September 30, 2007

Duncan: History Lesson

In the extended online interviews for “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” this week, Bishop Duncan of The Common Cause Partners states:

The last time that Episcopal dioceses separated from the Episcopal Church was in the American Civil War. Nine dioceses actually separated for a period of years. When the war was over the Episcopal Church came back together. There was an important social issue, I mean the whole issue of slavery divided the nation. The North and the South were divided. When the issue was settled the church came back together. Where we are right now is seeing the church moving in two distinctly different directions on issues of Christian morality quite different than the slavery issue.

Bishop Duncan’s account is telling both for what he omits and what he includes. First of all, from The Episcopal Church’s perspective, those southern dioceses were not “separated” — their bishops were “absent” but the roll was still called down yonder wherever the General Convention met.

More importantly, the rationale given for the separation by the separationists was the importance of defending the integrity of the national church. Since the Confederacy was a new nation, it was necessary for a new national church to be constituted for this new nation — just exactly as it had been “necessary” for the The Episcopal Church to separate from the Church of England at the creation of the United States, as the preface to our first BCP notes. Civil War veteran chaplain, and historian of The Episcopal Church, Archdeacon Charles C. Tiffany recorded the actions of the first Confederate Conclave:

It was unanimously resolved that the secession of the Southern States from the United States, and the formation of the government of the Confederate States, rendered necessary an independent organization of the dioceses within the seceded States. (496*)

So the reason for the “division” in the church was not disagreement over slavery, but the concept of the integrity of a national church — the very thing Duncan’s movement contradicts. To our shame, slavery was not the issue that “divided” the church — the church had, on the contrary, refused to take a national position on slavery in the interests of keeping the peace. As Tiffany put it,

The Episcopal Church as an organization had, from the beginning, determined to keep aloof from party politics, and, more fully that other ecclesiastical bodies, had done so. Her membership was very varied among the influential classes of society. Many of the distinguished statesmen of all parties were of her communion. They acted in their several political spheres as citizens and as churchmen, neither gave nor withheld their countenance in political action. The triennial meetings of the General Convention had made the clergy and laity of the North and the South familiar and friendly with one another. The sectional institution of slavery, which occasioned the secession movement, had not been made the subject of general ecclesiastical legislation. It was left to the regulation of the dioceses in which it existed. (494)

Thus, by allowing for local option on the question of slavery, The Episcopal Church was enabled to remain united, until the matter boiled over in the secular arena.

Finally, it is fascinating to me to see that Bishop Duncan appears to think that our present divisions over sexuality are of quite a different moral significance — and obviously far more important — than the question of slavery. It seems to me that this sad past chapter of our national history offers little to support his present pressure for division.

Tobias Haller BSG


*The citations from Charles C. Tiffany come from his History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, 1895.

September 28, 2007

Where We Are

As I noted in a comment to the previous post, my bishop held a Town Hall meeting yesterday for clergy of the diocese. He and our suffragan bishop both spoke, as well as the vicar bishop and an old friend who although he retired as a diocesan some years ago has probably held more positions since his “retirement” than most bishops do in their entire ministry.

Two of the clergy present spoke very forthrightly about the extent to which the House of Bishops’ statement was a source of considerable pain to gay and lesbian members of their congregations. The bishop seemed at first to be slightly nonplused by this response, but then said some very profound things about the state of our church. I’ve been reflecting on them since.

[Update 10/1/07: a few people, including one reasserter blogger, have misunderstood what follows to be a summary of what the bishops said. This is not the case. The following comments are my personal reflections on the situation, in part in reaction to some of the things the bishops at the Town Hall meeting said.]

In keeping with an effort towards descriptive rather than prescriptive analysis, this is a sobering exercise in considering the state of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. What follows may be hard to hear, but I think these things need to be said. I will frame them simply as bullet points; I welcome commenters who disagree with my assessments to say so — but I am trying to be clearly, if not brutally, honest.

  • It is very easy, in a liberal parish in a liberal diocese to come to think that The Episcopal Church as a whole is much more liberal than it really is. This applies to the Anglican Communion as well.
  • The House of Bishops as a whole — even with the “Network” bishops missing — is not as liberal as its most liberal members. When they gather, something between the Hive Mind and the Stockholm Effect takes place. The whole is often less than the sum of its parts.
  • The idea that gay and lesbian persons are full and equal members of the church is more of a hope than a reality. The ground has shifted considerably from 1979 (when General Convention resolution A053 recommended that bishops and standing committees not allow the ordination of “practicing homosexuals” to any order of ministry) to 2006 (when B033 recommended withholding consent only for the episcopate, for candidates whose manner of life might challenge the wider church) to this week in 2007 when the House of Bishops clarified that yes, this does include partnered gay and lesbian persons.
  • That gay and lesbian persons continue to put up with the church may also be a sign of the Stockholm Effect, or of their great faith. I prefer to think it is the latter.
  • While no one has a right to be ordained, or a right to get married (the hierarchy has veto powers on both matters) still these may have come to be seen as reasonable expectations, to some extent encouraged by a gradual movement towards greater toleration in the desuetude of 1979's A053, and the increasing practice of pastoral provision for same sex blessings in a significant minority of dioceses.
  • This impression was also encouraged by a crucial act in 2003. The consent to the election of Gene Robinson was a “false dawn” — and was not the celebration of gay and lesbian equality it was perceived to be. The consent had more to do with Gene’s superb personal qualities and track-record as an excellent priest than with his sexuality and his partnership. The consent was given in spite of, not in affirmation of, his private life. The consent to his election thus made it appear both to us and to the world that we were moving faster than we actually were.

