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Continuing the discussion on marriage: the TFSM, Augustine, and a new essay

Readers of this blog may remember a series of posts on marriage last year, especially in the weeks running up to General Convention 2015. The posts were focused on drawing attention to a handful of efforts: the report of the Episcopal Church’s Task Force on the Study of Marriage (TFSM), a new project called Fully Alive: Love, Marriage, and the Christian Body, and various responses to the TFSM and Fully Alive, most of which appeared in a conversation jointly hosted by Anglican Theological Review and The Living Church.

As one of the authors involved with Fully Alive, I want to note that our aim from the beginning has always been broader than simply responding to the TFSM. Our initial announcement in November 2014 noted:

The members of Fully Alive assembled in September of 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. After a thorough conversation, the group decided to embark upon an ambitious set of goals including the writing of several essays on marriage, personhood, and pluralism. They also plan to develop resources for conversation at the next General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2015.

I also noted in a later blog post this desire for a broader conversation about the theology of marriage.

The Episcopal Church has always talked a big talk about having such dialogue [on marriage]. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons I joined TEC several years ago, why I determined to pursue a vocation to ordained ministry within the context of Anglicanism.

But I don’t think it is controversial to say that TEC has not been especially good at actual, substantive discussion. Grandstanding, vote-casting, and poisonous rhetoric are our preferred methods of engagement with difficult issues. Theological debate is not. I have gathered this sense from many friends and partners in ministry, “progressive” and “conservative,” across the geographic spread of TEC: from Dallas to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from Orlando to Chicago to Kansas City to Los Angeles.

As part of that broader conversation, I’m happy to note that Fully Alive released a new essay yesterday that responds to our original paper “Marriage in Creation and Covenant.” Fr. Jeremy Bergstrom has offered up “The Great Sacrament of Augustinian Marriage: Furthering Our Discussion of the TFSM Report.” He writes:

I do not wish to critique the inadequacy of the TFSM report here: the authors of Fully Alive and others have already done so sufficiently. My purpose instead is to offer a friendly encouragement to reconsider Augustine’s doctrine of marriage in a way that provides a more catholic foundation to our articulation and defense of marriage, that we might build more soundly upon the seminal work of Augustine on marriage. Augustine defended the very same institution in a very different context. But in doing so he discerned and articulated the timeless foundational principles that make up Christian marriage. The result was an emphasis on the sacramental nature of marriage itself, which gives order and meaning to our fides and proles.

I urge the authors of “Marriage in Creation and Covenant” to reconsider the link between the sacrament and the other goods of marriage, especially procreation. I read their argument to be putting forward procreation as the basis for the sacrament, but I suggest here that the very presence of the sacrament itself is the determinative good of marriage, which reveals the telos of its other goods, a revelation that enables those other goods to be called “Christian” at all.

Covenant readers should read his essay in full: it’s an insightful critique of Fully Alive’s first essay (and my ATR response “Augustine, Scripture, and eschatology”), as well as a close read of Augustine, with some insight from Jeremy Taylor’s The Marriage Ring thrown in as well. He concludes:

I am unable to predict how compelling our church will find this view of marriage … but my hope is that those who have had the patience to read this response will recognize that it is thoroughly Augustinian and properly Anglican. My hope has been simply to give our Great Tradition a voice in a discussion of vital importance for our church, hoping perhaps against hope that in an appeal to tradition we might find ourselves again, and find in our heritage not embarrassment to overcome, but rather the life and joy promised us in Christ.

I am aware that questions remain …. My intention in writing this essay has been more foundational, sketching out what I believe Augustine thought Christian marriage to be, and how this same conception of the sacramental bond lived on with vibrancy and vigor in our Anglican tradition. My hope is that this same conception will remain in the Anglican mind, that we will recognize the power of the sacrament as the ratio, or principle of Christian marriage, and consider its sanctifying effect on not only the lives of our families, but on the Christian life generally. Indeed, if we deepen our understanding of the sacraments and their testimony to the purposes of God in the ordering of the universe, we might even discover that the question of marriage is not simply one of practice but of fundamental doctrine. I suspect engaging the question of theological anthropology … will go a long ways towards establishing a satisfying basis for retaining the traditional understanding of the sacrament of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and will open up its manifold other applications as well. … Let us pray the sacrament of marriage might be preserved in our church so that, in the words of Jeremy Taylor, it may continue “to effect much of that which it signifies.” (emphasis added)

I’m grateful to Jeremy for kicking off a new season of discussion, and I’ll draw attention to any responses to his work. As I said last year, our efforts in this area cannot flag.

For even after the Supreme Court decision of last summer, the revision of TEC’s marriage canons, and the trial use of new liturgies for same-sex marriage, TEC’s consideration of marriage is not over. The work of the TFSM continues with a new mandate, and our own Jordan Hylden is a member this time around. I imagine we’ll hear from them more in the future.

But it is the whole Church that must deepen its engagement with marriage in Scripture and the tradition. These issues are not of concern only in North America or in TEC. My own inclination is that a large public conference on marriage, theology, and liturgy ought to be held, focusing perhaps on the contribution of Augustine and the tradition that drew on him, and drawing in theologians and liturgists, clergy and laity from across the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and our ecumenical partners. Most of the public dialogue on this topic has been limited to fairly small groups of people or to formulating and debating legislation at General Convention.

The work of Fully Alive will certainly continue, and we are now charting out our next set of contributions, focusing on a broader range of topics: like parenting, theological anthropology, the “natural,” and so forth. Look to our site (and here) for further announcements in the future. For now, though, I’ve collected below some relevant links from last year’s discussion.

The TFSM, Fully Alive, and some responses

It is worth noting that Craig Uffman also wrote a response to Fully Alive; it was published on the website of the Diocese of Rochester as “Attending the Asterisk: Reimagining a Theology of Marriage.” Fr. Tobias Haller, a member of the TFSM, then encouraged Thomas Bushnell, BSG, to respond, which he did in “The Church’s New Theological Clothes.”

Another tack in Fully Alive was taken by Wesley Hill and Garwood Anderson; they focused quickly on the interpretation of Scripture in the TFSM. Anderson generated one of my favorite sentences in the whole discussion: “I confess, however, to a mischievous hypothesis: is it not the case that the Bible of the TFSM is ultimately a fundamentalist Bible?”

Tobias Haller wrote various pieces in response from his blog, addressing portions of Fully Alive’s work. You can also see numerous links there addressing similar topics around the same time. Here are two.

Jordan Hylden responded to “Being and Doing” on this blog, questioning whether Haller was truly addressing the theological and philosophical issues at play in the discussion of marriage.

I collected references to a whole host of other posts last May and June. You can find most of them by scrolling through here or consulting our general archives.

And what happened?

As you might imagine, these posts (and many others) engendered a fairly fulsome debate at General Convention, which you can track partially through the coverage of The Living Church. See the final piece: G. Jeffrey MacDonald, “‘We Do’ on Same-sex Marriage.”

The resolutions commending change to TEC’s marriage canon and the trial use of new liturgies passed (albeit with some amendments): Resolutions A036 and A054. Much has happened since then, not least the response of the Anglican primates. Jordan Hylden and Keith Voets also wrote a series of posts on this blog regarding “A Way Forward Together.” These essays have recently been republished in The Living Church.

As for the future, we’ll have to see what happens at the ACC meeting this month. And much could happen afterward. We’ve yet to see much commentary on the reception and use of the new marriage rites.

Other posts by Zachary Guiliano are here. The featured image is “.Finality.” (2008) by Flickr user Tirza. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


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