Same sex, same marriage?
The Church is obsessed with sex, or so we’re told. The trouble is, those who think in this way are usually the ones who are listening to the Church’s response to a modern issue and deciding that, because the Church can’t “live and let live”, it must be negatively disposed to sex. What right has the Church to pronounce on the private affairs of how individuals live their lives? In this we find the eternal struggle between the will of Man and the will of God. To whom does the life of a man belong?
The most recent issue to confront the teaching that the Church has received is that of Same-sex “marriage”. There are moves afoot to make marriage available to same-sex couples in the United Kingdom. This is a hotly debated subject and one for which the teaching of the Church is clear. It is worth clarifying the issue though.
There seem to be at least three different understandings of what it means to be married. There is a Sacramental Marriage, a Natural Marriage and a Legal Marriage, and each one of these contributes to the different senses of the word which is causing the controversy – marriage.
In some ways, the most obvious understanding of marriage is the Natural Marriage. Human beings are clearly creatures that seek commitment from a partner in order to reproduce. In every culture around the world, there is some ceremony or some ritual by which two human beings are joined together and paired up to raise a family. We can view this from an evolutionary angle if we choose. Human biology requires the input of two sexes in order to produce offspring. In having large brains and thus disproportionately large heads, human children are born unable to do much, if anything, to continue their survival. Look at how baby calves and lambs can stand up and walk within an hour of their birth.
Since human babies are born very helpless in comparison with other mammals, there is a pressing need for one parent to be around constantly to look after the baby. This has usually been the mother owing to a woman’s unique capabilities to nurture offspring. The mother-child bond is a fundamental experience of human beings. After all, a baby spends nine months of its development within its mother. That bond, initially physical, continues after birth. If one parent must be around to look after the baby, the other must be providing the other with all that is necessary to survive. However, what is to stop the free parent from just wandering off and leaving the other parent and the baby to fend for themselves? It is, after all, costly to remain with one person and a baby and spend time looking after them. If human beings had always opted for the route of abandoning a child and its nurse, then we would not have ever survived as a species.
There are clear biological advantages for a commitment to form between prospective parents, and thus marriage has become part of the human condition. Marriage has evolved and exists naturally as a covenant between two individuals to remain together in order to provide for a genetically produced family. That is its evolutionary purpose. It may be possible in the future for scientific developments to engineer babies from the genetic material from a same-sex couple, however this still requires a third agency which contradicts the natural two parent model found throughout the Natural World.
Of course, as Christians, we look to God to give us our manner of life. Clearly, if God has created us then He is responsible for the way we propagate as a species and thus has guided our development as a species. In whatever manner Christians read the book of Genesis, the words “Be fruitful, and multiply”[i] demonstrate clearly that He meant humanity to bear families and grow. Our Lord Jesus Himself quotes,” Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”[ii]
It is clear that the Lord Christ esteemed marriage very highly. His first miracle is at a wedding[iii] and He consistently cites God’s fundamental prohibition against adultery[iv] [v], although adultery, like the vast majority of sins, is ultimately forgivable[vi]. The fact that the Lord categorically cites adultery as a sin demonstrates quite clearly that Marriage exists as a unique bond between a husband and a wife. Fidelity within that marriage is a Godly prize. In giving the Church authority to bind and to loose[vii], the Lord institutes marriage as a Holy Sacrament to bind a man and a woman together[viii] indissolubly.
For Anglican Catholics, the confluence of Natural Marriage and Sacramental marriage is set out in the introduction to the Book of Common Prayer:
Duely consideryng the causes for the whiche matrimonie was ordeined. One cause was the procreacion of children, to be brought up in the feare and nurture of the Lord, and prayse of God. Secondly it was ordeined for a remedie agaynst sinne, and to avoide fornicacion, that suche persones as bee maried, might live chastlie in matrimonie, and kepe themselves undefiled membres of Christes bodye. Thirdelye for the mutuall societie, helpe, and coumfort, that the one oughte to have of thother, both in prosperitie and adversitie. Into the whiche holy estate these two persones present: come nowe to be joyned.[ix]
We see very clearly that Natural Marriage and Sacramental Marriage are practically identical for Christians, not just for Anglican Catholics. The difference between them lies in the fact that not everyone is a Christian and yet non-Christian natural marriages are very clearly marriages. A non-Christian natural marriage may lack the indissolubility that sacramental marriage promises, but it nonetheless provides the stable framework for the building of the family and the moral integrity of a commitment between human beings. This is why the ministers of the sacrament of marriage are the Bride and Groom and who thus pass on the Tradition of fidelity, commitment of love within the family.
