March 22, 2007
marriage alters course of Christianity
By Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell
The Rt. Rev. Michael Ingham, Anglican Bishop of New Westminster (Vancouver) made headlines around the world earlier this month when he told a conference, "Christianity as a religion stands in need of a better theology of sexuality, a better understanding of the complex role sexuality plays in our human nature and of the purposes of God in creating us as sexual beings."
"The forthrightness of Bishop Ingham's address on sexuality is without precedent in the Canadian Anglican church," wrote Michael Valpy in The Globe and Mail (March 8, 2007). "It not only puts him at odds with much of the Anglican Communion but with Roman Catholicism, most Protestant sects and the Orthodox Church."
Academic Otis Gaddis, writing for the Institute for Progressive Christianity, says that religious leaders like Bishop Ingham will become the norm, as a direct result of lessons learned from the "witness" of gay marriage.
In his 48-page paper, The Kingdom of God And the Witness of Gay Marriage: An Analysis (March 3, 2007), Otis says, "gay marriage, in partnership with straight marriage and celibacy, has a very significant role to play in revealing God's self to the world."
Something as simple as a same-sex couple publicly declaring their love for each other has the power to correct the spiritual course of Christianity. As we learned with our own very public wedding, Gaddis understands that the "positive affirmative articulation of the lives of oppressed peoples are central to assisting the wider community in recognizing the dignity of those oppressed peoples, especially when those articulations engage the oppressor's claims of social hierarchy on a symbolic plane."
Procreation, gender complementarity and interpretations of Scripture have long been the touch-stones in arguments our opponents have used against equal marriage for same-sex couples. The courts rejected these arguments in the Ontario breakthrough case, and the remaining cases before Canadian courts followed Ontario's lead. Politicians fell in line soon after, and now the focus is on theology.
Religious anti-gay arguments and "Scriptural interpretation have been effectively undermined and its scholarly legitimacy called into question," Gaddis writes in his paper.
So far, five countries have legalized marriage for same-sex couples, in addition to Massachusetts, and Israel recognizes foreign same-sex marriages. Sweden may be next, now that the Church of Sweden has endorsed a parliamentary committee recommendation that the government allow same-sex marriage. As equal marriage becomes more common, and consequently more accepted, it is changing Christianity, transforming beliefs and believers.
"Over time," writes Gaddis, "as this shift of the public's understanding of gay marriage is reinforced by legal protection, those who so strongly argued that gay marriage was against the weight of Scripture and Tradition will be forced to reassess their claims in order to maintain any form of social, philosophical or religious legitimacy. Eventually as the shift matures, they will have a strong incentive to explain how one can read both Scripture and Tradition consistent with gay rights. In order to maintain their claims of the absolute moral authority of Scripture (as they read it), fundamentalists will seek a reinterpretation of Scripture and Tradition that will demonstrate that accepting and honoring gay people was the clearer interpretation all along."
Sound far-fetched? Gaddis points to a precedent in his own country, the United States.
"After the secular state (on the strength of moral arguments forged in an evangelical Christian abolitionist discourse) fulfilled progressive religious abolitionist principles through the legal abolition of slavery, the moral bankruptcy of the proslavery position lay exposed. Thereafter, former advocates of the morality of owning slaves (the proslavery position) adopted what they had previously maligned as liberal abolitionist readings of the Bible so that they could claim that the Bible was still a place to find moral truth. (This process of reinterpretation did in fact take several decades but it was accomplished nonetheless.)"
So how will gay marriage impact theology? Gaddis says the example or "witness" of same-sex marriage will contribute to Christianity's acceptance of:
One of the most common arguments used against gay marriage is that it goes against the concept of gender complementarity: the belief that people's roles are determined by whether they have a penis or a vagina. The inclusion of same-sex couples in the sacrament of marriage however, demonstrates to any observer that the old rules don't apply.
"Gay marriage bears witness to the rhetorical promise of gender equality, which is the possibility of more fluid and dynamic gender roles for both sexes," Gaddis writes. "That promise is the possibility all people, male and female, acting as they wish to act, that is, acting more authentically according to their own personality, rather than acting out an externally imposed social script that denies the value of experiencing both sides of the service-leadership dyad in the context of an intimate partnership. In addition, when such a marriage endures, it stands as an empirical witness to the spiritual, emotional, rhetorical, and existential potential of gender equality."
In the future, Gaddis sees human relations being governed much less by external plumbing.
"Gay marriage posits that anything a man can do relationally, emotionally, and spiritually a woman can do and vice versa. As gay marriage, gains recognition as a possibility, people will engage the search for a mate by asking what kind of person fits them rather than what kind of person of the opposite gender fits them. When this day arrives, personality complementarity will have supplanted gender complementarity as the guiding framework for human relations," Gaddis predicts.
When we stop assigning roles based on gender, all kinds of possibilities emerge, from the ordination of women in churches that are now closed to women, to a better understanding of what men and women, homosexual and heterosexual, have in common.
"This understanding is significant because it teaches us to relate to each other according to our commonality. That commonality is that we are made in the image of God," whatever our sexual orientation, Gaddis writes. "Internalizing that fact helps us to perceive that perhaps God loves us precisely because God has shared something of God's self in God's creation of us ..."
