Saturday, March 27, 2010

Comments on "Same-sex Relationships in the Life of the Church: the Traditionalist [sic] Response"

Note well what is not in their argument, namely any treatment of the question of scientific evidence about homosexuality. This is odd for several reasons: 1) its treatment was part of our mandate, and 2) it features prominently in popular arguments in favor of the blessing of same sex relations. We would hazard the guess that the data in its ambiguity and inconclusiveness were not helpful to their argument.

Actually, it’s not odd at all. Many liberals chafe at the notion that the scientific aetiology of homosexuality is central to their argument, and the corollary implication that its absence would hurt said argument. And the data are not nearly so “ambiguous” as the authors would have you believe. While the nature of this aetiology, and the various roles of hormones, birth order, and neurology, continue to be investigated, its existence is not seriously questioned at this point. And the scientific question most pertinent to the theological debate, whether sexual orientation is chosen, has been definitively settled in the negative.

There is, of course, an irony in the abstract use of God’s mission to the Gentiles, since it is in the service of a cause which continues to tear at the communion we have as Anglicans from all the nations of the earth.

Again, there is "of course" no irony at all here. The admission of Gentiles to the Church was indeed a “communion-breaking” issue in its day and the “reasserters” of the time considered “inclusion” as unwarranted and ill-advised as do their spiritual descendants today. The comparison is actually quite apt - uncomfortably so for the conservatives, it seems.

Note what a radical change in biblical exegesis this will bring about. We are warned against readings that would constrain the work of the Spirit in the missio Dei. Surely, attention to what the words actually say should constrain readings; otherwise, it is hard to say that it is reading we are doing at all. An important part of the Scripture serving as a canonical authority for the Church is that it can guide, critique, and indeed constrain the judgments and decisions of the Church. This power to address the Church is clearest in cases of “repugnance” (see Article 20 of the 39 Articles), where a matter in question stands in direct contradiction to the plain sense of a passage, interpreted in keeping with the whole witness of Scripture. We will show that such is the case before us. It is precisely at this point that the debate over homosexual behavior, while it may not be (to use the unhelpful language of the Righter trial) “core doctrine,” does become a prime occasion for a debate over a doctrinal issue of great importance, namely the authority of Scripture itself.

This is another conservative canard. No one is proposing a “radical change” in the way we read Scripture. The liberal case is on the contrary that if we are to be consistent in our reading of Scripture, we are obligated to accept this innovation as we have others in the past; that is, same-sex unions follow from the way we already tend to read Scripture. (Recall that all Christians interpret Scripture: a "liberal" is merely one who is honest about it). Moreover as Anglicans and not fundamentalists we know that the “plain sense of the passage” is not always the most relevant one, or even all that “plain!” (I for instance am often perplexed at how reasserters can be so casual about prescribing celibacy for homosexuals in light of Mattew 23:4, which seems to me quite “plainly” to preclude such blithe pronouncements).

If God has acted, as it is suggested in the missio Dei argument of the liberals, who are we to contend with God? For its advocates, the matter is already settled. So they naturally feel they must proceed, without waiting on more debate and regardless of consequences.

In fact, no one is as preoccupied with “culture” as the conservatives, at least in the sense of “going with the flow.” Certainly none of the gay Christians I know are seeking to subvert the Church’s mission of prophetic and countercultural witness. “Culture” seems to be a buzzword with which conservatives can dismiss facts on the ground that contradict the divine fiat of Scripture. So the simple, observable fact that there are gays and lesbians in the Church whom the status quo harms, not fitting conveniently into their narrative, is simply sidestepped as non-scriptural and therefore irrelevant.

...the Jerusalem Council specifically forbids porneia, that is, “sexual immorality.”

What the authors present as a straightforward translation is in fact a specious gloss on their part. There is no patristic warrant for the “conservative” innovation (!) of expanding the sense of porneia to include homosexuality per se. The work of Friar Tobias is illuminating in this regard.

Mark 10. Here Jesus tells us of the nature of marriage, between a man and a woman, as ordained by God “from the foundation of the world.” In so doing, he quotes both Genesis 1 and 2. Yet, inexplicably, the liberal side continues to insist that Jesus avoided citing the former, and they find in this imagined avoidance evidence against what they call “complementarianism.” This is simply inaccurate.

Complementarianism is what is “simply inaccurate.” Perhaps liberals have been lazy in arguing against it; I do not know. It shouldn’t matter, though, as it is the weakest argument in the traditional arsenal and shouldn’t even be on the agenda at this stage. The sexes clearly are not as a matter of fact “complementary” in any meaningful or demonstrable way. It may be a lovely symbolism but more than symbolic arguments are needed for an issue like this. (Indeed, female members of Christian communities – as opposed to religious orders - in the Episcopal Church may marry husbands [or wives?]. No one denies them this prerogative on the grounds of the symbolism of their marriage to Christ). What Genesis does make clear is that “it is not good for man to be alone.” It is the conservatives who want to add an “unless” to that statement by restricting its scope to God's heterosexual children.

Galatians 3:28 The liberals read Paul’s statement that there is no more “`male and female’” in Christ as a warrant for same-sex marriages. However, this ignores the context of the passage, and the rest of the Pauline witness, and so amounts to proof-texting. Paul is, quite simply, not talking about marriage. While in Judaism, only the free, Jewish male could contribute to minyan in the synagogue, now all stand together and equally in prayer in the ekklesia. Indeed, when it comes to salvation, there is no difference between male and female. Neither Paul nor we would suggest anything different, and so the use of this passage in a discussion of marriage amounts to presenting a straw man.

