We will also look at the current arguments for and against same sex marriage and where we are in the Diocese of Virginia. We have a lot of ground to cover.
But before we get there, I want to begin with some sobering statistics.
The U.S. has the highest divorce rate in the developed world, with 5.2 per 1,000 people who are divorced; Russian, UK, Denmark next.
The divorce rate is highest among Americans in their 20s. Currently, 38 percent of young men who marry will be divorced before they are 24.
Some estimates are that 40 percent of all first marriages in the U.S. will end in divorce; 60 percent of second marriages.
The numbers are more complicated. According to the U.S. Census statistics, the divorce rate in the U.S. has actually fallen since 1980 when it was 7.9 per 1,000.
However, hold on for this next number:
In 1980, 18.4 percent of births in the U.S. were out of wedlock.
In 2008 it was 40.6 percent.
And nearly 30 percent of households in the U.S. with children have only one parent, by far the highest rate of one-parent households in the developed world. That is also up from 1980 when it was 19 percent.
The divorce rate may be falling simply because people aren’t getting married in the first place.
We have a marriage crisis, or more precisely, a commitment crisis, and we begin there. What is going on with marriage in our culture that is seen as one among many options for cohabitating? Why do we have serial marriages and serial relationships? Why are marriages breaking down? We must take an honest look at those questions in any discussion of marriage.
And what does the Church have to offer to bring healing to people in marriages, and how has the Church contributed to the destruction of marriage as a cornerstone of the common good? For what does the Church itself need to repent?
Whatever your opinions and feelings about the issue of same sex marriage, I want us to start on one common understanding – that marriage as an institution in our country is in a deep crisis, and that means it is also in a deep crisis in our church. That makes this discussion we are having not a distracting side-show but the main event of our time in our church.
This crisis began long before we began talking about same sex marriage, so we cannot put this at the feet of those who advocate for it. If anything, I am convinced that this debate about same-sex marriage has had one major blessing already: it is forcing us to confront the crisis in monogamous marriage itself.
Some years ago, a lesbian friend of mine, a deeply devout Christian, said to me “Why would I want to be a part of this train wreck you straight people call marriage?” That is a fair question.
Or, to put it another way, if we are going to expand the idea of marriage, maybe we better take a hard look at marriage as an institution and clean it up.
The Anglican Theological Review devoted its Winter 2011 issue to the issues of same-sex marriage, and we will be drawing from that work along with many other resources. Here is a good place to start (p. 62):
"It is no accident that we now debate marriage. For marriage is an example of the concrete discipline that most of us (liberal and conservative) lack: in marriage we practice common discernment over self-interest. Marriage cultivates concern for one another; it offers lifelong hospitality; it enacts love; and it exposes our faults in order to heal them. It is the marital virtues that the church needs, not only with respect to the Bridegroom, but just now, with respect to one another."So what is Christian marriage? What is our understanding of marriage in the Episcopal Church? How did we get to this point in our history? Where are we going?
But to do that, we need to be careful in tossing biblical passages around in support of pre-supposed positions and prejudices. The defenders of slavery used the Bible as a weapon to support deeply sinful and unjust practices, as did the defenders of the inequality of women. We need to be careful in how we use the Bible.
Yet we must look at the Bible as our standard for human ethics and responsibility. The Bible has a great deal to inform us, and much of it is highly nuanced and subject to vastly differing interpretation. We also need to put the Bible in its own cultural and social context, for that is much different than our own. Any examination of Scripture is tough work. The truth is, the Bible is going to make everyone uncomfortable regardless of your position.
In the coming weeks, we are going to look back at the forms of marriage in the Bible – including polygamy (Genesis 29:17-28) – and the holiness codes, written by men primarily for men, which render contact with women unclean. Marriage in the Hebrew Bible was primarily a property transaction, and Jesus’ admonition about divorce was primarily an admonition to men to treat their women – their property – fairly.
The Hebrew holiness codes presumed that men would be having sex outside of marriage, and the codes dealt with how to fairly compensate other men for the use of their women (Leviticus 19:20-21) and authorization to acquire concubines (2 Samuel 5:13). Marriage outside your tribe was also forbidden (Numbers 25:1-9). The same codes also forbid men to have sex with other men (Leviticus 20:13); any discussion of biblical prohibitions against homosexual practice needs to be seen in its biblical context.
The authors of the Bible were never confronted with the possibility of loving same-gender relationships. That was completely outside their experience. One might say that on the face of it they would have summarily rejected the concept, but they may also have rejected the concept of equal loving relationships between men and women.
On the other hand, would they? Marriage is about self-giving and submitting to a discipline with another, and marriage is a manifestation of the incarnation of Christ because marriage is about the giving of our bodies to another in love much as Christ gave himself to us in love.
Yet, St. Paul, quite pointedly, did not mention marriage as having the purpose of procreation. He saw marriage as an ascetic spiritual practice emulating the self-giving of Christ. Where he mentioned sex at all, he saw marriage as a way to control promiscuous sexual behaviors. Children were simply not a part of his theology of marriage.
It may be that in same-sex marriage, we are able to recover Paul's theology of marriage as a covenanted discipline, and that may lead us on a path to strengthening all marriages. We will look at it.
That attitude has changed and only relatively recently. Our current understanding of marriage and sexuality is really quite modern. Even the term “homosexual” dates only from the 19th century.
