(This appeal was issued originally for the meeting of the House of Bishops in February.)
As the Bishops convene to consider a landmark change to the church’s doctrine and discipline of marriage (February 23-25, 2016), the Anglican Communion Institute (Canada) offers a two part reflection. In so doing, we respectfully ask that the bishops take a moment to stand back from the report of the Primate’s Commission, “This Holy Estate”, and to do so for two reasons.
First, the Canadian church has leaped forward to the question of how the marriage canon might be changed before answering the question why. Consequently, in the lead up to General Synod, a landmark change to the church’s doctrine and discipline of marriage is being considered in a vacuum. At every step, there ought to have been a full-throated response rising from the heart of the church’s tradition on marriage.
This has not occurred. The public explanation of this matter has been without a representative of the agreed doctrine of the church. It is as if the opposition in the House of Parliament were permitted to advance and approve a bill while locking the governing party out of the Chamber.
Secondly, the Primate’s Report is badly flawed and would serve General Synod poorly as the centerpiece for the debate on marriage. We seek to draw your attention to an independent and thorough review of the Commission’s report.
To that end, we offer a reflection on Christian marriage and a summary of “This Holy Estate”.
Since 1979, this hard debate in Canada has been marked by division, enormous cost, and profound discouragement. We write in light of the recent meeting of the Primates, recommending the conclusion of their meeting as a worthy challenge for us all: the “restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.”
As we approach General Synod 2016, the Primates ask us in Canada to be temperate, to be patient and to walk together with our brothers and sisters around the world, to find God’s future – the truly prophetic way – in solidarity with the communion and the tradition, and not in the tempting boldness of departure from it. We bring to you, in light of the Primates’ appeal to walk together, a quite concrete request: at General Synod, to reject the motion, and for the present to lay aside attempts to change the marriage canon.
Why does marriage matter? What is at stake in changing the marriage canon? The reflection that follows seeks to address this fundamental question.
Marriage runs deep in the Christian narrative. It is given to the man and the woman in creation: “’This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’…Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh.” Sin distorts marriage in particular: “in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you”. And the wedding feast is the place where redemption begins to break forth upon the world, in the water made wine at Cana of Galilee. The biblical witness places the marriage of man and woman at the centre of God’s purpose in creation and in redemption.
The BAS marriage service recognizes the centrality of marriage. Marriage, the service begins, “is a gift of God and a means of his grace, in which man and woman become one flesh.” Their union (“one flesh”) stands now as a sign of redemption——because the union of man and woman given in creation and distorted in their turning away from God is in Christ restored. In Christ, they may again “know each other with delight and tenderness in acts of love.” In their redeemed union the man and the woman stand as sign and harbinger of a larger redemption, the world’s return to communion with its God, known in the union of Christ with his church. The whole sweep of the Christian narrative is thus encompassed in marriage.
What we say about marriage, then, matters. Marriage cannot be separated from the Christian narrative of salvation, from God’s work in creation, through the brokenness of sin, to the dawn of redemption: creation restored, communion given again.
This is the first point. Marriage is given by God as a lived sign of the Christian hope. It is a central expression of our faith; it is a witness to redemption in the world. What we say about marriage, what we do about marriage, must be faithful to this hope.
The second point is this: gender is fundamental to this sign. Woman and man we are made, and this bodily difference is made constitutive of marriage in particular: “ ‘This one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’ Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” To become one flesh in the physical union of marriage belongs to the nature of man and woman; the marriage union follows from and is the fulfilment of their natures.
Genesis 1 implies the same thing. “So God created humankind in his image…; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply.” The sexual union which, in law, is necessary to the existence of a marriage follows from the male/female distinction. It is a matter of definition: the male/female distinction belongs to the nature and purpose of marriage.
There are many other purposes for our lives: prophet, priest, teacher, friend, celibate—celibacy in its witness to the absolute priority of the kingdom of God being at least as important as marriage, if not, as Paul suggests, more so. But insofar as marriage is given to us in creation as the purpose of maleness and femaleness; insofar as marriage is given to us in redemption as a sign of creation restored, it is given to us in this particular way: as male and female, in this difference of body as well as of mind and soul. The gender distinction in marriage is not discriminatory. It is defining.
Creation and Christ alike thus tell a mystery: that the body matters. And this is the final point. That God loves us body and soul, that Jesus gives himself for us body and soul, that we, who are thus loved, are called to live for him with our body as well as with our soul—this is the Christian faith’s constant song. To take the body out of marriage is to take the heart out of our faith. It is this world that God made and loves, flesh and bone, tree and rock and river, and the soft hand of a child. It is this world, flesh and bone, that God saves: on the wood of the cross, in the pierced hands of Jesus the Christ. The cross is real. It has the hard edges, the inescapable particularity, of the thing itself. So too with marriage.
To take gender out of marriage is to say that the body is inconsequential. We are Christ’s people, who stand at the foot of the cross, who love the hands that were pierced. As we look on him who died for us, is this what we shall say?
An Appeal to the Bishops
As the Bishops convene to consider a landmark change to the church’s doctrine and discipline of marriage, the Anglican Communion Institute (Canada) requests, respectfully, that the bishops take a moment to stand back from the report of the Primate’s Commission, “This Holy Estate”, and to do so for two reasons.