So, where are we then, speaking practically, and what can be done to encourage gay and lesbian persons that they have not been abandoned? A number of our bishops have already issued letters or commentary on the House of Bishops’ meeting, affirming their personal commitment in their own dioceses to continuing the struggle. That, I think, is the best that can be said at this point.

As I suggested in an earlier post, it is high time to proclaim that Lambeth 1998 1.10 does not represent the consensus of the Anglican Communion — and remind people that fully a third of the bishops present voted against the clause on the compatibility of same-sex relationships with Scripture: so that even if this is a majority view, it cannot by any reasonable definition of the term be called a “consensus.”

Meanwhile, the struggle continues — perhaps made a bit easier by the behavior of the radical right in their essential withdrawal from the process and choice literally to walk apart, both at the national and communion level. I take some hope in this — but it is a hope, not a thing achieved. What I say here may not be of great comfort to those who had come to believe that The Episcopal Church was more welcoming as a whole than it actually is. There are many parishes even in the most liberal dioceses where a gay or lesbian person cannot be honest about who they are. There are many dioceses in which clergy with partners continue to function, faithfully serving their parishes, from the closet. God willing, this will change in my life time. But even if it doesn’t, I know that the theologies of heterosexism are doomed, and that the day will come when the hope to which the bishops referred is realized.

For the present, a luta continua.

Tobias Haller BSG



September 26, 2007

Episcopoliticians At Work

I am hardly the first to notice the contradiction between the restrictive portions of the recent House of Bishops’ statement and the closing point: “We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God’s children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ’s Church.” Surely, it would be more consistent with the rest of the document if the phrase “full and equal” were struck.

While I appreciate this closing acknowledgment of the dignity of gay and lesbian people (presumably because they are a part of the larger class of people described in the Baptismal Covenant, which is to say, human beings), and the call for justice (one hopes, not justice as understood in Nigeria or under Islamic law), and deploring violence (did anyone think the bishops favored violence?), and even the call for certain unenumerated civil rights — still, this closing does not seem to sit very consistently with the commitments made earlier in the document. This inconsistency reminds me of that which plagued the mind of Thomas Jefferson, the slaveholder who was able to proclaim that all men have an unalienable right to liberty, if not with a straight face, at least in neat handwriting.

At the same time, I acknowledge that worse things could happen to one than not being confirmed as a bishop, or not being allowed to marry as one chooses. In particular, I would like to suggest that everyone remove from their store of similes references to crucifixion unless related to someone actually being nailed to a tree. I think, in the current context, Matthew Shepard qualifies; and gay and lesbian persons in much of the rest of the world, particularly under the tender mercies of some Christian and Islamic leaders. But for most of us in the West, the application of this kind of hyperbole is becoming tiresome.

As is the language of “a crucified place,” a phrase that grates on my senses (even if it were literally describing Golgotha) almost as much as “the Christ event” and “a kairos moment.” Very few of our bishops have come within spitting distance of anything remotely approaching “a crucified place” except perhaps on a tour of the Holy Land.

However, these observations aside, I feel that our bishops have made an astute and politic decision. They have given the Archbishop of Canterbury everything he needs to say, “They really are trying — and I don’t mean trying my patience.” This will also give the Global South’s most rightward-leaning sector all they need to proclaim that their Demands had not been met, and that they and their episcopi vagantes will soon be forming a new and improved, and purified, Anglican Communion.

And then, perhaps, the rest of us can get back to the work of the church.

Tobias Haller BSG


Discussion on Conflict

I've posted an initial offering over at the Seminar on Conflict Ecclesiology, a new blog begun by Marshall Montgomery. We begin in examining some basis theses. Give a visit. —Tobias

A Proposed Resolution for Lambeth 2008

Resolved, That given the debate, division and dissent to which it has given rise, Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference no longer represents the consensus of the Anglican Communion.

—Tobias Haller BSG

September 23, 2007

Out of Egypt

some thoughts on patience and perception

I've been doing a lot of listening lately, and taking the time to read the commentaries, from the moderate and thoughtful to the aggressively pugnacious. I've also read through the address by +Anis of Jerusalem and the Middle East, delivered to our House of Bishops. I have a few observations to make.

  • Patience is best called for by those who are themselves patient. It is a behavior better modeled than exhorted.
  • One is at least as much responsible for ones own perceptions, and what one does with them, as the stimulus that gave rise to them. If the stimulus is an indirect or third-hand report, examination of evidence is a helpful step in forming an opinion.
  • People should listen to the perceptions of others, but not necessarily believe them to be objective, unless the others have shown themselves to be objective in other ways, or can offer independent objective evidence for their conclusions.
  • However, one can learn even from ill-informed criticism. The Episcopal Church has been given ample opportunity to do so.
  • Thus, caricature serves a function less refined than portraiture, but of some service in helping one to be aware of the features to which others may give undue prominence.

Tobias Haller

September 21, 2007

3. True Union (1)

In the previous post, Pro Creation, I offered evidence from the realms of nature and reason, Scripture, and the church’s tradition, in support of the proposition that procreation is neither essential nor intrinsic to human sexuality or marriage. As is obvious from some of the comments, not all are persuaded by the evidence I have presented; however, I know that some will not be persuaded regardless of how authoritative the evidence may be. One interlocutor believes that a sterile couple are somehow still capable of an “intrinsically procreative act,” even though they are incapable of procreation. Another continues to reassert that the primary purpose of marriage is the production and protection of children, in spite of the considerable evidence to the contrary. I am perfectly happy to continue discussing these matters, but I feel to some extent we have entered the Monty Python sketch concerned with the distinction between argument and contradiction. Some kind of evidence to the contrary, or specific faults with the evidence thus far produced, would enhance what is otherwise reassertion or contradiction.

