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Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church—extracts The Theology Committee of the (US Episcopalian) House of Bishops Lent 2010

May 8, 2013


Gay partnerships don’t undermine marriage

The trouble with marrying people to members of the opposite sex, when the opposite sex is not apposite for them, is that this undermines marriage. It leads to lying of the body, adultery, and divorce, instead of the truthfulness of the body, faithfulness, and constancy. While rare cases may justify marriages of gay and lesbian people to members of the opposite sex, it should be discouraged because the risks are too high: rather, same-sex marriages better represent Christ’s self-offering for the world. Salvation in Christ arose not from a great self-refusal, but from a great self-gift. “For God so loved the world.” “This is my body, given for you.” To live out that pattern, marriage must not bypass but, like the incarnation, take up the body in its movement of love. Marriage keeps love and the body together, as the incarnation and the Eucharist do. Certain alternatives to same-sex marriage fail because they “signify the mystery of Christ and the church” less adequately than marriage does. They do not take the body seriously enough for the incarnation.

Opposite-sex marriages for gay and lesbian people should worry us. “Love, like martyrdom, cannot be imposed on someone.” Only unions that follow the incarnation to befriend the body can hope that the martyrdom that they sometimes inspire will be not false witness, but true love. “It is possible that the most ascetic act [i.e., the best training in charity] is not renunciation of self, but total self-acceptance,” if it is oriented toward God and neighbor.

Likewise, ex-gay ministries fail to follow the incarnation, because they use the body to exercise self-control, rather than self-donation to another. Only in self-donation can God expand the body toward the Trinitarian exchange of gift, gratitude, and mutual joy. In self-donation, God became human. In self-donation, humans become open to God, but hardly in self-sufficiency. That resembles the pride that does not befriend but seeks to bypass and abandon the body.

Marriage is about self-donation, not self-control

The vows offer a means by which God may turn eros into charity (“to love and to cherish”)…..marriage so often begins in eros, with itsabandonment of self-control, that the rite names not all the things that humans can muster against eros, but many things that tend to defeat it: for worse, for poorer, in sickness, till death. Marriage relies not on self-satisfaction or self-expression, and still less on titanic self-control: it relies instead on self-dispossession for self-donation. It is the daily version of finding one’s life by losing it, and it encompasses all the daily practices of lives lived in covenanted closeness: laboring to provide for one another and to support family, organizing a household and its daily table, maintaining and sharing property, caring for another in sickness and finally into death. Undoubtedly the shape of these daily practices has sometimes been distorted by men’s controlling power, turning the pattern of mutual self-donation into a female norm of self-denial.

Real desire is not the satisfaction of the ego, but its loss in self-donation. Too many gay and lesbian people have tried opposite-sex marriages to gratify their egos and gain self-control, or to deny themselves. Only in same-sex marriages can they undertake and undergo real self-abandonment and self-donation to the other. Discipline hardly works without longing; all creation waits “with eager longing” (Rom 8:19). With longing Jesus so loves the world, that he gives his life (Jn. 3:16) on the cross. Jesus did not go to the cross by denying what he longed for: Jesus went to the cross by following his desire, because his love was for his bride. Jesus went to the cross by following his yearning, because he yearned for God. That is why marriage imitates the wedding of the Lamb, and initiates desire into charity: it practices the self-giving of a whole life to another followed by the gifts of the Spirit that help unite the spouses to God. Jesus prefers those whose desires run hot (Rev. 3:15) and avoids those whose desires grow cold (Mt 24:12).

Marriage “signifies the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church”. Referring to the miracle of the wine at Cana, the rite looks forward to Christ’s own marital donation of his body at the Last Supper when he says “This is my body, given for you.” As the Wesley hymn explains: “The Church’s one foundation/ Is Jesus Christ her Lord/ . . . From heaven he came and sought her/ To be his holy bride;/ With his own blood he bought her,/And for her life he died.”…. the Book of Common Prayer constructs marriage as a means of grace for sinners not just individually but for the whole church. The church’s practice of blessing the marriages of couples bears witness not only to the atonement but also to the church’s hope for its own sanctification. That marriage could work sanctification is hardly evident by nature; it is a reality of faith.