Marriage as a sacrament is not just for the couple. Like the other six sacraments, it is first and foremost for the health of Holy Church in which the couple to be married are supposed to play a part. No sacrament can be separated from the Church and so it is vital that the couple who marry intend to live within the framework and doctrine of God in order to contribute to the well-being of Christianity.
Legal marriages are very different in character to Natural and Sacramental Marriages because a legal marriage is essentially defined by rights and not by purpose. Legal marriages have their basis in a society’s government and a prevailing philosophy. Of course, many Natural Marriages take place in the framework of a civil ceremony, which have vows which are substantially the same as those taken in a Sacramental Marriage. Indeed in the U.K. the standard vows in a registry office were lifted from the Book of Common Prayer! These days, in civil ceremonies (or should that be civil rites?), the vows are written by the couple getting married. Nonetheless, there is very little that is ostensibly different from a Civil Ceremony and a Natural Marriage.
What makes a legal marriage different from a Natural or Sacramental Marriage is that laws can be changed by the prevailing government or even by a social fashion. Thus, in the legal case, what constitutes a marriage is formed by common acceptance and agreement between politicians, committees and experts.
In 2005, the British Government have allowed same-sex couples to enter into Civil Partnerships which were brought about to give the union of same-sex couples the legal consequences of marriage such as tax benefits, recognition of the spouse as next of kin, the same procedures in divorce settlements, et c. Thus, from the point of view of the law, a same-sex couple is regarded to all intents and purposes as a married couple. They have the same rights as a married couple and the same manner of establishing that partnership as a marriage service. Thus, it is would be incredibly difficult to argue that Civil Partnerships are any different from Legal Marriages, especially since the definition of marriage in this sense depends on Civil Authority.
So where is the problem?
The problem comes as a result of misunderstanding the category of marriage. Many people are now saying that they want their Civil partnership to be recognised as a marriage. One female campaigner for Same-Sex marriage held a banner which said “I didn’t ask her to Civil Partnership me!” However high the feelings may run, Civil Partnership may indeed be a legal marriage, but it is neither a Natural Marriage, nor is it a Sacramental Marriage. This will also have implications for the Established Church who are required to marry any couples who present themselves for the sacrament.
We have already seen that Natural Marriages evolved for the propagation of the species and for the protection of the family unit from abandonment. Already we see that a same-sex marriage is necessarily and absolutely biologically sterile. One might argue that no Natural Marriage can occur between a man and a woman who is past child-bearing. However, Science is showing us that older women can be given fertility treatment in order to produce children. The children produced are genetically related to both the parents. If one looks in Holy Scripture, one finds Sarai[x], Rebekah[xi], Rachel[xii], Manoah’s wife[xiii], Hannah[xiv], and Elizabeth[xv]: all of whom were declared barren or too old. The grace of God, however produces from these barren women, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, Samuel and St John Baptist respectively. Even the barren woman has the potential for bringing forth a child. Can the same be said for the same-sex couple?
Well clearly not, and this is the great tragedy of same-sex couples. No matter how brilliant, how kind, how warm-hearted, how generous, how loving or how decent same-sex partners are (and a great majority of them are such in abundance), they cannot transmit their characteristics genetically to a child. Yes, indeed, they can adopt, or they can seek surrogacy but that genetic information is passed through a third person. One partner necessarily gets left out of the production of a human being. Yes, it is true that same-sex couples have indeed successfully raised adopted children in loving and committed ways, but the fact is that this child is not genetically related – there is still something missing. A fundamental part of at least one member of that couple does not get passed on. There are many arguments about “nature versus nurture” when it comes to raising children, but it is surely most natural and most beneficial for “nature” and “nurture” to be mutually complementary.
One cannot argue that Same-Sex Marriages are a natural evolution from Natural Marriage between a man and a woman because one is arguing that the development of a Natural Marriage is moving from fertility to sterility. From an evolutionary point of view this is extinction. We are moving from a purpose to a lack of purpose which makes little sense in a world where there is an overarching purpose beyond the supremacy of individual choice against the mutual common good of society.
It is quite clear from Holy Scripture that all marriages occur between a man and a woman for the purpose of raising a family. For the Christian, God’s commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” overrides even the understanding of Natural Marriage. For a Christian, a marriage without God is already deficient, though from the point of view of God’s purpose, a Natural Marriage can be regarded as such because it fulfils the purpose that God sets. The Will of God overrides human will, reason and understanding for, if God created us, then it is His right to make decisions about our lives[xvi]. That He allows us to make our own decisions in our lives and gives us freedom to shape our own destiny is an example of great Divine generosity and respect for our existence as creatures that He intends to live.
