I am truly sorry that the Church of England has inflicted such a ghastly little document upon you recently. I am writing to try to convince you not to give up on the idea of a marriage in church. Gay people have long found ways of reading such documents that allow them to survive in the rarefied ecosystem which our church has become. Should you have lost heart and be tempted to leave or get married elsewhere, read on; it may be that, this time, you could benefit from a piece of gay wisdom.
‘Men and Women in Marriage’ does not emanate from the church as a whole, not even from its synod. It was devised because the Faith and Order Commission suggested under their own steam to the bishops that it would be ‘timely to produce a short summary of the Church of England’s understanding of marriage.’ The bishops agreed. The document that ensued is unfortunately neither distinctly Anglican, nor a summary of anything, nor is it short. Any attempt to make sense of it needs to be a bit lengthy. I am as sorry about this as I am about the introduction’s rather disingenuous claim that the whole thing is merely offered to you for study. Issues in Human Sexuality was similarly ‘commended for study’ but seems to have acquired more authority than canon law and is still sadly used to bludgeon gay faithful and liberal clergy some 25 years later. Never lose heart however, the document is shockingly careless in its scholarship, sometimes poorly argued, but very conveniently divided into small paragraphs easy to confute.
Men and Women in Marriage defines marriage as a ‘creation ordinance’ (5), that is to say something we, creatures, are naturally ordered towards. This, it proclaims, is the teaching of Jesus. Had Jesus given us such clear teaching however, you would expect the church to have taken note of it from the very start and more or less agreed about marriage through the ages. Nothing could be further from the truth: few Fathers of the Church bothered to write at any length about it but put great stress on the spiritual value of virginity instead. According to the Letter of Diognetus at the beginning of the third century: ‘Christians marry just as all others do.’ It took centuries of debate for the ancient church to reach some semblance of consensus on the doctrine of marriage, which was shattered soon afterwards at the Reformation. The Church of England herself denied at the time that there was any clear definition of Marriage in Scripture, let alone a promise of sacramental grace attached to it. It denied in its Articles of Religion that ‘Matrimony… be counted for a Sacrament of the Gospel,’ stating instead that it ‘has grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles … a state of life allowed in the Scriptures but yet has not like nature of Sacrament with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper for that it has not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.’ The Reformers were right; though the Faith and Order commission reads such an institution into Mt 5.31, Jesus was then paradoxically making a point on the legality of divorce in Jewish Law. Note also that the Church of England saw in Scripture no ordinance, that is to say no sign or ceremony ordained of God when it comes to wedlock. This is presumably why it’s called simply and repeatedly a ‘gift of God in creation’ in its liturgy and not a sacrament, a mystery of the Christian faith. So a heartfelt apology: you do not need to assent to Roman Catholic dogma in order to be married in our church; you are free to do so of course, but you do not need to. Nor do you need to subscribe to what reads like a capitulation to odd recent papal theories on the ‘theology of the body.’
You may also reasonably ask why marriage is now so forcefully reasserted as ‘a gift of God in creation.’ Our current view of creation is after all markedly different from the 16th century’s. It is furthermore obvious that the document does not mean creation in any highbrow, metaphysical sense, such as holding creatures into being. Unmarried folks exist just as surely as married ones do through the loving creative activity of God. Our authors’ concept of gift in creation seems to derive from an almost temporal reading of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. ‘It is on male and female that God gives his blessing’ and therefore ‘sexual differentiation of men and women is a gift of God.’ Again, straight people contemplating marriage deserve better theology. A truly literal reading of Genesis quickly shows that God does not restrict his blessing so. He blessed ‘the swarms of living creatures and the birds flying above the earth across the dome…. the great sea monsters… and every creature that moves, of every kind. God blessed them, saying: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas and let birds multiply on the earth.”‘ God blessed them with the very same blessing with which humankind is blessed as far as reproduction is concerned, whether they lay eggs or spawn or spontaneously divide to give life. Sexual differentiation, so prized by our authors, is nowhere singularly blessed. Its mechanics are however singularly cursed a few verses later in the woman’s inescapable attraction for a man who will rule over her and a God-ordered increase in the pains of her childbearing.
