In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Last week was a significant one for our corporate life as Americans and as Episcopalians. Firstly, for the benefit of anyone who might be living under a rock, the Supreme Court voted by a narrow majority to redefine marriage in the United States so as to include same sex couples. Secondly, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to remove all references in its canons to marriage as being between a man and a woman, and to initiate the process of revising the Book of Common Prayer to reflect this change – a process that will take several years.
I am no expert on civil law or the constitution, and I find myself increasingly alienated from the assumptions of secular culture generally, so I am not really qualified to comment meaningfully on the Supreme Court’s decision. I will only note that I have read through the majority opinion as well as the dissent, and find myself largely agreeing with the dissent; and I especially share the concerns of the dissenting justices, and many public figures, about the ramifications of this decision with respect to the constitution’s first amendment – the right of religious people not just to BELIEVE what their consciences dictate, but to live their lives in accordance with those beliefs. Will this decision mean, for example, that Christians who believe what the Apostles taught will no longer be free to form associations for the purposes of charitable work or education? If you think that is overly- alarmist, consider that Catholic adoption agencies have already been shut down in Massachusetts, California, and Washington DC. Does the new legal reality mean that orthodox Christians will no longer be free to hold certain public offices or to transact certain business? Such questions, unthinkable just a few years ago, are increasingly being answered, officially and legally, in ways that many find deeply unsettling.
Several weeks ago, at the St. Michael’s Conference, I read with some of the children the contemporary account of the martyrdom of the Christians at Lyons in the second century. The persecutions there began with exactly these sorts of relatively innocuous exclusions of Christians from public life – but they ended with legally sanctioned torture and murder. Obviously we are a very long way from that sort of thing in this country. But many worry, not without reason, that we as Americans have taken a step, however small, however tentative, in that direction.
Obviously the most salient feature of marriage from which our society seems now to be demurring is that it is exclusively between a man and a woman. This is so not simply because the Bible arbitrarily says that it is, but because marriage was institutionalized among humans as the context of our coming-to-be as humans. The coupling of a man and a woman through sexual intercourse is the cornerstone of human life – its where human life comes from, its how babies are made. And the story of every individual’s coming into existence begins with such a coupling of a particular man and a particular woman – our mothers and fathers. In the course of human social evolution, this is how marriage came about. The bonds of sexually coupled men and women were strengthen so as to secure the flourishing of mothers and their children. So while marriage may be about many things, at its most fundamental it is about THIS. And social science has demonstrated again and again that the weakening of the conjugal bond has deleterious effects on people – especially women and children.
“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,” (Ephraim Radner).
In other words, the purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree, even if some particular acorns never realize that purpose. And just because you can grind acorns into flour, does not mean that grains of wheat are also acorns.
To reiterate, this view of marriage as “the profound locus of human coming-to-be” is not exclusively Christian, but it has been the view of “every society in the history of the world that we know of.” That we now, as a society, have so suddenly and so blithely cast this vision aside, reducing its assumptions to alternatives about self-fulfillment, and even such things as desirable in themselves as companionship and the like, is really rather breathtakingly hubristic – that is, given how central to LIFE, to human coming-to-be, the man- woman-child relationship has been in the history of human evolution.
As I say, marriage is not an institution created by Christianity, or even by our elder sibling, Judaism. It is something we have inherited – an inheritance that is, by definition, as Scripture says, “from the beginning” (cf. Matt. 19.4) – because the sexual union of men and women is the fountainhead of human life and, as such, the cornerstone of human society. Our own tradition, to which Scripture attests, merely takes note of this older and broader consensus, and explains it. At the very beginning of the story of salvation, the second chapter of Genesis (v. 24) comments on the creation of humans in two different but complementary sexes in terms of marriage: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
Marriage between a man and a woman is thus, as I say, at the very foundation of the account of what a human being is. “[This] 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[s], 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,” (Radner).
“He who made them from the beginning made them male and female… Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
This verse is quoted and reiterated by Jesus, when the Pharisees asked what he taught about marriage (Matthew 19). And it was quoted again by St. Paul (Ephesians 5), who insists that not only is the account of human personhood rooted in marriage as between a man and a woman, but much more significantly, that God wrote the reality of marriage into the fabric of creation in order to reveal something about his own character, the way that he loves us – that in the “one flesh” of Christ, God betrothed our nature to his own, and that this union was consummated on the nuptial bed of the cross, and that we are the offspring, through the waters of baptism, of that archetypal marriage.
This inheritance, properly understood, has never discriminated AGAINST people attracted to members of their own sex, but it does discriminate IN FAVOR of the husband-wife relationship, precisely because that relationship is the unique starting point of human LIFE – and because, as Scripture insists, something about God and his regard for us is disclosed uniquely in the very biological reality of the conjugal union of a man and a woman, and in their mutual conception and nurture of new LIFE – of children.
And I would note too, in passing, that not only does our tradition discriminate in favor of the man-woman-child relation, but it discriminates even more strongly in favor of celibacy – a fact that is often ignored by both conservative and liberal Christians. About celibacy , Jesus said, “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it,” (Matthew 19.12). If you CAN be celibate, then be celibate. That’s God-incarnate’s advice.
The uncoupling of marriage from the procreation of children, the generation of life, and from the responsibilities and disciplines necessary to nurture life, is part of a bigger cultural shift that is profoundly connected to the ascendency of liberal culture for the past four hundred years or so – including liberal economics, generally under the heading of “capitalism.” Ours has become a society that exploits and commodifies everything in its path, including human beings, all in the service of profit and pleasure. And our redefinition of marriage is just one dimension of this broader flight of our society from the disciplined habits necessary to generate and sustain life . But there are many others – our disregard for the poor, the weak, and the unborn; our embrace of eating habits that are not only unhealthy, but depend on methods of production that are economically unjust, that generate pollution on a vast scale, and are often horrendously cruel to animals. Our society’s increasing indifference to suicide and euthanasia is yet another facet of this flight from the habits necessary to generate and sustain life. More and more, as a society, we cast off whatever stands in the way of profit and pleasure – including our own selves.
It is for these sorts of reasons that I will never be able to bless a same-sex marriage. Not because I find the idea repugnant, but because it would be like trying to bless a four-sided triangle. I will not dispute that there may be many goods exemplified by same-sex couples, some of which may even be analogous to the goods of Christian marriage, and some of which may be unique. And the Church must reckon forthrightly and charitably with the experiences of gay people – something that Christians have, for the most part, not been especially good at over the years. But this failure is far from unique to Christians. I will have more to say about it all, God willing, in the coming weeks.
But for now, about marriage: “[Jesus] answered, ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder .’”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.