I continue this series in the belief that the unexamined report is not worth having. I am having some interesting conversations "off blog" as well as those in comments here and on Bosco Peters' Liturgy blog, especially in this thread. As a result of those conversations I want to acknowledge that at times my critique may not sufficiently acknowledge the constraints of the working group (e.g. constrained by Motion 30 to come up with a "process and structure" rather than do theological work), though I also maintain that when any such constrained report has sections with words like "theology" and "doctrine" in their titles, then theological work, no matter how concise, is being done.
Section Five - An Introductory Comment or two
This section is entitled, "An accompaniment to the proposed schedule" which means that it is an enlarged theological explanation of the "schedule" (i.e. explanatory comment/essay added to a canon in order to set the rule made in a theological framework) which is proposed for the proposed canon concerning blessing of civil marriages. Later, in Section 10, we get the actual proposed schedule. Thus there is a certain awkwardness in the placing of this section: it flows from the previous "theological" sections but it should be read just before or after Section 10!
In summary, as the section itself explains, "This section explains the schedule to the proposed canon permitting a liturgy to bless those who have entered a civil marriage."
At precisely this point, however, we need to ask what the report means by "bless those who have entered a civil marriage." If the report means that civil marriage (different genders, same genders) is more or less theologically the same thing, then Section Five works quite well as an explanation for blessing civil marriages, not least because it seems to blur any lines of theological distinction between blessing a same-gender civil marriage and blessing a different-gender civil marriage.
But if the report means that civil marriages bear some theological distinction between same-gender marriages and different-gender marriages then this section does not maintain that distinction. Why might we think that, at least in one or two places, the report does make such a theological distinction?
(1) The very fact that the report and its recommendations provides for dioceses to choose not to bless same-gender civil marriages implies that it understands that some in our church make such a distinction.
(2) p. 9 says "The group's proposal (in line with its commission) to propose a service of blessing of same-sex relationships does not (in the view of the majority of the members) impact the current doctrine of marriage. It is accepted that the blessing of a relationship has some similarities with the rites of marriage, but even as the two are alike in many ways they are not the same. Neither would a doctrine of same-sex relationships be the same as the doctrine of marriage."
(3) p. 12 acknowledges that what is proposed by the report and its recommendations "will fall short of some Christian same-sex couples' hopes because they cannot be married 'in church'."
One difficulty associated with the question of the report's understanding of "civil marriage" is what that understanding means for "marriage." Repeatedly the report takes pains to line up with Motion 30 and assert that no change to the "traditional" doctrine of marriage is envisaged, but the report envisages a change to (at least) our understanding of civil marriage between a man and a woman. Formerly such a relationship was considered, by the traditional doctrine of marriage to be a valid (in eyes of God as well as in eyes of the state) marriage resulting in a rightly ordered relationship with respect to ordination/appointment. The underlying theological point being (H/T Malcolm Falloon and comments made at ADU recently) that in marriage the couple marry each other: the priest/bishop does not marry the couple. If the recommendations of the report are accepted then this "traditional" acceptance of the validity of civil marriage will no longer be the case. Thus (despite, I am sure, the best intentions of the working group) our doctrine of marriage is changed by this report and its recommendations, if they are accepted.
So, I acknowledge, in what follows, that I am not overly enthusiastic about what I read in Section Five because I find it confusing, relative to what the report's presupposed view on marriage is. However I am but one cog in the many wheels of our church. The question is whether multiple readers of this section are enthusiastic about it. Is it clear? Is it persuasive? I look forward to your comments.
Outline of Section Five
Preamble (p. 13)
1. Love (pp. 13-14)
2. Union (pp. 14-15)
3. Covenant (pp. 15-16)
4. Gift (pp. 16-17)
5. Household (pp. 17-18)
I do not have all the time in the world, so I am not hereafter engaging in a comprehensive critique. Your comments may well fill out the missing bits.
