San Joaquin produces muddled theology

Do you remember back in May when the Presbyterian Church in the States changed it’s Book of Order and inadvertently completely undermined it’s sexual ethic?

Do you see what has happened? This isn’t about the permission of GLBT ordination and ministry candidates in permanent, faithful, stable relationships. What the edits to the Book of Order have done is remove any canonical requirement for any (Gay, Straight or otherwise) Presbyterian candidates’ sexual relationships to be permanent, faithful or stable. The reference in the old instruction to covenant and fidelity has been completely erased. It is quite possible for a Presbytery to appoint a candidate regardless of sexuality to a position if he or she admits to being in an “open” relationship.

You might argue that no presbytery would do such a thing, but the issue isn’t what they might do but what the rules legally let them do. The nod to “guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates” has no force whatsoever, for the definition of what the PCUSA believes Scrpture and the confessions say on this subject has been erased from the Book of Order at this point.

Now it’s the turn of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin (the reconstituted one, not the one that voted to leave TEC) to get it’s theology in a muddle when attempting to deal with same-sex relationships.

Beginning Sunday, Episcopal priests in the San Joaquin Diocese can “perform blessings of same gender civil marriages, domestic partnerships and relationships which are lifelong committed relationships characterized by fidelity, monogamy” and “holy love.”

The change doesn’t mean Episcopal priests will begin marrying same-sex couples, Bishop Chester Talton said. Such marriages are forbidden by state law, although that is under review by the courts.

Instead, Talton said, “what is being authorized is a blessing of relationships, which we’ve chosen to call sacred unions.”

That would include a blessing for same-sex couples who were married in a civil ceremony for the short time in 2008 when such marriages were legal in California, he said. It also would include homosexual or heterosexual couples who are not married, but live together in a committed relationship.

The impact, Talton said, will “acknowledge the sacredness of that relationship. I think it also says our church is one that is inclusive, that welcomes all, that will embrace all members of God’s creation in God’s church.”

Work it through with me. The diocese is going to allow blessings, but they won’t be the same as a marriage – they’ll be a “sacred union”. However, any man and woman can come along and ask for one as well. What then is the difference between a “sacred union” and a marriage?

Either there is no difference, in which case San Joaquin have essentially made marriage irrelevant OR the difference is the obvious one, that marriages are oriented towards the procreation and rearing of children and this decision by San Joaquin implicitly recognises that. If this second case is so then it means that San Joaquin have actually created a theology that prevents same-sex couples being married.

Which one is it folks? Or is there another option? Or is is quite simply that Bishop Chester Talton didn’t think through the consequences of his decision?

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31 Comments on “San Joaquin produces muddled theology

  1. What actually makes a marriage a marriage? Is it a bit of paper signifying a civil/legal relationship? Is it some ceremony in a religious or secular building? Genesis 2:24 might suggest that marriage is essentially that 'committed relationship' implied by leaving your father and mother and cleaving to a wife. Who decides that that has to be formalised in some particular way?

    I get the impression that historically marriage was less about a document, or even a ceremony, but much more about a relationship.

    • And yet the Church of England (and TEC) and other churches have traditionally understood marriage to contain three goods, one of which is the procreation and rearing of children. To say marriage is not intrinsically about procreation and rearing you would first need to re-write the Prayer Book.

      • Which, given that liturgies, unlike Scripture, come and go and have always been culturally-inflected, is hardly (in and of itself) heretical, no? Never had you down as a Prayer Book Society zealot! ;-)

        Also, I think that the church's (evangelicals very much included) embrace of feminism has meant a loosening of the importance of "procreation and rearing of children" as a key feature of marriage. I imagine that liturgy – if it doesn't already – will come to reflect this (actually, didn't some commentators note the old-fashioned *sentiments* -not just language – in the liturgy used for the marriage of HRH Prince William and Kate Middleton?)

        As for this particular fudge, I think the obvious, pragmatic answer is they don't want a situation (like we have in the UK) where straight couples are banned, for no good reason, from civil partnerships. And surely not all male/female non-marital relationships are *un*sacred relationships? For example, the conservative would say that Jonathan and David had a deep, non-sexual, non-marital bond. Is it not conceivable that a heterosexual 'couple' could have such a potentially sacred non-marital union? Actually, if the conservative views procreation as a key aspect of marriage – and a number of modern couples regard marriage as about romantic love, and have no interest in childrearing – then offering heterosexual sacred unions (as long as they dont' seek to sanctify fornication etc) could be read as a sensible, not intrinsically 'liberal' pastoral action.