Marriage participates in the atonement that Jesus made for his spouse. In both cases, a body is given to another.

The paradigm for the body in Christianity is Jesus’s remark, “This is my body, given for you.” With that, Jesus subverts and redeploys a structure of violent oppression—the crucifixion—and turns it to a peaceful feast. He reverses the movement of the Fall, which counted divinity a thing to be grasped.

Marriage is a means of sanctification

The question of same-sex marriage comes to the church not as an issue of extended rights and privileges, but as a pastoral occasion to proclaim the significance of the gospel for all who marry, because marriage embodies and carries forward the marriage of God and God’s people. To deny committed couples marriage deprives them not of a privilege but of a medicine. It deprives them not of a social means of satisfaction but of a saving manner of healing.

Marriage is a witness to love, not merely for procreation or complementarity

Marriage bears witness to both of the great commandments: it signifies the love of God, and it teaches love of neighbor. … it requires the couple to practice the love of the neighbor as oneself (agapato hos heauton, Eph 5:32 = each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband). Ephesians suggests, not as a “state” of life, but by serving as a school for virtue. Same-sex couples must also witness to the love of Christ for the church, and they need practice in love of neighbor.

Procreation is superseded by Christianity

The Book of Common Prayer invokes the controlling New Testament interpretation of Genesis. Paul does not associate marriage with procreation or with complementarity, but with typology: with God’s plan to love and save his people, one God, one people. Same- and opposite-sex couples seek to participate in this typology of marriage. It belongs to the church’s mission to introduce them into that witness and discipline.

The Book of Common Prayer follows the New Testament in interpreting Genesis in light of Christ and the church. While Ephesians has both hierarchical and reciprocal aspects, the Book of Common Prayer chooses to quote a reciprocal passage, and declines to quote the more hierarchical ones. It directs us to the part of Ephesians that interprets Genesis and witnesses to Christ and the church. As is well-known, Genesis offers two accounts of the creation of the human being male and female, one in chapter one and another in chapter two. Neither Jesus nor Paul relates Genesis one to marriage, except where Jesus quotes it against divorce (Mk. 10:6-7), adding a gloss that some same-sex couples have come to quote to the church at large: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (10:9). When Paul does quote Genesis 1:27, at Galatians 3:28, he blocks one of its interpretations. This is the “be fruitful and multiply” passage that Jesus and Ephesians decline to quote: Neither Jesus nor Paul quotes “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Some traditional exegesis, noticing this feature of Paul’s quotations, argues that Paul associates the passage with what humans share with animals (procreation), rather than with what makes marriage. “The command ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ addressed alike to the animal world and the human being as ‘male and female,’ has caused western theologians completely to lose sight of the fundamental fact that the institutional word of marriage, addressed to man as man-woman above the animal plane, does not even mention procreation. It speaks of the ‘solitude’ of the nuptial communion (Gen. 2:18-24). Likewise, the teaching of the Lord (Mt 19:5; Mk 10:4), and that of St Paul (Eph 5:31).” Certainly, the passage  associates the multiplication of procreation with the multiplication of cattle and crops and the command “you shall have them for food.” The context here is agriculture.

The tradition that runs through John Chrysostom notes another feature of that passage. The command “be fruitful and multiply,” precisely as applied to the man and the woman, does not end the verse but leads to “and fill the earth.” The command is not absolute, but contingent. Already at creation, God foresees its end. The earth, Chrysostom explains in the fourth century, is full; its population is enough; the command has been fulfilled.

The command of creation is fulfilled, that is, when the Second Adam fulfills the promise of the first and brings the dominion of God. That is why ascetic innovations in the early church found Paul’s example so powerful. Procreation undermined the sense that the command has been fulfilled, the Messiah has come, this world is coming to an end, and human beings may rely on resurrection to show God’s faithfulness to the continuation of embodied human life. Here is the connection of resurrection and moral order. Because we may trust God, human beings do not need procreation in the same way.12 Thus Paul promotes celibacy as a witness to the resurrection (1 Cor 7:29). He calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of adoption (Rom 8). The New Testament has entered the age in which the sacrament of baptism–which Cyril of Alexandria recognizes as a rite of adoption–qualifies procreation in significant ways. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). The author of John contrasts “children of God” through faith with biological children created through marriage. Thus, the example of Jesus and the teaching of Paul rule out both the cult of fertility and the exclusive version of gender complementarity.