Two key points:
a. There should be teaching about "blessing of marriages that were not conducted by a Christian minister". Yes!
b. The preamble clearly states what is going on re such blessings in the life of the church: "... and who have not received a formal pronouncement of the blessing of the God we know in Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Church offers and announces that blessing for five primary reasons:"
But here is a great difficulty. Precisely in the preamble the report refrains from distinguishing between the blessing of a civil marriage between a man and a woman and the blessing of a civil marriage between two people of the same sex. But the former is not a matter of controversy in the life of the church. The latter is a matter of controversy in the life of the church.
On the one hand (a point impressed on me in one of my conversations this past week) the working group was not tasked with sorting this controversy by going back to first theological principles etc on the matter.
On the other hand, because the matter is controversial, a report proposing a schedule (i.e. a theological explanation) and an explanation of the schedule could be expected to offer something in either the explanation or the schedule or both which offers some sense of how "the blessing of the God we know as Trinity" can be offered for that which some/many in "the Church" (let alone many other churches) do not think can be offered. I do not find much of the latter in this section. But there are some signs!
1. Love (pp. 13-14)
I find this section odd in places. I have no idea, for instance, why this section takes time out of explaining love as a reason for God blessing a relationship to make a teaching point about the difference between "self-giving" and "self-sacrifice." The point of this section is not to teach what love is but to teach why God blesses a loving relationship. A pertinent but overlooked text is 1 John 4:16. I suggest a stronger case could have been made in this section for God blessing any civil marriage, because such a marriage demonstrates the willing intent of two people to be bound together in love for life. If there is any aspect of a same-sex relationship which any Christian of any persuasion could contemplate (especially on the basis of 1 John 4:16) God blessing, it is the (faithful, stable, permanent, lifelong) love between the two.
2. Union (pp. 14-15) Since my original posting a few hours ago I have decided to revise the "tone" of this section of my review in a more diplomatic direction. The substance of my critique is unchanged.
It is a challenge to give credit to this part of Section Five.
A. I find it difficult to give credit here because in the present controversy it is a challenge to credit that:
- there is citation of certain scholars but not of others;
- there is bold pronouncement without argument that "the Genesis texts are freighted with more weight than they were designed to bear" and "To go to them to discern what God's will for us in creation is always fraught."
- the bold pronouncements made about the Genesis texts are then followed by "However, we can recall that the problem in Genesis 2 ... and it was this that gave rise ...". Ironically, Genesis texts are made in the same paragraph to bear weight as God's will for creation is discerned.
- all this in a report studiously trying to avoid theological foundationalism!!!
B. The bottom paragraph on p. 14, governed alone in terms of scholarship by just one scholar, makes the controversial claim that despite Genesis 2 and its problem of aloneness being met by the solution of the creation of the "other" sex, "we can see that this desire looks beyond the surface of a binary, heteronormative world. It is expressed not in finding a partner of the opposite sex but a partner of the apposite sex." Oh, such a neat aphorism: "opposite ... apposite"! But this play on words, is it in fact supported by the text of Genesis 2? By what Jesus himself makes of Genesis 2? What scholarship - apart from Trible - underlines the aphoristic conclusion? What argued resolution of the controversy in scholarship over such a move is exhibited by the report?
Incidentally, none of my concerns are assuaged when, over the page, 15, the final paragraph cites Ephesian 5 as though it too is gender neutral.
In the end, the great weakness in the discussion on "union" here is that it avoids discussing the question of whether there is a distinction to be made between the union of male and female (union of difference) and between the union of male and male or female and female (union of sameness).
If we say there is no distinction to be made, then what are we to make of talk of "bodily union" (as this part of Section Five) because that means we are talking about union which unites bodies as well as hearts and minds, and there are differences between uniting two sexually differentiated bodies and two that are sexually indifferent to each other. If we say there is a distinction to be made, then this part fo the report does not make it.
