Sunday, October 07, 2012

Can Marriage be Gay?

27TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Trinity 18)                (YR.B)
Sermon preached at the Church of All Saints, New Eltham

 ‘A man shall leave his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
And the two shall become one flesh.’ Mk.8:7,8)

‘Love and marriage, love and marriage - go together like a horse and carriage’.  So sang Frank Sinatra back in 1955 and immediately the song became a smash hit. 

But, in spite of Hollywood, they haven’t always. 

It’s arguable that, until recently in Europe, ‘real estate and marriage’ have gone together like a horse and carriage!  Read any novel by Jane Austen or ‘ask the local gentry - and they will say it’s elementary’.  And behind land there lay the need for a male heir – primogeniture.  You just need to look at the life of the man at the centre of the English Reformation, Henry VIII, to see how elementary having one was – and, even today, is. 

This morning our readings have touched on at least two matters of concern.  The opening verses of the Book of Job raise the question of why good people suffer, and Mark’s account of the Pharisees encounter with Jesus presents us with question of marriage and divorce.  Whilst both deserve sermons in themselves, this morning I want to reflect on the matter of marriage, and, in particular, the marriage of same-sex couples as that is a current hot-potato for many in the Church if not our wider society.

First I should declare an interest in the matter in that, six years ago and with the blessing of my then bishop, I entered into a Civil Partnership.  And, although it was not then possible to enter the ‘Holy Estate of Matrimony’ we had our union blessed in a church and, as far as our friends (and my parishioners who, young and old bless them, always supported us) were concerned, we were ‘married’.  

I mention that also because, at a fundamental level, marriage cannot be ‘owned’ by church or state.  It is a state of life which two people agree upon and which is recognised by their families, friends and neighbours.  When the Prayer Book speaks of marriage as ‘a gift of God in creation’ it is this coming-together of two people, not the institution of marriage especially as we know it today. 

I imagine we are familiar with the arguments against opening marriage to same-sex couples which seem to spring from the verse in Genesis saying that a ‘man (leaves) his father and mother and (clings) to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Gen.2:24).  It is this verse which gave rise to the teaching that God intended marriage to be part of the created order.   

The problem with this statement is that there seems so little evidence in the Old Testament of marriage as we now understand the state.  Clearly, people got married but there is also plenty of evidence that it was quite acceptable for men to take more than one wife.  The Patriarchs seem to have no problem with having more than one: Abraham had a wife and an extra-marital relationship with his slave 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…

In all this it’s important to remember that the writer of the second Creation narrative in Genesis sets his statement that ‘they become one flesh’ within the context of God realising that ‘it is not good that the man should be alone’ (Gen.2:18)

I am indebted to the late Dominican theologian  Gareth Moore who pointed out in his book ‘A Question of Truth’ how, according to the narrative, God did not determine that Adam should chose a woman to answer his solitude.  In fact, when God realised that it was not good for Adam to be alone he first brought every living thing to him, 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? 

At this point I want to affirm the traditional teaching of the Church about the fundamental importance of marriage as the ‘foundation of family life’, a ‘sign of unity and loyalty’ which ‘enriches society and strengthens community’ and ‘should not be entered into lightly or selfishly but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God’.  The thing is I cannot, for the life of me, understand why that cannot be equally applicable for same-sex couples. 

And that, it would seem, is the view of the majority of younger people, many of whom will chose not to get married yet who still regard themselves, and will be viewed by others, as living in a committed relationship. 

Opinion Polls suggest that opposition to same-sex marriage is strongest amongst older religious believers and evangelicals who cling to the premise (probably rooted in a belief that homosexuality is a sin) that same-sex marriage is forbidden in the Bible.  But we should be cautious about the certainty with which moral positions are built with Biblical support. 

Until a few people began campaigning against slavery, the Church saw it as part of the God-given ordering of creation.  The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa viewed Apartheid in the same way.

But probably the most important parallel regarding the use of scripture to support the denial of human rights concerns the treatment of women and the understanding of men as having headship over them, a belief clearly threatened by same-sex marriage.

Yet all this talk of human rights raises the issue for many of the relationship between biblical revelation and culture.  Shouldn't Christians be informed by the Bible rather than social developments?  

Well, as Anglican’s, whilst our faith might be founded in Scripture and Tradition it is not those alone that determine belief.  In classical Anglican terms, Reason also plays its part. However, in the end, our faith is not rooted in any of these, but in a Man.  It is to Jesus we look and to the Spirit we appeal.  And that Spirit of God is constantly moving throughout Creation bringing new life into being.  On the night he was betrayed, S. John records these words of Jesus:  "I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (Jn.16:12-13)

It is clear that the Church has had to re-think much of its social understanding over the centuries.  Thankfully, our faith is not set in concrete but is dynamic – open to the movement of the Spirit – yet often, as the world evolves, the church is dragged along kicking and screaming rather than leading the struggle for justice and human rights. 

For centuries the Church of England understood the primary purpose of marriage to be ‘for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.’ (BCP)  We inherited that understanding from our Catholic roots – and the Reformers didn’t change that.  Yet now this is not how our Church expresses it.  According to Common Worship, marriage is ‘given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.’  Only later are children mentioned – and this can be omitted if circumstances require. 

We have come closer to the Orthodox teaching that the goal of marriage is for a man and woman to become one in the image of the Holy Trinity, Whose three Persons are essentially united in love.  To quote St John Chrysostom, ‘when husband and wife are united in marriage, they are no longer seen as something earthly, but as the image of God Himself’.  It is this call to union that is the ‘gift of God in creation’ for God is ever seeking to re-unite all things in Himself. 

We are members of a church whose existence was changed through the struggles of the Reformation – and the multiple marriages of a king.   As the Bp. of Salisbury wrote earlier this year: ‘The possibility of ‘gay marriage’ does not detract from heterosexual marriage, unless we think that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice … (rather than a) given identity. 

They seek to form stable, faithful, adult, loving sexual relationships, and as Christians () want to do so within the context of the church of which they are baptized members.  As a parish priest I was struck that I could bless a bridge over the Thames and new toilets but not a Christian couple who said they loved each other so much that they wanted to be together for life.’ 

Let me end with words by the 19th cent. English poet and journalist, Sir Edwin Arnold:

Somewhere there waiteth in this world of ours
for one lone soul, another lonely soul -
Each chasing each through all the weary hours,
And meeting strangely at one sudden goal;

Then blend they - like green leaves with golden flowers,
Into one beautiful and perfect whole -
And life's long night is ended, and the way
Lies open onward to eternal day.


rev said...

Bravo.. Thoughtful and from the heart.

Kate Eaton said...

I'm glad you blog your sermons because those of us in Sunday School are not getting to hear them!
Thank you for this Fr John-Francis, a brilliant read