Marriage is not about Justice, but Jesus

A few weeks ago my wife and I drove north to attend a friend’s wedding in Derbyshire. It was a great joy to be able join the two returned missionaries from Africa as they prepared to spend the rest of their lives together wherever God would call them next, but the service was marred by one unfortunate moment. As the priest invited them to join hands as they made their vows, he then turned to the congregation and invited those who were married to also join hands, and then equally those who were in “committed, loving relationships”. With those three words he completely undermined the vows that our friends were about to take, and rendered null and void the theological introduction with which he had only minutes previously opened the service with.

As an institution that communicates its theology within its liturgy, the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage and sex is outlined within the introduction to the Wedding Service. In it we learn that marriage is not just about bringing husband and wife together in the joy of sexual union and as the foundation of family life. It is also not only just a way of life made holy by God and blessed by the presence of Jesus at a wedding at Cana in Galilee. All these things are true, but they are statements of human love and affection and human activity. Higher than this though, marriage between a man and a woman is a sign of the union of Christ and the Church, where as Saint Paul points out in his letter to the Ephesians (and as the Book of Common Prayer indicates in the marriage vows) the different sexes specifically signify the different members of this union of the Creator and the created. However committed and loving a sexual relationship is in the eyes of the world, it can only speak of Christ and the Church (and therefore be Christian marriage) if it follows the way that Scripture tells us we should let our bodies speak of these divine mysteries.

Marriage then is not so much about us and what we seek to do as it is about Jesus and what he has done and is still doing. As a man going through the process of discerning a call to ordination in the Church of England this wasn’t ever an issue for me, even though as one attracted to those of the same sex as myself I never thought that I would ever enter into that matrimonial state. Despite this, my homosexuality was never a bar to ordination and never a hindrance to being a fully baptised member of the church and one privileged to administer its sacraments. Very early on in the ordination process I realised from the Scriptures like countless men and women for generations before me that I had absolutely no God given right to have sex, or even to enter into an erotic relationship of my choosing. Even today a decade later, as I have seen God do amazing things in my life taking me from avowed celibacy to being married and having a young son, many gay and lesbian friends and colleagues who were trained and ordained alongside me but are still single have never once felt either rejected or denied some sense of natural justice just because they are not in any kind of committed relationship. Instead some of those same friends are at the most spiritually satisfied points of their lives, because by refusing to let their bodies speak sexually of anything but the union of Christ and the Church in the only way that Scripture calls us to, they have discovered new truths about how we are all called to make our chief intimacy with Jesus.

The proponents of blessing same-sex relationships therefore have two key tasks on their hands. Despite the proposed surveys and polls, and regardless of however many of them stand up and publicly declare that they are living in sexual relationships outside of marriage, they will still need to demonstrate how the Scriptures support such a relationship. More than this however, before we come close to authorising liturgies to bless such relationships they will also need to explain to the rest of the Church why we have got our doctrine of marriage and sex so wrong for so long, why the Church of England’s interpretation of Ephesians 5 is actually incorrect and why consequentially we need to tear up the wedding liturgies we have been using for half a millennium and start again. Without the House of Bishops (advised by the Doctrine Commission) overturning at least 400 years of Anglican teaching on this subject and providing robust Biblical explanations for doing so, every single blessing of a sexual relationship outside of marriage will be an act of blatant defiance to the order not just of the Church of England but also of the wider catholic Church. It will also be a rejection of the witness of millions of men and women who have grown to live the mystery of the union of Christ and the Church, either by coming together in the state of matrimony or by refusing to let their bodies speak sexually of anything else.

Marriage is ultimately not about justice, but Jesus. The doctrine of marriage of the Church of England clearly recognises this and the recent letter from Rowan Williams endorses just such a position. Without a clear exposition of how the Bible actually teaches us something different than what we have understood it for centuries to say, attempts to circumvent the established processes in the Church of England for theological reflection and development will only damage, not strengthen, the cause of those seeking to revise the Church’s doctrine. In the absence of such an established way of progressing this issue, attempts to produce facts on the ground would, perversely, be a most injust way of going about reform.

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39 Comments on “Marriage is not about Justice, but Jesus

  1. Hi Peter,
    Did the priest say, “loving committed SEXUAL relationships”? If he didn’t, how do you know that he didn’t mean people who were engaged or in committed celibate relationships?