3. Covenant (pp. 15-16)
OK, please call me fussy, but this, a bit like the section on love, is somewhat odd to my logical tastes. Logical tastes: why distractingly sidetrack in the second paragraph into talk about "unequal power"? Why not start with and stick with the point further down the paragraph about God's covenants with God's people being exercises in grace (as all the covenants are, not just the new covenant of redemption)? The point of this explanation is about covenant as reason for God's blessing, not general teaching on the character of covenants. Thus the words towards the bottom of p. 15 represent a strong point about covenant: when we enter covenants as a sign of our mimetic constancy, one person to another, we offer something which is godly.
4. Gift (pp. 16-17)
There is some marvellous writing in this section, inspired by the greatness of Rowan Williams' deep insight into "desire". I am not sure what it adds, however, to the sections on Love and Covenant.
More importantly, it exalts "desire" in respect of loving relationships without anchoring "desire" to the ordering of relationships. When the report writes, "It also places desire not as some aspect of our lives that in order to be holy needs to be channelled toward some worthy instrumental purpose (for example, procreation), rather, our desire for each other can simply be for the joy and delight of each other and this is the divinely purposed end of desire", we can imagine a couple having an adulterous affair saying "Amen" (because their desire for each other is for the joy and delight of each other (and, presumably, takes great care to avoid complicating instrumental purpose such as procreation).
Again, the point can also be made, that the citations made in this section are loaded in one direction.
But, to end on a positive note, the sections on Love and Covenant potentially chart a plausible way forward to blessings of all civil marriages.
5. Household (pp. 17-18)
I just find it a little odd when any part of the church, be it individual or group, writes one thing in one section and another thing in another section ... so in part 4 of this section we find eloquence about desire fulfilled, now in part 5 we find "parallels between the monastic life and the married life." Further, "We can speak of marriage as an ascetic vocation." Maybe. But the monk knowingly embraces a life in which particular desires are not going to be fulfilled and the engaged person embraces through marriage a life in which particular desires are going to be fulfilled. Yes, with respect to the Evdokimov citation, both forms of life are for sanctification. But, again, the logician in me says, What purpose is forwarded by this (arguable, controvertible) comparison between monasticism and marriage?
I also find, logically, that the shift in these paragraphs (over into the first on p. 18) is actually away from "household" and towards "discipleship." The two concepts are not necessarily the same. In fact, by the end of the section, we are talking "sanctification" rather than "household."
Then, at the top of p. 18, as highlighted here sometime back by Bryden Black, it is incredible that Pius XI's Encyclical On Christian Marriage is cited in support of the discipleship aspects of married life. No papal encyclical ever has endorsed, or implied by indirect hint endorsement, of any kind of same-sex partnership, let alone a blessed one. Why co-opt the encyclical in this present context? Yes, the citation is useful around what it claims is the "chief reason and purpose of matrimony" but even then, the larger point of the encyclical concerns marriage being open to procreation (in, apparently, direct opposition to the 1930 Lambeth Conference endorsing the use of contraception), so to excerpt this particular citation is to fail to honour the larger point of the encyclical. (Academically, the problem could be that the writer is citing the encyclical from another writer, Rogers, as indicated in footnote 29, and thus perhaps the encyclical has not actually been consulted ...).
So it is perhaps a picky point, but I am left wondering whether "Household" is an accurate title for this section which could even better been titled "Sanctification."
Although the report does not provide a separate heading such as "Conclusion" for the final two (or possibly three) paragraphs on p. 18, I take these last two paragraphs to constitute ...
"the Conclusion to Section Five."
Perhaps rather than "critique" this section with its interesting moves re who is blessing what, and what "blessing" means re asking for as well as announcing God's blessing, let's leave this section for you to comment on, dear readers!
Does it make sense re "blessing"?
What does it mean to be "fully alive" to the glory of God?
(How would we know that?)
My overall conclusion
This is a patchy section. Good in parts, odd in parts, distracting in parts. Can we find the good here (perhaps in the parts on Love and on Covenant)? Can we agree on what it is that might constitute a theological basis for blessing same-sex civil marriages?