At its General Convention this summer, The Episcopal Church (TEC) will consider a resolution to amend the church’s canons to allow same-sex couples to marry. The denomination’s official Task Force on the Study of Marriage has proposed replacing language in its canons drawn from the famed “Dearly beloved” opening exhortation of the marriage service in The Book of Common Prayer, which asserts that “the union of husband and wife” is intended, when it is God’s will, “for the procreation of children.” By excising the requirement that Christian marriage be a “a lifelong union between a man and a woman,” along with the Augustinian tradition’s second good of marriage, offspring, from the list of “purposes for which it was instituted by God,” marriage would be defined as open to same-sex couples whose sexual unions are not biologically fruitful.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court is at present considering whether the constitution requires that same-sex couples be allowed to marry in civil law, the Court is not obligated to take into consideration the anthropology of Genesis 1-2 as it is received by the New Testament. But any church worthy of the name is indeed obligated to do so. We believe that TEC’s task force has failed to do justice to this necessary task, their proposed canonical revisions being a sweeping and unjustified redefinition of the Christian doctrine of marriage at odds with received biblical teaching. Such a redefinition would obscure the nature of marriage as a mysterious icon of the union between “Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:32), present in creation itself.
As such, we contend that the proposal of the TEC task force should be rejected. The rationale for its work, laid out in an extensive accompanying report, is marred by serious historical, methodological, and theological flaws. If acted upon, the proposals will present new problems not only for our partners in the Anglican Communion and in other churches, but also for moderate and conservative Episcopalians committed to preserving the traditional teaching of The Book of Common Prayer, either by itself or alongside a rite of blessings for same-sex unions.
Why is this issue such a watershed? Precisely because marriage is a divine reality before it is a human reality, a created social form that bears witness to the covenanted union between Christ and the Church. When we speak of marriage, we speak of the nuptial “mystery” of “Christ and the Church.” And, the tradition has affirmed, the two natural goods of marriage—fides and proles, faithful union and fruitful procreation—are at the same time also sacramentum, an embodied sign of the lasting union between Christ and his Church.
This longstanding tradition runs through St. Augustine of Hippo, whose treatment of sexual ethics is paradigmatic as (to quote Michael Banner) “an envisioning of the world in the light of what is the case in Jesus Christ,” guided by our two-testament Holy Scriptures. Augustine came to his threefold account of the goods of marriage by way of strenuous wrestling with the first three chapters of Genesis, the affirmation by Jesus of marriage’s created goodness in Matthew 19, and the claim of Ephesians 5 that marriage is a figure of Christ and the Church. The Augustinian insight that fides and proles are at the same time sacramentum proves itself, in Ephraim Radner’s words,“remarkably synthetic and coherent of Scriptural and ecclesial realities over the centuries,” enabling us to read Genesis, Matthew, and Ephesians on marriage as a coherent whole within our two-testament Scriptures.
How does the Augustinian tradition do this? Robert Song in his recent book Covenant and Calling points us first to Genesis 1-2, in which the creation of man and woman in God’s image is best understood as “related closely to God’s blessing and God’s command to be fruitful, to fill the earth and subdue it.” To be created male and female is to be empowered to be fruitful and multiply, and so to fill the earth and have dominion over it as God’s image-bearers or vice-regents in the world. Marriage is thus a creation good, given along with human nature and God’s creative calling for us. The Augustinian tradition’s first two goods, fides and proles, arise from theological exegesis of biblical texts that stand as foundational for Christian anthropology. And by laying its foundations in Genesis, the Augustinian marriage tradition represents a considered turn away from gnostic temptations to locate the good of marriage in someplace other than the fruitful one-flesh union of male and female in this finite world of bodies and time.
How are fides and proles tied together with the third good, sacramentum? Recall the puzzling saying of Jesus: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore … being children of the resurrection” (Luke 20:34-36). In the face of death, God’s gift of life must be passed along from generation to generation. This is the heart of what marriage is for, and if there is no more death, marriage’s procreative rationale becomes moot. But as long as we live in this finite world of bodies and time, as Radner points out, marriage is like a little red flag that we wave of faithful love and continuing life in the face of suffering, sin’s sharp divisions, and death. In marriage, particularly in the pain of childbirth and the toil of childrearing and supporting a family, we give ourselves away in faithful, covenant love for the sake of new life. In this divinely created pathway we are following also in the way of Jesus Christ, the one who suffered in love in this fallen and finite world for the sake of new life, the seed that died and bore much fruit (John 12:24). Fides and proles are in this way sacramental, signifying the creative “self-giving love that is God’s” by a suffering procreative love that “creates new bodies and new bodies again” in the face of struggle and death.