On the basis of the evidence I have adduced, therefore, I hold that it is clear that procreation as a “good” is both naturally and intentionally separable from sexual activity and from marriage. Neither church nor state forbid marriage or criminalize sexual congress between a man and a woman even when one or both are intrinsically incapable of procreation. (The lack of capacity to procreate is not always due to a “defect” since human beings “by design” enjoy periods of natural and intrinsic infertility, as well as reaching a time in life when fertility ceases.) So the fundamental and intrinsic inability to achieve procreation cannot be offered as a rationale against same-sexuality or same-sex unions.

And so I turn to a second major “good” or “cause” for marriage: union. I will first examine the nature of union in its broadest sense (as summarized in the exhortation at the beginning of the Episcopal Church’s marriage liturgy), including its moral status; and in succeeding posts examine whether or not this “good” can be achieved by a same-sex couple.

The Locus of Union

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity...

The church gives this “good” of marriage first place in its revised liturgy (which as I note in the previous article is the first American BCP liturgy to mention the “goods” at all). It clarifies that the union is not merely “fleshly” or “bodily” but deeply personal, involving the heart and mind as well as body — it is the union of persons, not merely of body parts. Secondly, this unity is ordered primarily to mutual joy (which includes but is not limited to the pleasure of sexual intercourse), and perhaps more importantly to the human values of help and comfort. Thus the good of union broadens out from the merely physical to embrace the emotional, mental, and social aspects of human life.

One Flesh

First, however, it is important to address the significance of the fleshly unity. “One flesh” is a biblical concept, but it occurs only in the context of the second creation account — all other references to this phenomenon are citations of this passage, whether in the Gospels or the Pauline Epistles. These citations will be helpful in unpacking the meaning this phrase should have for us, in that it allows us to look at how others — including our Lord himself — understood it, and how they applied it to various circumstances.

As I noted in the previous chapter, Jesus’ midrash (appearing in Matthew and Mark) omits any reference to procreation: he jumps from the “male and female” of Genesis 1 to the “one flesh” of Genesis 2, and then adds his own conclusion: what God has joined together is not to be divided. This form of midrash is a classic rabbinic technique, finding an answer to a particular dilemma (“Is it permissible for a man to divorce his wife?”) by taking two scriptural passages and deriving an original conclusion from them. (This conclusion is all the more striking in that it overturns the plain sense of Mosaic law.) Clearly, then, if one is to draw any conclusion from Jesus’ understanding of “one flesh,” it lies in Jesus’ emphasis on the unity of the couple, quite apart from procreation (or the absence of procreation due to infertility, which as I noted in the previous article was a specific grounds for divorce under rabbinic law). It should be noted as well that Jesus also mentions the change in domicile, which further locates the unity of the couple in a new household, a new social structure. The union is thus not merely physical, but social.

The two Pauline references to this text are a bit more problematical. In these related passages (Eph 5:25-33 and 1 Cor 6:13-18) Paul is caught up in rhetorical flourishes that operate on several levels at once, so it will be helpful to tease apart the various strands in his thinking.

The “Mystery” of Ephesians

The Ephesians reference must be seen in its context as part of the whole epistle, where the primary theme is the “mystery of Christ” which Paul describes as the union “of all things in him.” (1:9-10) He develops this imagery of the union of all things in a succession of images beginning with Christ as head of his “body,” the church (1:22-23). In chapter 2 he describes the way in which divisions based on national or ethnic identity, of culture and clan, are abolished by the flesh and blood of Christ, in a vivid image from the Second Temple — its dividing wall separating Gentile from Jew being removed — and the creation of a single new humanity out of two, in “one body through the cross.” (2:14-16) Perhaps inspired by his own brief reference to the Temple, Paul expands on that image, in which Christ shifts to become the cornerstone of a Temple whose building stones are the members of the church, indwelt by the Spirit (2:20-22).

Paul returns to revealing “the mystery” in chapter 3, when he again defines it as the Gentiles becoming “fellow heirs, members of the same body... through the Gospel.” (3:6) Chapter 4 turns to the natural consequences of being “one body” — and urges the members of that body to live in peace and harmony in various ways, making use of the variety of spiritual gifts with which the body is provided to build up that very body, towards the goal of more perfect unity in Christ. (4:11-16) He contrasts this unity with the futile conflicts of the Gentiles, and offers counsel for a harmonious life. (4:17-5:20)

As part of this counsel, reflecting on the orderly hierarchies of human society, he brings up three areas of human relationship: marital (5:21-33), familial (6:1-4) and social (i.e., slavery, 6:5-9). It is in the first of these three parallel human situations that Paul introduces the language of Genesis 2. He does so by analogizing his “mystery” (human unity in and with Christ) with the union of a man and a woman in marriage. The analogy is, as it seems Paul recognizes, not quite parallel — which may explain his eventual explanation, “But I speak of Christ and of the church” — that is, he returns to his main theme of the “mystery” of union in Christ, though he continues to advise that men and women should be mutually loving. (5:32-33) This passage is notoriously badly translated in the RSV/NRSV tradition. Clearly Paul intends to correct any misapprehension that hisreference to the “great mystery” (which he has expounded a number of times earlier in the letter as referring to ecclesiastical unity under the headship of Christ) might be misunderstood as a reference to marriage. Indeed, many have so misunderstood Paul’s intent, in spite of his effort to clarify, and the context of the epistle as a whole.

