6/12/2015

Episcopal Church and its ruminations on Marriage, and the baggage we all carry.

The Task Force on the Study of Marriage has made their report to General Convention. There are resolutions from a variety of sources regarding marriage rites. There are all sorts of highfalutin articles purporting to give a robust (what ever that is) theology of marriage.  There is a good round up of current articles on the Study on The Lead, HERE.

Well, there it is.

The various pieces of proposed legislation on marriage will take up a great deal of air time at General Convention and could suck all the air out of the room.  Nominees for Presiding Bishop will no doubt be asked what they think is the way forward on producing a single liturgical piece for all blessings of unions, or not. There will be pressure to hold off and "study" some more. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth - often teeth of the false sort.

So here is my problem with all the sound and fury.

As far as I can tell, marriage is irrelevant to the central plot of the Christian message of vocation to attend to the Word of God. That is, marriage, as an activity engaged in by some, but not all, Christians cannot be considered central to the human experience of engagement with the Holy One and by extension engagement with one another.

It might very well be that some in marriage do experience the Holy present in their common life, in or out of bed. It may be that some see their vocation as a sanctification of otherwise sinful activities, or as a basis for building a family that in turn will find sanctification by way of raising up new believers in the faith, or whatever.

But the deal is, Jesus wasn't married (at least by most accounts), did not have much to say about it from personal experience, didn't recommend it to his followers as an expectation, and referenced it only in the context of his being a teacher or rabbi. No one disputes that as a teacher he was a pretty good one. But he did not develop anything like a theology of marriage, or a theology of anything vaguely engaging marriage as a central core matter.

His followers had little to say about marriage, except that Paul opined that sex in marriage was preferable to sexual relations outside marriage... better to marry then burn, etc.

So what's the big deal?

The big deal is that by the time anything like the Church in England, the Church of England, and then all of us out there in the provinces, got going the word has been that marriage is bound up with creation and the new creation in Jesus Christ. And, oh by the way, marriage was a civil / religious contract. Marriage was not an engagement of equals, and mostly still is not. Still, marriage was an example of a covenant and bond that echoed, even at some distance, the call for people to be bound together in covenant of love and faithfulness, that call being what the vocation to the Christian life in community was about. 

It has become, however, mucked up in a rather wide range of expectations having little to do with scripture, the call to the common life, or faith.  Look at the preface to the Marriage Service. There it says the following:

  1. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, 
  2. and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. 
  3. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and 
  4. Holy Scripture  commends it to be honored among all people.
The proposition in the Preface to the Marriage service is in four parts. 

The first of these, that "the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation..." is a theological and biblical nightmare. Bonding and covenanting may be something built into human nature and therefore a part of who we are as created, but marriage?  "Marriage" is a word loaded with meanings that were simply not there, either at the creation or in whatever desire there is to bond and covenant built into our DNA.There is good argument that "marriage" as we understand it today is an invention of modernity. What was there from the creation is more like "community."

The second has to do with Our Lord working a miracle at a wedding in Cana. To propose that by doing so he "adorned this manner of life," is wonderful as a poetic device, but not much else. We may, I suppose, be glad that his first miracle was not on the occasion of a party at a circumcision, in which case the argument for us gentile men being included in the Christian community would have been much more difficult. The reason for more drink would of course have been obvious. Listening to the cries of the newly circumcised calls for wine.

The third is the theological dooze. That marriage should signify the mystery of the union between Christ and the church opens up the question, "How does it signify?" as well as the question, "is that then what Marriage is good for... to be a sign of something else?" A lot of the commentary on the report of the Committee had to do with this section of the Preface. I have to say I have been mostly unmoved by arguments that give marriage a special status on the basis of it signifying something else - anything else.

The notion that Holy Scripture commends marriage to be honored among all people is true. But what sort of marriage? One with multiple wives? One in which there are no children? And why? Is it about honoring promises made by people to each other or is it about property that belongs to this or that man?  This statement speaks to the reality that marriage has indeed been commended as a contract to be honored. Which is quite different from commended as something all right thinking people must undertake.


So we have packed into marriage a variety of ideas: that something about marriage is part of creation from the beginning, that it was no accident that Jesus did his first miracle in a marriage, that it signals something about the relationship of Christ to the church, and that it is a contract to be honored. 

All of this puts pressure on us to anti up and put our bets on marriage as understood through the Christian lens of say 1600.  We have at least changed the reasons for marriage a bit since then, deciding that perhaps there are better reasons for marriage than the avoidance of fornication.  But in the end it is clear as a bell that marriage was and is mostly understood as being about procreation (that's why there are men and women), it is dear to Jesus' heart, it is (in some way mysterious indeed) a reflection of the relation of Christ to the church, and that there are contracts involved, contracts that until recently were decidedly biased towards male property rights.

But all of this is refection by the Church at various stages of its life history. Some is based on events and sayings from the time of Jesus, some echoes ancient marriage covenant concerns, some is decidedly from the middle ages. Almost none of it, however, concerns matters central to the Christian witness or condition.

So I am unmoved by the many paths and arguments being put forward about the marriage canons and rites.

I am moved by those who feel deprived of the benefits, etc. I am moved by couples being able to ask for and receive a blessing on their relationship, by virtue of being baptized members of the Body of Christ. 

But, dear friends, I think changing or not changing who it is who can receive blessing for covenanted and bonded relationships is not a core matter of faith. It is a core matter for the Church, and is in that regard about justice. 

So my enduring interest in the matters related to marriage in the Episcopal Church have to do with justice, not theology (except to throw out a great deal to theological rubbish.)

It has been made a theological rather than a justice matter in some circles by convoluted theological and social argument. To those who argue by such means I say, "get a life."  To those who argue for a more inclusive blessing circle, watch it that you don't fall into similar theological muck. 

