Tough Questions Today: Exploring theology of marriage, our Theology House conference, Friday evening to Saturday late afternoon, is over bar the posting of papers and (fingers crossed re me and technology) the audio recordings on the TH website by Thursday this week). I am very grateful to the contributors who provided papers of remarkable depth and, contrary to the expectations of some, managed to find some 'new ground' to ponder if not plough over. That's a general reflection from me, not a promise to analyse each paper in depth in subsequent posts!
Feedback given orally has been encouraging. That the event went well and that kind of supportive evaluation. Neither I nor any participant is under illusion that it was more than a contribution to the ongoing conversation of our church, let alone some 'final word.' I think all are agreed that the 'tone' of the event, that thing which is impossible to organise, was very good. By 'tone' I mean considerate, careful, caring approaches and attitudes to our conversations together. I am grateful to 120+/- participants for making that tone happen.
In reflecting on the event and its possible wider significance, I am wondering about two hunches on my part which arise from the whole event rather than from any one thing said in it or about it. In no particular order ...
1. Are we all, on all sides, tacitly recognising that the way forward is for all to converse together with deep respect and great caution? A large group will all get to the same destination if they walk together rather than break into two or more groups travelling at separate speeds.
2. Are we beginning to acknowledge that the way forward is to find the language, the framework, the description of the future which we can hold in common, rather than to hammer one or other 'position' in the hope that if we do so for long enough or loud enough then eventually those promoting other positions will give in or give up?
The second reflection picks up on at least two observations I make, both about conversation at the conference and elsewhere.
First, that the situation is, in fact, complex around arguing for change to 'marriage' itself. On the face of it, definition of marriage is straightforward to change, one simply 'extends' it or 'varies' it. One is for or against, say, 'marriage is only between a man and a woman' or 'marriage is between any two people'. The latter is just a variation of a few words or just an extension of the scope of 'who' may marry. But, in fact, responsible theology (as undertaken at the conference) recognises the deep 'givenness' of marriage within Scripture, the intricate relationship between creation in God's image, gender differentiation, procreation, companionship and the telos of creation expressed in marriage imagery. Marriage in theological terms is not a Concise Oxford definition. Change to definition is conceivable in theological terms but there is a lot of work to do and it has not yet been done. It might not get there in terms of finding common ground, hence the next observation.
Secondly, that the situation may yield a way forward which is discovered in terms associated with marriage but not in terms of marriage itself. When the church is not against gay people per se, when the church is for relationships and community life, and when the church is for sinners because we are all sinners and all fall short of the glory of God, we must be open (in the long run, at least) to finding the language of theological common ground which enables us to respect and cherish one another and the loving, permanent, stable, committed relationships we all form. In specific and concise terms, is there a way forward to be found when we talk about (one or more of) friendship, companionship, souls knitted together, households and family?
To put all this in another way: it is sometimes said of current debates that 'no one ever changes their minds.' Does that mean no one ever changes or will change their mind, or does that mean that we have not yet found the common mind people of differing and unchanging views might yet discover?
Here is my wildest hunch: everyone, deep down, wants to discover that common ground.