There is nothing in this analysis of the passage for a liberal to disagree with! It is because of our belief that such human distinctions as gender are abolished in baptism that we support SSM. The authors concede that “when it comes to salvation, there is no difference between male and female” yet by wishing to draw precisely such a distinction when it comes to the sacraments, of paramount importance in the economy of salvation, they are indeed “saying otherwise” than Paul. So although they characterize the liberal argument as a “straw man,” I take them to have in fact granted it, as their “rebuttal” simply reiterates the position they are supposed to be criticizing. And since this passage is perhaps the most crucial one from the liberal perspective, why are we arguing again?

Romans 1 and 11. As to the former, the liberal argument ignores what the passage in question actually says. They focus on the criticism of the Gentiles as being oversexed, but they ignore that fact that the passage refers directly to the sameness of same-sex relations, including lesbian relation (so excluding the suggestion that Paul had only pederasty in view).

In contrast to conservatives, who as Jeffrey John explains focus on the lesbian bit, taken out of context, and tend to lose sight of the overall arc of “what the passage in question actually says.” Let’s call this one a tie.

The reader may tire of all this exegetical debate, and may wonder what is really at stake; the answer is “a great deal.” The liberal argument would at the outset have the reader understand their proposal as a modest addition to the traditional understanding of marriage, which remains intact. But as the case continues, we see that a major reinterpretation is envisioned.

It’s highly presumptuous for our opponents to tell us what our argument is. Gay couples just want to get married, like everyone else. We are not trying to ditch the Bible, Creeds, sacraments, ministry, or anything else. We want the “traditional understanding” expanded, not destroyed. But conservatives have to resort to fearmongering and invoking visions of pagan eucharists and polyamorous nuptial masses and unitarian Presiding Bishops if they are to convince the “mushy middle” that the sky is falling and same-sex unions are a hill worth dying on, because their arguments on their own do not sustain their conclusion. Same-sex marriage is certainly a less radical innovation than divorce. In fact, my own views on divorce remain considerably more conservative than my views on same-sex unions. More conservative, in fact, than the views on the same subject of many, like the present Bishop of Winchester and many evangelicals in the Church of England, who lobbied for a more “compassionate” approach to the divorced but while vociferously opposing the extension of the same courtesy to gays.

That's not to say that there is nothing of import at stake here. There is - for gays and lesbians. For others, the question is largely academic. A conservative "victory" would indeed be a hollow one; what profit is it to them to deny others the sacraments?

Procreation is identified as “what the human being shares with the animals,” as if this were a slight on us; for all the talk of bodiliness the argument here has a gnostic tinge.

Oh please! The body is important, and redeemed by the mystery of the Incarnation, but it is not all-important. To characterize the liberal suspicion of the conservatives’ arbitrary anatomical requirements for marriage as “Gnostic” or “anti-breeding” is absurd. The importance of procreation as a Scriptural theme doesn't justify the conservatives' morbid obsession with genitalia. Once again, lacking a sound argument, they are left with recourse to name-calling. We could just as easily turn around and call them Donatists for their preoccupation with episcopal sex lives.

The liberal argument claims for itself boldness, and so we need to track its trajectory, since some of its implications will be different from what we might assume. One such example is the idea of monogamy inherited from the tradition, which turns out to be a vestige, in its two-ness, of the biological fact of conception, and so tied implicitly to the now demoted procreation. If marriage is now really about mutuality and self-donation, would there not be all the more of these in polyamory?

No. I don’t know any gay Christian who views monogamy as a “vestige” or the next bridge to cross.

Second, this is not the proposal of some small addition to an otherwise stable institution. The problematic “male-female symbol system” requires a radical change. The inherited notion was a “warrant for patriarchal violence.” Marriage itself is now to be understood, for all, to be based on mutuality and self-giving regardless of gender.

Actually, that is precisely what this is. Indeed, traditional understandings of gender roles have changed radically, but within the context of heterosexual marriage most of these changes have been accommodated with the Church’s sanction and little controversy - the ship has already sailed. Brides no longer pledge obedience to their intended in the marriage service. The question is once again whether we are to be consistent and follow these changes to their logical conclusion. As the liberals note in their own “response” within the same report: “Our expansion of marriage … retains scriptural principles of moral discipline, nonconformity to the world, witness to Christ, sanctification, and holiness.” The conservatives have not demonstrated why, of two models with these properties, theirs is to be preferred.

At the outset of our dialogue, the traditionals offered as a key diagnostic issue, the following question: are same-sex relations an effect of the fall or a blessing of creation?


Yes, all sexuality as we know it in the world reflects the Fall. So, as one author has pointed out, does wearing clothing. In the next world, we are told, there will be no marriage. But, despite the keenness of evangelicals, they are not there yet!

Yes, marriage is nonetheless a blessing of the fallen but still beloved image of God reflected (however imperfectly) in creation. This is not a contradiction of the previous point, but is instead closely intertwined with it. It is a creative, mysterious tension that the Church has lived with for 2,000 years, and the people of Israel for millennia before that.

So the question is mal posée, a false dichotomy. Given their inability at the outset to formulate the right question, how can we trust the conservatives to yield the right answer?

No comments: