I listened to Canon Angela Tilby deliver ‘Thought for the Day’ during this morning’s ‘Today’ programme. Her comments are always of interest and well thought-through but this time I found myself wondering at her reasoning during her reflection on the subject of gay marriage. Whilst she presented the arguments for and against I was struck by the lack of any real depth to some of her reasoning.
She focussed into the principle that marriage between a man and a woman is a ‘gift of God in creation’ which, consequently, cannot be altered. In doing so, reflected that God created Adam and Eve (not, as has been said, ‘Adam and Steve’) and went on to declare that, as marriage is a sacrament of the church, it is not for us to change the matter of the sacrament i.e. a man and a woman. Just as the Eucharist uses bread and wine not “tea and biscuits” as the ‘matter’ of the sacrament, so the ‘matter’ of marriage is the union of opposite sexes, and cannot, logically, be two people of the same sex.
Firstly (and once again) I found myself uneasy with the claim that marriage is a ‘gift of God in creation’. I know it is a phrase used in the Book of Common Prayer and derives from Genesis 2: 24: ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (NRSV). The problem with this sentence is that there seems to me no real evidence in the Old Testament of marriage as we now understand the event (one man and one woman joined in a civil/religious ceremony). There is, however, plenty of evidence that men took more than one wife. Indeed, the Patriarchs seem to have no problem with having more than one, nor of owning concubines. Abraham had a wife and an extra-marital relationship with his slave (concubine?) as did his son, Isaac. King Solomon (the Wise) had “seven hundred wives and four hundred concubines.” (1 Kgs.11:1-3) and the great King David had at least seven wives and numerous concubines (1 Chr.3). Clearly, having a wife was important – and the more the better…
I am indebted to the late Gareth Moore OP who pointed out in his book A Question of Truth (Continuum Books ISBN 0-8264-5949-8) that in the second Creation narrative God did not, in fact, determine that Adam should chose a woman to answer his solitude – in fact, when God realised that it was not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2: 18f) he first brought every living thing to Adam, arguably indicating that Adam had the choice of a “helper”. Adam could, in theory, have chosen Pooh, Eeyore or Tigger. It was his choice. Or have I missed something?
On the next point, that marriage is a sacrament and it is not for us to change the matter of a sacrament, I was very surprised to hear this from a woman who, presumably, has faced opposition to her ordination to the sacrament of priesthood from those who use a similar argument: that if Jesus did not call women to be disciples, how can we ordain woman as priests? Leaving aside the point that in our present culture he may very well have chosen women (and Adam may have chosen Steve) the Church of England has recognised it is not the gender that is the matter of the sacrament but the fact of our common humanity. And, of course, Angela (as an Anglican) was wrong in saying that marriage is a sacrament according to the official formularies of the Church of England. Many of us may believe it is, but Article XXV in the Book of Common Prayer states that ordination (and four others) "are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord's Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God." Curiously, of course, the BCP goes on to describe marriage as “an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency” (The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony)…
As to her point that we use bread and wine to celebrate the Eucharist because that is what Jesus did (and thereby "remember him"), whilst the principle is right it completely misses the point that this Sacrament is not rooted in the Last Supper but on the Jewish Paschal meal that Jesus celebrated. Maybe if the Jews ever decide not to celebrate Passover with unleavened bread and wine we might think again. And where does her argument leave all those churches that don’t use fermented wine but grape juice or unleavened bread but Hovis? Allowing that marriage is a sacrament, the matter (or visible sign) concerns human beings, not their gender. That is why Adam (or Eve) could not ‘marry’ Pooh but, arguably, could marry Steve (or Sue).
Come on, Angela, you can do better than that!