In any case, the main thing we can carry away from this passage for our present purpose is that Paul uses the language of “one flesh” primarily to describe union, a union as close as that between a man and his own body: “He who loves his wife loves himself.” (5:28) He applies this personal union to the ecclesiastical unity of the people of God in Christ.

The ambivalent nature of “one flesh”

When we turn to Paul’s other reference to this text we are on similar ground, at least as far as his concern with unity in the church as the body of Christ. But in 1 Corinthians, Paul does not see “one flesh” as an ideal, but as something to be avoided, at least when expanded in a certain direction: “Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’” (6:16) His concern is with “fornication” (porneia) — which whatever the alleged breadth of meaning elsewhere, here clearly refers to prostitution. (The range of meaning alleged for porneia will be a topic for another time.)

In any case, it is clear from this passage that Paul understands “one flesh” to be a result of sexual congress, not of marriage. It is in this case precisely “fleshly” (a relationship with a prostitute lacking all that true human union should entail, precisely because it is transactional rather than relational) and in this context has no place in the spiritual life of the church. (Here Paul is consistent with his usual use of “flesh” in a negative sense, as opposed to the Spirit.) It is also remotely possible that Paul is alluding to another common meaning for porneia — as a metaphor for idolatry; however, it appears the primary concern here is with actual, not metaphorical, harlotry.

The lesson we can take from this is that union of flesh is, from this Pauline perspective, morally neutral. It is good between a married couple, but not between a prostitute and her client. It is, thus, the context of the relationship (the fullness of unity of body, mind and heart in mutual joy and companionship) that determines the moral status of the act which engenders the “one flesh,” not the merely physical act itself.

The Nature of Union

As we have seen, the fleshly union was understood to be connected with sexual congress. But as we have also seen, there is much more to it if this union is to be seen as a moral good: which is precisely where the other aspects of heart and mind enter in. The whole person — or rather, two whole persons — are united in a variety of ways.

When we turn to the text in its original setting, we see that these other elements are present. As noted in the previous article, the creation account in Genesis 1 references procreation; the account in Genesis 2 makes no mention of it until after the fall. Rather, the emphasis there is upon the union of the man and the woman prior to their having intercourse, though that is clearly meant to be an eventual part of the exercise. This union finds its beginning in the flesh and bones themselves (though it doesn’t end there).

This bodily reality is significant: the fact that the woman is not made from the “same” substance as the man (that is, from the same soil, as were the animals whom the man rejected as unsuitable). Rather the woman is made from the man’s own substance; she is one “like himself.” (Tobit 8:6) This imagery was picked up bythePatristic church in coming to an understanding of the Incarnation, seen as a reversal of this Edenic derivation of woman: just as woman was taken from man, Christ (the new Adam) was taken from the substance of the Virgin Mary. (Definition of Chalcedon; there is a hint of this thinking in 1 Cor 11:12, later expanded upon by the early church.) We will return to these themes in a later section.

The shift of focus away from merely bodily union towards the other aspects is evident in the Genesis passage itself. There is a reference to leaving the paternal home to be bound to the spouse, which in itself points beyond the merely fleshly to the social context. There are also, in Adam’s effusive welcome, testimony to the emotional joy to be found in his having finally found one like himself with whom to join. This likeness — which appears to be a primary emphasis of the passage — is significant in addressing one of the arguments often raised against the recognition of same-sex unions, which I will take up in a succeeding post.

Tobias Haller BSG


The discussion continues with True Union (2).

Further Update: This post and those that follow, expanded and supplemented with much additional material, form part of Reasonable and Holy, published by Seabury Books and available on order from Church Publishing Incorporated.

September 10, 2007

2. Pro-Creation

This post is a continuation of a discussion begun with Where the Division Lies. As this is part of an ongoing discussion, I would like to ask commenters to attempt to cleave to the main point of each post and allow the argument to unfold. A number of comments on the first post actually anticipated issues to be addressed in this one; as well as bringing up important questions that I hope to address subsequently.

In this post I will respond to the assertion that the purpose of sexuality is procreation. This assertion is well-summarized by a leading member of the reasserter community, in a comment on the earlier post:

The reasserting position is that sex is specifically given for the purpose of furthering the ends of marriage: procreative, uniative, and reflective. One of those ends cannot be separated in such a way as to stand exclusive of the others and form a proper basis for the introduction of sex outside of the other three. All three are essential to marriage. And sex is specifically given as a function of them.

I intend to demonstrate that not only is procreation not essential to marriage, but that its relationship to sexuality is not absolute; that it can be (and is) separated from other ends, which in themselves can and do form a proper basis for a sexual relationship within marriage.

Ways and means and blessings

Before entering into the specifics, I want to address the language of “purpose” and “function” or “ends.” In general, although this language has a place in the tradition, it seems to me to reflect an overly utilitarian ethic focused on results. I would prefer to follow another aspect of the Christian tradition that refers to the “goods” of marriage. In a virtue ethic, sexuality is not simply a function, or the use of a person (or two persons’ use of each other) towards some purposed end or goal, but an act growing out of the love between persons that is open to the good that may be imparted. Self-giving love, rather than self-asserting need, provides the basis for the action which grows out of the love, and which is a blessing in itself apart from any result.

In addition, “purpose” in this context implies an a priori assumption, a social or theological one at that. There is a difference even between a purpose and a function. Purpose sees sexuality not merely for what it does and how it does it, but as a naturally or divinely intended “plan for humanity” — depending upon one’s worldview of a secular personified Nature or theological divine intent. It is important, therefore, to be aware of this subtext in the secular and sacred tradition before proceeding. (I am not challenging the notion that sexuality has a purpose in the natural world or in God’s plan; I merely flag that this is a second order question, which I will address at the proper point in the discussion.)