    I was always taught that marriage is a sacrament, that it is, “an outer and visible sign of an inner and invisible grace.” To me ( and I know you will disagree) if that inner grace is present in a relationship, then it is a “marriage” in God’s eyes. There are other marriages, duly sanctified in Church, that we could argue are marriages only in name – although I always hestitate to pronounce on other people’s relationships.

    I am sorry if your friends were offended. Maybe the priest should have run his plan by them and been more sensitive. However, I hate this idea of God with a clipboard ticking off who “passes the test” of marriage – or more precisely, it saddens me that we take on God’s role and pull out our moral clipboards ourselves, when we cannot see into people’s hearts and minds, nor judge them with the perfect love and knowledge that only God possesses.

    • The issue with what the priest said had nothing to do with sex or same-sex relationships. By getting un-married couples to hold hands at the same time as married couples while my friends were saying their marriage vows, he essentially declared that the two were equivalent (married and not married). This was completely contradictory to the theological introduction he had read just moments before AND undermined the distinction in the relationship of my friends that would occur having made their vows.

  2. Peter, I just cannot believe how pastorally insensitive this priest was, what about all the single, divorced, widowed folk at the wedding? This was a celebration of the particular couple’s love for one another, and should not have been an explicit invitation to all of those who were in relationships to stand up and be counted in a way that would exclude others.

    On another point, just because a rethinking of marriage might lead to all the things that you mention, this doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen. On that basis, the Reformation or Vatican II would have been stopped in their tracks such was their overturning of established norms.

    With regards to what you write about marriage historically, it is a pretty uncriticical account of the development of marriage throughout the centuries. It is ironic, for example, that the Church did not involve itself in marriage throughout most of Christian history – slightly perplexing in the light of what you say about its importance. May I recommend the fantistic work of Adrian Thatcher in this regard.

    In the end though, it is not the priest you describe, or the so called theological revisionists, or even people in same sex relationships who are destabilising the institution of marriage in our society, but the heterosexual community. It is these people that you need to address yourself to Peter – I suspect that your account above though will do little to convince them.

    • I agree with Winston that a wedding is about a particular couple and boy can people get upset about things that happen on their big day( which is kind of natural.)
      I’m sure this priest meant well, I think the main point was it was insensitive to the couple and a bit “icky”to get everyone holding hands ( well, I think so.)I wouldn’t even begin to start over analysing what he might or might not have been implying theologically.

  3. Jesus didn’t bless anything at the wedding in Cana. If you are inferring that his presence blessed the proceedings then his presence blessed everything he made contact with in his life. This may be true but it would mean that you can’t make a special case for weddings.

    And I think I understand why the Law is more important to you than Jesus. You obviously believe, from what you say above, that Jesus and justice are two different things. But that is a very secular way of looking at life. Personally, I think that the only reason we can talk about justice in opposition to injustice is because Jesus is our gateway to a personal eternity without which justice is arbitrary and all talk of it vain. Therefore, Jesus and justice are one and this is made very clear in the synoptic gospels where the overwhelming thrust of Christ’s message is the call for justice for all people because all people are the children of God.

    • Afternoon Jonathan,

      Two comments – Firstly, your first paragraph runs entirely contrary to the introduction to the wedding service. I quote:

      Marriage is a way of life made holy by God, and blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ with those celebrating a wedding at Cana in Galilee.

      How you run from that to a theology that Jesus blessed everything he encountered is beyond me. Liturgical quotation? Scriptural quotation?

      As to your second paragraph, I note how you cannot Scripturally clearly connect the vague concept of justice with a specific example in the Bible of the injustice of not permitting same-sex relationships. I’m quite happy to preach and teach on Jesus and Justice (have done so only a few weeks ago), but I always direct my hearers to clear examples of injustice that Jesus challenges.

      No idea where you got the “law” thing from. Straw man methinks.

      • You answer my point about scripture by referring me to the Book of Common Prayer. Well, I love the B.C.P. but it doesn’t override scripture.

        If you think Jesus’ words about the freeing of the oppressed are vague then you have a far more more complex understanding of the words of Jesus than my rather simplistic, even literalistic, one. But, as an Anglican priest, I respect your right to follow your own hermeneutic.

