In my previous post I laid out the liturgy used in the gay wedding of two Church of England priests and compared it to the actual text of the BCP marriage service. In doing so I demonstrated that the argument that the service was not intended to mimic the BCP marriage service and therefore to be itself a marriage was specious. What I intend to do in this post is to examine the theology of the liturgy used in the service and demonstrate that, far from just being a blessing of a civil union, the texts used propose a clear redefinition of the theology of the Church of England.
Anglicanism, Doctrine and Liturgy – A (Very) Brief Summary
Anglicanism has always understood that its liturgy is an outworking of its doctrine. Since Cranmer framed the original BCP and the 17th century divines clarified it, and throughout the process of liturgical revision from ASB to Common Worship, liturgy has been understood to articulate what the Communion centred in Canterbury actually believes.
Liturgy has been a common point of unity of the many Provinces that make up the Communion, for though each now has its own prayer book, they have all derived those prayer books from the English BCP and its succesors. This has allowed the common usage of liturgy across the Communion, with many Diocesan Bishops in England for example allowing churches to use Eucharistic liturgies that come from other Anglican communities across the globe. This is done because it is understood that the individual provinces would not stray in any significant manner from the Eucharistic doctrine laid down by Cranmer and safeguarded by the redactors of the Book of Common Prayer and its successors. Were the liturgy to substantially vary on what it expressed, it would indicate doctrinal alteration.
This means that liturgical innovation is doctrinal innovation. For example, were I in my church to introduce a Eucharistic liturgy that invoked "O Great Mother" and that distributed raisin cakes rather than bread, I would be guilty of altering Church of England doctrine. In such a case I would expect my Bishop to come down very hard upon me. Were I to refuse to change the new liturgy, I would expect to have my licence removed fortwith.
The Sexual Theology of the BCP Marriage Service
We now turn to examine the sexual theology of the BCP Marriage Service. In the opening charge to the couple and the congregation, the Priest says the following:
holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church;
This is a clear reference to Ephesians 5, where Paul writes the following:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
Paul takes the institution of marriage in Genesis 2 and explains how the union of husband and wife signifies more than just the coming together of two humans. He teaches that within marriage the husband and the wife take on unique roles in the way that they together sexually signify Christ and his Church. Within marriage Paul argues, the husband signifies Christ. That is why he is first called to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He must give up all things for her in the same way that Christ gave up all things for his bride. The bride then serves her husband on the same grounds that the church serves Christ, not because of any patriarchal power structure but because the church understands that Christ has laid down everything for her.
The BCP marriage service echoes this understanding for it first calls on the husband in this manner:
Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health;
Here the primary call to the husband is to love, but when the wife is addressed the charge is different:
Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health;
The distinction in the charges points to the Ephesians 5 teaching that the wife submitting to her husband, on the basis that he loves her by laying down all things for her, is a mirror of the church’s relationship to Christ.
This understanding leads Paul to the realisation that the consummation of the marriage creates a mysterious holy union between husband and wife that mirrors the union of Christ and the Church. The sexual bonding of the two as "one flesh" is not just a physical act but a spiritual one, for it has a deep signification in its activity. To put it as unsubtlely as one can, the act of a husband and wife achieving orgasm together is not just an indication of their physical oneness but points beyond them to the work of the cross in uniting fallen humanity to a holy God through the shed blood of the Son.
Within this signification, the uniqueness of the partners is key. The sexual difference of the man and his wife are the driving force behind the symbolism. It is their biological difference and the union of those differences that is the indicator of the greater union of Christ and the Church.
To summarise, the BCP Marriage Service explicitly draws from Ephesians 5 and in doing so distinguishes between husband and wife in their unique roles in signifying the union of Christ and the Church. The sexual imagery is deliberate and points to a higher truth beyond the married couple. It is an understanding of sexual activity that has dictated the Church’s response to all other forms of copulation and was still part of the guiding theology in the 1990s revision of the Marriage Service.
How the Gay Marriage Liturgy subverts the Ephesians 5 Model
We have clearly seen how the BCP Marriage Service draws explicity from Ephesians 5 to create a sexual theology around the coming together of husband and wife. We now turn our attention to the liturgy provided for the gay union in London and we will see how far from not attempting to be a marriage, the service deliberately uses marriage imagery.