        • I don't think you can call the BCP, which is the fundamental doctrinal document of the Church of England and by extension the Anglican Communion something that just comes and goes.

          And the issue isn't whether two people of the same sex can have a deep emotional bond, the issue is whether that should be blessed within the context of a sexual engagement of those two.

          • But it manifestly does 'go' as it does not have the preeminence in worship and so church life that it had , say, thirty or forty years ago! (I'll apologise if I'm wrong, but despite the BCPs nominal status as the CofE's normative worship, is it *really* the main liturgical basis for worship down south , even – especially? – in evangelical churches?) And whilst some of its medievalism might be attractive to those who scorn liberals, how many ministers actually take all of its elements entirely seriously? I can't recall reading any evangelicals suggesting that nominal C of E churchmen who dress and celebrate Communion in the Popish ought be defrocked or at least disciplined. The Westminster Confession of Faith has BCP-style status in the Church of Scotland, but the latter is not full of people required to believe that the Pope is the Antichrist.

            Surely the Scottish Episcopal and Fabulous Church's consecration of Seabury was the foundation of the Anglican Communion? And we do have much better liturgy than you guys up here ;-)

            >>>>And the issue isn’t whether two people of the same sex can have a deep emotional bond, the issue is whether that should be blessed within the context of a sexual engagement of those two.

            Yes, but would you agree that a liturgy that 'allowed' for the latter could still be intended for the former and is therefore not intrinsically problematic? Here in Scotland we have the "McCarthy Version", a variation of the marriage liturgy than can be and has been used for same-sex blessings. You might think, that by being able to be used in such a way, that the liturgy is flawed, but it's still not 'defective', surely? A couple who have been fornicating before marriage could still unironically take the Prayer Book vows, afterall.

          • Calling the BCP the fundamental doctrinal document of the Anglican Communion does not mean we have to agree with a literal interpretation of its words, any more that believing in the importance or scripture does. Both are documents of their age and require interpretation and restatement of the truths they bear witness to.

            • Calling the BCP the fundamental doctrinal document of the Anglican Communion does not mean we have to agree with a literal interpretation of its words

              That is possibly the most hilarious thing I have read for weeks. What next? Standing up in court to argue that recognising that the judge is operating under the law of the land doesn't mean that that law has to be acted upon as read? That when the newspaper says that the temperature yesterday was 12 degrees it doesn't mean that it actually was 12 degrees?

              • Isn't that, practically speaking, the kinda status that the US Constitution has in US Law (given activist judges etc)? And your analogy doesn't work. Contemporary ewspapers, being 'news', work within a context that its readers already 'speak';so, too, with the temperature. I think your average 2011 tabloid reader, looking at say a 19C copy of The Times, might well find their textual assumptions challenged.

      • Yet the primary reason God made a woman and placed her in the Garden in Genesis was not for sex or for procreation but for companionship. As has been said many times just because the Church has those three goods as part of what marriage is about doesn't mean that they are all equally important and necessary. Clearly many marriages are never intended to be about procreation nor even about sex – that doesn't stop them being marriages.

        I think that is clearly why our Common Worship Marriage service reverses the order of the reasons for which marriage was ordained.

        None of this in any way alters my point that marriage is essentially a relationship and not a formal legal or religious contract. We have perhaps added that but I still think the essence of any marriage is the nurturing, loving and committed relationship between two people.

        • No, procreation AND companionship. A clear reading of Genesis 1 and 2 shows the duality of sexes is not just about companionship but also about procreation – "for this reason" a man shall hold fast to his wife and become one flesh. Child bearing and rearing is integral to the Biblical notion of marriage and discarding it liturgically would be a serious issue. Yes, Common Worship reverses the order of some things, but it does not discard child bearing in the slightest.

