THE two “affinity groups” on a panel of liberal and traditionalist theologians in the United States have gone head to head over a proposal from the liberals to expand the scope of marriage to include same-sex couples. The liberals warn that a mission to resist same-sex marriage should not be allowed to become a “a curse to others”.
The traditionalists set out their position on homosexuality in terms of doctrinal development, biblical hermeneutics, natural law, and scientific evidence. Each group comments at length on the other’s paper.
The report, Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church, was commissioned by the US Episcopal House of Bishops, and is offered “as a word to the Episcopal Church”, offering “two interpretations of creedal faithfulness that disagree”.
The team of eight “distinguished theologians” was drawn from a “broad spectrum of viewpoint”, including gay and lesbian people in committed relationships.
The liberals argued that “some of the Church’s most courageous and cherished missionaries have been gay and lesbian Christians. The Spirit seems to have set a feast; refusing would be ungrateful.”
The traditionalists, whose opposition to same-sex marriage was “the dominant position of worldwide Anglicanism”, stated that most non-Western Anglicans were convinced that the liberal argument was “without merit” and was an example of Western imperialism.
Both groups agreed that the issue was about the activities of the Holy Spirit, and that the “real marriage” that most concerned the Church was its marriage to Christ, which other marriages, in the words of the Prayer Book, “signify”; but after that, they rarely agreed.
The traditionalists said that marriage must be between a man and woman because it was part of God’s plan for “the fruitfulness of humanity through the creation of children and families”. Same-sex marriage was not in the same category as other social issues; nor did it have biblical support.
The liberals said that to deny same-sex couples the discipline of marriage was to deny them — and the whole Church — the holiness, medicine, healing, atoning love, grace, and meeting with Christ found in Christian marriage.
The traditionalists said that the liberals were using words “in highly unusual, even contrarian ways; pas-sages in praise of celibacy now serve to undermine the norm of heterosexual monogamy.” Key biblical passages were made to “stand on their heads”. Despite their denials, the liberal arguments were based on “experience, spiritual enthusiasm, and cultural trend”. The liberals had intuited what they believed the Holy Spirit was doing, “namely the confirmation of the affirmation of gay unions, first in society, and now in the Church”.
“They proclaim confidently that this is already the ‘American mission’ to the world. In just this way, the liberal side in the Episcopal Church, as they move forward unilaterally in diocese after diocese without regard to the effects on the Communion, are treating this issue as a ‘Church-dividing issue’.”
The liberals’ arguments had a “Gnostic tinge”, and their advocacy of childless marriage and “spiritual children” was “Shakerism with benefits”. If marriage was about mutuality and self-donation, “would there not be all the more of these in poly-amory?” Even the talk of God had been eroticised. Scripture was being disregarded.
The liberal group acknowledged that reading scripture traditionally left little room for same-sex marriages. It also said that those who argued for the “expansion of marriage” as a response to God’s mission had “sometimes abandoned our sisters and brothers in the global South, reducing our companionship with them and leaving them uninformed about our changing attitudes to same-sex couples.
“When we did inform them and they remonstrated with us, we went our own way . . . we have sometimes proceeded as if the rest of the Church did not exist.” Too often, they had had recourse to law.
The interpretation of scripture had suffered: “We have all favoured self-authentication and despised common practices of discernment.” The answer? “Conservatives maintain table-fellowship. Same-sex couples must marry.”
When wider and more varied communities now read the Bible, they could find new ways of understanding it. The group’s “unexpected interpretation — astonishing to some” — was that, just as Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, had called for the Gentiles to be grafted on to the stock of Israel, so same sex-marriages should be grafted on to heterosexual marriage so that all might gain from “the concrete discipline that most of us, liberal and conservative, lack: in marriage we practice common discernment over self-interest.
“Marriage cultivates concern for one another; it offers lifelong hospitality; it enacts love; and it exposes our faults in order to heal them. It is the marital virtues that the Church needs, not only with respect to the Bridegroom [Christ] but just now, with respect to one another.”
The liberal group defined orientation in terms not of gender, but of morality: “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 . . . because neither opposite-sex relationships nor celibacy could get deeply enough into their hearts to promote lifelong commitment and growth.”
It said that same-sex couples should not be denied the moral worth of each putting their body “on the line” for the other “until death us do part”; that was an accountability “far beyond what counselled celibacy can provide”.
Nor should they be denied the “delight” they had in each other; for that was necessary for action: Eros did not turn into charity through self-control, but through self abandonment, and the self-dispossession that led to self-donation. “It is the daily version of finding one’s life by losing it.”
Anglican and ecumenical responses are to be added in the summer before the final edition is published, the report says.
The current text is available at www.collegeforbishops.org
The current text is available at www.collegeforbishops.org