        And you are the one who is promoting scriptural law not spoken directly by Jesus in preference to the overall message of the words and actions of Jesus. Therefore, you are a person who feels safer with fixed rules rather than the freedom that is available through Christ. That’s fine. Traditionally the Church has always accepted such people as yourself in the hope that, by treating you with gentleness and understanding, you may one day find the strength to embrace the whole gospel. But even so, you are no less saved than more mature Christians. That’s the wonderful thing about God’s sense of justice – it doesn’t matter what time you start work everyone gets paid the same wages.

        Peace to you my brother.

  4. The expression ‘blessed by the presence on our Lord Jesus Christ’ in connection with the wedding feast at Cana, is, of course, a bit of modern liturgical clap-trap, of the sort that Michael Perham and the Liturgical Commission specialised in. It is not in the BCP, which is far more careful in its language. The BCP says: ‘which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee;’. So Madpriest is right to conclude that on a traditional reading of the Marriage Service and the Bible, Jesus no more blessed marriage than he blessed anything else. He did, of course, adorn and beautify everything at which he was present. Just like to get that clear.

  5. It seems you don’t post comments which demolish you arguments, so I’d like you to know that my comment meant for here is now on Madpriest’s blog. What a shame you skew discussion in this way. A sign of weakness.

    • Harry,

      The truth is actually rather different. Your two comments got caught in my spam trap and I’ve only just sat down now to go through such comments. The reason that your comments currently go into the spam trap is that last time you commented you decided to hurl insults around.

      Sibyl’s comment also fell into the spam trap for different reasons, but we didn’t see her immediately cast aspersions as to why. I wonder whether you need to go and reflect again on your attitude.

      • You see, this is one of the reasons why so many people dislike you so much. You took exception to a robust comment I made, and now you characterise it as my having ‘decided to hurl insults around’. It is not plain dealing on your part to act like this. What is your problem with control? Seriously.

        • To be fair Harry, you were completely demeaning to me on the prayer thread, calling me “young and inexperienced” in an insulting manner.

          There are plenty of people who I disagree with who I have great conversations with on this blog and in other places? Why? Because we show each other respect. I regret to say it, but everywhere I have encountered you you have always sought to see the worst, not the best, in what I write. I’m afraid I consider that the immature perspective.

          I really don’t have time for it, especially not at the moment.

          • And yet you have time to falsely represent the word of God. Telling people that it says things that it does not. Perhaps if you put a few more hours in a week on reading the Bible – especially the New Testament, it wouldn’t be so easy for people to call you naive. If you are going to set yourself up as an expert on something it is always best to be an expert on the subject in the first place. Otherwise you just end up looking like a fraud.

            • Do you see what you did there Jonathan? You insinuated that I don’t really spend any time reading the Bible. How do you know that? Really, how do you know? Perhaps you’d like to tell us all exactly how much time I spent reading the Bible last week and then tell us how much time I *should* have read the Bible, because that would demonstrate your point wouldn’t it?

              We’re waiting…

              • Perhaps then, it is the way we read the Bible that differs. I am obviously nowhere near as liberal in my interpretation of it as you are (not that I regard you as being less of a Christian because you are a liberal – most of my readers are liberal in their theology and they are just as much children of God as I am). The thing is, though, that if you are going to follow the post-modern liberal hermeneutical method that you adhere to, where you are encouraged to take passages from the Bible out of their original context and use them to justify your own personal view of God and his actions in the world, then you should tell people that you are doing that. Some people are not as clued up on the Bible as we are and when you write “The Bible says this or the Bible says that” they might not realise that for you the original author is dead and that the Bible you are referring to is your own personal bible. They will more than likely think that you are saying that the real Bible actually says this and says that. And you could end up really screwing up somebody’s spiritual well being.

                For example, you don’t agree that Jesus actually said all that stuff about releasing the prisoner and caring for the poor – the big justice issues of his time. You don’t believe that Paul said those things about the irrelevancy of sexual identity for the believer in Christ. So why not just be honest and say that they are there in scripture but that you think they are just plain wrong and that your rules for living are a lot better in stead of telling people less tutored than yourself that these passages and verses are not in the Bible or that they say something different to what you believe they should have said.

        • ‘You see, this is one of the reasons why so many people dislike you so much.’

