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We too are the Other: same-sex marriage and the real question for our day

This post first appeared in the October 18, 2015 issue of The Living Church, as part of its “Ways of Communion” series.

I was a classics student in school, and there I learned about a literary device called praeteritio. You begin by saying what your speech is not about, though in the telling you have planted the idea squarely in people’s minds. As Bishop-elect of Dallas I am in a similar “no, but then again yes” situation. In my case the question of same-sex marriage is, as always, on the audience’s mind. This is not an essay about that controverted subject, at least not as we are accustomed to dealing with it.

Debate on that issue now contributes little. People’s views are hardened. Often there is little theology to be found. Many are tired of it all. The young circumvent its quicksand. But most of all the situation has changed. Because the situation has changed, the question before us has changed. That is the single point I mean to expound.

We need to start with a sober, honest, dispassionate consideration of the moment in which we stand as Episcopalians. The decades-long battle is over. The progressive side has prevailed. We have, therefore, ended one chapter of the church’s life and begun another. A cultural and political tidal wave promises to bring changes we have not yet seen. A new generation is learning to relate within this new atmosphere. The long legal battle with conservative Episcopalians who have left has nearly ground to an end, but has left its scars. The wider Anglican and Christian worlds do not agree at all with the conclusion, and remain in conflict. But still, in our own church, our new situation is the battle’s end.

As a result, conservatives who remain in the Episcopal Church are now not primarily to be thought of as combatants, but rather as a religious minority within their denomination. This has become the real question: how is the church to think about this minority? What is the framework, what are the categories, by which the church ought to decide what to make of this minority? What is at stake in this decision?


I do not belittle the sacrifice of those who lost much in that long struggle, nor would I suggest that the arguments do not matter. We need contests that are more theological, not less. Nor do I believe that the question about marriage has been settled, the case proved. A later age will tell us what it makes of all this, and God’s final verdict is yet another matter. Nor am I abandoning my traditional views. (It is worth noting that the House of Bishops’ task force for the study of the theology of marriage, the work of which was published in The Anglican Review [Winter 2011], was the last such group to include both points of view, and this shows the question is still theologically contested. I was a conservative member of that group.)

My goal here is to offer a series of theological arguments for the importance of the sub-community of Episcopalians who espouse a traditional view of Christian marriage. I believe these four arguments, each represented by a figure, should be acceptable to someone of more progressive commitments. In fact I intend to show that these points follow from the very claims made in versions of the progressive case.


First Witness: Rabbi Gamaliel

The movement for the liturgical acceptance of same-sex marriage has seemed like a political campaign. But its more theologically attuned advocates have described it as a “development of doctrine,” such as figures like John Henry Newman have urged in the history of theology. We should give them the benefit of the doubt. What would it mean to cast the change in these terms? An obvious answer in the tradition of Newman would be that the Episcopal Church should have waited until there was a “consensus of the faithful” across the Anglican Communion and in the ecumenical world. But we are trying to think theologically in light of where we now find ourselves.

The main point here would be a sense of provisionality, of uncertainty, of humility. Time will tell — certainly a generation or two, at the very least. But, you may ask, Don’t things get decided much more quickly in our fast-paced, twitterized age? Yes, but this restates the challenge rather than answering it. Our witness in favor of taking the patience of reception seriously is the rabbi in the fifth chapter of Acts who sagely observed that if the matter were of God, it would thrive, but if not, it would wither. Again, if we think of the Church Catholic, the confirmation would be no rapid or solely local matter.

And what in our common life, in the meantime, would embody this patience and provisionality? One could argue that the strange inconsistency of our time, when the text of the prayer book’s marriage service anomalously remains, represents a kind of tacit nod in this direction. More long-lasting, more satisfactory, would be moves that track the custom of the Canadian church (with its gift for social cohesion) to leave the prayer book alone and limit change to the revision of alternative services. We should also embody this provisionality by not just tolerating remaining conservatives for a limited time, but rather by valuing their continuing “minority report,” which is the inherited view. If we are not yet sure, if time will tell, if there is actually a process of reception here, this would follow. That minority represents a bit of the old yogurt culture, some cells of the inherited DNA, a few acres of biodiversity. It was amid the minority community of Hasids that the wealth of ancient Jewish spirituality was stored, and one day rediscovered. But making this kind of space will require a measure of the tolerance for ambiguity, the not needing to be sure, that Episcopalians prided themselves on when I was a young priest not so long ago.

Over the years, proponents of same-sex blessing, and now marriage, have taken varying stances about its significance. In this light, we might wonder whether the matter still deserves a seemingly belabored period of testing? Of course, the rending national and global conflict of the past decade suggests a big deal. But let me mention several claims that I have read in the writings of serious theologians in the last six months, and then pose several questions that should make us see the attraction of a Gamaliel-style approach.

