the church is involved. It’s all quite tiring, really, and the debate can often look like the arguments one hears from a married couple on the verge of final separation.
Before I get specific with regard to the notion of redefining marriage, let me explain that I am in favor of the blessing of same-sex relationships between loving partners who have decided to live a life committed to one another exclusively. The Episcopal Church currently has in place an experimental liturgy for this ritual. Dioceses and parishes that are prepared to receive it and which have discerned its appropriateness are using it. It was already in place when I was received into the church. I continue to support it.
The reasons for my support are based upon my understanding of the human person, our God-given need for intimacy and relationships, and my recognition that being gay should not cause a person’s life to be devoid of these experiences. Sexuality, like the body itself, is a gift, an energy within us which propels us to relate to one another. While there are a small number of biblical passages that condemn homosexuality, they must be read in the context that makes them understandable. When we examine what was being condemned at the time, it becomes clear that it was a very different type of homosexual relationship than the types we are discussing today. For those who wish to explore this, there are multiple resources. (I am especially happy to recommend Daniel Helminiak’s short volume on the topic entitled What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.)
As an aside, please let me make it clear that I am not talking about civil rights in this column. I have already come out long ago in favor of gay couples having all the same rights as married partners when it comes to civil law.
I applaud the church for reaching out to its gay parishioners. I hope this will continue. But we don’t have to redefine marriage to do it. Our approach should be guided not only by solid theology, but human history and experience as well. After all, ours is not the first society to deal with the question of healthy same-sex relationships. Many cultures throughout history and up to our own time have found ways to account for these relationships, and to recognize the legitimacy of relations between adult partners of the same sex. But they were not classified as marriage.
As with other issues, the mistake being made by the church is that we are actually devaluing difference, and seeking to reduce it to sameness. That’s a stretch. It’s a bridge too far. Why can’t we accept that the life-giving goodness of marriage is one reality while the legitimacy of life-giving same-sex relationships is another? They have some things in common, but they are not the same. Many of my gay friends have insisted on this point.
My argument, of course, rests heavily upon the recognition that marriage between a man and a woman possesses a biological potential that exists nowhere else in human life. The importance of this is not lessened when a couple is unable to conceive. The sacramental value remains as a sign of God’s work through the differences inherent in male-female sexuality. The Task Force on Marriage seems to be eager to disassociate marriage from this fact. I find that to be most unfortunate. Unique, powerful human experiences such as reproduction and birth should be recognized and celebrated for what they are. I would argue much the same regarding the experience of committed same-sex partners. Let each human reality be celebrated for the goodness it represents. But let’s not reduce them to the same experience.
For a long time in the Christian church, marriage was not considered a sacrament. In the Book of Common Prayer, a sacrament is described in the terms given to us by St. Augustine: “an outward, visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace.” Whether I’m gay or straight, my existence owes itself to the inward grace of man-woman sexuality. For thousands of years we have referred to this mystery as marriage. One would hope and pray that the eternal God and Creator of all things has been present in this insight for all of human history. I read this divine presence as evidence of genuine catholicity. Are we so bold that we believe we have discerned something better in just a few years, and simply because we appointed a task force?
Recognizing legitimacy in diversity is not about reducing every relationship to sameness. Grace can be present in different ways. The Episcopal Church, through its deputies and bishops, should reject the call to redefine marriage.