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Thursday, 11 September 2014

Same-sex 'marriage'?

Having agreed to represent the ‘no’ case in this forum about same-sex ‘marriage’ in the church, it is unfortunately necessary to outline, in brief, what I do NOT mean to say when I say ‘no’. That is best done, perhaps, with a little auto-biography.

My thinking about this whole issue began way back in 1989 when I was a University student in Hobart. At that time, I was the co-founder of a large and very active University group of centre-left Christians called ‘Students in the Way’. One of our number, Tony, came to me one day in some distress to confess that he was sexually attracted to men. Having been converted to a form of Pentecostal Christianity a few years earlier, and having been raised in a deeply working-class Anglo-Irish household, Tony was all-at-sea about the conflict between what he felt and what he believed. Together we began an exploration into faith and sexuality, beginning with the writings of the prominent Anglican poet, WH Auden, about his life-long relationship with the composer, Christopher Isherwood.

Three years later, now a candidate for ordained ministry with the Baptist Union of Tasmania, I researched and wrote a longish paper at Whitley College entitled ‘Pastoral Care of Homosexual Christians’ in which I explored what Scripture, theological tradition and the social-sciences would suggest we do and say in response to people like my friend Tony. My basic conclusions were five-fold:
  1. that Scripture is completely silent about sexual relationships between consenting adults of the same gender; 
  2. that the texts appearing to condemn homosexual relationships are actually condemning other behaviours – cultic prostitution, a lack of hospitality to strangers, pederasty and paedophilia, for example; 
  3. that most historic Christian theology simply reinscribed these misreadings over and over; 
  4. that more recent Christian theology was trying to begin again with the whole issue, starting not with specific proof-texts but with the nature of God as a trinity of love, and the character of the church as a baptised and covenanted people called to imitate and reflect this love by way of myriad forms of vowed relationships; and 
  5. that monogamous homosexual unions between consenting adults might well represent one of those legitimate covenants of godly love. 
A short version of the exegetical section of this paper was published in a Baptist newspaper in that same year, along with another paper I had written on Indigenous land rights. The immediate result of these publications was my dismissal as a candidate for ordination with the Baptist Union of Tasmania and the onset of a longish period of clinical depression.

A few years later, in 1997, I found myself an ordained Uniting Church minister in a Tasmanian provincial city. The local forms of Christianity were dominated then, as now, by a form of ‘frontier’ evangelicalism – sometimes Puritan, sometimes Brethren, sometimes Pentecostal – that roundly condemned any form of sexuality that was not heterosexual. Local Christians often wrote letters to the editor to express their hatred of gay, lesbian or transgendered people. In the second year of my ministry, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper declaring that homosexual people were loved by God and therefore welcome in my church. What followed was a deluge of letters – mostly from detractors – and several delegations from other church leaders asking that I repent of my sin and publish a retraction of what I had written. More positively, a number of gay men got in touch with me, along with the co-ordinator of a local Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays group (PFLAG), and we were able to start a support-group for gay Christians in which a great deal of healing took place. Unfortunately, a number of key members on my own Church Council didn’t really want to know about it, and I found myself increasingly alone in this ministry. Finally, after a couple of years, a number of stressors came together and I found myself in the middle of yet another period of significant clinical depression, and was forced to resign my placement.

You see then, I hope, that my saying ‘no’ to the church’s blessing of same-sex ‘marriage’ has nothing to do with a hatred of gay people or a belief that same-sex relationships are somehow more sinful or unethical than any other form of sexual relationship. On the contrary. I have bled – bled! - for my belief that gay, lesbian and differently-gendered people are loved by God, the God of Jesus Christ, and that they are therefore invited by God to participate fully and completely in that community of the baptised that is Christ’s body, the church. I say ‘yes’ to baptism for these brothers and sisters, and therefore ‘yes’, to their participation in the Eucharist, and ‘yes’, again, to their ordination! Yet, for all this, I find that I cannot say ‘yes’ to the ‘marriage’ of same-sex couples by the church. Why? Well, that is what I would like to talk to you about now.

In order to think through the significance of same-sex unions in relation to marriage or, more fundamentally, the covenant of baptism and the Christian life as a whole, we need first to think God. In the Christian tradition, God is a trinity of three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These persons are not to be thought, as the post-Enlightenment mind usually does, as individual body-selves who are single in themselves, already possessing a meaning, identity and vocation which is somehow prior to their togetherness or sharing in community. No, these persons are always already who and what they are by virtue of their relationship. They become themselves – each with their specific identities and vocations – by virtue of an eternal dance of mutual giving and receiving. This means that, for Christians, God is neither theon (an undifferentiated One), nor polytheon (many Ones). God, for Christians, is a Trinity, a communion or covenant, simultaneously one and many: one becoming many through an act of eternal donation, and many becoming one through an act of eternal receiving. In God, then, giving and receiving, being host and being guest, are one and the same. All of which is to say that God is Love. Crucially for our purposes tonight, this Love, precisely because it is love, both transcends and enlarges its boundaries through two fundamental movements: creation and redemption. The cosmos and the creatures of the cosmos, including human beings, therefore come into being as God’s free others by an act of divine love. And they are forever called back from the more tragic or alienated manifestations of that free otherness by that same love. This is a love that both creates and reconciles. A love that, crucially for Christians, revealed itself most uniquely and intensely in one Jesus of Nazareth, a first century Palestinian Jew who happens to be a man.

This incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, this Love-become-flesh, is deeply significant for our purposes tonight. It teaches us, first, that we should never seek to understand God apart from God’s humanity in Jesus Christ, including God’s gender and God’s sexuality. It also teaches us that we should never seek to understand humanity apart from our divinity in Jesus Christ, apart, that is, from our high calling to give flesh to divine love in all of our relating, communing and covenanting. With regard to God this means, first, that while God cannot be reduced to a single gender (man, woman, intersex or whatever) our experience of God in both flesh and symbol may be properly and legitimately gendered. God may be encountered, in other words, as man, woman, intersex etc. And God may be imagined and spoken about in these terms as well. It also means that while God’s love cannot be collapsed into the categories of human desire or sexuality, our experience of God’s love in both flesh and symbol may be properly and legitimately sexual. God may be encountered, in other words, as a love expressed in sensual, sexualized, longing. And God may be imagined and spoken about in these terms as well.

If we turn, then, to the implications of the incarnation for thinking the significance of human being, we might first say this: that our different genders may tell us something about the way in which God’s love is manifest. Just as divine love may be imagined across the differentiation of familial or gendered terms – a Father for a Son and a Mother-Spirit, a Son for a Father and a Mother-Spirit, a Mother-Spirit for a Father and a Son (for example) - so the love of human beings across different genders or familial relations may bear or manifest something of this othering character of divine love. That is why the writer to Ephesians says that the love between a man and a woman within the covenant of marriage can tell us something about the sexualised love of the (male) Christ for the (female) church. Divine love, the writer is telling us, has to do with the coming together of unlikeness into a bond characterised by mutual submission, here imagined in terms of the sexual difference that makes for a marriage.

But now we approach the nub of the problematic before us this evening. If the other-focussed love of God can become clearly manifest in that mutual submission of a man and a woman that we traditionally call marriage, can it also become clearly manifest in the love of a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, or whatever? Some, like Karl Barth and Robert Jensen, say ‘no’ or, at least, ‘not in its fullness’. For them, homosexual love is too much like narcissism – the love of a self for itself, its own image, its own likeness – and not enough like the differentiated and ‘other’-centred love of God within the Trinity or of the Trinity towards its other in creation. Homosexuality therefore erases the difference and makes it monadic. My own view is different. While the love of a man for a man or a woman for a woman may not be able to manifest the other-centred love of God in gender terms, it can certainly do so in other ways: different personalities, different life experiences, different body-shapes, different minds and emotions, different families and tribal allegiances, all coming together across the gulf of their differences to make a new union, and therefore a new covenant that is capable or manifesting God’s renewing, creating, reconciling love.

My difficulty with the idea of same-sex ‘marriage’ is not, therefore, primarily about the notion of same-sex love. I am very happy for the church to bless the love of a man for a man and a woman for a woman, especially if such love self-consciously intends to imitate the unconditionality of God’s love in the form of an open-ended and irrevocable covenant-for-life. My difficulty is with the use of the term ‘marriage’ to describe such a covenant. For marriage, it seems to me, has a specific meaning and reference that has remained constant, for the church, over its entire history. It is a union of covenantal love, for life, across the gendered difference between a man and a woman in which children may be born of their sexual union and raised in an atmosphere of trust and love.

Now, let me be clear at this point. I agree with those commentators who say that the social forms of marriage have changed dramatically over time and according to perceived cultural and economic needs. The earliest Christian teachers – including both Jesus and Paul - were deeply critical, indeed, of certain forms of marriage and family, specifically those that were conceived in patriarchal and economic terms alone, those in which women and children were seen as little other than the possessions and chatels of their husbands and fathers. Both Jesus and Paul wanted to reimagine the family as a commonwealth under the motherly fatherhood of God, in which all people (and not simply the members of one’s own family or clan) were called to love one another as sisters and brothers, and to look out for each other’s interests in a spirit of sacrificial love. Neither of them forbade marriage and family in its more tribal sense. But they worked and preached towards its reform, calling always upon the experience of God’s love in Christ as its ongoing criteria and norm. The Johannine community made its own contribution to this reform through a theology of friendship.