I believe the best thing we could do at this General Convention would be to prohibit clergy from signing the civil documents for marriage, and release them to bless those who are part of the church and who come forward for a blessing of their covenant and union. It would have to be made clear that such blessing has no bearing on their civil status at all.

And, as a reminder, Jesus adorned the life of wandering about with friends and followers a lot more than he did marriage. A marriage was an occasion for a miracle, not one that did people much good, but a miracle. The walk about life was the occasion for a much more substantial miracle - the proclamation of the Word of God to people and the building of a new community. Jesus adorned this manner of life a lot more than he did marrage.

We need to jump the theological fence and ask a simpler question.  Since marriage is not a cure for sin, and all married people are sinners in their marriage just as all single people are sinners in their singleness, and all same sex unions are sinners in their unions, and so forth, the question is this:  When members of the congregation ask a blessing on their attempt to live into a more perfect union, do we or don't we say "Yes"?  And how do we answer, in the shadow of the Cross and in the light of God's grace?


8 comments:

The Rev. J. Carlyle Gill said...

I'm with you! I'm for the wandering life - spreading the good news of God's grace.

June Butler said...

"I believe the best thing we could do at this General Convention would be to prohibit clergy from signing the civil documents for marriage, and release them to bless those who are part of the church and who come forward for a blessing of their covenant and union. It would have to be made clear that such blessing has no bearing on their civil status at all."

Amen from my heart.

As for the miracle at Cana, it seems to me that the miracle could just as well have been done because Jesus, prompted by his mother, felt sympathy for the embarrassment that the hosts of the wedding party experienced when they did not provide enough wine for their guests. Or perhaps he liked to see people enjoy themselves and made more wine for the guests after they had drunk all the wine that was provided. The story seems a shaky basis for a theology of marriage or the conclusion that marriage is a sacrament of the church.

Amidst all the verbiage, doing justice is what matters, and justice is to offer the blessing of the church to couples who commit themselves one to the other in marriage.

Peter Carrell said...

That is a post worth reading! Thank you.

Cathy said...

Be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

To call for social justice in the Christian sense necessitates a degree of
theology whether one likes it or not. For in Christ alone the concept of
Justice is transformed - it is possible by the cross for both justice and
mercy to co-exist.

One only needs to look at the life of Martin Luther King Jr. as an example
of this - he strove for justice and mercy based on a biblical mandate.

Therefore I think while it may be easy to dismiss 'theology' around the
issue of changing the precedent for joining of couples, if we do not let the bible inform
our decisions, might we not just as well be atheists?

Cheers
Cathy

Lionel Deimel said...

Thank you for talking sense about marriage, an idea that was not invented by the church but hijacked by it. I have always thought the analogy to Christ and his Church is nonsense. If that’s what marriage signifies, what does divorce signify? (The analogy helps explain the Christ-Church relationship, not the other way around.) Another question is interesting: what privileges does the church afford a married person that are not afforded single people? In fact, marriage is largely irrelevant to the daily life of the church.

St. John's Episcopal Church Mt. Pleasant MI said...

Thank you so much for this well-reasoned commentary. I've had a hard time saying the preface to the marriage liturgy - created by God? Really? blessed by our Lord? Really? (Or was he simply doing what his mother told him to do - and saving the hosts from embarrassment?) And if I'm not clear about this, where is my integrity in saying it is so?

Thank you again, Mark.

The Rev. Wayne Nicholson

Anonymous said...

Agape Ed here....

Not that anyone will do it, but if you look at the OT, you'll discover that marriage was "traditionally" a covenantal state between parties, a greater covenanting party (the male) and a lesser acceding party (the female), brought into being by intercourse, written contract between groom and bride's nearest male relative, and/or exchange of goods of a minimum value. The reason for marriage is not as clear cut and simple (or simplistic) as some folks might read into the texts. This would have been the Torah of marriage as Jesus understood it.

It did not require a "Church/communal blessing" only some form of communal acknowledgement: as religion and citizenship were intertwined marriages would have been recorded by the local scribes and priesthood on behalf of the community to prevent property disputes and establish womens' status. Same gender marriage was not possible inasmuch as the only same gender covenantal relationship which would have been possible was master-slave, mistress-maid.

We do not accord men/women greater or lesser status; we do not acknowledge slavery as a legitimate covenant, nor do we seem to recognize hetero intercourse as "automatically" instituting a marriage, and the marriage contract is only enforceable as far as your attorney can get a court to enforce it.

Let the Church AND Clergy get out of the marriage business...let parishes assist in discernment (after the fashion of the Quakers)and consensually bless resident individuals who are covenanting together for life and for God's sake stop using bad eisegesis and scholastic theology to make cultural adiaphora into the new Donatist litmus test.... thoughts?

Doug Desper said...

I'll be the odd one out because someone has to be. I think that our Church is going a bridge too far by taking on itself the power to redefine what Jesus clarified about human bonding in Matthew 19. Christian Marriage has been settled in the Church by His words wherein He reiterated Genesis 2 (forgetting the errors that others twisted it into over time). We need to heed Chief Justice Roberts' dissenting opinion yesterday. In it he said that there is now nothing that can legally be done to deny marriage to 3 or more people of any grouping. If the precedent of changing marriage is based on what people want, then the door is now open to continually redefine marriage. The same is true at General Convention. What this Convention changes a future generation will be obliged to move beyond because of cultural demands becoming the basis for change -- an understanding that marriage "has evolved" again. I am very disappointed - but not surprised - that the Marriage Study never once quoted , nor dealt with, Jesus' clarification of the "who" of marriage in Matthew 19. That Study began with the premise....."our understandings of Marriage have evolved.". After this Convention the "evolving" will have only begun. Then what? Blessings for 3 or more?