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Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’: Same-sex marriage, and a failed argument from analogy

Last September, a special commission of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Council of General Synod issued a report: ‘This Holy Estate’ was meant to prepare the church for its 2016 General Synod, at which it will consider a change to the marriage canon. The commission’s mandate was to craft a theological “rationale” for a Christian doctrine of same-sex marriage and to provide a conscience clause for dioceses and clergy that could not support this innovation.

I appreciate the document’s thoughtful tone; its contents deserve careful consideration. Not least, we ought to consider how a canon change might affect our relationship with the Anglican Communion, given the recent decisions of the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council regarding “consequences” for the Episcopal Church’s recent canon change. However, I focus here on the report’s theological argument for the sacramental character of same-sex marriage as an analogue for the Christ-Church mystery displayed in heterosexual marriage. The authors set out to show that opposite-sex and same-sex marriage are neither entirely the same nor absolutely different.

I will show that there is a fatal flaw in this theological proposal: the analogy is in fact never fully argued, and the report obscures this fact by an irrelevant sub-argument regarding Gentile-inclusion in the early church.

In accordance with the tradition, ‘This Holy Estate’ defines marriage as a sacramental reflection of the Christ-Church mystery in Ephesians 5:32: “When we speak of marriage as a mystery, a kind of sacrament, it is because marriage is capable of reflecting the loving union of Christ and the church” (THE 5.2.8). The question the authors rightly articulate becomes

Do we recognize within same-sex covenants the same “great mystery” [as in opposite sex marriage]? Or are there grounds to argue that same-sex unions cannot reflect the love of Christ for the church in the same way, and therefore their inclusion in Christian marriage would somehow modify the analogy? (ibid.).

Put differently, the authors ask whether same-sex marriage is analogous to the figure of Christ and the Church in the way that heterosexual marriage is:

Is same-sex marriage essentially the same as heterosexual marriage? Is same-sex marriage completely different from heterosexual marriage? Or in what other way is same-sex marriage related to heterosexual marriage? (ibid., emphasis original).

The authors’ answer is that the two are not “univocally” the same, nor “equivocally” different, but “analogous,” which is to say similar but different.

Herein lies the problem. The issue is not whether heterosexual marriage provides an image of Christ and the Church; the authors can take that for granted. The issue is whether both forms of marriage are diversely related to the one image of Christ and the Church.

This issue seems like a central question for the report’s proposal. Yet the conclusion that same-sex marriage is an analogue for the Christ-Church relation is only set forth in a footnote; it is not argued in the body of the text.

One might ask whether the relation is implicit in the writers’ definition in section 5.2.5 of the marriage covenant as lifelong, committed relationships of self-sacrificial giving. Both heterosexual and homosexual relationships could presumably “reflect” Christ’s self-sacrificial love for the Church, perhaps to the degree that they are indeed self-sacrificial in character. Therefore, both might qualify as sacramental on such a basis. The report however, refutes this possibility because it only leads to a “univocal” and undifferentiated definition of marriage. It seeks a unique definition of marriage for same-sex partners.

The report states the univocal position it disagrees with in this way:

[I]f marriage is a form of Christian community — a particular subset of the church, a school of love, where partners are called to be as Christ to one another; to practice self-sacrificial love in the context of a committed, lifelong, and erotic relationship — then one could argue that this happens regardless of gender or orientation, and is thus exemplified in same-sex couples as well as opposite-sex couples. (THE 5.3.1)

But the report argues that such a definition is too reductive.

[I]n reducing all marriages to a common denominator, [this definition] is unable to articulate the specific gifts of heterosexual love, as celebrated in the tradition. Likewise it risks excluding Christian homosexuals who understand same-sex unions to be theologically and experientially distinct. (ibid.)

This is a very helpful articulation of what the report views as its proper theological task. Something about same-sex unions must be “distinct.”

Nonetheless, the fatal problem for the report’s analogical proposal is that, when it takes up “Same-Sex Covenants as a Differentiated form of Christian Marriage,” the thread of the previous argument wholly disappears.

Analogy implies both similarity and difference, as the report notes. One proposed similarity is that both forms of marriage are capable of self-sacrificial love. So what is the precise difference, indeed the distinct character of same-sex unions? The report does not tell us. It engages in a brief discursus on “analogical” or “typological” relationships in Scripture, such as the crossing of the Red Sea and baptism, in which each retains its unique character. It then suggests again that same-sex unions have a unique and perhaps more expansive meaning than marriage usually has, but it does not name the distinction. And in not engaging this question the report fails to show how same-sex marriage is differently related to the “the great mystery” of Christ and the Church. This point has simply disappeared.