Defining the goods

Avoiding both “purpose” and “function” at the outset, let me say that most people (including those outside the faith) would agree that human sexuality appears to have two principle goods, procreation and the union. (The “reflective” good, in which marriage serves as an image for the relationship between Christ and the Church, or God and Israel, is solely theological. I will address union and reflection in subsequent posts; as well as a “cause” or end of marriage that has dropped both from this reasserter’s list and from the preface to the Episcopal marriage liturgy: marriage as a remedy for fornication, for those who lack the gift of celibacy.)

In regarding procreation and union, the church has (until fairly recent times) traditionally emphasized the former over the latter, but it appears that such an emphasis is not well supported by Scripture, reason, or even other elements of the tradition. In this and succeeding posts I hope to sketch out a number of points concerning the various goods of sexuality, and consequently, of marriage.

In the process I will demonstrate that procreation is neither essential to marriage, nor the principle good of human sexuality. I use the word human intentionally, in order to highlight the fact that sex and sexuality are not unique to human beings. We share our being members of a species predominantly male or female, and our capacity to reproduce sexually, with most animals and many plants. It has been observed in the past that expending theological energy on the mere existence of the sexes and the capacity to reproduce — which is part of our animal nature — shifts the focus away from what makes us truly human, as well as serving as locus for the image of God in human form: our capacity to love and to reason.

The witness of nature

No one would claim that sex has nothing to do with procreation; rather it is obvious that the existence of male and female in many species of animals and plants is a part of the natural process by which life is perpetuated. It is not, of course, the only means of such propagation, and many forms of life, even some vertebrates, reproduce without making use of sexual differentiation or sexual intercourse.

However, when it comes to human beings, it is trivial to observe that the existence of male and female, and their exercise of the capacity for sexual intercourse, is intimately connected with procreation. The natural law tradition takes this as given; but that is, in part, why this tradition is of little use in the present discussion, as it begs the question: it assumes as a premise the very matter under discussion; that is: that procreation is the primary purpose for or good of sex.

The difficulties with ends-based natural law arguments in this regard, which are advanced against birth control as much as against same-sexuality, in particular those that focus narrowly on the mechanics of sexual intercourse, are well summarized by The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics.

It is one thing to say that the natural function of the eye is to see. But even bodily organs can and do serve several functions. And if one asks of the body as a whole what its function is, the answer is much less clear. Even less clear is the answer to questions such as “What is the function of a human life?” or “What is the function of sexuality in a human life?” The way one might try to answer these questions seems quite unlike the way one might try to answer questions about the function(s) of the endocrine glands or the heart in the human body. The notion of “function” at this point becomes much more a matter of moral assessment than a scientific inquiry. (“Natural Law,” 413)

Given that caveat, from an objective standpoint the following observations are telling, even in light of a functional or ends-based viewpoint:

  • Procreation is not simultaneous with intercourse, which in humans is not the planting of a seed (as the pre-modern world imagined it) but the placement of millions of sperm in a place where they are capable of eventually reaching a single ovum, at which point one of them may fertilize it
  • Intercourse does not always lead to procreation. Women, unlike the females of most mammals, do not have an estrus cycle, which in many other species limits sexual behavior to times of fertility; thus there is a completely natural separation between capacity to have sexual relations and the capacity to procreate
  • Procreation can take place entirely apart from intercourse (through artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization); and, perhaps needless to say, apart from marriage
  • Intercourse can take place when procreation is impossible or avoided: in addition to the lack of estrus, human beings can engage in intercourse when some other cause (intended or incidental) prevents conception
  • From a sociological perspective, in looking at the question of “the function of sexuality in a human life” is is clear that sexuality has major social implications apart from procreation; and has taken many forms in many cultures

At the same time, it is fair to notice the fact (which reasserters occasionally raise in such discussions) that every human being who ever lived is the result of sexual congress between a man and a woman. This, however, in addition to overlooking conception via artificial means or in vitro, neglects an exception significant to the religious question; which brings me to the witness of Scripture.

The witness of Scripture

The most important conception in human history, that of Jesus Christ himself, took place apart from sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. This is, naturally, an article of faith and revelation, not reason. However, we are presented with this theological fact and reason can seek to understand what God may have intended by it. That God should choose this means of entering upon the human scene should give pause to those who wish to make more out of heterosexuality in the scheme of salvation than is actually evidenced in Scripture. As I will demonstrate below, this choice on God’s part is best seen as a reflection of the teaching of Jesus on the new Creation, which is not simply a recapitulation of the old, but the beginning of something truly new.

Back to the beginning

But let us for a moment return to that beginning, to the Book of Genesis, which is naturally often cited in discussions of human sexuality. It is important firstly to note the obvious fact that Genesis contains two creation accounts, and they are not harmonious in numerous details. This has not prevented people merging the two accounts in various ways. Jesus himself performed such a midrash, though with a significant omission.

However, it appears best to treat the two accounts with some care in distinguishing the concerns each expresses. It is immediately apparent that Genesis 1 refers to procreation (both animal and human), while Genesis 2 focuses on the good of companionship and unity, which I will address at greater length in a succeeding post. This alone indicates to some extent the way in which these two goods can be discussed apart from each other.

Many reasserters seem to think that Genesis offers the best argument against same-sex relationships, and regularly return to it in discussions of the subject. However, the fact that Genesis presents us with the creation of male and female as ordered towards procreation does not in itself automatically indicate or even imply a prohibition on same-sex relationships, any more than the pre-scientific discussion of the origin of the world, or the structure of the cosmos, need automatically rule out the learnings of physics or cosmology.

