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Go back to tradition for the future of marriage

by
06 July 2012

A deeper understanding of both ancient views and Christian doctrine would enable wiser debate, argues Adrian Thatcher

The Church of England's official response to the Government's consultation has rejected the possibility of same-sex marriage (News, 15 June; Letters, 22 June). The church document put forward two main arguments, one from the "intrinsic nature of marriage"; the other from the idea of "complementarity", which same-sex marriage is said to undermine.

I would suggest that: 1) these arguments are unhelpful; 2) a recovery of the ancient understanding of sex and marriage would help the Church to arrive at a consensus about it in the near future; and 3) marriage is best understood from the treasury of Christian doctrine.

Same-sex marriage would, it is said, "alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history". But there is no intrinsic nature of marriage. If there is, how would we recognise it? The "human institutions" of marriage have also enshrined polygamy, or rather polygyny - one man, several women. Using this argument, it seems strange that monogamy is seen as intrinsic to marriage, but not polygamy.

The intrinsic nature of marriage apparently excludes permanence. Why is the marital union not said to be "lifelong"? Perhaps this is because ten years ago the Church of England changed its teaching about divorce and further marriage. It seems that neither monogamy nor permanence belongs to the "intrinsic nature of marriage", but heterosexuality does. One wonders why.

Marriage, says the response, "benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation". Procreation, then, is not part of the intrinsic nature of marriage, either. It is only a possibility.

People known to be infertile are not denied marriage in a Christian Church. The Church of England does not appear to have a problem offering marriage to fertile couples whose intention is not to have children. Canon B30(1), which states that marriage is "for the procreation and nurture of children", can be quietly ignored. Since having children is optional, same-sex marriage cannot be said not to be marriage on the grounds that no children can result from it.

"Complementarity" is a very modern notion. It seems to have been used first in physics at the beginning of the 20th century. Because light sometimes appeared to be like waves, and sometimes like particles, the single phenomenon of light came to be understood as attracting complementary descriptions.

Pope John Paul II signalled its introduction into theology in 1981, in Familiaris Consortio, but gave it a different meaning. In the past 35 years, it has become a device, accompanied by a linguistic status stolen from science, for naturalising heterosexuality and keeping marriage straight.

Although the bishops at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 voted that "homosexual practice" was "incompatible with Scripture", it was becoming more obvious that this interpretation was contested and lacking in authority. A new exclusive term was already at hand, adopted to perform a similar task.

It is strange to see Churches at home with the most modern of notions, while simultaneously neglecting their theological heritage. Complementarity is mentioned five times in the Church's response, and yet it is fraught with difficulties. Here are two.

First, the understanding of complementarity here is heterogenital. If this clumsy term really must be used in our theology of marriage, there is a range of types of complementarity that also deserve a mention - affective, personal, communal, and so on. Why concentrate only on genitals? Perhaps we must be straight to enjoy the other types of complementarity.

Second, complementarity converts a tendency into a rule. Many of us will have no problem about being attracted towards people from what we have come to call "the opposite sex". But it is sloppy thinking to confuse "some" or "many" with "all". Many swans are white, but it does not follow that there are no black swans, or that God made a mistake in making some swans black, or that black swans are contrary to nature. Sizeable minorities of people, not just lesbians and gays, show conclusively, simply by being who they are, that complementarity does not work for everyone.

The possibility of gay marriage is an open one, which should be discussed and assessed theologically. The complementarity and intrinsic- nature arguments foreclose discussion by attempting to deny the possibility of gay marriage at source. Since "marriage benefits society in many ways," Christians surely have a duty to expand these benefits as far as they can.

Ancient peoples did not think of humanity as consisting of two sexes. There was one sex only, "man". This is where the sexism of Christian history, liturgy, theology, doctrine, and hymnody comes from. I was taught as a theological student that "man" was an inclusive term: that was the traditional doctrine. It still is.

"Man" was thought to exist in a single continuum, from male to female. Men and women were thought to have the same reproductive equipment. The vagina was an inverted penis. The womb was "really" a scrotum. Men were hard; women soft. Men had strength, rationality, spirituality, superiority, activity. Women were weak, irrational, carnal, inferior, passive. No wonder ancient male saints preferred celibacy.

The idea that there are two sexes derives from the 18th century: it is not biblical. The many advances in the medical sciences, and especially anatomy, yielded the conclusion that male and female genitals, and so bodies, were different. One was not simply an imperfect version of the other.

Genesis 1.27 was regularly understood as referring to the continuum with masculinity at one end and femininity at the other. "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." To be male was to be more perfect. Paul believed this. "For a man . . . is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man" (1 Corinthians 11.7). In this obsolete, gendered view, marriage will always be a relation between a superior and an inferior being.

The difficulties of the Churches about sexuality, gender, and marriage can be explained in part by the loss of understanding of how these matters were once understood. Neither Church nor world has room for this ancient and prejudiced theory of gender, any more than we need the theory of humours that have to be kept in balance for us to be healthy. The assumption of male perfection and female misshapenness lies at the root of the belief that only the individuals at the more perfect end can represent the perfect Christ.

The wrongness of men's having sex with men is also explained by this ancient view. If a man is penetrated, he "feminises" himself. He compromises the very masculinity on which his likeness to the male God rests. An acknowledgement of this ancient view and the havoc it continues to cause would help us to disentangle revelation from culture, and provide a way out of flawed discussions about the sex of bishops and the sex lives of gay people.

Christians best understand marriage by means of their theological traditions. In two recent books, I have described marriage in six ways. First, it is a "communion of persons", able to reflect the image of the triune God. Second, it is a gift of bodies, like the gift of Christ's body to us in the eucharist. Third, it is a covenant, embodying the covenantal love of Christ for the Church. Fourth, it is an embodiment of divine love, as two people promise to love each other as God loves them both. Fifth, it is a mutual sacramental ministry, which the couple administer to each other, and which the Church recognises and blesses. Sixth, it is a unity of body, mind, and heart.

These rich models of marriage develop the marital teachings of the Christian faith, and resonate more powerfully and spiritually than dubious appeals to its intrinsic nature, or reference to the new-fangled and ugly notion of complementarity. Christian marriage illuminates the deep truths of the faith.

Of course, same-sex couples are just as able to embody these six models of marriage in their relationships as straight couples are. If the Church had believed in its teachings about marriage more rather than less, it could have offered marriage to same-sex couples inside the Church, instead of being grumpy about civil partnerships outside. And there would be less ambivalence towards marriage among lesbian and gay Christians.

Dr Adrian Thatcher is Visiting Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter. He is the author of God, Sex and Gender (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) and Making Sense of Sex (SPCK, 2012).

 

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