By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Clergy representing a range of theological perspectives found remarkable common ground Sunday on a number of core aspects of marriage when they participated in a panel discussion hosted by The Living Church.
Responding to questions about the divine purpose and essence of marriage, panelists agreed that humankind’s destiny in Christ is glimpsed — albeit incompletely — when a couple is betrothed.
“Two people vow fidelity lifelong in order to learn how to love the neighbor through their love of one another,” said Southern Ohio Bishop Thomas Breidenthal. “It’s not only for the purpose of their mutual happiness, and not even only for the sanctification of each of them, but as a gift to the larger church.”
The high-minded discussion, held before a group of 150 at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center, invoked the work of theologians from the Apostle Paul to Augustine of Hippo and contemporary Catholic ethicist Lisa Cahill. But it was poignant personal stories, especially regarding marriage and children, that allowed the bridge-building conversation to be as vulnerable and earthy as it was intellectual and spiritual.
Bishop Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh told how he’d lived with his then-girlfriend for more than two years before they were married.
“It was a brokenness that God used,” he said.
In marriage, the McConnells were unable to have children and grieved that void. When they finally were able to adopt an infant son, McConnell cut the umbilical cord. A few days later, he had an epiphany in prayer.
“He will never know his birth mother, and we will never have a child of our own flesh,” McConnell said. “And yet, what was born in that is as perfect an embodiment of the Paschal mystery of the cross and resurrection that I can think of.”
The panel included apologists for traditional marriage as well as defenders of same-sex marriage who believe it’s a practice consistent with Christian moral teachings. But that diversity around a hot-button topic did not devolve into anything close to acrimony.
“One of the interpretive questions that lies at the heart of the current conversation is: What is the unity of affinity and difference at the heart of marriage?” said the Rev. Cameron Partridge, a Massachusetts priest and a married, transgender man with two children. “I would say marriages in their unions bring together difference, regardless of whether they’re two people of the same sex or two people of a different sex. And that difference really matters.”
In organizing the event, TLC aimed to elevate the level of theological discourse at General Convention, where important issues are too often debated in the absence of a faithful, intellectual framework, according to editor Christopher Wells. Because questions of marriage loom large on General Convention’s agenda this year, it seemed a theological conversation on the topic would be a timely offering to the Episcopal Church.
“This is feeding a desire,” Wells said. “Episcopalians and Anglicans rightly think our church is a learned church. They rightly think our church is a theological church. And what this event did was to provide an outlet for that in a Convention that is doing very little of that.”
Wells and his fellow moderator, Cambridge University doctoral candidate Zachary Guiliano, asked the six panelists such questions as who defines marriage, what is it, what is its role in society, and is sex outside of marriage always morally wrong. Being clergy as well as intellectuals, several speakers brought pastoral concerns to bear in their responses.
“The church needs to help us address the problem of how … we use our sexuality responsibly. What are responsible sexual relationships?” said the Rev. Ruth Meyers, professor of liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. “It may well be that the only responsible sexual relationship is within betrothal or marriage. But when the church is simply saying, ‘Here’s the limit,’ then the college students … feel shut down. It’s not safe to ask the question because they’re going to be told they’re bad.”
Duke University doctoral student Jordan Hylden made the case that marriage is, as per an exhortation in the Book of Common Prayer, “the fruitful one-flesh union of a man and a woman who give themselves away to one another.” He said it serves a number of societal purposes, including socialization of the next generation.
“It doesn’t seem to be a symbol pointing to something else, but it is what it is,” Fr. Hylden said. “And so we have in our exhortation that marriage is a bond established by God in creation. It’s absolutely unique.”
Panelists concluded by looking ahead to the future of marriage, partially in light of last week’s Supreme Court decision finding a Constitutional right for gays and lesbians to marry. Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee said the notion of monogamy is largely if not exclusively based on the assumption that there are only two sexes. If that assumption is undercut, then other understandings might fall with it, in his view.
“Maybe the requirement that marriage be limited to a couple will also disappear,” Bauerschmidt said. “We just assume marriage is between two people. But in fact, of course, 50 years ago we assumed it was between two people of the opposite sex.”
Image of the conversation panel by Asher Imtiaz