Mr Darwin has furthermore convincingly showed us that sexual differentiation in higher mammals serves much less blessed purposes. Charles Darwin, be it said in passing, must be one of those scientists commended in the report, ‘who capture complex observations in a formula that renders them intelligible (8).’ Well, why has the Commission not therefore sought help from any evolutionary biologist? They would have been told in no uncertain terms that there is no such ‘marvellous ordering of the created world’ when it comes to reproduction, only selective mating, as frequent and widespread as possible and sometimes extraordinarily brutal and pointless. They would also have been told that mammalian gestation is an extremely evolved, delicate and comparatively recent phenomenon. The sad truth is that the Faith and Order Commission is merely trying to get scientists off the HMS Beagle and on board their own ship in a bold attempt to equate Natural Law with some sort of intelligent design in material creation: ‘a structure of intelligibility capable of being appreciated by all, a natural law’ (9). This definition of Natural Law is however as far removed from Thomas Aquinas‘ treatise on law (much used by later Anglican Divines like Richard Hooker) as the Galapagos are from Lambeth. I suppose there is a sense in which for Aquinas and Hooker (11), the ‘vocation of being human in all its dimensions: social, cultural, intellectual and spiritual, rests on the distinctive form of nature we humans are given’; but that would only be true if our rational nature was envisaged, our rational participation in God’s eternal law. They would however turn in their grave reading what the Commission truly has in mind who wrote that our vocation of being human in all its dimensions rests on our sharing ‘with many animal species the sexual differentiation of male and female, serving the tasks of reproduction and the nurture of children.’ This is, as the authors themselves write, precisely what we share with animals, not the distinctive form of nature we are given on which our human vocation rests. It is absurd to claim that absolutely all the cultural and intellectual dimensions of our human vocation rest on our sexual differentiation. To say the same of the spiritual dimension of our experience is to reduce Christianity to a fertility cult.
The authors’ theology is as slapdash as their Greek. To translate, as they do, one of the commonest Greek prepositions (choris, meaning apart, separate or without) to mean that to flourish as individuals we need a society in which men and women relate well to each other since St Paul wrote (1Co11.11) ‘woman is not independent of (choris) man nor man independent of woman,’ is a bit of a stretch.
Generally speaking the document is quite dismissive of singleness. For this I also apologize on my church’s behalf. Reading it makes me want to randomly hug single people, grovel and assure them that it is they who stand in the most glorious and time-honoured tradition of Christianity; not married people: they do. Marriage is a passing, creational arrangement, singleness a sign of the Kingdom. Marriage is found and praised across all religions and none, singleness a much more Christian treasure. Single people can be a very beautiful sign and living proof that the things so praised and sought after in this world, even matrimonial arrangements, have no place in the world to come, as our Lord himself showed and taught (Lk 20.34-35).
The Faith and Order Commission does not spare single people much attention however, which is probably a blessing. They simply move on to note that ‘in some cultural periods, (marriage) has been seen as inferior to the ascetic life.’ That would be true from Biblical Times to roughly the Reformation period. They boldly assert that our ‘church has long learned to value the calling to live unmarried.’ Easy words but where has the CofE done so? When since the 16th century? What has our church done or said recently to make single people feel valued and cared for? It would be more correct to say that the church has through the ages very slowly learned to value the calling of the married, but has recently gone so overboard in this valuation that it now cares little for the single life; but historical honesty would detract from their argument.