At the outset, we must acknowledge that in the long sweep of human history, marriage has been seen as between men and women. The definition of marriage, the customs of marriage, the transactions and disparities of marriage; the mores and customs of marriage has changed many times, but until now, have been seen exclusively as between opposite sexes. Anthropologists who spend a great deal of time studying marriage cross-culturally will tell you that marriage is a phenomenon of culture and a building block of social order. It is not in our genes; it is a tool for building societies and inculcating children with the values and norms of culture. That also means it is subject to change.
While the Church often positions itself as “countercultural” it must be said that the Church has been one of the creators of the culture of marriage and sexual mores. Stigmas for being gay and the propagation of narrow “family values” are largely creations of the modern Christianity.
Yet, the Church’s involvement in marriage has been inconsistent until the modern era. The Catholic Church did not require a priest to be present at a marriage blessing until 1563. In England, people could contract for marriage without the church – that did not end until 1753 with an act of Parliament. Typically, couples showed up in church and asked for a blessing. Such blessings might be done privately (as when the bride was already pregnant) or might follow elaborate local rituals and culinary customs (see Godfather Part II for the scene of a marriage in Sicily with the entire village).
On a deeper level, our understanding of marriage has undergone a fundamental change in western culture that we are just now beginning to grasp. Our theology and doctrines of “natural law” are struggling to keep up with our context.
The primary reasons for our changing understanding of marriage: our expanded concepts of social and gender equality (which, let us acknowledge, derived in western culture from reading the gospels); the loosening of restrictions on divorce and the social stigmas that once went with it; and with reliable contraceptives, a very basic shift in attitudes about the purpose of sexual relations – sex is now primarily about love and pleasure (and not necessarily in that order).
All of those cultural shifts have brought another understanding about sexuality itself: that sexual relations are not primarily for the purpose of procreation; and procreation can come in a Petri dish and not in the nuptial bed. Our current cultural value about sex is to think of it as fun and not, as an earlier generation thought of sexual relations as obligation (or, as Queen Victoria put it, “close your eyes and think of England”). It follows that marriage in our context is not primarily about having children -- marriage is about the couples themselves.
Added to this discussion: The consensus in psychiatry that same-sex attraction is not a mental “disorder” and while it is a trait among a minority of the population, same-gender sexual orientation is something akin to be left-handed. Scientists do debate the causes of same-gender sexual attraction, yet psychiatry also has a consensus that sexual orientation does not lend itself to coerced change, and attempts to force change is deeply unethical.
Added to the scientific discussion is growing appreciation that human sexuality is complicated and does not always fall neatly into polarities of hetero- and homo- sexuality.
Where then do all of these developments leave marriage and the purpose of marriage?
It has followed that marriage is not primarily about procreation and rearing children. Marriage has become redefined as primarily about love, and sexuality primarily about sensuality, about giving the body exclusively to another person and no other.
The vows of Christian marriage are about self-giving to a spouse, “in sickness and in health,” and “until we are parted by death.” The vows aren’t about having children but they are about blessings and self-discipline within marriage as a lifetime commitment.
Inevitably, we come to this question: If marriages between men and women who have no children are blessed, then why aren’t marriages between people of the same sex blessed?
And go one step further: Should the Church encourage all loving committed relationships between adults be subject to the blessings and discipline of marriage? Should we think of this as part of our greater stewardship of all creation, which includes ourselves as the created?
And who then is making this blessing? The Church? God? The couple themselves? What obligations come with blessings?
In a way – and follow me on this – the debate in the Episcopal Church about same-sex marriage is a debate among conservatives. On the one side, those who maintain a traditional view of marriage as between one man and one woman blessed by God and the Church, and on the other side, those who are advocating for an expanded view of marriage as between two loving people in a committed and blessed relationship – both sides are essentially arguing from a conservative position that marriage is necessary for the common good and derives from the goodness and blessings of God and is essential for the social order of society.
Both sides are rejecting a libertine view of sexuality and both are sharply critical of marriage as a shallow social convention that leads to serial marriages and parentless households. Both sides have a great deal to offer this discussion, and I return you to the statistics that point to the crisis in marriage with which I began this talk.
The question is whether these two sides can agree to disagree and still come to the table in the spiritual unity of sharing in the bread and wine of our Holy Communion. And that, of course, is always the question in any Christian marriage.
That is also why I am going to ask – plead – with everyone to avoid the trap of using the labels of “liberal” and “conservative.” Better labels, if we need them, are “traditionalists” and “expansionists” – and those are the labels currently preferred by many of the theologians in this debate.
That is a quick overview; Heather and I are going to take us back through this in detail in coming weeks.
I’d like us to have a discussion today, and a good starting point for us today I want is our 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Arguably, this prayer book put us on the road, for better or for worse, to where we are today in this discussion.
The Celebration and
Blessing of a Marriage
At the time appointed, the persons to be married, with their witnesses,
assemble in the church or some other appropriate place.
During their entrance, a hymn, psalm, or anthem may be sung,
or instrumental music may be played.
Then the Celebrant, facing the people and the persons to be married,
with the woman to the right and the man to the left, addresses the
congregation and says
Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of
God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and
this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of
marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord
Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and
first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us
the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and
Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.
The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is
intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort
given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is
God's will, for the procreation of children and their nurture
in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is
not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently,
deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it
was instituted by God.