"Currently, most of society (besides the Roman Catholic church and a very small minority of Protestants that believe procreation is the only decisive justification for sexually intimate relationships) understands that marriage is supposed to be a place where two adults can, in partnership, share in the personal fulfillment that results from that emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth, rather than simply maintain a utilitarian arrangement," writes Gaddis.
Marriage has long ceased being primarily about controlling property, procreation, and inheritance. Love is now key.
"One can perceive this shift if one considers how a marriage in our present culture can be perceived as a fraud. Usually, it is perceived as a fraud or as broken because the parties do not love each other but remain together for some other reason, such as: for the kids, for social conformity, for religious reasons, or for immigration or tax purposes. What is perceived as fraudulent can illuminate what is perceived as valid."
Authentic marriage has long been in place within the gay and lesbian community, even under persecution by church and state. This persistence, Gaddis argues, speaks to goods and goals of marriage that go beyond rights/obligations and procreation.
"The fact that long-term exclusive gay couplings were able to take root in environments that were overwhelmingly hostile to their existence stands as a witness to the power of marriage as a place of spiritual, emotional, and existential affirmation. The willingness to accept persecution for the sake of a partnership, which will not produce children and is not for financial support shows even more clearly that marriage is not for adults as parents or adults as breadwinners. Rather, marriage is for the adults, as independent individuals. It is for independent adults who are together by choice, a choice that speaks to their will to enact self-determination and seek existential development in the context of interpersonal intimacy. These kinds of choices, these kinds of marriages, are worth suffering to establish and protect ... Gay marriage implies people can and should marry each other for spiritual and existential ends."
Christians, Gaddis writes, can learn from the example of same-sex couples.
"By teaching us to view our personal relationships as places to find our authentic selves and to grow with others on a joint, loving, existential journey, gay marriage as a witness helps prepare humanity to enter the Community of God where the members of that Community are the epitome of authenticity and existential development."
While reproduction is not the purpose of marriage, children are of course raised by two mommies or two daddies (even two mommies and a daddy). Adoption plays a role in the creation of these families. This has a Christian resonance for Gaddis, in part because "an interplay of the metaphors of biological reproduction and adoption are used in Scripture to describe the process of our redemption. This is significant because it indicates that the manner though which heterosexual couples and gay couples add or integrate members into their families both have theological resonance."
There is more than one God-given way to make a family. Gaddis points to the manner in which God gathers his faithful, and sees a parallel in same-sex parenting.
"... gay couples, which by nature tend toward adoption as the means of adding members to their families, and any other person (when they adopt), bear witness to the way God grafts us in and chooses us to be part of God's family, the family of the Trinity ... Those who choose to adopt bear witness to God's decision to lovingly choose to raise us up into the Divine life of the Trinity. They model how we enter into the experience of being loved by God as if we were God even if now we are vastly different than God, the way that corruptible Flesh is different than incorruptible Spirit."
Gaddis believes Christian heterosexuals can learn a thing or two about sexuality from same-sex couples.
"Gay marriage proclaims the possibility that sexual union can be spiritually procreative, perhaps especially when it is not in the service of biological reproduction. Indeed, as marriage, especially Christian marriage, is first and foremost a spiritual and existential quest, one would expect the primary creative overflow to be spiritual rather than biological."
The sex-negative views fostered by extremist Christians inhibits spiritual development, Gaddis argues. Heterosexuals can learn from the non-procreative aspects of Homo-sex. The Bishop of Rome is in serious need of queer eye for the church guy.
"Ironically," Gaddis writes, "it is an unmarried and celibate Roman Catholic clergy that is now the most hostile social institution to understanding the supremacy of seeking to procreate on a spiritual plane. Because Roman Catholicism maintains that all sexual relationships must have the possibility of leading to biological reproduction, it stands as a stumbling block to heterosexual people realizing that the power of sexual union, and the intimacy and mysticism that can accompany it, may exist to provide an overflow of joy for the couple to draw on, as partners, in begetting spiritual children. "
"This last witness of gay marriage, that is, the witness of egalitarian marriage in interpreting the mystery of Christ and the Church is perhaps gay marriage's greatest contribution to the Christian theological system," Gaddis writes. "By asking how our current language around marriage can bear and support the witness of gay marriage, we find that this language and symbolism has been enriched. In so much as this metaphor was an interpretation of Scripture, perceiving the witness of gay marriage has improved our reading of the Word as well so that we more clearly perceive that God desires a relationship with us where we are raised to a life of mystical communion in social equality with God in the life of the Trinity. It is a signpost that more clearly describes to us how God loves us as God loves God."
Gaddis believes that theology will arrive at a better understanding of the role sexuality plays in God's plan. Leaders like Bishop Ingham have already begun that journey in communion with other religious leaders around the world.
"Gay marriage, straight marriage and celibacy together are a three-legged stool on which human sexuality rests in its fullness as a reflection of God's beauty, wonder, passion and grace," Gaddis concludes. "Together they present and maintain a balanced picture of what we are capable of creating, sharing and receiving through our sexuality. Without one of these expressions, the others are incomplete."
Read The Kingdom of God And the Witness of Gay Marriage: An Analysis (March 3, 2007), by Otis Gaddis, published online by The Institute for Progressive Christianity