This traditional Augustinian vision assumes that the world in which we live is Scripture’s world, a sacramental universe that bears the marks of Christ, even if it is not, for the most part, the world that modern Western people see. For some time now there has been a veritable cottage industry of scholarship dedicated to tracing out the genealogy of modernity as a process of theological reduction: nominalism, whereby a word like “marriage” is merely a name we give to a constructed human activity rather than a created social form given by God; voluntarism, whereby right and wrong are internal to the human will rather than tied to an objective created moral order; social contractarian individualism, whereby politics concerns free individuals contracting with one another for maximum benefit, rather than the common good of the polis under God.
It is clear to us, though we expect not clear to its authors, that TEC’s task force report is a deeply modern document in these and other senses. The very idea that marriage is a social form with ends (or purposes, teloi) given by God is not grasped at all, as the task force tells us that such ends run afoul of Kant’s categorical imperative never to treat persons as means rather than ends. By this argument, we are told that the marriage vows are what really count, as they represent the moral “commitment” that the two make to one another, and that the “Dearly beloved” exhortation in which the ends of marriage are described is extraneous to this deeper reality. Marriage is simply not envisioned as a created form in which we participate in a Christ-figured reality. This may be seen as well in the report’s assertion that pastoral and moral theology can stand aside from doctrine, as if the Church’s beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth can be cordoned off from her communal Christ-shaped witness.
In fact, the Christian tradition’s understanding of marriage is part of a deeply biblical conception of human nature as a reality created in and destined for Christ, borne out of long wrestling with the whole of canonical Scripture. Alasdair MacIntyre suggested in After Virtue that the modern world is full of odd surviving bits and pieces of various traditions that were at one time understood from within as coherent intelligible wholes, but which are now viewed with incomprehension. We believe that for the authors of the task force, as for many today in the modern affluent West, marriage has become in large part just such an unintelligible fragment. The Augustinian tradition represents a rich proposal for seeing marriage whole again, as a theological construal of the whole of Scripture that re-centers marriage in Christ within the created world; but it is a tradition in danger of being squandered in our church.
We cannot too strongly urge the need for more and better work in the field of the Christian theology of marriage, in service of the resolution of differences, not simply the achievement of short-term political victories. We are worried that the upcoming TEC General Convention will be tempted to substitute a fulsome tradition for a watered-down replacement in its hurry to solemnize gay marriage.
If TEC is to have a second task force, let it be one that is made up of members of more varied persuasion. If it is to reformulate its theology of marriage, let the alternative be richer, more grounded in Scripture, tradition, and reason, not less so. As the task force report put it: “The Church does not have the excuse of . . . fatigue or lack of energy, and it is incumbent upon it to do the best it can in its careful consideration of the theology of marriage.” But, finally, if TEC will move ahead to solemnize same-sex marriages without further consultation or consideration, indeed, without a clear rationale, let it consider what sort of future it is offering to traditionalists.
The construction of space for disagreement is especially necessary in a time of discernment such as we are undoubtedly in. As Augustine noted regarding moments of division in the Church’s public teaching, we face an opportunity as much as a crisis: an opportunity for drawing on the deep wells of Scripture, for the renewal of the Church’s teaching on marriage and of our common culture. Perhaps true prophets are now in our midst, pressing the Church to revise its historic doctrine and discipline as intrinsically unjust. But it has often been the case, since the time of ancient Israel, that true prophets can be distinguished from false only in retrospect. And prophets have called God’s people back to the tradition, just as often as they have announced new things. There must be some way forward that allows the voices of the prophets to be heard and discerned in our common life in charity and peace.
John Bauerschmidt is Bishop of Tennessee (Episcopal). Jordan Hylden is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School, and a 2014 Episcopal Church Foundation Fellow. Zachary Guiliano is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Cambridge and a Gates Cambridge Scholar (2012–2015). Wesley Hill is assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania.
This essay will be published in The Living Church (June 14, 2015). A longer version was published by The Anglican Theological Review. Further companion material can be found as part of Fully Alive: Love, Marriage, and the Christian Body, available online at http://www.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.