This time next week, the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church will be considering what we as a part of the Body of Christ believe about marriage. The Doctrine Committee has produced a paper on the theology of marriage which is available here. The process for discussion and decision-making is outlined on pages 46-50 of the document available here.
If the process leads to a preference for canonical change, it is possible that the SEC will become the frontrunner in terms of churches which have reappraised their understanding of what God has said about human sexuality. This will sadden and confuse many, not least those in congregations who are gay but who have chosen to hold on to Biblical teaching.
What follows is a brief response, written by the Revd Dr Iain MacRobert, which details the many concerns with, and inadequacies of, the Doctrine Committee's paper.
A brief critical review of The Theology of Marriage
General Synod members have been sent a document produced by the Doctrine Committee entitled, The Theology of Marriage. This paper, according to the Faith and Order Board, is "thorough and coherent" and "should enable General Synod members to engage with the topic in some depth".
This document, however, is not a balanced presentation of the case for and against same-sex marriage to encourage well-informed and reasoned debate and decision-making. It does present some material which advocates orthodox marriage but the overall trend and argument is to promote same-sex marriage. While claiming to be a consideration of the issue using scripture, tradition and reason, its consideration of Biblical texts and the contexts in which they were written is extremely superficial and partial. Reason is often given short shrift and references to the findings of science ill informed. The paper is strong on assertion but weak on evidence, both Biblical and scientific.
While referring briefly to the creation narratives of Genesis, it does not consider the relationship between sexual differentiation and complementarity and the Imago Dei (Genesis 1:27). It does not consider the Fall (Genesis 3) but moves from creation to eschaton. The impact of the Fall: the human propensity to ignore God and usurp God's authority to define what is good and what is evil; and the subsequent brokenness of humanity is not addressed. This brokenness means alienation from God and others and death. It affects all of who and what we are individually and in relationship: spirituality, physicality, intellectually, ethically and sexuality.
Sections 86-96 advocate taking a broad view of marriage that includes polygynous marriages, marriages that are not life-long and same-sex relationships. However, God's ideal for marriage is unambiguously clear in the creation narratives of Genesis 1 - 3 and is affirmed by Jesus and Paul:
- between a man and a woman;
- sexually exclusive and faithful;
- life-long; and
- open to procreation and the nurturing of children.
That marriage and sexual relationships often deviate from this ideal in a fallen and sin-damaged world is not surprising. The Bible, which addresses both the way the world is and the way God wants things to be, includes such accounts of humanity's fallen and sin-damaged state. Accommodating people in preexisting polygynous, adulterous or homoerotic relationships within the church is an exercise of grace and pastoral care. The church is for broken, sin-damaged and sinning people. Jesus reminds us that he did not “come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). However, this inclusion needs to recognize that these relationships are departures from God's ideal for marriage. Whether or not they are defined as marriage within a particular culture or legal system, they are not marriage as God intended it to be.
Section 61 of the paper states that, "the prohibition against sex between two men at Leviticus 20:13 follows a list of forbidden incestuous heterosexual acts, and it is at least probable that it refers specifically to the homosexual equivalence... and is not a blanket prohibition". Such an interpretation is perhaps possible but certainly not probable. The surrounding context is not just about prohibiting incest but also adultery and bestiality. Similarly, the parallel passage in Leviticus 18: 20 to 23, places the prohibition of male homoerotic intercourse in the context of prohibiting adultery, infanticide and bestiality rather than incest. This probably is a "blanket prohibition" of male homoerotic acts and there is good evidence, in his letter to the Church in Corinth, that Paul understood it in this way (compare the Septuagint's arsenos koiten in Leviticus 18 and 20 with Paul's arsenokoites in 1 Corinthians 9:6).
Section 63 of the paper simply fails to deal with Jesus' teaching on 'eunuchs': those for whom “it is better not to marry” because of how they were born or made by others or because of their commitment to the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:10-11).
Section 76 makes the point that "we cannot be certain that there is any condemnation in the Bible of consenting, non-exploitative, homosexual relationships ..." However, the overwhelming weight of evidence in Scripture is opposed to homoerotic behaviour per se. Romans 1:26 strongly implies consent and mutual sexual gratification rather than coercion. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, the behaviours of both active and passive participants in homoerotic intercourse are condemned.
