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Redefining Marriage?

By Leander S. Harding

There are things to commend in “I Will Bless You, and You Will Be a Blessing,” the draft report released March 7 by the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. The work of the commission is evidently grounded in genuine pastoral concern. An attempt is made to counter scriptural objections. The commission also makes a case for the toleration of disagreement. The report is honest that the ultimate goal is a major change in our understanding of Christian marriage for heterosexual couples and a reappraisal of the significance of the biological family in God’s plan for humanity.

There are four sections in the theological introduction to the proposed rite: “The Church’s Call: A Focus on Mission,” “The Church’s Joy: A Theology of Blessing,” “The Church’s Life: Covenantal Relationship,” and “The Church’s Challenge: Christian Unity and Biblical Interpretation.”

The vision of mission outlined in the document centers on the concept of blessing. God wants to bless the children of Abraham so that through them he may bless all the people of the world. The blessing of same-sex relationships is presented as an appropriate next step in extending the blessing of God to the world. I miss in this part of the report any sense of the drama of salvation. Jesus is said to pour his life out in order to bless us but there is little sense of the atonement as a remedy for sin and evil. There is little sense of the mission of the Church as presenting a blessing which is available only through an encounter with God’s judgment and a response of repentance and faith in Christ.

This downplaying of the doctrine of sin comes across in the section on blessing. Three attributes of blessing are identified. The first is recognition of the goodness of God already present in the creation, or in this case in a relationship. There is no recognition of what theologians call the cosmic Fall, that is, the doctrine that the creation, though fundamentally good, is fallen, hence not everything in creation or the lives of human beings can in God’s name be blessed or pronounced good. The document argues that same-sex relationships can and should be blessed because these relationships can be recognized as having qualities that are good. The virtues identified include monogamy, fidelity, holy love, and careful, honest communication.

It does not follow as self-evident that if some virtues are present in same-sex relationships the relationships themselves should be blessed. The question of whether the relationship is according to God’s will is begged. The relationship may give evidence of proximate good and still not be ultimately good according to God’s Word.

There is also a theological problem with an understanding of blessing that is a celebration of virtue already existing. It is a form of Pelagianism, that is, the idea that the blessing of God is in some sense earned. The traditional nuptial blessing is not a recognition of virtue already existing but the blessing of a particular form of thanksgiving and witness to utterly gratuitous redemption in Christ.

The second element of blessing that the text identifies is blessing as a prayer for an intensification of the grace already recognized. The third element of blessing identified is the consecration or setting apart of the persons for a sacred purpose. In the case of same-sex relationships the purpose is consecration to be a sign of Christ’s redemption to the world. There is an allusion here to the present marriage rite where the marriage of male and female is a witness to the reconciliation of the human race and the recreation of Adam and Eve in Christ. Here begins a striking character of this document: the way in which it both depends upon and seeks to deconstruct the symbol of male-female marriage.

In the section on covenant the text proposes that the covenants Christian people form with each other are a witness to God’s covenant with his people and with the creation. Marriage between man and woman is presented as one possible covenant alongside many others. In place of the family the text advances the concept of households as a way of thinking about covenantal communities adequate to the variety with which contemporary people order their lives. There is an explicit de-centering of the biological family as a necessary step in commending same-sex relationships.

In the course of the consideration of biblical texts the deconstruction of the biological family becomes even more explicit. Pages 47 through 50 advance an astonishing re-reading of Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1, “Gender differentiation is attributed to the whole human species rather than to individuals.” The footnote refers to Talmudic commentaries that suggest the first human beings shared with God “all the possible gender characteristics.” Hence categories beside male and female are to be found in the creation story. Moreover, the command to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 1:28 is offered to the species as a whole and not to individuals — thus removing the obligation for procreation from heterosexual marriage and making childbearing an option which may in good faith be refused. This is a dramatic change in the traditional doctrine of Christian marriage, including the doctrine as taught in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, the logic here tends toward same-sex marriage rather than same-sex blessing, as if the authors were anticipating a single marriage liturgy for all, including same-sex relationships.

This theme of the inconsequence of sexual differentiation is continued in the exegesis of Genesis 2:7-22. The two creation stories are not treated as a canonical whole but each as self-contained with a distinct teaching. We are told that Genesis 2 is not about procreation but about companionship. God sees that it is not good that the man is alone and he makes a companion. We are told that the sameness of the companion is more important than the femaleness of Eve. The point is not the ordering of humanity into complementary genders of male and female designed for marriage and procreation but “the priority of human companionship.” One wonders about the implications of this exegesis for the dignity of women and motherhood. It has a Gnostic feel, as if our bodies, male and female, play no essential role in our humanity.

The document concludes with a section on “Christian Unity and Biblical Interpretation.” This section acknowledges that there is disagreement on the interpretation of Scripture. “In faithfulness to Christ, we acknowledge and respect those differences among us in the fervent hope that disagreements over this biblical material need not divide the church” (p. 57). The proposed model for continuing discernment amid disagreement is the familiar apostolic council of Acts 15, the controversy about mission to the Gentiles. The choice is ironic since the council decided that Gentiles, having come to repentance and accepted Christ, need not keep the Jewish ritual law save an eschewing of porneia, which would include exactly the practices now being recommended. In any case, the commission urges the church to handle disputes by keeping Scripture “central” while attending to “the Spirit’s work in our midst” (p. 62), which work would include hearing testimony of fruits of the Holy Spirit in the lives of committed same-sex couples. No mention is made of listening to the testimony of those who have been able to overcome unwanted same-sex attraction or those who have found a life of holiness in singleness, resisting the temptation to act on those attractions.

The Church should indeed attend carefully to the work of the Spirit in our midst. According to St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, two conditions of the Holy Spirit’s work include common confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh and a most tender concern for the unity of the Church.

This report envisions far more than a pastoral provision for same-sex couples. It represents an official turning point in the debate via an entirely new teaching about the nature and significance of marriage and the biological family, according to which not only procreation but male and female themselves are made optional and accidental ingredients. If such a redefinition of Christian marriage is accepted, it will represent a stunning victory for a Gnostic — and Pelagian — version of Christianity, that can only further damage the already fragile unity of our church.

The Rev. Leander S. Harding is dean of church relations and seminary advancement and associate professor of pastoral theology at Trinity School for Ministry.

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