First, at numerous places “This Holy Estate” presents itself as representing the agreed doctrine and discipline of the Anglican Church of Canada. In fact, and throughout, its claims are incomplete or contested. We commend to the church “A Church of England perspective on Anglican arguments for same-sex marriage,” by Martin Davie.
Consider these examples.
“This Holy Estate” acknowledges that it is for General Synod to determine if a marriage canon change is in harmony with the Solemn Declaration, but missing is any sense of the limits of the Solemn Declaration and how a change would fit within its boundaries. How is General Synod to judge this question?
“This Holy Estate” acknowledges the harm that would come to relations with the Roman Catholic Church and provinces in the communion, implying, however, that a change could still be pursued. Why? And what good would come of the change that surpasses the harm to these relations?
“This Holy Estate” claims that the liturgical reading of Scripture is the primary way in which it is authoritative in the church. This is an idiosyncratic notion of Scripture’s authority and interpretation. The authority of Scripture is intrinsic. It may be heard most often in the liturgy, but are we all agreed that for it to be heard and obeyed this is where it is best understood and discerned? This is not how Scripture has influenced the development in the church of doctrine, the catechism or even liturgy itself.
And in its treatment of Scripture and its symbolism, where the responsibility is greatest, “This Holy Estate” repeatedly takes one part of marriage – love and commitment – and separates that without warrant from the sex of the man and woman and the purpose of procreation. On Genesis, “This Holy Estate” claims that because there is no mention of procreation in the “one flesh” passage (Genesis 2.24), procreation is insignificant. It argues that because Eve is named after the fall, she has been humiliated by the power of procreation. It argues that the image of God (Genesis 1.28-29) refers to procreation but not to the sexual differentiation of the man and the woman, and that later in Christ, procreation does not mean the bearing of children but “the capacity to love, nurture and healing”. On Ephesians 5, “This Holy Estate” argues that love of neighbour now transcends procreation when, in fact, neither are mentioned. These are classic examples of readers reading into the text what they seek to gain from it. Nowhere in Scripture would any of the parties mentioned – the author of Genesis, Jesus, Paul – maintain the dissections made in “This Holy Estate”. And no where, anywhere, does Scripture support a trajectory that would condone behavior that it clearly and resolutely forbids.
All of this is apart from the fact that direct and relevant texts are not engaged at all because they are the most common (the “bullet list”). As Martin Davie says, none of the recent revisionist proposals (The Episcopal Church, The Scottish Episcopal Church, The Anglican Church of Canada) answer “why it is that the Bible is, in the words of Michael Brown ‘a heterosexual book,’ that is to say a book which sees heterosexual relationships as normative for human beings, refers only to heterosexual marriages, uses only heterosexual marital imagery to refer to the relationship between God and his people and is completely negative in everything it says about same-sex sexual activity.”
And it all ends in the incredible claim that the purposes of procreation and union of a man and woman can be abandoned but that a rite of commitment between adults remains, recognizable to all as the heart of marriage. It is to abandon Christian marriage for a gnostic rite of adult commitment. Would anyone in any generation previous to this one have recognized it as the centre of marriage? Can anyone explain, rising from the Scriptures or the Tradition, what the Christian call is to two people that they should be committed to each other in a lifelong, exclusive relationship outside the purposes of procreation or the union of male and female?
“This Holy Estate” acknowledges, in places, that it is a revisionist argument, but it presents itself altogether as rising from a shared recognition regarding the authority of Scripture and its use in this instance. It presents itself as a standpoint from which General Synod might judge a proposal to change the marriage canon. It is not. Using “This Holy Estate” as the centerpiece for the debate on a change to the marriage canon locks the governing party from the room. If it is allowed to serve in this capacity, General Synod will be unfairly served.
Which brings us to our second appeal. Throughout this process in which a landmark change is being considered, with profound consequences for every aspect of the church’s life, that which is proposed to be changed has been left unheard and undefended. If this request from General Synod 2013 had been answered fairly, surely conservative members could have been invited to the Primate’s Commission. Why was that ruled out? Even if a minority report was the inevitable outcome, why would that have been a disservice to the church given the magnitude of what is at stake?
But the negligence in preparing the report becomes graver still if “This Holy Estate” serves as the centre of discussion rather than one part of a debate rising from a wholesome and wholehearted account of the church’s doctrine of marriage. Is this not the Bishops’ first duty? Surely, that which is proposed to be changed deserves a fair hearing first. “This Holy Estate” will not provide that. As a starting point,“This Holy Estate” is deeply and unfairly biased.
To end, then, as we began, with a concrete request in the hope of a continued walk together: we ask you to set this all aside, knowing that this would be a disappointment to many. However, the Canadian church has already moved ahead, locally, with a range of formal affirmations of same-sex partnerships, including liturgical blessings. While many traditional Anglicans are in profound disagreement with these changes, we have not left the church. We now exist together in a true situation of painful compromise, which is already difficult for all of us, yet which, for now, we have been able to manage in God’s grace. To go further with a change in the marriage canon is to risk breaking apart this already fragile place we have struggled to inhabit together.