          What a grossly offensive comment, Harry Liddon. So many people? How many people, exactly? You mean you. Why would this be? Because Peter’s worldview doesn’t conform with your own? This is pure ad hominem. I happen to know a number of people who like Peter a great deal.

          By ‘robust’ you obviously mean rude. I think Peter’s response was pretty temperate considering you have obviously come onto his blog for the sole purpose of insulting him. Why not try some reasoned debate on the actual topic of this thread?

  6. Sounds like a new custom is in order – careful interrogation, mutual understanding and a ‘pre-nuptial agreement’ in writing to ensure the cleric utters only what is appropriate and orthodox.

    Sorry state of affairs when this has become necessary.

    I would not have paid the pastor if he violated God’s Holy Word and would have had ‘a word’ with him afterward about his theology. I would want to call in another priest and do it over before the honeymoon.

  7. Atheists marry. Catholics marry. The Marriage License says nothing about God or religion. Two people in a committed loving relationship should be permitted to sign a contract to that effect. Incidentally, but not, homosexuality does not meet Jesus’ definition of sin (Mt. 22:36-40). Where is the unlove, the victim, the hurt in a Gay loving relationship?

    • Morning Fred,

      To take your first point, we are not discussing the definition of marriage that the State has but rather the one that the Church of England has. Those two may necessarily differ since the doctrine of marriage and sex is not contingent on the actions of the State.

      As to your second point, let me refer you to this post on the golden rule.

  8. There does seem to be a general consensus among your more intelligent correspondents that you don’t have the necessary Biblical knowledge to be running a blog that purports to be educational (at least, in part).

    I’m beginning to think I’ve got the wrong end of the stick. I accused you of being a theological liberal, but your lack of dedication to studying scripture leads me to think you may be more of an evangelical persuasion. It’s like you are just regurgitating stuff you have heard other people saying or read in a book you got from Wesley Owen, rather than having any ability to formulate your own opinions from reading the Biblical text itself. Certainly, you don’t seem to have read much about Jesus Christ, who is quite central to the Biblical plot, so to speak. You need to find the books entitled “Matthew,” Mark” and “Luke.” They can be found at the beginning of what we call The New Testament. If you don’t have a Bible with the New Testament in it you can buy it separately which will save you money.

    • By the way Jonathan, we’re still waiting for you to tell us all exactly how much time I spent reading the Bible last week and then tell us how much time I *should* have read the Bible, because that would demonstrate your previous point about me not reading the Bible wouldn’t it? Or perhaps an apology is in order?

  9. “Marriage is not about Justice, but Jesus” – this is pretty much a reprise of Rowan Williams’ comment in his Reflections that recognising same-sex relationships is “not simply a matter of justice”.

    What is fascinating about this is that is an implicit recognition that failing to recognise same-sex relationships is unjust. It’s is the raising of the white flag on the issue of the justice of allowing people to live in same-sex relationships.

    And as such, it’s the waving of the white flag on the issue of same-sex relationships full stop. You can’t make a sustainable argument that God thinks injustice is a good thing.

    • Afternoon Gerry,

      I’m not sure you can actually make that logical jump. The stating that recognising same-sex relations is not primarily a justice issue doesn’t presuppose that it is at all a justice issue. The point that Rowan makes isn’t actually about justice, but human rights (I’m being pernicious with the language, but it’s important to quote Rowan properly. Remember, what he wrote was this:

      5. In response, it needs to be made absolutely clear that, on the basis of repeated statements at the highest levels of the Communion’s life, no Anglican has any business reinforcing prejudice against LGBT people, questioning their human dignity and civil liberties or their place within the Body of Christ. Our overall record as a Communion has not been consistent in this respect and this needs to be acknowledged with penitence.

      6. However, the issue is not simply about civil liberties or human dignity or even about pastoral sensitivity to the freedom of individual Christians to form their consciences on this matter. It is about whether the Church is free to recognise same-sex unions by means of public blessings that are seen as being, at the very least, analogous to Christian marriage.

      You can see clearly that in those two paragraphs he at no point presupposes that there is a natural or a supernatural justice that supports the notion of recognising same-sex relationships. What he says is that issue isn’t about justice but rather theology, namely the church’s theology of sex and marriage.

