On the marriage of lesbians
Two ordained Episcopal lesbians kicked off the New Year by marrying in Massachusetts.
But this was not some little local difficulty and low-key affair presided over by a renegade vicar in defiance of his bishop, as the Revd. Martin Dudley performed to the chagrin of the Bishop of London a few years ago.
No, The Very Rev Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, Dean and President of Episcopal Divinity School, and Mally Lloyd, Canon to the Ordinary, married at St Paul's Cathedral in Boston.
The Rt Rev M Thomas Shaw, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, solemnised the marriage.
You really couldn’t get a much higher blessing than that from a bishop in his cathedral.
Or her cathedral.
Such defiance is not only a manifest rejection of the proposed Anglican Covenant; it is something of a slap in the face for the Archbishop of Canterbury who has consistently pleaded for restraint for the sake of the Worldwide Anglican Communion.
There are those who say that this is the logical outcome of Protestantism: once you reject the central authority (Rome), there is no logical end to the plethora of denominational permutations which can emerge from the assertion of the individual conscience over and above Scripture and Church tradition.
But this is to caricature Protestantism: Sola Scriptura was never carte blanche for the believer to treat the Word of God like Hello magazine, or for the believer to make of it what he or she wills. Protestant Christianity was intimately connected with faith in the democratic intellect: that the faith was preached in the first instance to poor, illiterate men – a college made up, for the most part, of ignorant, but inspired fishermen. And it contains a message as well as a method that privileges the humbler human intellects of the world.
But it is not devoid of reason.
The Episcopal Church in the US, like the rest of the Anglican Communion, defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman: it is a Divine institution for the purpose of procreation.
But in 2009 the church at its General Convention decided to allow that ‘bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church’.
Of course the Church should be pastoral, and generously sensitive in the performance of that sacred duty. But where the words and actions of a few cause hurt to the 77 million, such that the communion is severely impaired, one begins to see the sense in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for a moratorium on the blessing of same-sex unions, which was agreed by all jurisdictions in 2004: the democratic intellect must be subject to Scripture, even when it is in tension with tradition.
His Grace is chilled with civil partnerships: if two people of the same gender wish to organise their private affairs in accordance with the provision of the state, that is of no concern to anyone else: civil partnerships belong to Caesar.
And if some religious institutions wish to support such partnerships, we are perhaps at the juncture recently identified by the Pope in his comments on the use of condoms: the Church should do all it can to encourage all steps towards moral responsibility, and it cannot do that be alienating and excluding.
But when does a blessing become a marriage?
The Revd Peter Ould has performed an autopsy on the liturgy used in this service, and determined that it is indeed a marriage ceremony. Like that presided over by the Revd. Martin Dudley in London, the Rt Rev M Thomas Shaw has been content to amend the Prayer Book to accommodate the same-sex union.
And so all references to procreation have been excised.
While this may be nothing new in the US, it illustrates that The Episcopal Church has departed from the traditional Christian understanding of marriage and the orthodox teaching of the Worldwide Anglican Communion.
In Genesis 2, God says: “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make a help mett for him’ (v18). It continues: ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh’ (v24). Although these verses do not purport to define marriage, they do describe its origin, and are therefore crucial for understanding the Bible’s teaching on marriage, which is both heterosexual and monogamous. This precludes homosexuality (Exod 22:19; Lev 18:22f) and Lesbianism (cf Rom 1:26f). Some heterosexual unions are also prohibited (Lev 18:9-17; 20:11-21; Deut 22:30; 27:20-23). Bigamy, though evident in the OT, is not ideal (Lev 18:18; Deut 17:17), being portrayed negatively (Gen 16:4ff; 21:10) or deemed problematic (Deut 21:15-17).
Three purposes for marriage can be identified out of v24: (i) the procreation of children; (ii) companionship, and (iii) sexual union. Marriage is a covenant before God, which is explicitly confirmed by Jesus when he states that marriage is that which ‘God hath joined together’ (Mt 19:6); when a person ‘leaves’ and ‘cleaves’. Jesus refers to being ‘yoked together’ (Mt 19:6; Mk 10:9), the Greek term meaning a profound union. The marriage covenant was designed by God to last until at least one of the spouses dies (Rom 7:2), though it could be severed by divorce.
This is the unequivocal Anglican position, as stated in the Book of Common Prayer.
Which, unlike in the US, cannot be amended other than by an Act of Parliament.
And Parliament is very sensitive indeed to the will of the majority.
And the Coalition have one or two things rather more pressing than to attempt to take on the Established Church at this particular juncture.
And the Established Church also has one or two things more pressing which might disincline it from tackling a further highly divisive issue.
But it will come.