  • Claim: Marriage is reconceived as a new kind of relationship better suited to the new age in which we live, since it no longer emphasizes that feature we share with the rest of the mammalian order, namely, procreation. Questions: What of the nexus of the orders of creation and redemption, which the aims of marriage represented? And what of our interest precisely in creation theology and the relation to science elsewhere in our church’s life?
  • Claim: We have a new revelation available to us through the experience of contemporary Christians and cultural progress. Question: What is the relation of this large claim to the revelation found in Scripture and confessed in the creeds and in our common prayer?
  • Claim: We do not want to end up on the “wrong side of history.” Question: Should we not unpack the theology of history, culture, and the Spirit presumed by this sentence?

In short, the large claims tied to our recent actions about marriage still need a great deal of testing.

To be sure, we face other, deep theological issues, concerning for instance how we think about ourselves as human beings. But in these we should not be divided into progressives and conservatives. We are all complicit in postmodern trends. Our power to redefine ourselves, and our reconstruction of the limits of creation, raises questions larger than those of sexuality. But traditional Episcopalians may, along the way, have a calling to raise such questions on behalf of all.


Second Witness: F.D. Maurice

The struggle in Anglicanism in the 21st century is in some ways similar to the struggles of the 19th-century church, not least in acrimony and the recourse to lawyers. We ought now to appeal to our own sense of Anglicanism, and more specifically to its comprehensiveness: its capacity to embrace schools of thought. Such an approach nurtures a “thicker” kind of diversity — consisting of strongly held and theologically defended positions — than we have seen recently. My generation learned in seminary to admire F.D. Maurice, the 19th-century forebear of liberal Catholicism. This is his argument: the parties are better understood as complementary impulses within a single church, moments within a single striving for truth. I confess that conservative Episcopalians have been hard on him, but as a member of a minority I can now better grasp his point. And liberal leaders who have talked the Mauricean talk should now walk its walk. What if, in short, the head said to the feet, “I do have need of you”: not tolerance, but need. That is the stronger point Maurice was making.

From this argument readily flows the implication that the contemporary traditionalist party has gifts to offer that the whole church needs and that require a distinct subculture. Let me give an example. It is no accident that much of the vigor of evangelism in England has come out of Holy Trinity, Brompton, with its Alpha course. Our church wants to renew church-planting. It is no accident that those with expertise often have a connection to Fuller Theological Seminary. It is no accident that the African church has grown mostly in the more evangelical fields tilled by the Church Missionary Society. What the Episcopal Church wants can at the very least be enthusiastically advanced by the evangelical subculture.

When I was in seminary, the must-read list included H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. In spite of a show of impartiality across his fourfold typology, one discovered that the correct relationship, in his view, was the last one, “Christ transforming culture,” and that is just what we Episcopalians imagine ourselves to represent. But the truth is that, as if hearkening to our Establishment roots, we list too easily to the “Christ of culture.” To be sure, our leaders have increasingly been formed by exilic and post-Constantinian schools of thought, sometimes fruitfully. Yet reaction to the recent Supreme Court decision about same-sex marriage has displayed strongly Constantinian features. The state and the society it represents have spoken: are we not morally, if not legally, obliged to conform? Since the Episcopal priest who performs a wedding is an agent simultaneously of state and church, this issue is ground zero for the church-state nexus.

It is therefore fascinating that voices on both sides of the issue have wondered if we should stop functioning as an agent of the state. The crisis over marriage has made plain a tension within our self-understanding as a church. A debate should ensue, because such a crisis about who we are, and how much room we have from culture, is too valuable to waste. In this particular case, the debate is made more complicated because the state and a significant portion of the church are using the same word, marriage, but with two different meanings. But a real debate, including the underlying issues of culture and “Constantine,” a debate in which progressives may have interests on other grounds, requires a robustly traditional interlocutor and subculture.


Third Witness: An Inuit Elder

At a church meeting in the far north of Canada discussing same-sex blessing, the elder stands and speaks: “In our village we make room for those who are different. Where I live, to leave is to die. And the male and the female are the tent-poles that hold up the cosmos.” Then he sits down. I like the story, which I have heard through Bishop Mark MacDonald, because it places all three imperatives — acceptance of one another in our difference, commitment to unity, and recognition of uniquely male-female fruitfulness — next to one another with the implication to “go figure it out.” But it is also significant that an Inuk tells the story. There may be a tendency to think of the opponents of same-sex marriage as privileged, old, white Republicans or Tories. But in the case of the Episcopal Church, they may hail from Honduras or Guatemala, and in the case of Canada, they may well be indigenous. Diversity has its ironies.