Moreover, the divine establishment of X does not in itself imply a negative assessment of Y, in particular if X and Y can be shown both to belong to a larger category, and have more in common than in contrast. Part of our problem in the present discussions is our tendency to see heterosexuality and homosexuality as somehow opposed to each other, or mutually exclusive, rather than as (admittedly differing) expressions of one overriding reality — the human capacity to love.

Beginnings and ends

In addition, Genesis 1 is a creation account, an account intended to explain the origin of certain things. As such, it is quite natural that — as with many other creation stories the world over — it should recount the creation of the sexes. Procreation — a function of the sexes both in animals and in humans (as Genesis 1 states explicitly) — is intended to fill the world with living things. But this is, after all, the first word on sexuality, not the last. This is the genesis of the world, not its intended end. The scriptural testimony may begin in a Garden, but it ends in a City, where the only marriage is that of the Lamb and his Bride, the Holy City itself. The goal and eternal plan of God is not mere restoration or recapitulation, but redemption and transfiguration.

This leads to an issue sometimes raised by reasserters, who envision salvation in terms of a return to or restoration of the prelapsarian world. However, although Genesis 1 includes a commandment to procreation, Scripture does not indicate this being acted upon until after the fall, in Genesis 4. Procreation, in the second creation account, is postlapsarian.

The Christian vision thus portrays the life of the resurrection as prelapsarian only in this sense, as pre-sexual, a world in which there is no more “male and female” — by which Paul (Gal 3:28) is speaking less of an eschatological disappearance of gender, than of an end to the marriage relationship based on sexual distinction. As with the other distinctions (ethnic and social), Paul points to the restoration of equality and mutuality rather than of domination and exclusion.

This harmonizes well with Jesus’ description of the resurrection life as prelapsarian only in this narrow sense: a world in which “they do not marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more” (Luke 20:35-36); that is, there is no more need for “male and female” to “be fruitful and multiply” and “fill the earth and subdue it.” For the old earth will have passed away, and all will be new. Procreation will be no more — but love will endure for ever.

A change in the law

It is notable that Jesus’ midrash of Genesis 1 and 2 in response to challenges on divorce (Matt 19:4-5; Mk 10:6-9) omits the reference to procreation — he passes directly from “God made them male and female” to “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Omitting any reference to procreation, his emphasis is on the unitive aspect, and its permanence through the grace of fidelity. (Those who attempt to pitch Jesus’ teaching here as a condemnation of same-sex relationships, rather than as Jesus intended it in response to the question on divorce, are doing justice neither to their position nor to Scripture.) I will return to this passage in my discussion of the unitive good of marriage — the one which Jesus emphasized.

However, Jesus’ rejection of the divorce statute of the Mosaic Law (given by Moses but attributed to God in the Torah) brings me to another significant change in attitude towards procreation in the teaching of Christ.

The Rabbis regarded the commandment to be fruitful and multiply as applying to all people; as the first commandment given to humanity. Thus celibacy was held in low esteem or even contempt in mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, even to the extent of being considered a serious moral failing.

No man may abstain from keeping the law Be fruitful and multiply, unless he already has children: according to the School of Shammai, two sons; according to the School of Hillel, a son and a daughter, for it is written, Male and female created he them. (Mishnah Yebamoth 6.6)

So important was the commandment to be fruitful and multiply that the biblical law mandated a special form of marriage which would otherwise have constituted incest by affinity (Deut 25:5-6) in order to provide for continuation of a family line ended by death before fulfillment of the divine command. For the same reason, biblical law also allowed for polygamy, and the historical accounts attest to its employment to that end. One of these incidents, however, also shows the importance of the unitive aspect of sexuality, apart from procreation: as Elkanah comforted his barren wife Hannah with the words, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam 1:8) The fact that the story of Hannah was later typologically parsed by Saint Luke in reference to Mary and the birth of Christ casts even greater significance on this episode from early Jewish history.

However, more importantly, and perhaps related to the contrary teaching of Jesus, so important was the duty to procreate that the Rabbis enjoined divorce should a man find his wife to be infertile after ten years of marriage. (M Yebamoth 6.6) In a prescientific world, of course, failure to bear a child was most often seen as the woman’s fault, as women were held to be “fertile soil” for the growth of the male “seed.” Even given that, the Mishnah allows a woman so divorced an additional 10 years with another husband just in case the fault lies with the man.

Jesus overturns this traditional understanding and emphasis upon procreation; and this may relate to and reflect the larger Divine intent in his own Incarnation apart from sexual intercourse. Whatever the source of his teaching, beginning with God’s act in the Incarnation, and contrary to the main stream of Rabbinic thought and Jewish culture, Jesus approves and commends celibacy (Matt 19:12); as does Saint Paul (1 Cor 7:7-8).

Celibacy is, of course, a radical option, as both Jesus and Paul recognize — it is a charismatic gift of which not all are capable, but it is also an eschatological sign, a symbol for the new world in which there is no marriage.

