Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | June 26, 2015

Redefining Marriage


A Roman monument to marriage

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.


  1. Some very good points, but the biology thing has problems — what about older types who are retired from the reproduction circus — do they need a separate sacrament — or would they be “grandfathered” in.? It’s a very hard topic. Thank you for addressing it with intelligence and spirituality — it’s just hard.

    • Excellent point, Bob … but I would argue that the biological potential has sacramental sign value through the embodiment of sexual difference. That doesn’t go away even though we may not have the actual ability to reproduce due to age or other issues.

    • Suggest you read Luke 1:5-25. John the Baptist was born of the very couple “of advanced age” that you describe.

  2. There are some points that I agree with and some that I disagree with from this post (as I found to be true in the classes that I took with you–you keep me on my toes), but I just wanted to comment on how regardless of whether we see eye to eye on everything, I do appreciate your ability to communicate your thoughts in a clear manner without watering them down/using ridiculous, flowery language.

    This is my favorite line of the post: “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?”

  3. John those are meaningful reasoned words. Thanks for a commentary from outside the echo-chamber. I’m with Bob and am not sure the biological commentary represents the full spectrum of ‘separateness’. I lack the time to fully comment here but plan on sharing some thoughts on today’s events with my people which I’ll probably share on FB, will try to remember to tag you.

  4. I agree with this well written column. I am a Catholic Christian and I accept the Bible (not necessarily the Church doctrine) as my guide for living. Jesus never mentions homosexuality so it couldn’t have been important at the time. But marriage has always been sacred between a man and a woman and it should stay that way, as the foundation for procreation. I am happy for the gay community because just like the civil rights movement, this will go along way towards reversing the stigma of homosexuality. But I wish the gay community had been more proactive and demanded they be recognized for their unique relationship, with a unique name for their permanent commitment to each other, to honor and celebrate that difference. Different, but with equal rights, just like for men and women.

  5. John,

    Thanks for a thought-provoking blog post. I have a few questions for you. First, could you write a post in which you explain the basic theological argument for conceiving of marriage as being between a man and a woman? For that matter, when did marriage actually become a sacrament? And why? You cite St. Augustine’s justly famous one line description of a sacrament as “an outward, visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace,” but obviously that needs a great deal of development. By itself, of course, it clearly does not rule out the possibility of same-sex unions being a sacrament. Why could not they, too, be an outward sign of the grace of love between those two people? And as far as that goes, why couldn’t nonromantic same-sex friendship (i.e., of the sort that Aristotle described as philia) also be a sacrament? I am blessed to have two or three very close (male) friends with whom I am quite intimate (in a nonromantic, nonsexual way), and it seems obvious to me that those relationships are absolutely characterized by love and God’s presence.

    To be clear, I am not making an argument in favor of same-sex marriage. I am simply asking for the theological justification for conceiving of marriage as being between a woman and a man.

    Second: I completely agree with you when you write “[l]et each human reality be celebrated for the goodness it represents. But let’s not reduce them to the same experience.” However, suppose that the Episcopal Church recognizes same-sex marriage. Or perhaps it would be better to say, “extends the sacrament of marriage to same-sex unions.” It’s not clear to me that it follows that doing so would reduce heterosexual and homosexual unions to the same experience. To be sure, in some sense it makes them the same: they get the same label. And in some sense, they are the same: presumably both kinds of union are founded on romantic love. Of course, it doesn’t follow that they are the same in all respects. (And here, interesting questions arise. I can imagine a person arguing that there is no interesting difference between heterosexual and homosexual unions; or, in any event, that the range of variation in heterosexual relationships is at least as wide as the heterosexual – homosexual difference itself. Such an argument would likely arise from someone who thinks that the hegemony of heterosexual unions is fundamentally unfair.) So, if I were to put this in question form, I would ask you: what is the fundamental difference between heterosexual and homosexual unions that needs to be recognized and made clear? Is it just an issue of biology and reproduction? Or do you think that the difference between male and female is so fundamental that a romantic relationship between woman and man just is fundamentally different from any romantic homosexual relationship? Or something else?

    To be clear (one of my favorite phrases!), I am not up on any of this literature; indeed, I’m only dimly aware of its extent. The thrust of my comments here are only to ask well-intentioned questions (and, of course, to motivate them a bit). I do not intend either to make an argument myself or to criticize the arguments that you offer. I’m just extending the conversation!

    • At the end of the day the Universal Salvification of Christ and the Ontology to which it is being revealed in people’s lives is ultimately reflected in its fullness through Sacramental Marriage. Why it’s purpose does not equate to civil marriage. Sacremental Marriage is an illustration of wholeness for this generation and the generations to come and why a physical birth is very much a miracle. Familiarity facilitates the depreciation of this understanding. The divorce rate certainly proves it. The nature of Marriage and it’s trancendance in all relationship celebrates this universal plane of relationship between each other’s hearts thanks to Christ. The Kingdom of God is within you. Why you are able to have such a relationship as you describe with your friends and have it produce ‘Spiritual fruit’, bringing you into further wholeness and enabling each other in being available to bless others more effectively. If you consider the world around us as an expression of what is in our hearts as a ‘whole’ one will take such building of ‘spiritual fabric’ manifesting physically most seriously for the role one plays in it. When illustrating the Physical Being as containers of Grace – ‘Channels of Peace’, one must consider the degree of form into the physical from the spiritual, Blessings of God actually Manifest here and now. There is a natural progression to Blessing – illustrated and experienced Metaphysically. But of course in everything God gives us the freedom of choice as to how we choose to offer ourselves (Leviticus and Revelation illustrates examples extensively) and be available to this receptivity to serve, determining the extent to what can naturally progress. Why Marriage is a ministry and should not be entered into lightly and is essential to understand that in Sanctified Marriage you are actually marrying God and serving the person before you in order that the Grace given through you together may be made manifest in the fullness of Being for God’s Hope & Glory ♡

  6. I agree that gay couples should have equal rights under secular law including tax benefits, inheritance, visitation rights, insurance benefits, property and next of kin recognition. This is fair and equitable. The church however is not a secular institution. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, the marriage is not complete until it is consummated. The consummation is sharing in the act of pro-creation which is a gift from God. This makes the man and wife one flesh. This is a spiritual event celebrated in the sacrament of marriage. “Traditional” marriage, or at least the sexual aspect of it, is spiritually based on sharing in the power of God to create new life. That is why the Catholics don’t believe in artificial birth control. I have yet to hear a theological basis on the spiritual basis for same sex marriage. For those who claim that infertile couples are in the same position, I would suggest you read the Bible which has traditionally been the foundation of our faith. One need not read very far, just the first chapter of Luke. John the Baptist was born of a childless couple whose mother, Elizabeth, was not able to conceive, and both his parents were very old (Luke 1:5). Yet with God, all things are possible. Within the same sex marriage however, the power of pro-creation is not possible and thus, the consecration of the marriage bed and the ability to complete the marriage sacrament by consummation is impossible.

  7. […] dispense with the preliminaries so that we don’t have to argue over side issues. As stated in my previous blog post, I have supported and will continue to support the solemn blessing of relationships between […]

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