Gender should not be understood reductively

The typology of “Christ and the church” does not reduce to male-female complementarity, even if it uses gendered language. Men have always represented the bride of Christ as members of the church. Women have always represented the priesthood of Christ as believers. More recently, they have represented the priesthood of Christ as ordained. Members of either gender may serve as a sign or represent a “type.” A “type,” in Greek, is a sign of something else. Ephesians is not saying that we should take our understanding of Christ and the church from how our marriages work. It says that we should understand marriage from Christ and the church. Marriage forms do not limit the love of Christ for the church, but that love can give marriage more to mean. The church, traditionally gendered female as Christ’s bride, embraces women and men. “The body of Christ,” while gendered male as a human being, is gendered female as the church. Such shifts remind us why Ephesians calls marriage a “mystery” and treats it as a sign. Types do not limit representation: they open it to God’s work.

Desire is a means to draw us closer to God

Since Christ “satisfies the desire of every living thing” (Ps 145:16), a sexual orientation, theologically speaking, must be this: a more or less settled tendency by which Christ orients desire toward himself, through the desire for another human being.

Desire is for the apposite, not necessarily the opposite sex A sexually oriented person is someone who develops and is morally improved through a relationship with someone of the apposite sex, typically but not necessarily the opposite sex. Those called to same-sex relationships are those that need them for their own sanctification. They need same-sex relationships for their own sanctification because neither opposite-sex relationships nor celibacy could get deeply enough into their hearts to promote lifelong commitment and growth. “Moral improvement” means growth on the pattern of the incarnation. In addition, that means growth through and not without the creaturely limitations that Christ took on to use for our good: the limits of time and the body. Moral growth takes time. Further, it takes place when we are brought up against the limits and the finitude of our bodies, of our creatureliness. It does not bypass the body. We learn anew with Adam that we are yet creatures, and not gods. Many gay and lesbian people have learned this in trying and failing to “go straight.” Finally, we learn anew with Christ to re-befriend our bodies, to see them as places where Christ can continue in us the project of incarnation in turning desire into charity and even sacrifice.

Complementarity theories of marriage stress “difference.” If difference is about more than body-shape, what differences matter? God intends difference for blessing. Under conditions of sin, we have learned, human beings turn difference to curse. The question is, which differences bless? The differences that lead to moral growth on the pattern of the incarnation, of Christ and the church, are those, as Gregory Nazianzen says, that turn our limits to our good.

There is scriptural precedent for extending the scope of God’s covenantal grace

In grafting same-sex marriage onto the domestic rite, the church follows the pattern of God’s grafting wild, Gentile olive branches onto the domesticated olive tree of Israel (Rom 11:24).

Just as God adds Gentiles to Israel, by adoption (Rom 8) or grafting in excess of nature (para phusin, Rom 11:24), so here too God calls the unexpected into the feast. We see this happening: if the church refuses to bear witness that same-sex couples too can represent the wedding of Christ with his people, then the Spirit will expand the church. If the church is visible, not everyone may have eyes to see its full compass.

Romans applies even more clearly to the present case for same-sex marriage. In Romans, either Paul or a rival preacher whom he quotes associates same-sex desire with those same Gentiles. It characterizes that desire as illicit, calling it “beyond nature” (1:26; 11:24 uses the same phrase of God). At the same time, it shows the genius of Paul in undermining that very category, the natural, in describing the Spirit’s work. For Paul insists on characterizing the Spirit’s work in terms that extend the biological to include “adoption” (Rom 8:23) and “grafting” (Rom 11:23). “Adoption” and “grafting” mark strikingly para-biological metaphors for the extension of God’s household by love. Similarly, “adoption” and “grafting” make good metaphors for the extension of married households to same-sex couples whom we seek to graft into traditional marriage forms.

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