The members of the commission that wrote ‘This Holy Estate’ (henceforth, THE) were given a nearly impossible task, and for this reason I am almost reluctant to criticize it. Their commission was to consult around the question of changing the marriage canon and to provide a scriptural and theological rationale for changing the canon to include same-sex relationships (THE 1). The document now stands before the Anglican Church of Canada as the most visible and official guide by which Anglican Christians can understand the vexed question of same-sex marriage. The document has come to hold center stage in the marriage debate; we have little choice but to engage it.
Given the nature of the commission, we should not expect to find a detailed consideration of arguments that oppose changing the canon, and of course the report contains very little in this regard. However, as the church approaches one the most critical moments in its history, and given the immense stakes in the outcome of this General Synod, it is unfortunate that the other side of the discussion has been largely relegated to the ad hoc initiatives of individual commentators. The incredible risk here is that ordinary Anglicans will read ‘This Holy Estate’ and come to the conclusion that it represents, as it claims, a normative, quintessentially Anglican, “middle of the road” approach to reading Scripture.
It is a time-honored rhetorical device to position ourselves in the middle, vis-à-vis “extreme” opponents on either side. In political contexts such a move often requires caricaturing opponents so that they fit conveniently into their assigned roles on the margin. We can see how this happens within the report.
On one side are some for whom “it is obvious that the Bible condemns all [same-sex] relationships, committed and covenanted or not. Citing the six texts condemning same-sex activity is held to be sufficient to make this argument” (THE 5.1.1). On the other side are those who see the Bible as a “heritage” document for a church that struggles to hold together “secular ideas of justice and equality” and “outdated and oppressive ideas of the past.” The authors then claim to have discovered a “true via media” between these troublesome extremes.
What is this middle way? It is a “Spirit-led engagement rather than a simple repetition of words”; it “is the practice of locating ourselves in the biblical narrative of God’s unfolding purpose to redeem the good creation” (5.1.1). In other words, the authors rightly argue that any theology of marriage has to make sense of the whole sweep of Scripture; to make theological sense of same-sex marriage, we would have to locate ourselves coherently within the biblical narrative.
At this point, a problem arises. What if some Anglicans who argue against same-sex marriage do not fit into this simplified schematic? What if they have explicitly sought the goal of “locating ourselves in the Biblical narrative”? The document does not indicate that such people exist; the average reader is led to conclude that what ensues is a highly balanced, generous approach to Scripture, eschewing extremes, potentially the only kind available on the topic, taking the high road. But the opposite is true: the report leads us down a very particular and narrow road, not only in scholarly terms, but in scriptural terms as well.
For example, the “six bullet texts” that speak directly about same-sex activity are brushed aside because in the past they have “generated more heat than light.” Apparently, hot contestation of their meaning means we need not deal with them at all. But removing these texts from consideration will do very little to dampen the flames of the current controversy.
Another curiosity: A large portion of the report’s argument hangs on Acts 15 and the analogy of Gentile inclusion, a commonplace for revisionist arguments. Yet for that reason Acts 15 has also become a controversial passage; its significance in current debates is open to dispute. So the authors have transitioned us from six controversial “bullet” texts to one only. But simply shifting the debate from one scriptural focus to another accomplishes little, especially because the Scriptures are to be read as a unified, harmonious whole.
As Article XX (“Of the Authority of the Church”) states: “It is not lawful for the Church to … so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” It doesn’t get more Anglican than this, and whatever it is that Acts 15 and the six bullets texts each mean in their own right, a fruitful interpretation of Scripture should strive to establish unity among the manifold texts of Scripture. This is not an easy task, but we should be wary of interpretations that do not even make the effort. It is certainly not a “middle of the road” approach.
The authors recognize the potential danger of the course they are charting. To this effect they quote The Windsor Report, which states that the Church’s exercise of interpretation should not function “as an attempt to avoid or relativize Scripture and its authority, but as a way of ensuring that it really is scripture that is being heard, not simply the echo of our own voices” (5.1.1).
But The Windsor Report places a certain burden on those who are advocating for radical changes: “to explain how what is now proposed not only accords with but actually enhances the central core of the Church’s faith” (§ 60). The Church’s task is “to listen carefully, to test everything, and to be prepared to change its mind if and when a convincing case has been made” (ibid.).
To this end, I believe the Anglican Church of Canada is still awaiting a convincing case for same sex-marriage that builds up and enhances the unity of Scripture. ‘This Holy Estate’ avoids relevant portions of Scripture, and it engages others such as Romans 1 and Mark 10 with tendentious, one-sided scholarly argument. After the plain meaning of Romans 1 is speedily dismissed, the reader hoping for a fuller discussion of the passage is simply referred to J. Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality, from which the report has adopted its argument wholesale (THE 184.108.40.206).
In the case of Mark 10, the authors penetrate the mind of Jesus to discover that he was not stating a timeless doctrine of marriage but rather responding pastorally to “a particular set of practices” (220.127.116.11). How do they know this is true? It appears they read a commentary by Pheme Perkins on the Gospel of Mark.
I do not intend any offence to Brownson and Perkins, but how can the Anglican Church of Canada “listen carefully” if it is only presented with these highly selective interpretations? There is little discussion of the early Church Fathers and the theological tradition of the broader Church. The Anglican theological tradition is almost omitted entirely: from Hooker to Lux Mundi and beyond, the document makes little effort to situate this new argument within our theological tradition. The via media is prescribed as a catch-all concept for Anglican theology, as if it has never been contested within Anglicanism, a concept that has only ever meant one thing and can now be employed to mollify views that dissent from the document’s thesis.
The report concludes on an appropriately modest, albeit confusing note: changing the marriage canon is “theologically possible” though it may not be “theologically desirable” (5.4).
The report thus states that there is other evidence to consider, such as “[t]he growth in our understanding of human sexuality … [t]he pastoral need of those rejected by society and church … [and] the experience of same-sex committed partnerships in our midst” (ibid.).
These are indeed powerful realities in our current world, but it seems the authors are saying that the scriptural and theological case for changing the marriage canon is just about good enough, albeit not wholly “desirable,” in light of these other reasons. We can see then that ‘This Holy Estate’ represents an exercise in removing scriptural barriers, rather than allowing Scripture to lead. It is a document that does not grapple openly with arguments that oppose its conclusions. It does not wrestle with Scripture where it makes its greatest challenge to its proposals. It is possible, we are told, to read the Bible in this way, and in light of other evidence it is recommended that we do.
This is no via media.
If this document represents a future model for our Church and its engagement with the Scriptures and with truth of God’s life among us, then liberals and conservatives alike have deep reasons to be concerned. But the responsibility of how to deal with this report hardly falls upon the authors: they received their commission, after all, from the Anglican Church of Canada. We bear the responsibility, and now more than ever we must find ways to search the Scriptures together and to humbly listen to what the Spirit is saying, through the Scriptures, to the Church.
The introduction and links to other essays in “Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’” may be found here.
The featured image comes via FaithBookNZ.