Questions Facing the Episcopal Church Over Redefining Marriage

Written by: Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner
Thursday, June 18th, 2015

The factual question

Men, women and children are distinct and united in their living forms. As a man and a woman unite in sexual intercourse, a child is conceived and then given birth. The physical elements involved in this are obvious and particular. The bond between a mother and her child is among the deepest that is experienced, and goes beyond (but includes) hormones and breast-feeding. It is shaped through a range of physical elements still not well understood. The relationship of a father to this bonded unity has been socially prescribed and encouraged in a variety of ways over time, mainly to uphold the father’s protection and support of the lives of the mother and their child. There is a raft of historical, and much contemporary social evidence, that the weakening of a father’s general, but very concrete role, has harmful effects on mothers and children both, as well as (less well understood) on fathers’ own well-being.

Marriage, understood as between a man and woman, has primarily engaged these realities, and, in various cultural forms, has been defined by them intimately and definitively. Every society within the history of the world that we know of has not only understood marriage as the profound locus of human coming-to-be in this way, but has also been committed to finding ways to guard and strengthen this reality. Not all male-female couplings give rise to the conception of children; but every such coupling derives from a previous procreative marriage, by definition. Hence, marriage has almost always been sacralised in some way as standing at the basis of human life.

TEC’s proposed redefinition of marriage goes to the heart of these realities. It is not primarily about whether two men or two women can live together as physically intimate and emotionally connected couples. That has already been decided by the civil courts, and by wider cultural affirmations, permissions, or indifference. Rather, the attempt to redefine marriage has as its outcome the dismantling of the unique reality of man-woman-child relationships that human beings have, to this point, uniquely and universally upheld.

To call other human relationships “marriage”, and to render this broader range of relationships equivalent to the mother-father-child ordering of human coming-to-be is quite effectively to unravel the concept of birth-mothers and -fathers, the unbreakable bond between mothers and their children, and the deep responsibilities of fathers to their birth-giving families. Not only is the concept unraveled, but all these realities are now no longer deemed necessary to human life, but rather optional. Indeed, the optionality of marriage, not as a definition but as the fundamental locus of human coming-to-be is what the redefinition of marriage, such as that proposed by TEC, is all about.

The church must ask itself if, indeed, the father-mother-child elements are interchangeable in human and social value with – mean the same thing as — man-man and woman-woman and man-man-child and woman-woman-child forms of human coming-to-be. It is not enough to say that there have always been “exceptions” to the forms of human marriage: alternative arrangements here and there, childlessness, elderly couplings. None of these adjusted exceptions have ever sought to redefine marriage, optionalize it and thus effectively to dismantle it.

The religious question

At the root of the division over human marriage that proposed changes like TEC’s have engendered is a stark question regarding the status of the facts of mother-father-child marriage outlined above: do these facts have divine and thus revelatory significance? That is, does the fact that children (and thus the partners of future marriages) are physically born from male-female sexual coupling, or that mothers and their children are bound by the deepest of physiological and psychological ties, or that fathers have always had the strongest moral responsibilities towards their mates and children, or that the mother-father-child relationship has been both deeply given as well as protected in the experience of human beings – does any of this in particular have divine revelatory significance? If it does have such significance, does it need to be examined, reflected upon, delighted in, cherished, and submitted to?

Those who favor redefining marriage have basically answered “no” to this question.

Sometimes, they are not aware that they have answered “no”, because they insist that their redefinition need not preclude granting divine revelatory significance to human marriage and the elements that constitute it; instead, they say, they are only adding newly affirmed elements to the traditional definition. However, the “no” is still at work in such arguments, largely because they have not in fact engaged the actual elements of marriage with the detailed care that a “yes” answer compels.

The current Marriage Taskforce Report is a good example of such an obscured “no”. A Christian needs to know, for instance, what we learn about God and our relationship to God from the human fact of a mother breastfeeding her child as a fundamental aspect of that child’s survival and life. The highly abstract ways in which proposals for redefining marriage either ignore outright or skate over these very particular elements of marriage amount, in effect, to a refusal to grant divine status to such elements themselves.
Indeed, such obscured “no”s to the question of human marriage’s divinely revelatory significance strongly contribute to the dismantling of human marriage. They fail to provide the kinds of detailed religious understanding of the actual elements of marriage in a way that could at least withstand the complete and self-conscious rejection of their divine character by others who have no interest at all in any kind of marriage. This goes to the well-founded concern by many that TEC’s marriage proposals are simply under-examined, poorly considered, and thus ultimately irresponsible.

One area where this under-examination and poorly-considered approach to redefinition has been evident is in the treatment of Scripture itself. Those who claim that the detailed elements of human marriage outlined above have divine revelatory significance generally see their claims as inextricably bound up with the witness of Scripture. They even insist that this Scriptural witness is prima facie or self-evidently descriptive of human marriage as a mother-father-child locus of human coming-to-be. Because the Scriptures themselves are rich and complex, such claims can probably never be decisively proven. But those who reject the prima facie witness of Scripture regarding human marriage are at a disadvantage that they must overcome by the kinds of engagement with the details of marriage that has been lacking.