This brings me, incidentally, to another argument often advanced against same-sexuality: that if everyone “practiced” it it would be the end of humanity. I raise this argument here because it is also true that if everyone practiced celibacy that would also be the end of humanity — though no one apart from an Orthodox Rabbi would thereby suggest celibacy was morally wrong. The distinctly “unorthodox” Saint Paul, in his only extended discussion of marriage cited above, actually did suggest that he wished everyone were celibate as he was — though this may be regarded as a rhetorical flourish rather than as an actual intention, since he goes on to tolerate marriage in the meanwhile, even as he advises against it. (1 Cor 7:28-31)

The witness of tradition

Finally, I turn to the testimony of the church’s tradition. Although relatively recent in the body of tradition, it is helpful to start with the preface to the marriage liturgy in our Book of Common Prayer. This exhortation states the issue rather clearly, both in demoting procreation to third place among the “causes” for which marriage was instituted (as articulated in the 1662 Prayer Book’s preface), and in adding the important proviso “when it is God’s will” in recognition of the fact that not all marriages will result in procreation.

It also note once again the disappearance of the 1662 Prayer Book’s second “cause” — missing both from the comment by the reasserter and from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: marriage as a remedy for sin and the avoidance of fornication, that those who “have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled.” As this is one of the biblical ends of marriage (as elucidated by Saint Paul in 1 Cor 7:8-9) its omission is surprising. I will address this additional “cause” in a subsequent post.

It is perhaps also interesting to note that reference to these causes or ends or goods of marriage were entirely omitted from the marriage liturgy of the Books of Common Prayer from1789 up through 1928 — and only made their reappearance as part of the much-maligned 1979 edition and its immediate trial antecedents. (The 1928 edition did add an optional prayer for the “gift and heritage of children” and their upbringing, but apart from this there is no reference to procreation in the 1928 marriage rite.) Thus the American prayer-book tradition entirely omitted or downplayed any reference to procreation until the current version, where it makes an appearance with the note of its provisionality. (The present form of the Roman Catholic nuptial mass also places the references to progeny in parentheses.)

This is, of course, natural. For the Church, unlike the Jewish tradition described above, never made procreation a necessary end or good of marriage, even when it gave it pride of place in exhorting the bride and groom; and did not allow infertility to stand as an impediment to marriage, or serve as a cause for divorce (unless concealed prior to marriage). Moreover, the Church does not hold marriage to end with menopause, or after hysterectomy or prostatectomy, or any other circumstance rendering one or both of the couple permanently infertile. Thus, while the church has seen “the gift and heritage of children” to be a blessing, it has never regarded it as essential to the institution of marriage.

For the sake of the children

As the preface to the marriage rite in the BCP (1662 and again now in 1979) reminds us, however, sexuality and marriage do often involve the mechanics of conception and birth. But as these texts also show, procreation is the beginning of a process, which includes the care and nurture of children in the knowledge and love of the Lord. In one way this reflects the same direction taken by the whole of Scripture, from Eden to the New Jerusalem, from the biological beginnings to the incarnate and spiritual presence of God in and with the new transfigured human community.

As a practical matter, same-sex couples can fulfill the intention of procreation though in-vitro fertilization, or by adoption. Surely the biblical imagery of adoption (in the New Testament) is at least as powerful — and as grace-filled — as the biblical imagery of birth — and we have the prime example of foster-fatherhood in Saint Joseph himself, the patron of the Universal Church. Surely this fulfillment of the upbringing of otherwise abandoned children in the way of the Lord is a noble task commendable to all people.

Jacob Milgrom has reflected on this in light of the rather different Jewish traditions and law, in his magisterial work on Leviticus, and suggests that adoption is one means for same-sex couples to fulfill this part of the good of procreation. (Milgrom notes that the Levitical prohibition on male homosexuality does not apply to non-Jews, about which I hope to say more in a later series of posts, to address the biblical texts addressing same-sex relations.) Writing to Jewish homosexuals, Milgrom advises that in order to fulfil the “first commandment” they ought to

adopt children. Although adoption was practiced in the ancient world (as attested in Babylonian law), there is no biblical procedure or institution of adoption. As a result the institution of adoption is absent from rabbinic jurisprudence. Yet there are isolated cases of a kind of pseudo-of adoption in the Bible... Adoption is a certainly a possibility today. Lesbian couples have an additional advantage. Not only do they not violate Biblical law, but through artificial insemination each can become the natural mother of her children. (Leviticus 17-22, 1787)

Surely, from a Christian perspective, true religion does not lie in procreation, but in part in caring for orphans. (James 1:27) So in the broader sense in which procreation itself is the beginning of a process, same-sex couples (and infertile mixed sex couples) are capable of fulfilling the “procreative end” or benefitting from this “good” of sexuality even though their own sexual relationship does not produce the children they adopt, nurture, and care for.

Conclusions

I acknowledge that apart from in vitro fertilization only a fertile male and female couple can accomplish the first steps of procreation. But as I have shown, the capacity to procreate is neither essential to marriage nor inseparable from its other goods.

This leaves us with the obvious question: What is it about males and females (apart from the capacity to procreate) that should limit marriage to such couples? Asked another way, What is present in a sterile mixed-sex couple that is lacking in a same-sex couple, apart from the difference in sex? I think the only reasonable answer is, The difference in sex is precisely the issue.

Now, getting to this point after all the forgoing might seem ludicrous, since we know that folks approve of mixed-sex marriage and disapprove of same-sex relationships precisely because of the sex of the couple. The reason I have taken this course, however, is to disprove the rationalization for this restriction on the basis of the capacity to procreate.

So I will in subsequent posts turn to the other goods of marriage (union and representation) to see if these are essential to marriage, or limited to mixed-sex couples. In short, I will address the question of whether there is something essential about men and women, apart from their ability (in some cases) to procreate, that would distinguish their unions from those of same-sex couples.

Tobias Haller BSG


Update: My reflection continues with True Union (1).

Further Update: This post and those that follow, expanded and supplemented with much additional material, form part of Reasonable and Holy, published by Seabury Books and available on order from Church Publishing Incorporated.

