by Elizabeth Kaeton
What makes a marriage Christian? What is the relationship between the Church’s blessing of a relationship, whether different-gender or same-gender, and a union, “marriage” or otherwise, created by civil law? Is the blessing of a same-gender relationship equivalent to the marriage of a different-gender couple, and if so, should this liturgy be called “marriage”?
These are some of the questions posed by the SCLM (Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music) in Resolution A050, which asks that the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies create a Task Force on the Study of Marriage. The resolution specifies that the task force consist of “not more than twelve people, consisting of theologians, liturgists, pastors, and educators, to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage”.
Already, many are weighing in on the definition of “traditional marriage” – by which many mean to hold us to the line of “tradition”, i.e., “the way we’ve always done it before”: one (fertile) man and one (fertile) woman. At least, that’s the “tradition” that’s fresh in the minds of many.
If you want to build a case for that definition of “traditional marriage”, I have a suggestion: Don’t start with Scripture. You’ll find a greater case there for polygamy and contract negotiations between two men for the “property” of a woman than “traditional marriage”.
Most folks who want to build a case for “traditional marriage” begin with the Story of Creation, with particular emphasis on The Fall. This is a natural default position for those of the evangelical persuasion who seem blithely unaware that both stories are just that: stories. Myths. They are lovely stories - holy, sacred stories, to be sure - but they are not "The Truth" as we know it today, informed as we are by research and science and archeology and forensics and the like.
These stories are the way ancient people sat around the wilderness campfire at night and told stories to try and understand "the meaning of Life". Their inherent value lies in the evidence they provide of our evolution as human beings whose understandings about God's action in the history of our lives has also evolved. As such, these stories have great meaning and significance, but in no way do they provide the architectural foundation for the meaning of marriage.
There is something in the human condition - no matter how young or old we are - that loves a good story. Our ears perk up when we hear, "Once upon a time....." and we wait for the ending, "....and they lived happily ever after."
We have our "happily ever after" when we follow the path Jesus has set for us which leads to Life Eternal. Everything else is just details.
Ah, someone is saying, "the devil is in the details."
If you base your theological understanding of "traditional marriage" on myths that include talking snakes, then the church is in a whole lot more trouble than anything blessing covenants between two people of the same gender could bring.
I mean, seriously? Talking snakes and "The Fall"? That can be believed but not the belief that there is goodness and holiness in my 37-year faithful, monogamous relationship?
Isn't that where the conversation about "traditional marriage" always leads? It’s not a simply means to fortify the status quo but to take down anything that doesn’t look like what might have made a Norman Rockwell portrait of Americana on the front cover of The Saturday Evening Post.
I find the whole conversation about Scripture and Traditional Marriage to be surreal when it's not condescending and arrogant and deeply insulting. I find myself going back to the 38th Chapter of Job and hearing the questions which Job reports God asked him, like: "Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?"
I'm sure some find this sort of conversation enlightening and, perhaps even intellectually entertaining, but I've been in the struggle for Marriage Equality for a long time. I’ve heard it all before and I know where it leads. In the end, we all become scriptural gymnasts, twisting and turning as we try and impose the meaning we want to give on ancient words that had an entirely different context and intent in their meaning.
Sigh. I suppose it has to be done. Point, counterpoint and onward into the whirlwind of human folly. "Knowledge puffs up but love builds up" (1Corinthians 8:1b)
I do take some comfort in the fact that Resolution A050 asks, “That the task force consult with couples living in marriage and in other lifelong committed relationships and with single adults”; and “That the task force consider issues raised by changing societal and cultural norms and legal structures, including legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships between two people of the same sex, in the U.S. and other countries where The Episcopal Church is located”.
Yes, after we talk to all the “theologians, liturgists, pastors, and educators, to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage”, please lets look at the realities we are facing in today’s world and try and find some meaning and hear some stories – just the way our ancient forebears did.
I am especially heartened that A050 also asks, “That the task force develop tools for theological reflection and norms for theological discussion at a local level.” This, I think, is an even deeper challenge than defining marriage. If we can do that for this important issue, perhaps we’ll have a means and methodology to discuss other controversial issues in the church.
Perhaps with a way to talk and listen to each other instead of listening to talking snakes, we may well find a way to talk about the traditions of mutual love, fidelity, intimacy and mutuality that are at the heart and soul of Christian marriage.
The Rev'd Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton is an Episcopal priest who loves Jesus unconditionally and struggles with the institutional church continually. She is currently a member of and assists at All Saints Rehoboth Beach and St George's Chapel, Harbeson, DE and has a private pastoral counseling and consulting practice. She blogs at Telling Secrets.