By Cole Hartin
‘This Holy Estate’ is a document written by a group of folks commissioned by the Anglican Church of Canada’s Council of General Synod, “to change Canon XXI on marriage to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in the same way as opposite-sex couples.”
The report is said to include “broad consultation” within and outside the Anglican Church of Canada, scriptural and theological rationales for blessing same-sex marriage, and the practical implications of changing the current marriage canon, among other items. The report is brimming with problems, but the most striking issue is a general disregard for Scripture: its engagement is shallow, as other essays in this series have already shown.
The authors of the report worked toward discerning what the Spirit is saying to the Anglican Church of Canada. But however much the report claims to engage (and intended to engage) relevant scriptural passages, it actually mutes the voice of Scripture. For this reason, it cannot serve as our guide as we seek to collectively discern the voice of the Spirit for our Church.
The most disheartening section of the report comes in its treatment of the words of our Lord in Mark 10:1-10 and Matthew 19:1-9. Whatever the motivation may have been, the report circumvents a straightforward reading of Scripture. In his disputes with the Pharisees regarding divorce, Jesus invokes the original purpose of God in establishing marriage: namely, to create an indissoluble bond between man and woman. The report comments on these passages (18.104.22.168):
Jesus refuses to be entrapped, and yet also refuses to make a new law; rather, he challenges the “hardness of heart” reflected in both casual and utilitarian practices of divorce and remarriage in the Hellenistic world. Jesus is therefore not stating a timeless doctrine of marriage, but rather giving a pastoral (and political) response to a particular set of practices.
The first sentence in this paragraph is on the right track. Jesus doesn’t fit into the casts forced upon him by some contemporary rabbinic positions regarding divorce. He does not make a “new law” either; in fact he simply reiterates a very old “law,” one going all the way back to creation in Genesis 1 and 2. Further, the report is correct in noting that Jesus probably was concerned about “a particular set of practices,” not least the permissive attitude toward divorce that was common at the time.
It does not follow, however, that Jesus is “not stating a timeless doctrine of marriage.”
The logical error here is a classic non sequitur, an example of affirming a disjunct. The construction is set up like this: “Either Jesus is saying something that has enduring doctrinal weight, or he is saying something pastoral, addressed to a particular situation. He is clearly doing the latter, and so it follows that he cannot be doing the former.”
The reality is, however, that Jesus was deeply pastoral and made doctrinally binding claims. He led a particular life and answered particular questions in a way that remains enduringly significant. In a first-century Jewish culture plagued by flippant divorce, Jesus responded pastorally by recalling marriage’s original purpose; that is, by upholding doctrine. He referred back to the Creation, and stated that because of this binding doctrine the permissive divorce practices of his time went against the grain of marriage as God intended it.
Tempting as it might be to divide Jesus’ sayings into two categories — particular responses and “timeless” doctrines — this approach is overly simplistic, and takes little account of the significance of the Incarnation, when dealing with the words of Jesus Christ. When God incarnate is speaking, we cannot simply say this statement on marriage is irrelevant to our time.
Furthermore, this temptation to divide the Scriptures into two piles — “relevant” and “irrelevant” — may prove to be an attempt to impose our will on the Word of God, contorting it rather than letting it speak. In such a case, we are no longer listening for how God speaks through his Word; we are instead using Scripture as a proxy, a puppet mouthing our own inventions.
This point is borne out if we consider other examples in the Gospels. In John 8, Jesus encounters a woman caught in adultery, with a crowd surrounding her, ready to throw stones. He protects her, reminding those present that only those without sin can cast the first stone. Having been left alone with her, Jesus tells the woman, “Go on your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Now this advice certainly arises out of her particular story, and Jesus is responding to her personally: doubtless, we might say something about how he surely means that the sin of adultery might expose her particularly to further violence. However, here again, it is senseless to assert that Jesus’ words are simply “particular.” The command “do not sin again” applies equally to us as well, whenever we are caught in a destructive pattern of transgression. And who would deny the other principle against condemnation, not least in our own age? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
The notion that something can be both pastorally sensitive and generally true is fleshed out in our congregations, too. Recently, I have been meeting with a young man who is returning to the faith after years of doubt while away at college. I challenged him to read the Bible and participate in the life of the Church while he is figuring things out. My particular pastoral advice was addressed to his specific situation. However, this does not mean that the advice to read the Bible and to participate in the life of the Church is somehow irrelevant in any other situation.
It should be clear that in this case the report does not treat the words of Jesus with the care they deserve. Moreover, the report does not bother to ask whether the Christian tradition has generally received these words on divorce as articulating a universal message regarding the nature of marriage. (Hint: it has.)
If the report wants to argue that these words were preserved in the Gospels simply to apply only to a few Pharisees, then the report should provide some serious argument, engaging with both Scripture and tradition, to show that this novel interpretation of Jesus’ words is indeed true. As it stands, our Lord’s citation of God’s original purpose in establishing marriage (“male and female” becoming “one flesh”) needs to be taken at face value. These words have enduring weight, whether or not they once had political or specific, pastoral overtones.
I want to address another assumption of the report. It suggested that Jesus was only offering a pastoral, political response rather than a “timeless” doctrine of marriage. I have shown that it is possible for Jesus’ words to be large enough to encompass both a local meaning and an enduring weight. But I think the word timeless here assumes too much. What Jesus says about marriage, what is given in Genesis, is anything but “timeless.”
As Catherine Sider-Hamilton showed in Tuesday’s post, marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, within time, limited by their creatureliness, their numbered days, and their bodies. And as David Ney demonstrated yesterday, these marriages are part of a history and move both human history and salvation history forward. They are narrated in the genealogies in Genesis and Matthew, each a link in a very long chain, each with its own story.
Marriage, as Jesus expresses it, is not a “timeless doctrine,” some vague idea that can be manipulated, changed, and amended in whichever cultural context one finds oneself. Rather, marriage is something concrete, as the other sacraments are concrete. Christians in particular cultural milieus may take them up, but they each have an essence that remains constant and enduring.
Marriage necessarily involves a man and a woman, created in God’s image, becoming one flesh. And this oneness is abundantly fruitful: the human potential for procreation is nurtured in this time-bound, embodied married life.
To strip away the essential elements of marriage, to purge it of the human difference that it requires, is an attempt to fashion a “timeless doctrine of marriage,” one that takes no account of our historical character as human beings. Whatever shreds remain after such a sanitization might be labelled “marriage” by its adherents, but that word will have become so detached from all of its rich texture that nothing much will be left.
Cole Hartin is a doctoral student in theological studies at Wycliffe College, Toronto, a ministry associate at St Matthew’s Anglican Church, Islington, and a postulant in the Diocese of Toronto.
The introduction and links to other essays in “Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’” may be found here.
The featured image is a gold embroidered altar frontal from the museum in Schloss Wartburg, Germany. Christ, in a mandorla of glory and holding a book, is surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists. The photo was taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., and is licensed under Creative Commons.