The Washington Post’s On Faith weblog recently published “A Christian Case for Same-Sex Marriage,” a column by Bishop John Chane of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. The occasion for the piece is a debate about a law that would legalize same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia. But Bishop Chane’s main goal, as he tells us, is to “offer a short history of changing Christian understandings of the institution of marriage” that will counter traditional Christian arguments against same-sex partnerships.
Journalists, he worries, think that traditionalists speak for the church and for the Christian tradition. They speak for neither, according to the bishop. Given the high profile of the Post, and Bishop Chane’s standing as a bishop of a prominent (if recently beleaguered) Christian body, one should probably take his remarks seriously. Alas, as a short history his remarks cannot be taken seriously at all, but amount to a tissue of popular myths, used to promote a tired and unfounded historical perspective whose application now has a track record of political intolerance.
Bishop Chane first argues that traditionalists are inconsistent — maybe even hypocritical? — because Jesus was against divorce and traditionalists are not “demanding that the city council make divorce illegal.” Of course, Jesus did not proclaim all divorce wrong (cf. Matt. 19:9).More important, by begging his own question here — just whatis the status of divorce, then? — Bishop Chane undercuts his case: the state’s accommodation of divorce has indeed encouraged and even created turmoil in social relations. If anything the failures of church and wider culture in this area are actually a good argument for restraint on further social confusion.
Second, Bishop Chane says that traditionalists are inconsistent in their defense of the centrality of heterosexual marriage because, after all, Paul thought marriage inferior to the celibate life. But, of course, the apostle Paul’s teaching does not claim that marriage is an inferior state, but rather that it is often an impractical one in comparison with celibacy. Bishop Chane’s disingenuous assumption that traditionalists ought to apply Paul’s teaching to all of human life was certainly not shared by other writers in the New Testament (or by Jesus), and such an attitude made only partial inroads into the Church’s practical life some centuries later. Most Christians, including Christian priests even in the Middle Ages, understood Paul’s teaching within a larger theological reading of the Scriptures that included a created sexual difference, the blessing of procreation, and the social responsibilities of church and state to nurture families. Within this reading, celibacy is a great gift, and an evangelical vocation for some, and it remains so.
Third, Bishop Chane claims that “the church did not bless marriages until the third century, or define marriage as a sacrament until 1215.”While technically accurate in a way, the statement is wholly misleading: the “sacramental” nature of marriage, in a large sense, was already defined theologically (though not canonically) in the early 5th century by none other than Augustine, building on longstanding traditions, and the Church was deeply engaged in the formation, blessing, and ordering of married life long before this, regardless of whether standard liturgies had been formulated and enforced. The canonical standing of marriage is a red herring.
Fourth, Bishop Chane accuses traditional Christian marriage in the past of being bound to a patriarchal culture, one that defined women and children as a man’s possessions to be used and exploited. It was an understanding of marriage, he writes, that placed no value on mutual love, but solely on procreation. Only in the 19th and 20th centuries did Christians discover the affectionate and spiritual dimensions of marriage.
Bishop Chane’s odd denigration of the material and economic world as theologically insignificant here is astonishing, as is his whole-cloth reduction of family life before recent Western modernity to patriarchally controlled property. Bishop Chane’s claim is in fact historically false on a technical basis, given the range of economic and legal orderings of property within the Middle Ages (many of which placed legal possession in the hands of women), especially among the vast majority of the population living in agrarian contexts. It is also supremely ignorant of the actual dynamics of family life in such contexts of poverty, where common and mutual support is actually presupposed, necessary, and relied upon. Social historians like Martine Segalan have provided sophisticated analyses that have uncovered the differentiated egalitarian and mutual support among married couples that underlay rural existence in Europe over the centuries. The place of procreation in such contexts was indeed central, but for that reason hardly disposable with today’s new (and limited) economic conditions.
The falling away of procreative marriage as an interpretive standard is actually very recent in the West and has taken place mainly in contexts not simply of economic security but of economic luxury. And this last has acted, it seems, as a set of blinders placed upon the eyes of many against both historical and contemporary global realities, where the profound struggles for the fruitful existence of family and children has been marginalized among the values of the privileged.
In any case, most historians have for some time normally placed the “invention” of marital affection as a primary value in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, and credited Anglican Puritans with promoting this new notion. More than this, however, it is clear that mutual affection and comfort were already well understood and widely lifted up in the Middle Ages and before, as any reading about lived marriages over these centuries makes clear.
Bishop Chane’s logic, in making all his (largely unfounded) points, is that “our evolving understanding of what marriage is leads, of necessity, to a re-examination of who it is for.” That is, we now believe marriage is about mutual love, but we didn’t before; we now believe it has spiritual, not just economic, potential, but we didn’t before; and therefore, if we can change in this direction, we can apply these insights to same-sex partnerships. Bishop Chane’s rhetoric of “continual change” masks his argument’s many weaknesses: the purported changes never really took place as described, and never moved logically or closely in the direction of same-sex marriage. His argument and conclusion are false.
There have been changes, to be sure, in attitudes toward marriage and sexual expression over the centuries within the Church. But these have almost always taken place within much broader and deeper continuities: God’s creative purpose in procreative life among human families; the sacramental — that is divinely permanent and expressive — character of human marriage between men and women; the virtues and spiritual gifts embedded in the material struggle of procreative families; the symbolic efficacy of such struggle and attendant gifts in being joined to the work and image of Christ Jesus in his final work of reconciliation.