My point is this: that while the church has indeed sought to reform marriage and change its specific social and economic forms over time so that they are more covenantal in the specifically Christian sense, the two basic features of marriage I mentioned before have NOT changed: the bond of a man and a woman for life, and an openness to procreation and the care of children through their sexual union. And while we are gathered tonight to discuss the possibility that these basic markers of Christian marriage might be changed, can I suggest that the very fact that we must place the adjective ‘same-sex’ before the term ‘marriage’ in our title bears witness to the linguistic and cultural fact that marriage is NOT, in the Christian imagination, a same-sex union. Nor, in my view, can it bear the pressure of such a dramatic change in its meaning without, at the same time, ceasing to be itself. It will forever resist our attempts to do so. In the same way that I will perhaps forever resist the reduction of my racial identity to that designation ‘Caucasian’ when, in fact, I have an Aboriginal heritage.

Why insist on the possibility of procreation, and therefore on heterosexuality, as a defining component of marriage? Because there is something in the symbolism of procreation – even where this is not in fact possible in specific cases, on medical or other grounds – that bear witness to the essential fecundity of God as the sole creator of life itself. God creates out of nothing, humans do not. And yet the capacity built into heterosexuality to be fecund at a fundamental biological level – to imitate the creator God in bringing forth life – remains a permanent sign in creation of the continuing work of the Creator. The Christian tradition has always argued that being that sign is a unique and special feature of the married vocation.    

Another way to elaborate on this is to insist on a fundamental difference between creativity in general and pro-creativity. Creativity in general has to do with our 'natural' gifts or training: it is a capacity to act upon the material realities at hand with the power of our minds and hearts in order to mould or call forth a new form from materials already given us. Creativity in general is therefore about the human power to make things, and this can be understood theologically as an imitation of the creative power of God. Creativity, in this sense, is a vocation for everyone who makes things. It is not unique. It is a vocation in which almost anyone can share.

Pro-creativity, on the other hand, is certainly NOT about this human capacity to make things through the power of our minds or hearts. No human being, no matter how clever, ingenious or in love they are, can create a new human life. We know this is true, deep in our hearts, for we all know people who have tried to create a life for many years - consulting fertility specialists, IVF doctors and relational psychologists along the whole heartbreaking way - and yet, in the end, have simply had to accept that none of these interventions can deliver a child. Children are not products of human creativity or ingenuity, even though they are fashioned from our own genetic material. Children, in theological terms, are quite simply a gift from God. And gifts cannot be produced or made. Gifts can only be received.

This, then, is the unique and special vocation of a heterosexual relationship: not that heterosexuality, in and of itself, can create life, but God has chosen to give life - to GIVE life, you understand - uniquely and specially through a heterosexual pairing. That is not the whole story of marriage of course. But it is a key dimension of the definition Jews and Christians have worked with for millenia.

Let me suggest, very briefly and inadequately, an alternative approach to blessing same-sex love. What if we were to see baptism – and not marriage - as our basic covenantal rite, the ritual that most adequately proclaims and makes manifest the covenantal vows we make with God, and God with us, the ritual that actually constitutes us in our identity and vocation as God’s people, the church, the body of Christ? What if we were then to see marriage as only one of the many possible ways in which Christians might seek to give bodily expression to the baptismal covenant, a way which emphasises the love of God across gender and familial differences? What if we were to imagine other rituals, others ways of life, which seek to build on the foundations of the baptismal covenant, but in legitimately equal and different ways? Like the vows of the celibate monastic, or of the order of hermits, or of priests – each with their covenanted forms of Christian love and community? What if we could imagine the committed and covenanted love of same-sex couples in the same way, another legitimate form in which the vows of baptism can be extended and given concrete form and expression? What if same-sex covenants could be performed not with a ‘marriage’ ritual – a ritual which is historically and theologically oriented toward the two characteristics of heterosexual union that I talked about earlier – but with a ‘communion’ ritual that is more in keeping with the particular character of same-sex relationships? I think it is possible to imagine. Indeed, I have been privileged to witness one or two that ritualised such unions very well - without, that is, at any point drawing upon the language or symbolism of ‘marriage’ as the church has consistently defined it.

Let me conclude by pointing out that what state authorities and legislators does with the deliberations of Christian churches on this matter is entirely up to that state. The state enjoys the right to completely ignore what churches say, and that is their prerogative. But we, as Christian churches – if we are still, in fact, Christian churches - need to think these things through in the light of our own unique and apostolic teaching. We may not simply capitulate to what others conclude simply because it is popular or expedient to do so. For we are called to be a ‘peculiar people’, followers of Jesus, whether that bodes well for us in the eyes of the watching world or not. Peace be on you all.

This paper was given at forum on same-sex ‘marriage’ which took place at Williamstown Uniting Church on September 11, 2013. Sincere thanks go out to Peter Weeks and Avril Hannah-Jones, my co-panelists, for the care and cordiality with which they met me on this occasion.