The Living Church

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The Living ChurchJune 15, 1997Should the Church Bless Committed Same-Sex Couples? by David Scott214(24) p. 13, 21

Should the Church Bless Committed Same-Sex Couples?
The Fullness of God's Love
by David Scott

I think that the church cannot sanction same-sex unions for a number of reasons. First, this would radically change our concept of marriage. Second, it would seriously impact on the way we use scripture - its authority as God's word. Third, our relations with other Anglican churches and other communions will deteriorate significantly. And, finally, we are not even sure which version of same-sex unions the church is being asked to approve - lifelong and monogamous, or something else.

Let me elaborate each of these points in turn, beginning with the issue of scripture.

First, blessing same-sex unions contradicts plain teaching of scripture, which Anglicans are committed to obey. Anglicans, with all orthodox Christians, affirm the Bible as God's word, written, the ultimate test of church teaching and practice. Anglicanism states explicitly, for example in Article Vl of the Articles of Religion, that no member of this church may be required to believe, teach or practice "whatsoever is not read [in scripture] nor may be proved thereby."

Advocates of same-sex blessings usually point out that that the Bible nowhere commands ordination of women and that Jesus condemns divorce; yet the Episcopal Church ordains women and blesses the marriages of divorced persons. But giving women equal place to men as clergy does conform to many passages in scripture affirming women's equal dignity to men in God's eyes. That is not true about homosexual practice. And nowhere does scripture explicitly forbid ordination of women; yet it does explicitly condemn homosexual practice. And, when the church blesses the new marriages of divorced persons, the church does not mean to affirm and advocate divorce. The practice is a pastoral concession to human sin. But advocates of same-sex blessings do not teach that these would be a concession to sin.

Even those advocating same-sex unions acknowledge that scripture's direct teaching condemns homosexual practice and positively holds up heterosexual covenants as the norm for Christian sexual relations. Advocates therefore have to oppose the plain teaching of the Bible on sexual relations and try to defend blessing same-sex unions by appealing to such vague ideas as "Jesus' affirming love." But Anglicanism has never opposed the Bible as God's word, written, to the mind of Christ or the will of God. Such an opposition is profoundly un-Anglican. Article XX states, "It is not lawful for the church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture so that it is repugnant to another."

Blessing same-sex unions shouldn't happen also because it would radically undermine Christian teaching about the nature of Christian marriage. Universal Christian teaching through history has been that full sexual intimacy should be reserved for the bonds of heterosexual marriage. One American historian, John Boswell, tried to prove from a few medieval documents that the church blessed same-sex unions in the past. Academic peers have demonstrated, however, that Boswell's use of sources is tendentious, that he failed to prove his claim. Boswell's failure proves that blessing same-sex unions would be a radical change in Christian teaching.

Why remain loyal to traditional Christian teaching on sex and marriage? Anglicans teach that heterosexual relations in life-long covenant not only make an essential contribution to human society, but that they also have a sacramental quality. Why? Because heterosexual, life-long marriage unites in a mutually reinforcing way covenant-, procreative-, and one-flesh self-giving. This three-fold, mutually reinforcing self-giving, fully possible only in heterosexual marriage, richly images God's own One-In-Three creative, covenantal and communal self-giving love.

While not every heterosexual marriage can, or in certain circumstances, should be procreative, Christians see procreative sexuality as a fundamental blessing intended by God and one of the basic good purposes of marriage. Anglicanism has never taught that procreation is irrelevant to the meaning of Christian marriage and sexual union. Same-sex unions cannot, inherently, be sexually procreative. They, therefore, cannot inherently image the fullness of God's creative, covenental and unitive love as well as heterosexual unions inherently can. To bless same-sex unions in a marriage-like rite would, therefore, radically undermine the church's universal and historic commitment to the unique and holy character of heterosexual marriage as it has been revealed by God and received by the church.

Also, ideas and practices have logical consequences. To authorize same-sex unions has long-range implications for Christian and society's sexual norms. Advocates say the church should bless same-sex unions because they can they demonstrate caring, desire or commitment. Granting that some same-sex unions can, the church should never reduce norms for sexual relations to interior attitudes no matter how noble, disregarding the bodies of the partners or the acts which typically embody their attitudes and commitments. Were the church to teach that making a commitment or feeling a desire or expressing caring is reason enough to bless a sexual relation, the church opens the door in principle to blessing any and all adult, consenting, caring relations involving some kind of commitment. These could include temporary live-in relations between unmarried heterosexuals, between consenting parents and their adult children, and dual relationships for people of bisexual orientation.

That would be a disastrous ethical misstep. Declaring procreation morally and theologically immaterial to Episcopal moral evaluation would slowly drain religious and moral significance from procreation in the context of heterosexual marriage. It would gradually erase any reason in Episcopal pastoral care for compassion toward heterosexual partners desiring children and suffering the inability to have them. By morally equating non-procreative and procreative sex, the Episcopal Church would relegate child-bearing, parenting and children to a limbo of religious irrelevance. It would declare that the actual bodies of sexual partners are in principle irrelevant to Episcopal moral assessment of sexual acts and sexual relations. That teaching would be unbiblical and inhumane spiritualism.

Clearly, endorsing same-sex unions radically changes traditional Christian teaching about sex, parenting and marriage. Yet advocates of such blessings have not gained agreement to this proposed practice from other Anglicans or Christian ecumenical partners. Given these radical implications about Christian teaching on sexual behavior and marriage, an Episcopal authorization of same-sex blessings at General Convention would be a willful, not to say arrogant, departure from catholic practice.

The above decisive reasons for rejecting the blessing of same-sex unions are, of course, reinforced by the lack of consensus among those advocating them about exactly what they mean. According to the rites for such unions which advocates have developed and circulated, we know the rites intentionally exclude a vow to life-long union. Beyond what these informally circulated rites say, bishops and deputies at General Convention have no official statement of what such rites might mean. In fact, advocates themselves disagree about what they mean. Some advocates insist that same-sex unions would not and should not be a traditional marriage. Other advocates insist they would be the theological and moral equivalent of heterosexual marriage. The circulated rites reject a vow of life-long commitment. Yet some advocates insist that a vow of monogamous, life-long union should be part of such blessing. Thus, bishops and deputies could be required to vote on a resolution whose meaning is not agreed on even by its advocates. Episcopal Church teaching on important issues is confused enough already without adding to the theological and moral disarray. o

The Rev. David Scott is William Meade professor of theology and professor of ethics at Virginia Theological Seminary.