By Daniel Martins
Christians in Europe and North America have, for some decades now, had their attention consumed by issues of sexuality and marriage. And since the Internet has made every local issue a global one, Christians in Africa and Asia have had their attention arrested as well. Among Anglicans worldwide, this has resulted in a constitutional crisis, which is yet a long way from either resolution or dormancy. Of course, church discussions of sexuality and marriage exist in a variety of secular contexts, each of which influences the conversations that Christians have.
Those who advocate for the extension of sacramental marriage to same-sex couples have been wildly successful in framing the issue in terms of justice. They have staked out the moral high ground, laying hold of the values of love, equality, acceptance, inclusion, kindness, and even family. They have created in the popular imagination a strong association between the LGBT cause and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which the overwhelming majority of Americans — and, among Episcopalians, arguably without exception — see as unimpeachably virtuous, a veritably holy crusade. What sort of good person could even think of speaking against “the arc of history that bends toward justice” (paraphrasing Martin Luther King)?
Having then placed same-sex marriage on the platform of justice, the stage is set for galvanizing passion and action by appealing to emotion. Episcopalians in two of the dioceses whose bishops prohibit the celebration and blessing of same-sex marriage have disseminated videos that feature the testimonials of same-sex couples who have been denied the public liturgical celebration that they seek. These videos are professionally done, with high production values. They are well-edited, and offer a compelling narrative about a desire for simple justice and equality. They are emotionally powerful, and cannot help but evoke sympathy, even from viewers who are predisposed in principle to oppose same-sex marriage.
Even so, there are still Christians — a fairly small minority among Episcopalians, to be sure, but a large majority among Anglicans worldwide, as well as in the larger Catholic and Orthodox worlds — who hold the conviction that homosexual activity falls short of God’s plan and ideal for human acceptance of the gift of sexuality, and that sacramental marriage makes coherent sense — biblically, theologically, and rationally — only when one partner is male and the other is female.
This is nothing new, of course. It has been the Christian consensus for two millennia, and, as recently as 1979, it was the official position of General Convention. One may rejoice that subsequent General Conventions have repented of such a position, but it is neither a novelty nor an oddity. Across the globe, it remains mainstream, and is arguably the official teaching of the Anglican Communion. Even within the Episcopal Church, it’s not just going to fade away sometime soon; many of its advocates still have a full head of dark hair.
Still, it’s a tough slog for those who espouse the received teaching on marriage. They may have the unified witness of Scripture, tradition, and reason backing them up, but in this era of video sound bites what is that against an anguished story of two people who love each other and just want to be able to say so publicly in their church, with their priest, surrounded by all their supportive friends?
In the face of such a story, no biblical, theological, or rational argument in support of the traditional understanding of marriage can, to most people, seem anything but churlish, at best, if not positively wicked and hate-inspired. It’s seems that there is now little or no room for daylight between the most irenic and civil proponent of the traditional definition of marriage and the placards in a Westboro Baptist Church demonstration.
As one who stands with the witness of the received teaching on marriage, I struggle daily with how to articulate that position in ways that might actually be heard by those who are not predisposed to agree with it. Usually, I despair, and opt to keep quiet. The list of articles I have not linked to and comment threads I have not joined on social media is quite long. I’m afraid of doing more harm than good for my own cause, not because what I might say isn’t true or insightful, but because, in the current polemical environment, it has little chance of being heard as such.
So I am encouraged that there is a proposal afoot for the Episcopal Church to create a special task force on “communion across difference.” Its charge would be to engage in deep two-way listening among proponents and opponents of the traditional definition of marriage, to presume goodwill on the part of the other, to honor one another’s integrity and sincerity about Christian discipleship. Then its members would discern together what will undoubtedly be an uncomfortable-for-all canonical safe place for the theological minority in the Episcopal Church, a place where people who hold the conviction I hold will be able to flourish and multiply, not be merely tolerated or patronized.
I am encouraged because there will be a dozen or so Episcopal Church leaders, at least, who will make the effort to put the emotionalism of professionally produced and edited videos on the same level with carefully reasoned, if considerably less emotionally engaging, biblical and theological arguments. They will make the effort to examine what’s at stake apart from the frame of It’s a justice issue. They will be able to decouple the rhetoric about marriage from that of the civil rights era.
Could the advocates of the biblical and (so far) prayer book understanding of marriage find a frame for the conversation that is as compelling as civil rights/justice? I’d like to think so, but I don’t know that such an effort has even been engaged. (I suspect, though, that it would involve some sort of witness from the developing world, the Global South.) Can a narrative be constructed demonstrating that our position is not an offense against justice, that we are not anti-gay or homophobic or hate-filled or motivated by a desire to hang onto power? Certainly so, though that takes us right back to the challenge of finding a way to be heard, cutting through the emotion-laden rhetoric of our opponents.
Meanwhile, then, we do not lose heart. We continue to give an account of the truths of which we are stewards with winsomeness, grace, good humor, patience, and love, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and respecting the dignity of every human being.