The report then inexplicably changes course to argue same-sex marriage is analogous, not to heterosexual marriage, but to Gentile-inclusion in the Covenant of Israel. It is impossible to overstate the gap in this argument. Even without engaging the argument from Gentile-inclusion, which in any case is problematic for reasons the writers do not engage,[1] we must conclude that the theological argument that same-sex marriage is a differentiated form of Christian marriage becomes hopelessly muddled with the introduction of yet another analogy.

But, bracketing this irrelevant supporting argument, can we use the report to construct a consistent analogical argument with some force? I do not see an easy way forward here, because it is difficult, if not impossible, to detect the report’s argument.

‘This Holy Estate’ downplayed the obvious, namely, that heterosexual and same-sex relations differ with respect to procreative potential.[2] If it had not done so, the report might have delivered on its promise of an analogy: the similarity between the two forms would be self-sacrificial love. The difference would be that one is procreative and one is not.

For an analogical justification for same-sex marriage to be successful it loses nothing by honestly admitting the procreative difference; however, it must demonstrate that same-sex marriage nevertheless reflects the figure of Christ and the Church in a way that is distinct from heterosexual marriage but that does not fall back on the self-sacrificial similarity — perhaps by bringing forth an aspect of the figure that was latent until the advent of same-sex marriage. The report is silent on what this additional, biblically relevant difference might be. Rather, by continuing to downplay the procreative, ‘This Holy Estate’ commits itself to the reductive, “univocal,” view of marriage it already condemned.

Allow me a brief example from the figure of the celibate. The celibate life has traditionally been seen as a suitable mirror for Christ’s nuptial love as well. We could say that the pattern of celibacy is latent within the figure of Christ and the Church because Jesus died barren, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “And who can speak of his descendents?” (53:8, NIV 1983) Still, Jesus was raised to “see his offspring” (53:10) and proclaim “Here am I, and the children God has given me” (Heb. 2:13, quoting Isa. 8:18). The life of “waiting” (Matt. 25) is intelligible for the Christian celibate, for on the other side of death a marriage does occur, which transfigures one’s current barrenness into fecundity.

In this way (and others), heterosexual marriage and celibacy are different forms of life that nevertheless analogically reflect the one “great mystery.” But to return to the previous paragraph’s point, a case for same-sex marriage must, like the figure of the celibate, demonstrate that it is a form of life latent in the figure of Christ and the Church. To date this has not been done.

Therefore, although ‘This Holy Estate’ is to be commended for identifying analogy as the central theological issue in justifying same-sex marriage, the report fails to follow through with an articulation of just what the analogy consists in. It articulated the self-sacrificial similarity between the two forms of marriage, which merely renders them “univocal.” But the authors failed to identify the respective distinctives of each relationship, ultimately fulfilled in “the great mystery,” therefore rendering them analogical.

The lurching insertion of Gentile-inclusion argument simply diverts attention from this fact. For an analogy for same-sex marriage from Gentile-inclusion has nothing to do with establishing whether same-sex marriage is analogous to the Christ-Church mystery.

Jeff Boldt is a doctoral candidate in theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, and a postulant in the Diocese of Toronto. His other posts are here

The introduction and links to other essays in “Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’” may be found here

The featured image comes via Adreanna Moya Photography, and is licensed under Creative Commons.


[1] For example, see the chapter “Dispirited: Scripture as Rule of Faith and Recent Misuse of the Council of Jerusalem: Text, Spirit, and Word to Culture,” in Christopher R. Seitz, Figured Out: Typology and Providence in Christian Scripture (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001). Also, stay tuned for Seitz’s summary of his argument on this blog tomorrow.

[2] It is not enough to argue that because not all heterosexual couples are capable of children, procreation is not central to “the great mystery.” Traditionalists argue not that participation in the mystery depends on procreative actuality (actually having kids) but procreative potentiality. Procreative potential can be frustrated by old age, infertility, miscarriage — all of which can be the occasion for a participation in Christ’s own agony in the face of death. This potentiality does not exist in same-sex marriage. Thus easy arguments against procreation’s centrality to the sacrament of marriage are unpersuasive to traditionalists, and they have the effect of undermining any attempt to justify a non-reductive, differentiated form of same-sex marriage.


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