Marriage is between a man and a woman, and always has been. But friendships are not so gender particular.
As we digest the recent Hermeneutical Hui, news from Britain of gay marriage passing the first legislative hurdle (by a very clear margin), and the fact that both our church (if Taonga's headline about the hui is correct) and the British parliament is out of sync with the CofE by being in disagreement with the ABC, it is worth thinking as clearly, as carefully and as care-fully as possible. We are, after all, as Christians, called to love God, Christ, his church, our brothers and sisters in Christ, family, friends, neighbours and even enemies: that is just a little bit suggestive of clarity, care and cherishing one another as we discern the right thing to do.
One of the most important things I heard said at the hui was said by a friend of mine who is both openly gay and living transparently with his partner. (In my words, save where quotation marks are used) he said that he sees marriage as involving complementarity and thus it does not work for two people of the same gender, rather he proposes the idea of "committed friendship."
Interestingly this line of thought (which he freely acknowledges is not a majority view within the gay community he moves within) accords with a perceptive note struck by Doug Chaplin as he reflects on the British parliamentary debate:
"There are, in short, new queer as well as old straight voices insisting that the two relationships are not the same kind of thing. Whether these relationships should be given equality in the same institution, or be given two equal but different institutions is a serious and genuine question."
(In passing, two good opinions re the Brit situation here and here).
"A serious and genuine question" strikes an important note as we debate matters here and elsewhere in these islands. Changing our definition of marriage whether at a popular or legislative or ecclesiological or theological level is "serious" and thus we should be able to ask "genuine questions" about what an alternative approach might be.
Notwithstanding some bold and imaginative attempts at the hui to argue that marriage, theologically, could be understood as encompassing any two persons and not simply a man and a woman, I and other conservatives remain unpersuaded that the case has been made. I would go further, personally, and say that the case cannot be made, that the embeddedness of complementarity, of the couple needing to be gender differentiated for marriage as revealed by God to his people to be the one flesh, potently procreative relationship intended by God is as unchangeable as 1+2=3.
Nevertheless if that conclusion is clear and careful thinking in respect of Scripture-based theology, what about the matter of care-fullness or cherishing of one another in Christ? How do we make space in our church, for instance, for my friend and his partner? From a conservative perspective can anything supportive be said about same sex couples who understand their relationship as a "committed friendship" and who may have entered into a "civil union" here or a "civil partnership" in the UK?
Something I hope we can say is that we believed in the value of committed friendships, of friends who identify their closeness in specific terms, "Fred is not just one of my many friends but my best friend. We are mates for life." Biblically we see such friendships in the obvious and much discussed examples of Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, and Jesus and the Beloved Disciple. That some make more of these examples in respect of blessed partnerships than others would like need to not deter us from finding common ground, that the Bible praises friendship and offers examples of 'particular friendships.'
Naturally the question arises (at least, I find it arises when these matters are discussed at an event such as the hui) whether sexual engagement between such friends is sinful or not. Alongside which question I also find very quickly we engage with (putting it politely) interesting interpretations of the stories of the three sets of characters mentioned above. (Indeed The Love of David and Jonathan is the title of a very recently published book by James Harding, one of the presenters at the hui, who lectures in Old Testament at Otago University. No greater depth has this relationship been explored than the words laid down therein by James). Such interesting readings of these stories, in my view, represent a fixed view that there are same sex relationships in which sex is not sinful and may even be in biblical contexts blessed by God
It is no part of my conservative reflection here to argue (again) that homosex is sinful. But it is part of my reflection to point out that while we are a church in which it may not be too late to steer towards "committed friendship" rather than "marriage" as description for covenanted same sex partnerships, it is too late to undo the determination made by many that in such partnerships, sex is right, not wrong.
Thus, at least for those of us who are determined not to depart from our church, we must ask whether there is a way forward other than disunity. That is, if we could agree in our church, even better in the Communion as a whole, on affirming committed friendships while disagreeing on whether sex between two men or two women is sinful, how could we live together in Christ?
That, I think takes us to Romans 14-15, and the question of living with sharp disagreement in a united church. We should stop by there for a while before assessing other options, whether +Jim White's "we just would stay together, like pacifists and militarists" or (without attaching the idea to any one named leader in our church) the possibility of new episcopal arrangements for our church.
On Waitangi Day, here in Aotearoa NZ, where we celebrate our differences as two peoples and wonder about our unity as one country, that might be an appropriate point to end this post. I will come back to Romans 14-15 when time permits.