The opening exhortation of the gay union has the following phrase:
Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together these Men in a holy covenant of love and fidelity; Such a covenant shows us the mystical union between God and God’s people and between Christ and his Church;
Far from not attempting to be a marriage, the gay union liturgy deliberately picks up the Ephesians 5 language of the BCP service and clearly applies it to the union of man and man. In particular, it indicates that such a union in its sexual dimension fulfils the role of signifying the bond of Christ and his Church.
This means that the liturgy used for this gay union is not just an attempt to bless a relationship, but in its choice of language it deliberately attempts to alter the doctrine of the Church of England as to what constitutes a holy marriage. Up till this point the Church has clearly indicated that the only sexual union that can signify the union of Christ and the Church is that of husband and wife. The opening exhortation of the gay union liturgy denies that to be so and explicitly extends the nature of the sexual partners to be either of differing sexes or of the same sex. This therefore cannot be understood any other way than an attempt to redefine the Anglican understanding of marriage, for as we have seen the BCP marriage service places a great deal of emphasis upon the clear reading of Ephesians 5. In the BCP liturgy the sexual union of husband and wife as a mirror of Christ and the Chuch is a key indicator of marriage and also a contributor to the understanding of why sexual union outside of the marriage of husband and wife is sinful and idolatorous.
One possible argument against this perspective is that this was not the intention of the framers of the opening exhortation in the gay union liturgy. If that were the case though it demonstrates very poor theological understanding, for the Ephesians 5 connotations are clearly derived from the BCP marriage service which itself is clearly indicating the significatorial roll of sexual union. It is far more likely that the framers of this liturgy understood the implications of the words that they chose and made the deliberate choice of using them in the context that they did to alter the theology derived from that passage. In doing so they have fundamentally altered the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage.
Issues with the Gay Union Liturgy and its Implicit Deconstruction of the Ephesians 5 Model
There is a problem though in this activity of altering the doctrine of marriage in that the vows that the two clergy made to each other are identical. Whereas in the BCP marriage service the husband and the wife make different promises to each other, indicating the theological differences of their significatorial roles in sexual union, the promises made by the two men in the gay union liturgy are identical:
I Peter take thee David as my partner, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to I love and to cherish, till death us do part; and thereto I plight thee my troth.
This leads us to a problem with the liturgy that not only demonstrates how its actions runs counter to Scripture, but also presents a significant issue for the Church of England to address if no disciplinary action is taken on those who carried it out. Having identical vows for both partners of a same-sex marriage, while at the same time drawing on the Ephesians 5 model for those vows, implies that there has been a fundamental misunderstanding in the church’s application of Ephesians 5 up to this point. The BCP service indicates clearly that the sexual distinctiveness of the two partners is critical to understanding the mystery of the sexual union of the spouses – the gay union liturgy implies that it is not.
This leads us to wonder whether the claim that same-sex marriage undermines heterosexual marriage may actually have a great deal of merit. If the Church of England accepts and permits this gay union liturgy (which we have clearly seen is a gay marriage liturgy), then it will implictly condone this dimunition of the sexual model in Ephesians 5. If the gay marriage liturgy is permitted to be used again, or if it is not condemned and those who took part in it disciplined, the Church will by its actions implicitly accept that the analogy Paul uses in Ephesians 5 with explicit roles for the sexes is not in any sense a uniquely God ordained signify of the work of Christ.
Furthermore, to not condemn this liturgy and to discipline those who took part, the Church will undermine the guidelines of the House of Bishops found in Issues in Human Sexuality, Some Issues in Human Sexuality and the Pastoral Guidance on Civil Partnerships, that same-sex activity falls short of the behaviour expected of Christians, let alone clergy, fo the gay marriage liturgy clearly equates the validity of same-sex activity and married sex.
We have seen clearly that the liturgy used in this service is not just one of neutral commitment (as Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral has claimed), but rather is a service deliberately intended to mimic the BCP rite of marriage and to replicate the core theology of sexual union and the signification of the union of Christ and the Chuch. that lies at the heart of that historic text. Unless the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury take clear action, not only to denounce the liturgy but also to discipline the clergy who took part in the ceremony (the officiant and the participants), they open themselves up to being responsible for implicitly accepting a major shift in Church of England doctrine. Nothing less than a definitive repudiation of this text and a clear steer that the doctrine of marriage has not changed will do, for the gay union liturgy is clearly not just a "blessing" but is actually a blatant attempt to establish gay marriage as a given within the Anglican doctrinal framework.