        • No Gerry, not all theology is simply about justice. Also, when we actually talk about justice it’s useful to examine the specifics of what Scripture says on the subject (and especially Jesus) rather than just using nebulous concepts.

            • Once again Jonathan, a brilliant display of incisive, detailed theological debate. Not a hint of ad hominem to be found whatsoever.

              Really, I don’t know what we did for conversation around here until you turned up.

  10. Fred,

    I am not a member of the cloth, however I have read your comments how homosexuakity does not meet the homosexuality does not meet Jesus definition of sin. I have always believed that Jesus comments in revelation 22, vs 14 and 15 clearly show you are not familiar with the Bible and what it means to so many of us God feering Christians.

    • You’re going to have to unpack that reference to Rev 22:14-15 for me. And while you do that, are you able to comment on what Jesus might have meant by “dogs” and “sexually immoral”?

  11. True marriage, between man and woman, for life, IS something sacred, and for which man and woman were meant (and for which their bodies were lovingly designed as well.)

    Only in real marriage can true agape love between man and woman come true – where each promises to do the very best by the other for all the rest of ones days.

    Sadly, the Anglican communion no longer represents God’s loving will for man and for woman or families – having repudiated centuries’ old teaching on contraception, ignoring Christ’s (the Son of God’s) words on divorce, and now, unbelievably, flirting with the full scale promotion of sexual perversion. Not only has much of the Anglican Communion abandoned God’s loving will for male, female, marriage and families, it now actively promotes, in many quarters, evil.

    And the greatest of those evils is to actually promote and glorify perversion – and to lead many young ones into perversion, or into thinking such insignificant. Such is what millstones are made for.

    Brand

  12. Thank you Peter for this post. The “justice” angle is in need of unpacking and debunking. Alas, “justice” has become yet another catchword to toss about. Those who agree with SSB or gay marriage are for “justice,” and those who do not must therefore favor injustice.

    • Those who agree with SSB or gay marriage are for “justice,” and those who do not must therefore favor injustice.

      Correct.

      Your argument is that same sex marriage is not allowed because it says that in the Bible. But such an assertion, even if logical (albeit in a idolatrous sense), has no justice element in it.

      So, give me an argument against same sex marriage based on the concept of justice alone.

      If you cannot then you will be admitting that the Gospel can be unjust and that would be heresy.

  13. Madpriest has an apt moniker.

    God grants no ‘right’ to have sex. It is something we want, because it is pleasureable. So is taking drugs, or getting drunk, or gossiping about others.

    There is no ‘injustice’ in God’s telling us that certain perverted sexual acts are abominations to Him. It is precisely the opposite. For two men to engage in perversion is to pervert their manhood, and the gift by God of the manhood to them.

    The truth is, following Christian sexual morality would save the lives of millions of sodomites, fornicators, and spare millions of children from broken families, etc. etc.

    Real justice comes when those who promote every sort of sexual perversion and degeneracy, including our young ones, meet their maker.

    It won’t be pretty.

    Madpriest (and those like he), think the repudiation of sexual perversion is a justice issue, because he thinks, like some others, presumably, that it’s not ‘fair’ that some get to engage in the privilege of sex and others do not. That way of thinking is coveting. That’s another grave sin.

    Brand

    • What a strange style of debate you employ, Brand. It seems to entail making lots of a priori statements, forcefully. In England we call that bullying or, if we are being particularly snobby, the sort of argument that would not be accepted in an undergraduate essay.

  14. Excellent post! It is indeed to remember that the shape of our healing journey is Jesus, nothing else. Thanks for posting.
    Blessings, and be encouraged to keep running your blog.

  15. There’s a simple solution to this problem that I find works for me. I just don’t go to weddings.

    I live in France, so whether it’s the obligatory civil ceremony at the town hall or the optional religious ceremony in church, I just decline all invitations. Why would I want to sit and watch a couple exercise civil and religious rights not accorded to me? Should I welcome the prospect of witnessing the sanctification of other people’s love when mine is disdained or ignored?

    So if you (real or pretend) straight couples want to avoid priestly faux pas at your weddings, just don’t invite anyone who isn’t married. You’ll then be at your leisure to gloat amongst yourselves about how vastly superior your love is to everyone else’s without having to worry about giving offense. And what could be more jolly than a bit of mutual back-slapping and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others?

    Cordialement

    Etienne

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