September 7, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle RIP


This dear woman died yesterday, but I only heard the news this afternoon. I had the joy of working with her from time to time on the Diocesan Close -- she was working on reorganizing the Library, and I was the part-time Diocesan Convention office coordinator, in addition to my half-time service as pastor of Saint Paul's, Yonkers.

One of my fondest memories of her is of a day I celebrated the weekday Mass in one of the Cathedral's apsidal chapels. Madeleine was a regular at these weekday gatherings, and always a joy to see. This particular day, just as I began my sermon, a very loud organ recital began in the nave. (Cathedral scheduling, right?!) As I shrugged in some frustration, Madeleine gathered the other few present for the liturgy up to the front row, shouting, "It's not a Eucharist without the sermon!" and I delivered my sermon in a literal huddle, all of us gathered arms on shoulders. I can still see her upturned radiant face and sparkling eyes, with the sunlight from the east-facing stained-glass windows washing across her eager expression, yearning for and savoring my poor words that midday as if they were precious draughts of water in the desert.

May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

Tobias Haller BSG

September 6, 2007

Afflicted For Your Consolation


Fessenden House • September 7 2000 • Tobias Haller BSG
Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.

All of us have heard, I’m sure, of spontaneous acts of self-sacrifice that happen from time to time. A heroic soldier saves his platoon by throwing himself on a grenade. A brave fire-fighter enters a burning building a second time to rescue a child. An old man gives his life-preserver to a young woman as the ocean liner sinks. And who can forget the image from a few years ago as a man helped victims from the frigid water at the end of an airport runway, hoisting person after person to safety as he slowly froze, and eventually sank beneath the icy waters.

+ + +

I’d like to share one more example with you, which I’d not heard of it until I came across it recently. Back when scientists were working on atom bombs at Los Alamos, early models were tested manually. That is, sub-critical masses of plutonium were pushed together and, when the chain reaction began, they were separated with a highly specialized tool — a screwdriver! Unfortunately, on one of the test days, just as the chain reaction was beginning, the screwdriver which should have separated the two chunks of plutonium slipped. The air began to turn blue with the unearthly glow of radioactivity. One of the young scientists, instead of cowering back in horror, reached out, and grabbing the two halves of the critical mass with his bare hands, slowly pried them apart. Naturally, or perhaps I should say “unnaturally,” he absorbed a lethal dose of radiation, and died nine days later as a result, but the others in the room survived. The young man’s name was Louis.

+ + +

When I read this story it struck me that it may have been the inspiration behind the scene in the Star Trek movie, where Spock enters a room full of radiation and, at the cost of his own life, closes a leaking warp drive with his bare hands. As he dies, he reminds Kirk that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This phrase is itself powerfully reminiscent of Jesus’ own teaching concerning the greatest love, and of his action in laying down his life for his friends. But what I want to say tonight is that there is a distinct difference between these other self-sacrificial incidents and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; there is a crucial distinction between these spontaneous acts of heroism and the dedicated lives of the sisters and brothers — including another Louis — who along with Constance, Frances, Thecla, Ruth and Charles, and many others, laid down their lives in Memphis during that raging epidemic of Yellow Fever.

And the difference I point out — with absolutely no wish to minimize the heroism or the self-sacrifice of any of those other brave soldiers, firefighters, or physicists — is this: their acts of bravery were spontaneous. Given more time to think it through they might have acted differently than they did. That they acted on an impulse may be a sign of their particular virtuousness, or perhaps a witness to the general capacity for self-sacrifice that all people have deep in their hearts, and which they will act upon — sometimes — if their equally powerful urge to self-preservation doesn’t have the time to interpose its contrary force.

But about Jesus Christ, and about the Martyrs of Memphis whom we commemorate tonight, there can be no such question. Their heroism was not the gutsy bravado of spontaneous action, but the patient application of dutiful service. Jesus Christ and the Martyrs of Memphis did not throw themselves on a grenade; they did not run headlong into a burning building; they did not jump forward to pry apart a critical mass.

No, Jesus Christ went to Jerusalem knowing that the cross lay ahead of him, that death awaited him; that this was to be the hour in which the Father would be glorified, and this was how God chose to be glorified. And the sisters and brothers who walked the way of the cross down to Memphis, though they might not have known for certain that death awaited them, surely knew the risk, as ninety percent of the population fell ill, and over 5,000 died. The brave souls who served in Memphis didn’t know what caused the Yellow Fever that took so many lives — it would be years before Walter Reed made the connection — but they knew that people were failing and perishing, and they set their course to stand by and serve the sick, and to die with the dying — deliberately and devotedly.

+ + +

Jesus said, whoever serves me must follow me — and sometimes that following will be the headlong leaping to cover a grenade with ones’ own body, or to enter an inferno and throw someone else to safety even as one perishes; sometimes that followingwill be a sudden bare-handed wrenching apart of the lethal mass that threatens life and limb — but more often, that following will be the slow and deliberate way of service to others, the way that with hands busy putting others first, sets the self down unselfconsciously on the shelf, sometimes misplacing it, and sometimes losing it. The way that follows Jesus is the way of the cross. Whoever serves him must follow him, and like it or not, that is the way he went, and that is what he carried.

Whether on the road to Jerusalem or the road to Memphis, Jesus goes before us, bearing his cross, and where he is, there will his servant be.+


The icon of the Martyrs of Memphis was written by the hand of your servant in 1999. The scroll in the hand of He Who Is speaks of "the greater love" of laying down one's life.
To see a larger image of the icon, click on it.
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