          I still think the essence of any marriage is the nurturing, loving and committed relationship between two people

          AND procreation. Seriously, if you want to disengage procreation from marriage then you have to have a doctrine of marriage that makes no reference to Genesis 1 and 2, because anybody but a fool can see that Genesis 1:28 is an instruction to the husband and wife to procreate. Unless of course you want to argue that Adam and Eve are not the prototype of marriage?

          • Well this 'fool' certainly doesn't see it that way (and personally I don't really see why you have to repeatedly write in such an offensive style). Of course procreation is part of it BUT only a part and not the primary one ("it is not good that man should be alone") – though to state that takes nothing away from marriages where procreation is still possible and important. Clearly if you are gay (unless you are going to be dishonest or in denial) procreation is irrelevant to a relationship – although one could argue that a loving gay couple could be pro-life in other appropriate ways.

            Anyway, given that we've been pretty good at 'filling the earth' I'd say that taking the emphasis of procreation is fair enough and many modern heterosexual marriages do just this. Even where a person cannot procreate it's still not good for them to be alone if they can find a soulmate. If they happen to be gay and in the context of that relationship enjoy some nurturative sexual activity I'd say they were not really behaving any worse than all the rest of us – and can see no logical (or indeed Biblical reason why they can't enjoy the blessing of God (and the Church) on their relationship.

            • You have an extraordinary capacity for discounting the literal reading of any text which doesn't agree with your viewpoint. The Bible, the BCP. Have a go at doing it with Military Law and let us know how far you get with it.

              • Ah, so presumably you, Peter, believe that no vicars in the C of E believe in Purgatory (#22) or, if they do, they're heretics? Perhaps, given that this blog purports to be an exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy (and not just the heterosexist kind! ;-)) you could start railing against the heretical evils of Anglo-Catholic churches in the C of E?

                The horse has bolted. Years ago.

              • In fact I can't see in the above a single point at which I discount any face value reading of the text, ie reading it in a manner appropriate to the kind of literature it is. I'm simply asking a question about the priority of the reasons for marriage. We agree that those purposes include companionship, sex and procreation. We disagree that these are of equal importance and all essential to every marriage. I can see nothing in the text that even suggests this.

                I can't take it literally because I don't believe Genesis 1-3 is history. I'm not a creationist so don't see any alternative to asking what the text means rather than merely telling the story.

                Law is clearly another matter and to be read as law (though even there the legal system seems to spend a lot of time and money arguing about what it means and how it should be interpreted), as also is the BCP, which is largely liturgy and hardly something to be read literally.

                • Even if it's myth (in the strictest sense) it is still divinely inspired myth and therefore just as important for deriving doctrine from as every other part of Scripture is.

          • Um, but Peter, how come marriages of the infertile and elderly are still valid, if procreation is so central to what it's about…?

            in friendship, Blair

            • Because, as this paper argues correctly, it is the normative function of heterosexual union even if some heterosexual unions cannot achieve it. Homosexual unions can NEVER achieve it and therefore cannot be married IF you accept (as the Church and State currently do) that procreation is normative for marriage.

              Do you understand (even if you don't agree)?

              • Yes, I understand but don't agree. Is there any reason why, even if what you say is correct, we can't decide to change what we see as the normative function of marriage to be more in keeping with the needs of modern society?

                  • Which would still be pretty Protestant, no?

                    Recent cultural (within the church,too) distaste for vows that require women to "obey" is hardly consistent with this rapsheet http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Church_hist

                    (And I don't see how you can believe in male-female marriage only and *not* concede that misogyny can and has distorted understandings of ethical relationships)

                    And if a number – possibly a majority -of contemporary Christians do *not* see marriage as being (at least 1/3) predominantly about childbirth, then does that not indicate that the meaning of marriage manifestly HAS changed, whether you like it or not?

                    I've heard evangelical pastors flat out state that St.Paul was a feminist. They might be right about that (or not so much), but 30 or 40 years ago 'feminist' was not, to say the least, a value that the Church would want to be seen to embrace. Quite the opposite.

                  • I don't agree that we have to diss the last 2000 years in order to change. It's about expanding the definition of marriage not abandoning it. When we started to ordain women we didn't say that we were wrong to ordain men for the last 2000 years – we expanded who we could ordain to include women as well as men.

                    Changing marriage so that gay people can be included is like that – we would not be saying that marriage between a woman and a man was wrong, but we would be expanding the meaning of marriage so that there was a similar and appropriate institution for those who previously were excluded.