The argument from nature in section 51 asserts that, "homosexual orientation among animals is natural, or to put it theologically, if homosexual orientation within creatures is part of God's creation, then we should find ways of being true to that". This is a very dubious argument in favour of same-sex marriage. It takes no account of God's good creation being damaged by the Fall. Many animals, such as bonobos, are bisexual and sexually promiscuous. Others, such as lions, kill their own young. Extrapolating this kind of argument from nature and applying animal behaviour to humans is both naive and dangerous. The same argument can be used to justify sexual promiscuity and infanticide as 'natural'. In fact some researchers, such as Ryan and Jetha (2010) claim that promiscuity is humanity's natural sex drive. Arguments from nature are not a good basis for social ethics including sexual ethics.
In section 52 the claim is made that, "it is now realised that sexual orientation is a natural 'given' and enduring disposition" and that "biological explanations have come to the fore". These are sweeping and unsubstantiated claims. For example, the 2011 Williams Institute survey of the US population found that 1.7% identify themselves as lesbian or gay, while 1.8% identify themselves as bisexual. Some people have a fluid sexual orientation that changes over time (see, for example Diamond, 2008, and Savin-Williams, 2005). The assertion that sexual orientation is an enduring disposition is far from proven and the evidence for fluid and changing orientations is strong. The evidence for a genetic basis for a homosexual orientation is also very thin and tentative. More recent and less-biased studies of monozygotic (identical) twins have found large proportions with different sexual orientations (e.g. Lamgstrom et al, 2010). Sanghir and Robins (1973) found that a much higher proportion of homosexual men (18%) and women (35%) had lost their father through death or divorce by age ten. For heterosexuals this was 9% and 4% respectively. Human behaviour is complex and biological causes rarely explain it adequately. Similarly, evidence for environmental causes is also inconclusive.
In section 53 of the paper the argument from nature continues. Here the claim is made that a homosexual orientation is, "a given or a natural aptitude". It seems to assume that strong feelings or emotional drives should determine human behaviour. There is certainly secular support for this view. Feelings of lust (Ryan and Jetah, 2010), anger, jealousy, greed and covetousness have all been identified as 'natural' and therefore justifications for human behaviour but few Christians would argue that they should be the basis for determining ethical behaviour. We don't claim that envy sanctions stealing or lust legitimises adultery.
In section 54 the assertion is made that, "same-sex marriage carries the potential to nurture children as equally as heterosexual marriage". This is another sweeping assertion. The research is currently inconclusive but Sullins (2015) study of a random sample of 512 children in the US raised by same-sex couples should give us cause for grave concern. Sullins found that about 17% of children raised by same-sex couples experienced serious emotional problems and about 19% developed problems like ADHD or learning disabilities compared with 7% and 10% respectively for children in opposite-sex households.
To keep this review brief, I have not commented on two millennia of Church tradition that has upheld the orthodox view of marriage, or on the historical liturgies of the Anglican Communion in which this same orthodox view is expressed. To follow the spirit of the age (in our secularised, post-modern, first world) by redefining Christian marriage is not just to overthrow two millennia of Christian tradition, it is to distance ourselves from the majority of the Church in the two-thirds world, from the teachings of Scripture and from the revealed will of God for marriage.
Diamond, Lisa M. (January 2008). Female bisexuality from adolescence to adulthood: Results from a 10-year longitudinal study. (PDF) 44 (1). Developmental Psychology. pp. 5–14. doi:10.1037/0012-16188.8.131.52. PMID 18194000. "Bisexual women – new research findings". Women's Health News. 17 January 2008.
Saghir, M and Robins E, Male and female homosexuality: a comprehensive investigation, Baltimore: Williams Wilkins, 1973
British Journal of Education, Society and Behavioural Science 7(2):99-120, 2015
Ryan, Christopher and Jetha, Cacilda, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, 2010. For a critique of Ryan and Jetha see Lynn Saxon, Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn. Createspace: Lexington, KY, 2012.
Williams Institute survey: http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Gates-How-Many-People-LGBT-Apr-2011.pdf