Pretty much any argument is used to sing the praises of Christian marriage (16): ‘for it is a thread of many strands: it satisfies the needs of youth, assists the cooperative venture of parenthood, strengthens the role of memory in old age, and so on (sic.)’ Seriously? It strengthens the role of memory in old age? I will quickly apologise and pass on some ill-informed asides on exogamy never having been very controversial in modern societies (20), to the definitely contestable claims that the struggles of adoptive parents, single parents (and presumably gay parents too though this is nowhere spelled out) would be ‘less… had the child grown up within the marriage-bond of its mother and father.’ How do they know this? Not from most peer-reviewed sociological studies that have been published. Do they mean to say that kids of unmarried parents do not fare as well because their parents are not married though they may nonetheless live together? Or that it is always preferable to be raised by both parents, irrespective of what these may have done or become? Whatever the case may be, they boldly assert that ‘a good alternative to a secure childhood will imitate as closely as possible the form it seeks to substitute for.’ Where are the references to studies or even to doctrine to back up such extraordinary claims if these are to be offered to the study of the wider church? What can they further show to back up the quite extraordinary claim that ‘persons are not asexual, but are either male or female,’ which is both genetically and psychologically false? Or the claim that ‘partners come to marriage in receptiveness of what only the opposite sex can bring to their own.’ This is a cheap and easy complementarian assertion to make, but what exactly are these ‘unique qualities, attributes and histories’ only the opposite gender is able to provide? Irrespective of their respective roles in reproduction, what do men inherently bring that women do not have, and conversely? Do we want to claim once again that women are naturally shy and irrational, while men are assertive, rational and outgoing? Even if there is an observable link between biology and personhood: why should it matter? How does it work and develop? These are all questions that must be answered. The report reads not like orthodox Christian theology but like a sacralisation of one’s grandparents’ gender roles. There is so much danger in presenting such opinions as the mind of the church for qualities matter to our salvation: virtue is virtue and vice is vice, irrespective of sex or gender. Courage cannot be a virtue for men and a flaw in women. Tenderness and temperance cannot be a vice in men and a virtue in women.
In many ways ‘Men and Women in Marriage’ is an astonishing document. It tries to make what it considers to be traditional marriage as distinct as possible from the new civil definition gaining ground in Britain and, in so trying, is willing to make use of any argument whatsoever, even incompatible arguments. Therefore, though it seeks to defend the Anglican form of matrimony, it does so by appealing to a scriptural foundation reasserted by the Council of Trent specifically against the Protestant claim that marriage lacks clear sacramental institution in the Bible. Whilst toying with natural law arguments, it also seek to appeal to Scripture to ground marriage in revelation. It both seeks to defend gender roles in terms suspiciously reminiscent of some casual remarks of Pope Benedict XVI describing or rather prescribing a natural but endangered ‘ecology in humankind’ (10) and also tries to ground the same ‘natural’ gender roles in peculiarly Christian revelation in Ephesians 5.32.
To be sure, the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians does describe marriage as a mystery (musterion). This can be translated sacramentum in Latin, as they claim. But it is quite a leap to say that marriage should therefore be ‘understood to mean a concrete sign of God’s saving work for humanity.’ Paul does not proceed from the unknowable to the knowable. He compares the mysterious union between Christ and the church to the better-known union of human marriage, not the well-known union between Christ and the church to some ineffable mystery that exists betwixt man and wife. Paul seeks to show that the church should be submissive and obedient to her head just as a bride is to her earthly husband, her head, but is this a vision of womanhood that we are to receive as revealed? The foundation of a sacrament can anyhow neither be mythical (Gn1) nor metaphorical (Eph 5).
A last mention must be made of the somewhat careless claim that ‘neither the state nor the church can “make” marriage, which is done by God’s providence working through the public promises of the couple.’ On the one hand Eastern Orthodox discipline has always maintained that the nuptial blessing is the necessary element of marriage, without which it simply cannot be; on the other hand the Western tradition has only very recently taken interest in the mutual consent and promises of the spouses whereas it has long granted a lot of prurient weight on the physical consummation of matrimony, and both English law and the Roman Catholic code of canon law (1061.1) still do.
So, to my straight brothers and sisters: I am very sorry. You deserve so much better than this. In order to be married into the Church of England, you need not subscribe to this jumble of new-fangled evangelical complementarian and neo-conservative Roman Catholic arguments. They have been hastily cobbled together to keep gay people out, not to invite you in. If you happen to think that marriage is something else, even just a commitment between equals, many parish priests will happily bless your union, and celebrate with you. In the meantime, please accept my apologies.
Yet one more testimony of opposition to the recently issued manifesto of what Marriage is really all about by the Church of England Faith & Order Commission. The arguments cited here bear more than just a superficial glance at their validity.
Now that we in New Zealand are about to hear – tomorrow, Wednesday 17 April – the final Parliamentary Debate on a Bill to extend Civil Marriage to Same-Sex couples , who intend to remain faithful to one another, similarly to their heterosexual counterparts, Lorenzo’s article is most timely for our consideration.