                    • The essential goods of marriage do not need to change – they still are companionship, sex and procreation. We only need to admit what most of us already admit, and has indeed been true as long as marriage has existed, that not all marriages have to have all three. I don't see that as an essential change – just an honest admission.

                      Anyway, it does all go away if we simply allow an appropriate analogous institution for gay people. Don't really care what we call it – though personally I think marriage is a good enough word.

              • Thanks for the link back to the 'What is marriage?' thread – like Drew I understand but don't agree and felt that the authors of that paper were at times trying to eat their logical cake and have it, so to speak… but i had a go at arguing that on the previous thread so don't see much mileage in going over that ground again.

                in friendship, Blair

  2. Hi again,

    well, at a glance it looks like you're right, that this is a bit muddled… though to be certain i guess we'd have to compare the liturgies for marriage and sacred unions (like that phrase btw) side by side – is there any chance of you being able to post a liturgy for sacred unions?

    It would indeed look rather more coherent if blessings of sacred unions were only available to same-sex couples – but you ask if there's another option and I wonder if this could be a temporary measure? Maybe that's a bit daft, but I note that the article you quote says same-sex "marriages are forbidden by state law, although that is under review by the courts". So if this review leads to same-sex marriage being permitted after all, is it possible that blessings for sacred unions could be phased out, since all couples would be able to marry? No…? I'll get my coat ;)

    in friendship, Blair

    • So if this review leads to same-sex marriage being permitted after all, is it possible that blessings for sacred unions could be phased out, since all couples would be able to marry?

      Why then have heterosexual sacred unions allowed for a while before then not allowing them?

  3. Hi Peter

    In TEC's drive to be inclusive, the primary thing NOT being included is the Bible. The main stumbling block for them is Jesus and the Cross; deny the existence of sin and then you don't have a need for them. End result? Their ideal universal inclusive church, which sadly would exclude all Christians.

    • So TEC is creating an 'inclusive' church that 'excludes' all Christians, and doing so my getting rid of Jesus, the Bible and the Cross? To what end? How does that benefit them? Everybody knows that evangelical churches are rich, so excluding them hardly fits and accusation of base motives, no? I've heard TEC demonised with all sorts of wackadoo conspiracy theories but this one doesn't even make sense. What's in it for ++Katherine and the rest of the Illuminati?

  4. What troubles me at least as much as the muddled theology of what San Joaquin is doing (along with quite a few other TEC dioceses), is the way in which the reality of marriage is being grounded in the actions of the state rather than in scripture. The reason why these unions cannot be called "marriage" is because the "marriage" of same sex couples is "forbidden by state law." So then, does it only become a real marriage when the state recognizes it as such? Is this true for other marriages as well? Is my heterosexual marriage only valid because the state issued me a marriage license? This is erastianism of the worst sort. Either marriage is objective and real or this whole conversation about the nature of it is unnecessary. I would have a great deal more respect for San Joaquin and other such places if they just came out and said that they believe same sex unions are marriages.

    • Personally I think marriage predates scripture. It is a human social institution endorsed by scripture as a 'creation ordinance'. As such the nature of marriage has changed over the millennia and perhaps in directions not envisaged by scripture. The challenge for us as Christians is how to engage with society and its changing institutions in a way which remains faithful to God (and scripture).

      Same sex unions are not marriages as dealt with in scripture – but does that mean only those kinds of unions should be recognised as marriage? I don't think so but I don't know many people who think it's worth dying in a ditch over a word. If it's a problem then call same sex unions something else but give them equal status with marriage (with equal responsibilities for faithfulness and love). I see no problem with extending ('changing' if some insist) the definition of marriage to include new kinds of relationship. The old kinds are still marriage and we've graciously included similar relationships of people for whom traditional marriage is inappropriate or impossible.

      Even in the evangelical churches relationships have changed. Engaging in sex and living together before marriage (or even outside of formal marriage) are pretty commonplace. Large numbers of the couples coming for marriage in church are already living together and by most accounts this is not challenged – though I did know of one vicar who tried insisting that cohabiting couples moved out for a period before marriage. Not sure if he went round to check on those who claimed to be complying – many just went elsewhere.

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