So, for instance, proponents of redefining marriage must be able, not only to muse about, but actually provide a convincing reason why Genesis 2:24 — “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” – should not be seen as definitive of the divinely revelatory aspects of marriage, especially since this verse is repeated in the New Testament by Jesus and Paul.

The verse itself has been subject to a vast tradition of Jewish and Christian examination, reflection, delight, cherishing, and submission. Literally thousands of the greatest minds, hearts, scholars, and saint, not to mention the common faithful, have engaged this verse as a way of understanding what God is saying about human beings as they come to be in the world. The Jewish interpretation of the verse, embodied by Rashi and others, is that the “one flesh” is not primarily about the unitive character of marriage between a man and a woman, but about the child they conceive (an interpretation taken over by some Christians, including contemporary people of such towering intellect as Jean-Luc Marion). Married partners are themselves children of parents, “leaving father and mother”, and coming together in a way that issues in life-giving. The interpretation may be unconvincing, but it marks an example of what taking the Scripture’s straight-forward texts regarding marriage demands in terms of focus. And those who wish to ignore, quickly pass over, or dismiss outright the central importance of texts like Genesis 2:24 have moved outside the communion of reflection that a “yes” to the divinely revelatory aspects of Christian marriage has, over the millennia, gathered. Whether intentional or not, such a failure amounts to a “no”.

Another example, with respect to Scripture, of what is required for a faithful “yes” to God’s revealing work within the human bodies and relations of marriage, involves, not focusing on a single verse, but understanding the relationship of verses to the Scriptural breadth. In the case above, for example, Genesis 2:24 should not be read alone; it only makes sense in conjunction to the creating by God of “the human being” as “male and female” (e.g. in Gen. 1:27). Such a connection properly underlines the revelatory character of marriage’s details as lying in divine creation itself. It furthermore shows how the “goods” of marriage between a man and a woman are defined from the direction of creaturely life and life-giving: the love they have for one another is the love of the two parenting sexes, whether children are given, taken away, or withheld. Our current Book of Common Prayer has understood this well.

Or, to take a more complex example, proponents supporting the redefinition of marriage in the church have often pointed to Leviticus as a singularly unhelpful place to engage God’s revelation, noting this or that verse that seems obviously irrelevant to modern moral sensibilities (e.g laws regarding clean and unclean; repugnant punitive actions; uncomfortable relational commands). Again, though, there is a millennia-long set of traditions by Jews and Christians both of trying to take this book seriously as divinely revelatory, and in a way that is coherent with the divinely revelatory details of human coming-to-be. While the traditions of interpretation in this case are various, the goal has been responsibly unified. One of the great “rules” for such interpretation is that individual verses be coordinated with the larger purposes of Israel’s communal life as described in Scripture. Rather than seeing individual verses of Leviticus regarding sexual relations of men and women as simply representing culturally distant and now rejected forms of power-relationships, the tradition has insisted that these verses reveal God’s being and intentions through their coordination with elements like Leviticus’ later discussion of Jubilee and its genealogical justice; and thereby (for Christians), their revelation of God’s own act of genealogical redemption in Christ.

A “yes” to the divinely revelatory aspects of Christian marriage must make a concerted and profound effort to engage the Scriptures in their interconnected disclosure of God. A failure to do so amounts to a “no” regarding such divine revelation.

The Church must ask itself if attempts at redefining marriage, as in the Marriage Taskforce Report, have taken seriously the revelatory character of Scripture, in its self-evident claims and its exquisitely framed breadth, regarding the divine significance of human marriage. And if such seriousness has been offered, has its alternative interpretations convincingly overthrown the enormous communion of interpretative care that has constituted that which innovators oppose?

What General Convention must decide

Answers to these questions are not insignificant; rather, they are of the most profound imaginable. They touch on what a human being is, and how this is connected with God’s own self-revelation. This is why the questions themselves are so divisive.

Classical Christians – those who identify themselves with that communion of interpretative care that is now being rejected –agree that human marriage does not physically, logically, or divinely support a redefinition that could include same-sex couples. Other Christians who do not identify with this classic understanding may support or at least accept formally acknowledged same-sex relationships of intimate friendship, including civil unions. They may even be prepared to accept the place of children in such relationships, seeing the grace of adoptive parenting in particular circumstances as a profound value.

But all Christians should uphold the presumptive rights of children to be raised by their biological mother and father, and should uphold the presumptive duties of mothers and fathers to raise together their own children. This is of the very nature of the mother-father-child soil that God has called human marriage. These are immovable claims. That is to say, while there are questions that some Christians might argue are open to a variety of answers and pastoral outcomes, they are nonetheless questions to be answered to the side of the fundamental reality of human marriage. The church can properly deal with these questions only if human marriage itself is not allowed to be dismantled as the factual and revelatory reality the church has insisted it is.

The Episcopal Church, in its upcoming General Convention, is not deciding on the value of gay persons or their life together. It is deciding whether it will affirm, support, and cherish human marriage.