In a time of strained relations (to say the least) with the Anglican Global South, what if Episcopalians could recognize that their more conservative colleagues are preserving something for the whole, and for the future? What if they are preserving a fragile bridge on behalf of the entire church? Isn’t this the positive meaning of remnant? Those with power need to see the minority as able to accomplish something that the majority cannot. Such a realization is usually salutary for the powerful.


Fourth Witness: Emmanuel Levinas

This post-Holocaust German-Jewish philosopher combats the deep tendency that we all have to turn the “other” who stands over against us into a thing under our control, or else to turn both ourselves and the other into parts of a system. In either case the distinct reality, the equal claim, the mystery of that other person as a person is lost. In an earlier generation theology students read Martin Buber’s I And Thou, which offered a similar point about the mysterious reality of another person eliciting a more genuine ease of being human. Levinas captures the point in his reflections on looking at a face, which at once embodies, shows, and conceals a person, and in his reflection on language, which connects us without eliminating the gulf between. Human dignity entails honoring the other as other. His philosophy is popular in part because it has proved evocative for those who experience themselves as out of the mainstream and at the margins. Our humanity should not lead us to eliminate this “otherness” but address and embrace it. Liberation theology and the philosophy of “the other” have in our time reinforced one another.

I once heard a joke about the Day of Atonement. At the climax of the High Holy Day the rabbi prostrates himself on the pavement. Next the cantor is moved, and collapses near him. Overcome by such humility, the janitor falls to the ground as well. The rabbi turns to the cantor and says, “So look who thinks he is humble?” The mantle of marginality can be an ironic one. In the Episcopal Church, the other now includes theological conservatives. If they don’t seem to fit the bill, well, that is the point. A ready framework, even of justice, which can cause one to ignore the face, to pass by on the other side, is what Levinas challenges.

The New Testament passages that most resemble otherness are Paul’s discussions of weak and strong, especially in 1 Corinthians. The strong are disbarred from claiming their rights, from putting their freedom first. Within the body the tangible presence of the weak constitutes a tangible claim on the strong. Protecting the conscience and preventing the rending of the body are the ethical priorities.


A Personal and Practical Postscript

The first law of interpretation is charity. May it extend to this last and more personal note. Doubtless many motives were at work in us, the flawed human beings who were theological conservatives in the Episcopal Church in recent decades. The movement to “reclaim the faith” antedated the full-fledged warfare over human sexuality that ensued after 2003. The best and deepest motive was to hear again the tradition as it articulated God’s Word, as if one were rediscovering a sacred text buried in the cellar (2 Kings 22:8ff.). The fear was that heirlooms were being put out in a sale on the church’s front yard. But this pedigree is not the point. The calling of theological conservatism was not to some political conservatism, or fundamentalism (which is far indeed from its real bearings), much less antiquarianism or a curmudgeonly temperament. The call was instead to reclaim, to hear again, the Word of God. That calling continues to be compelling for our church. Of special importance is the next generation of scholars in this line, who will have their own voice. Their guarding, testing, preserving impulse must remain; it is in fact part of the prophetic office we so value. A viable traditionalist minority is therefore key.

My aim, for the most part, has been to present the case for why, in this new moment, its traditional minority should matter to the Episcopal Church, and so why it should offer to them something more than a thin and transitory tolerance. Obviously this is of more than abstract interest to me. An extended conversation about how this could be embodied is required. I have mentioned the idea of leaving the Book Common Prayer alone, Canadian style, even if it is not used by many. We also might simply choose not to decommission the old one; years ago I wondered in an article about the analogy of “old rite” and “new rite” Russian Orthodox. And there are still other possibilities.

But a sense that a real accommodation is a worthwhile goal must precede. Entailed in this sense is the understanding that generally more conservative dioceses, and not just parishes, are valuable. While a conservative subculture can be supported by mission societies, seminaries, and theological journals, dioceses are the seedbeds for evangelism, formation of younger clergy, and companion relations to global churches.

Some years ago, my friend Paul Zahl addressed a gathering of the Episcopal Church Foundation Fellows. He presciently described the challenge for our church’s leadership to model a Christian understanding of winning and its temptations. But there is also a challenge for the conservatives who remain; we too must find a new orientation of mind, even as we continue to make our witness. We will require patience and hope, the spirit to build homes and plant gardens, marry and be given in marriage (Jer. 29:5-6). May God grant us candor, wisdom, and charity.

The Rev. George R. Sumner will be consecrated as the seventh Bishop of Dallas on Nov. 14. The featured image is “Other side of the world” (2012) by Camillo Rueda Lopez. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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