This is the first article in our Anglican Church and Same-Sex Marriage series. See our Invitation to Dialogue if you would like to add your voice on this important topic which crosses ecclesial and denominational borders. You need not be Anglican to participate.
As became clear in the debates leading to and during the recent General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada’s (ACC) failed vote to amend the marriage canon, postmodern nomenclature concerning same-sex relations in particular and the queer experience of life in general is fraught with lexical ambiguity.
However, the real problem for the recent discussions of the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) is the lack of engagement with the tradition of the Church.
Brian Walsh, in his dismissal of the triad of the Anglican Church—Scripture, Reason, and Tradition—as insufficient, wishes to bring in the category of “experience”: LGBT+ Christians exist and want to be loved! Yet he forgets that marital love is not the only way to be loved.
While Walsh as a biblical scholar asserts the authority of the experience of LGBT+ Christians, it would seem that the scholars of historical tradition, Dr. Ephraim Radner and his disciples, wish to appeal to a form of reason peculiar for theologians, namely, empiricism, while touting Scripture as their authority!—saying, “No one has ever been born without procreative sex!” Apparently they forget the scriptural accounts of the birth of Adam, Eve, and Jesus Christ!
We are in the shallow end of theology.
We have competing visions of the biblical narrative and of what daily realities we should take account of. From these discussions it would seem that, as Anglicans sharing in the universal Catholic faith once for all delivered to the Saints, we indeed have no shared tradition! It is correct to say, as the motion at General Synod did, that there are two different understandings of marriage in the ACC.
What was not reasonably delineated was the content of these understandings, without which the discussion looks like the argument over interracial marriage—who can be included in marriage?—when the actual question is what is marriage? What is its purpose? What is the role of sexuality within the economy of salvation?
Dr. Radner, to his credit, attempts such a delineation when he writes in an open letter about the canon proposal:
This new doctrine changes marriage from a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman for procreation, to an erotic agreement between adults.
Pope Paul VI could not have written it any more poignantly.
It is a surprise, though, that they are fighting only against same-sex unions, when contraception, adoption, and the marriage of the elderly are all likewise non-procreative. Too reformed, it would seem, to agree outright with the logically consistent Roman Catholics, but too “traditionalist” to continue the line of argument present throughout the past century of the Anglican Church, which has been to make procreation a secondary good of marriage (This Holy Estate, 43-44).
“Erotic agreement” makes it seem like the unitive vision for marriage, the vision same-sex unions are built on, is merely a solemn form of prostitution, something feminists have argued is the case with traditional marriage!
Furthermore, how is the procreative vision for marriage not also an erotic agreement (cf. 1 Cor. 7)?
Lastly, is sexuality untethered from procreative intention really as slippery of a slope as we are told? The problem with this argumentation is that any slope can be made to be slippery with the slick oil of rhetoric. We are warned of the slippery slope to polygamy if we allow same-sex marriage, but this same argument has been used against the procreative vision.
If procreation is made the chief end of marriage, won’t we bring back antiquated gender roles? Won’t we bring back the surrogacy of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar? If the purpose is many children, won’t it soon be argued that a man could have more than one wife in order to have more children? Is there not Biblical precedent? What would prevent perfectly fertile 16 year old girls from being set-up in arranged marriages? etc….
While traditionalists ignore Roman Catholicism as their foundation, it is not unfair to say that the “pro” side is arrogant, manipulative, and likewise almost completely unhinged from tradition.
For instance, Walsh argues that “Fidelity to Jesus…calls us to a radical and embracive love for our LGBTQ+ siblings. Continued exclusion from marriage in the church does not demonstrate such embracive love.” The ahistorical narrative seems to be that there has always been self-identified LGBT+ people throughout history who have wanted to get married and the Church has continually, out of disgust for such people (homophobia), excluded such people from the sacrament of marriage, the way Protestants are excluded from the Roman Catholic Eucharist.
How did the primary definition of love in some churches become whether you will allow people to get married or not? If two siblings wished to get married, would anyone dare say that the Church was not “loving” them by not blessing their marriage? “Don’t draw such ridiculous equivalencies!” But to say that affirming same-sex marriage is the only “loving” position, this moralistic grandstanding is just as absurd in the minds of traditionalists.
Furthermore, we seem to obsess more about marriage as an expression of “love'”than the first millennium of the Church ever did. Rev. Maggie Helwig, rightfully seeing the subject in a wider historical scope than the Stonewall Riots, notes just how unimportant marriage was for the Church. Making the sacrament of marriage more “inclusive” has never been the Christian definition of love, which was so egalitarian that it did not care for any social institution, least of all “marriage.” To limit Christian love to such a newly invented “right to marry” is an insult to the radically egalitarian notion of love exemplified by celibate saints most of all. If Dr. Radner and his disciples are captive to the logic of the Roman Catholic understanding of natural law, which has been rejected by the Anglican Church for the past century, Walsh and others like him are so captive to contemporary understandings of “social justice,” “inclusion,” and letting the world equate love and marriage, that they do not realize that they have sacrificed the Church to the politically expedient present.
The ACC’s seeming ignorance of tradition leaves both sides, contra Dr. Christopher Brittain, without any theological rationale. Dr. Radner makes the entirety of the Christian Gospel dependent upon procreation in a way foreign to the entire New Testament and evangelicalism itself. Walsh does not seem to have any rationale other than some vague empathy, which is not ever what the Christian Church has rooted itself in, for it would leave it susceptible to conforming to this world.
In the ACC, we are caught in a false binary of either returning to Roman Catholic understandings of natural law, thus reversing a century of uniquely Anglican development, or of having the Church bow its entirety identity to the dictates of civil society.
Let us see the retrieval of tradition such as has been done by Giacomo Sanfilippo and Sarah Coakley as desirable! We are caught between either preserving something we have not had for the past century—a marriage ethic focused on procreation—or of acquiescing to the dictates of a secular culture that has no love for God. Retrieval of the monastic tradition, of the sacramental practice of “brother/sister-making,” of the importance of erotic love in the divine economy, of a focus on the sacramental witness of marriage as opposed to its function, and finally of a church that is hospitable to all, without exception, regardless of the institution of family—retrieval of these traditions of the Church is the more viable alternative for the future of LGBT+ people within the Church.
Then they really will be in the Church, not in the culture silos of a heteronomative idolatrous view of family or at the mercy of fashionable political trends.
Do I believe in same-sex marriage? Not on the terms provided by the ACC. But if this retrieval were to take place, I do truly believe that LGBT+ people would have a life filled with divine love either as honored monastic saints or as monogamous faithful spouses to one another, instead of the despair of forced celibacy, self-hatred, or false hope.
See the Anglican Churcn and Same-Sex Marriage, Fifty Years after Stonewall, and Sexuality and Gender sections in our Archives by Author & Subject.
Caleb Upton holds an MTh from the University of Edinburgh. He is a member of the Anglican Church of Canada and an MDiv student at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. He has written for Political Theology Today and Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and blogs at calebdupton.
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