A response to Oliver O’Donovan ‘The Wreck of Catholic Identity: Marriage Canon Revision in the Scottish Episcopal Church.’

Next month the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church will return to a proposal to amend its Canon on marriage, Canon 31, removing the reference to marriage being between ‘one man and one woman.’  Behind this proposal lies a report on The Theology of Marriage from the Doctrine Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church which makes out the case for an alteration in the Canon.

In an article entitled ‘The Wreck of Catholic Identity: Marriage Canon Revision in the Scottish Episcopal Church’ published this month on the Fulcrum website Professor Oliver O’Donovan offers a strong critique of this report.

He criticises the report on three grounds, two of which are very helpful, the third of which is less so.

His first criticism is that the report fails to engage properly with the Tradition of the Church.  It is silent about the various ‘initiatives of the Anglican Communion in relation to the issue of human sexuality. It reduces the doctrinal basis of the Scottish Episcopal Church to its liturgy, thus cutting it off from the broader Tradition of the Catholic Church. It ignores the theological discussion that has taken place down the centuries about ‘the relation of the two sexes, male and female, in God’s purposes for creation and redemption.’  It fails to engage with the theological concerns that lay behind the development of the traditional ‘goods’ of marriage referred to in Canon 31.  Overall, it shows a lack of familiarity with the teachings of the early church.

His second criticism is that the report fails to engage properly with what Scripture has to say about marriage. It operates with a ‘canon-within-a-canon’ which ignores the Johannine literature and the letters whose Pauline authorship is disputed. This means there is no reference to either the wedding at Cana of Galilee or Ephesians 5. It rules out of consideration all passages where there is a contextual reason for the discussion of marriage, passages which reflect first century thought and passages which show ‘complexity, or evidence of debate’ (such as the passages about divorce). It ignores the historical development within the biblical witness, thus failing to note that by the time of Jesus polygyny: ‘looked like a very ancient and primitive practice, long since ruled out by the practice of the Mosaic law.’ The only New Testament text about marriage on which the report ‘feels confident in leaning its weight’ is the saying of Jesus in Matthew 22:30 about the absence of marriage in heaven. Overall, says O’Donovan, the report treats Scripture ‘in a legal way, simply as a set of constraints to be evaded rather than a teaching to be made sense of.’

As I have said, both of these criticisms of the report are very helpful. O’Donovan shows with devastating clarity that the report lacks a proper treatment of either Tradition or Scripture.  Unfortunately, however, as I have also said, O’Donovan’s third criticism of the report is less helpful.

Under the heading of ‘Reason’ O’Donovan argues that the report is wrong to suggest that there are really only two options facing the Scottish Episcopal Church, keeping the Canons as they are, or amending Canon 31 to remove the reference to ‘one man and one woman.’

According to O’Donovan, the report too easily dismisses what it calls Option C, which would allow some form of provision for same-sex partnerships while leaving the traditional doctrine of marriage in place. In his view, the strength of this option lies in:

‘….its capacity to find scope for practical innovation within the existing doctrinal framework.   A church confronting a situation new to history, it supposes, needs a pastoral innovation which it can experience and reflect upon, designed to meet the situation in which it finds itself, sustained in tension, but not destructive tension, with the Catholic doctrine of marriage.’

As he sees it, the key failure of the report was to say to the Scottish Episcopal Church: ‘You can take an initiative to care for the needs of gay couples, or you can keep faith with the doctrines of the universal church, but you cannot do both.’ For O’Donovan there is ‘every reason to doubt’ that the alternatives are that exclusive.

The positive suggestion that O’Donovan makes at the end of his article is that both Scottish Anglicans and Anglicans worldwide ought to give their minds to the question of:

‘….how to conceive and discuss new pastoral initiatives in faithfulness to the catholic Christian identity the church professes.   If an Anglican church is convinced of the need to provide new support for same-sex couples, can it find a way of imagining that innovation that will not result in a shipwreck of its identity?’

There are likely to be many Anglicans, not least in the Church of England, who will welcome the idea that there might be a viable ‘third way’ between supporting same-sex marriages and simply maintaining the Church’s traditional position. However, I would want to argue that there is in fact no viable ‘third way’ on this issue. This is for three reasons.

First, the position of those advocating for LGBT equality has moved on since the days when a blessing of same-sex partnerships might have been seen as acceptable.

Now that same-sex ‘marriage’ is legal in an increasing number of jurisdictions around the world, including England, Scotland and Wales, LGBT advocates will not be content with anything less than the Church coming into line with society and practicing ‘equal marriage’ as well. For example, those Gay and Lesbian Christians such as Canon Jeremy Pemberton who are already ‘married’ are not going to be content with anything less than the Church’s full recognition of their marital status.

Furthermore, even the recognition of same-sex ‘marriages’ is now a relatively conservative position. The new focus of LGBT activism is now the call to move beyond the ‘heteronormative gender binary’ (the idea that humanity is divided into men and women) and recognise a whole multiplicity of different gender identities (Facebook UK now gives you seventy one gender options to choose from) and a whole range of forms of personal relationship to suit these different identities.

What this means is that it is wishful thinking to hope that some form of blessing of same-sex partnerships will be enough to bring an end to the conflict within the Church over human sexuality or to enable the Church to keep in step with developments in wider society.  It will not be enough to achieve either of these ends.

Secondly, it is not possible to introduce the blessing of same-sex relationships and also ‘keep faith with the doctrines of the universal church.’

C S Lewis correctly summarised the doctrine of the universal Church with regard to sexuality when he wrote in Mere Christianity: ‘There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.”’  It would be theoretically possible to bless same-sex relationships and still uphold this rule if all the relationships that were blessed were ones that involved sexual abstinence. However, as we know, when it is suggested that the church should bless the relationships of same-sex couples this is not what is meant. What is meant is that the Church should be prepared to bless sexually active same-sex relationships and there is no way of combining this with the maintenance of the Church’s traditional rule any more than if the Church were to bless extra-marital heterosexual sexual relationships.

Thirdly, it is not possible to meet the genuine, as opposed to the perceived, ‘needs of gay couples’ by blessing sexually active same-sex relationships. As the BCP collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity reminds us, the primary need of people in such relationships (as of all other people) is to ‘so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.’  In other words, they need to live in this world in such a way as enter into God’s presence in the world to come.

The doctrine of the universal Church, in line with the teaching of the New Testament, teaches us that living in this way means seeking to live in accordance with God’s will. This in turn means seeking to observe the rule of sexual faithfulness within (heterosexual) marriage and sexual abstinence outside it.  Blessing same-sex sexual relationships will not help people to live in this way.

It will, of course, be argued that the rule for sexual conduct to which I have referred is unduly harsh, but we need to remember (a) it applies just as much to those attracted to the opposite sex as to those attracted to the same-sex, (b) marriage is an option for those with same-sex attraction as many successful examples show and (c) although the discipline God asks for may seem painful he imposes it for our good. As Hebrews 11:11 puts it ‘For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’

For these three reasons the idea of a third way will not work. The Church does have to make a choice between following the New Testament and sticking to its traditional doctrine or capitulating to the pressure from contemporary culture. Faced with this choice there is only one right way for the Church to go.