This, of course, makes it impossible for the Church to recognise the union of two members of the same sex as married no matter how compatible they may be in other senses. It also makes it impossible for the Church to comply with any law which seeks to force her from accepting any authority other than from God.
The late Historian and Yale Professor, John Boswell, published Same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe[xvii] in which he describes two instances of what he calls "Office of Same Sex Union" (10th and 11th century Greek) and the "Order for Uniting Two Men" (11th and 12th century)". Evaluating the evidence that Boswell supplies, we find that this thesis is not supported by the Greek texts he cites which talk about an Adelphopoiesis – literally a “brother-making”. Seeing that the Church has always rejected homosexual practice as anything other than fornication, the whole corpus of Church teaching is against him and recognises this office as a confession of fraternal, not sexual, love. Boswell himself was a practising homosexual who very sadly died of an AIDS related illness in 1994. It is both possible and likely that he was reading into this adelphopoiesis his own interpretation of what it means to be made a brother. Indeed, under his own interpretation, David and Jonathan would be considered to be in a same-sex marriage despite very sound biblical scholarship that they were not. It seems that two men just cannot be close friends these days without being regarded in a sexual relationship. The same is true of St Sergius and St Bacchus who have been labelled as being in a same-sex marriage despite not a shred of evidence that this was what they understood.
Whatever it means for a society to “move on”, the genetic production of children has not. Of course, the laws and fashions of society are malleable and thus there are always different understandings of the way we interpret the world around us. Even Science goes through fashions such as Popper’s axiom of falsifiability of a scientific theory which turns out to be self-defeating! But the fact remains and is unalterable, the natural production of human children only happens with a man and a woman.
This is very true, but the way that it has been understood concurs with the Church’s understanding for some considerable time. The fact remains that one doesn’t get milk from a wardrobe by setting up legal processes to call it a cow! A legal marriage that does not satisfy the prerequisites of a Natural Marriage is a marriage only in name only and is insubstantial.
Further, as St Paul says, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any”[xviii] and again, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.[xix]” Indeed one can compare and contrast the foci of Natural/Sacramental Marriage with that of Legal marriage. The focus of both the Natural and Sacramental marriages is extrinsic to the couple. These sorts of marriages are in part about the stability of the community and about the future of children that are to be brought up into that marriage and into the community. This is why marriages are Church events not just family events. A legal marriage is purely intrinsic and focussed entirely on the couple themselves without any reference to those outside. The word “marriage” may not be owned by the Church, but the notion is certainly owned by the community in general and not in particular.
This is rather off-topic since we aren’t really talking about the nature of homosexuality but rather of marriage. Science seems to suggest that people are born with a sexuality which is oriented towards members of the same sex. Certainly, it yields an innovative point of view from the heterosexual viewpoint as well as much that is inventive, enlightening, sensitive, ingenious and glorious, but it also yields a pronounced tendency to suffer a temptation against the law of God in the same way as any other aspect of what makes us human produces its unique temptation. All humans suffer temptation, even Our Blessed Lord[xx]! Indeed both homosexuals and heterosexuals suffer from the same temptation of extra-marital sex and the number of children born as a result is huge. It does not stop these children being loveable though. Yielding to temptation, however, does not give the right to change the way we build stable and committed families.
As members of the Anglican Catholic Church with all other traditional Christians, we are very clear by what we mean by “marriage”. For us, this is a sacrament of great beauty, of joy, and promise for the future for a man and a woman in the context of the Holy Church. We believe that, when it follows the teaching of God, it benefits our community and enriches the lives of children for generations to come. While we acknowledge that too many marriages “go bad” these days, they only do so because of the absence of God. There are always 3 people in a marriage – the couple and God, though one might make a Trinitarian argument to suggest that there are 5! It is our job to preserve that clarity of teaching in the face of social redefinition and the confusion that will follow.
Thanks go to Ed Pacht, Dr. Jim Ryland and Fr. David Straw for their comments on the first draft of this. Their help has been valuable and much appreciated.
[i] Gen i.28
[ii] Gen ii.24
[iii] St John ii
[iv] St Matthew v.27-8, 32
[v] St Matthew xix.9 and other places
[vi] St John viii.
[vii] St Matthew xvi.19
[viii] St Matthew xix.6
[ix] BCP 1549 Introduction to The Forme of Solemnizacion of Matrimonie.
[x] Gen xi.30
[xi] Gen xxv.21
[xii] Gen xxix.31
[xiii] Judges xiii.2
[xiv] I Sam i.2
[xv] St Luke i.7
[xvi] I Cor vi.19
[xvii] John Boswell, Same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe, Villard Books 1994
[xviii] I Cor vi.12
[xix] I Cor x.23
[xx] Heb iv.15