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Not to be taken in hand lightly

12 December 2014

Bernice Martin finds moral seriousness in the marriage debate

The Marriage Files: The purpose, limits and fate of marriage
Patricia Morgan
Wilberforce Publications £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.99 (Use code CT670 )

Covenant and Calling: Towards a theology of same-sex relationships
Robert Song
SCM Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT670 )

More Perfect Union? Understanding same-sex marriage
Alan Wilson
DLT £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT670 )

THESE books represent opposing views on same-sex marriage. All three have Evangelical provenance, which is not so surprising, since opinion polls show Evangelicals disturbed about the issue while liberal and "broad-church" sectors largely share the untroubled public acceptance of the 2014 legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Covenant and Calling: Towards a theology of same-sex relationships by Robert Song and More Perfect Union? Understanding same-sex marriage by Alan Wilson both propose a theology of same-sex marriage, but could hardly be more different in style and analyses. Robert Song, an academic theologian, served on the Pilling committee as one of its three advisers; Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, is celebrated as an Anglican bishop announcing his conversion from taken-for-granted disapproval to acceptance of same-sex marriage. Patricia Morgan believes same-sex marriage threatens the essence of marriage and the family. In The Marriage Files: The purpose, limits and fate of marriage, she presents a secular, social-scientific case against same-sex marriage, and a spirited defence of heterosexual "conjugality". The Oxford Centre for Religion in Public Life commissioned two pieces of research for the study, and its Director, Vinay Samuel, and Secretary, Chris Sugden, endorse Morgan's argument.

Wilson's is the most "popular" of the three: chatty, personalised, rhetorical, seasoned with jokes, and not embarrassed occasionally to use loaded depictions of opponents. Wilson was disconcerted by the politics underlying the non-appointment of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading in 2003 as an example of the Church's evasive handling of divisive issues. As he got to know partnered gay Christians in the 2000s, he reassessed his opposition to same-sex partnerships around three points: the moral implications of scientific evidence about sexual identity; the "fuss being kicked up" about the literal reading of "a remarkably small number" of biblical texts; and the growing chasm between the Church's largely implicit approach to sex and the increasing openness of people in the "secular" world as "public emotional repression" lifted.

He notes the rudimentary scientific understanding available to biblical writers and the Church Fathers who laid down the rules. Today science regards human sexuality not as a simple genetic binary, male/female, but as a spectrum combining several dimensions, and with considerable ambiguity about the precise balance of "genetic" and "cultural" elements. Individual differences on these dimensions are myriad, and do not warrant the depiction of gay, lesbian, and transgendered people as "unnatural", sick, or deviant.

For Wilson, a problem arises when we treat isolated biblical texts as definitive rather than recognise that it is the whole text that is authoritative. Texts need to be read in relation to the surrounding texts, some of which we ignore, such as the dietary taboos in the Mosaic Law. The biblical texts seen as definitive condemnations of homosexuality, the "clobber texts", often pose knotty problems of translation, and anyway should be approached with our own time's knowledge and problems in mind, not those of the ancient Hebrews, or of the Apostle Paul anticipating the End Time.

In short, Wilson employs the same hermeneutical approach as Christians have used to revise their interpretation of texts concerning slavery and race. Marriage is no different: it has evolved from the autocratic patriarchy of the Old Testament to a modern Western partnership of equals. The ability to procreate is not the sine qua non of marriage: Augustine believed that what made marriage a Christian vocation was not procreation or its role in inheritance, but its mirroring of God's Covenant with his people through the sanctification of permanence, stability, and fidelity. Same-sex marriage is no more than the overdue inclusion of marginalised people.

Song's Covenant and Calling begins from the theology of Creation, in which marriage is a created rather than a natural good. He, too, cites the divine Covenant as the model for the marriage bond. When God created humans in his own image, he made us male and female, and co-workers with him in the world. The faithful and permanent relationship of the partners and their intrinsic relationality as man and woman are inherent to the structure of marriage, as is the assignment of a common task that extends beyond their own intrinsic satisfactions to the procreation and nurture of children.

But we live in time suspended between Christ's resurrection and his second coming when there will be no more death and therefore no need for procreation. In this between-time, celibacy is an eschatological virtue, but marriage remains a Christian good, and Song makes a parallel case for covenant partnerships without procreation. This includes loving, faithful same-sex partnerships not solely for individuals' satisfaction, but to co- operate with God in the tasks of the world, such as relieving suffering and caring for those in need.

Morgan's concerns in The Marriage Files are not theological, but about the integrity of marriage and the effects of extending it to same-sex couples. For Morgan, procreation and the stable rearing of children are definitive, and modern, easily broken marriages are bad for children. Cohabitation, divorce, and single parenthood are correlated with higher risks of mental and physical ill-health, poorer educational and employment histories, and increases in marital instability in the next generation.

Second, Morgan presents evidence, much of it from the rhetoric of the early years of the gay-rights movement, about the fluid and unstable sexual relationships of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Gay campaigners sometimes regard this as superior to dreary monogamy, but it produces high rates of sexually transmitted disease, suicide, and mental as well as physical ill health.

Morgan speculates that the demand for equal rights for non-heterosexuals could well extend to forms of group marriage. She is unimpressed by the evidence about same-sex parenting. It has been claimed that once non-heterosexuals can marry the indices of harm and ill-health will fall, but Morgan finds the evidence meagre and not reassuring, even for Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal for longest. If the state continues to collude with adult self-concern at the expense of children's welfare, heterosexual marriage will remain in trouble, and same-sex marriage will simply import new ills into the institution.

Whether the family and marriage are "in crisis" remains a matter of debate; but Morgan's is a powerful critique, mainly based on quantit-ative data. It is a pity that she did not discuss cultural evidence of retreat from the values of the 1960s, and a (partial) rehabilitation of the ideals of marriage, or explain precisely how the state could reverse the trends that she deplores.

All three books are serious contributions to the debate, but much depends on how you judge changes in the culture of marriage and sexuality, on the hermeneutic with which you approach biblical models, and on your theological priorities. Song's conception of the marriage as a covenant partnership to perform the work of God in the world is the most morally demanding model that these books offer, as much for heterosexual as for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians.


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