It’s a lament we keep hearing from the Archbishop of Canterbury, from the Primates, from every group that pronounces. The Episcopal Church hasn’t made the theological case for same-sex marriages and for the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. A recent example is from Pierre Whalon, Bishop of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.
This complaint puzzles me to some degree. There have been any number of attempts, the Virginia Report in the 1990s, and more recently, “To Set Our Hope in Christ” which was presented at some gathering that I can’t recall any more.
So the House of Bishops gave its Theology Committee the task of writing on the topic. There was some controversy last year about who precisely were the theologians involved in the effort. Whatever. They presented their work to the House of Bishops meeting this week. It’s available here:
The disappointing thing is that the panel of theologians, four “traditional” and four “liberal,” quickly went their separate ways, apparently unable to agree on anything. Perhaps they couldn’t, still it would have been interesting to see if there was any point of consensus among them.
I’ve not read the work carefully, but in skimming through it several things stand out. First, the “traditionals” seem to discount the importance of “human flourishing” (an Aristoteelean phrase) as including our life on earth. They readily acknowledge that most gays and lesbians will never find fulfillment in celibacy or heterosexual marriage and offer them only the possibility of chastity, comparing their plight to the disabled, widows, or those who choose to defer marriage for a career, only to find it impossible later in life to find a soulmate.
On the other hand, the liberals seem to make several problematic moves in their argument. For me the most obvious is this one:
Thus, both same- and opposite-sex marriage may represent the marriage of Christ and the church, because Christ is the spouse of all believers. Men do not represent Christ by maleness alone, nor do women represent the church by femaleness alone. Same-sex marriage witnesses to the reality that a male Christ also saves men and a female church also saves women. p. 55
This seems to discount the important role bridal mysticism has played in Christian spirituality, for both men and women. Both men and women have written eloquently of themselves as the Bride of Christ, viewing themselves, and their souls, as Christ’s spouse. It’s not necessary to posit a sexual relationship to make sense of this imagery.
But this, too, seems insufficient:
What is a sexual orientation? It is an orientation of desire. Since Christ “satisfies the desire of every living thing” (Ps 145:16), a sexual orientation, theologically speaking, must be this: a more or less settled tendency by which Christ orients desire toward himself, through the desire for another human being.
This is a rather striking divergence from the traditional Christian understanding of desire, especially Augustine (who is quoted rather liberally throughout the document). To argue that Christ orients desire toward himself through anything, seems to border on idolatry.
But their closing pages did leave me with some things to ponder more deeply, above all this:
“Why did Jesus not climb down from the cross? – because he held himself accountable to put his body where his love was.” 65
To argue from the incarnation, to argue from the embodied nature of human existence, and the embodied-ness of salvation, seems to me the way to beginning putting sexuality and sexual relationships in the proper Christian perspective.
There is still work to be done and it needs to be done in conversation with one another, not by writing at one another.