Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Part II: Against Harmon's "Sex Without Form & Void"

The notion that the eschatological union of Christ and the church is normative for marriage is hardly a merely liberal reading of Paul; Edith Humphrey (who occupies the board of the ACI) starts off making the same point about the meaning of marriage near the opening her contribution to The Homosexuality Debate. Nor is it merely an oddity of Paul's theology. For example, recall the import of John 1, controlling our understanding of marriage with its bold assertion that we were created to be adopted by God (NRSV): 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. Marriage taken simply of itself has no ultimate meaning; any ultimate goodness it possesses it has only as a means. This should hardly come as a surprise; I take it to be common ground in our disagreements over same sex unions.

But then I have trouble making sense of Harmon here:
First, it [marriage] is a relationship intended for procreation (Gen. 1:26,27: “Be fruitful and multiply. . . . ”). Second, this union is planned for mutual joy and comfort (Gen. 2:25, where there is the shared openness and intimacy of being “both naked and unashamed”). Third, the new community is designed for pleasure (the “one flesh” of Gen. 2:24), the erotic love that is celebrated in the Song of Solomon. The language of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer reflects some of this perspective:
The union of husband and wife in heart, body and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord (p. 423).

You'll have to look hard to find the Pauline understanding of marriage's telos in either Harmon's words above, or--I am ashamed to say--in the words of the BCP '79. True, the BCP '79 goes on to offer an option of explicit reference to Paul's understanding of marriage's end in the Prayers and the Blessing:

Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful
and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement,
forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.

O God, you have so consecrated the covenant of marriage
that in it is represented the spiritual unity between Christand his Church....

Moreover, the key Ephesians passage can be read as part of the Ministry of the Word.

Note that while some type of unity is implied by reference to the shared intimacy of mutual joy and comfort, that unity need not be taken to imply any special relation to Christ, much less to one between Christ and the Church. Indeed, one may be left with the impression from Genesis 1:24-8 either that the unitive end of marriage constitutes a good of itself--which is clearly false from an orthodox Christian perspective--or, equally false, that the unitive end is not primary. A proper Christian canonical reading of Genesis should not leave gratuitous and misleading theological danglers like this, as if Genesis is properly read sundered.

The BCP does not make the procreative end of marriage primary or even necessary for a good marriage--hence the conditional wording "when it is God's will." Rather, the BCP seems to make the unitive end primary and necessary, and granting our reading of the Pauline and Johannine Scriptures, we should agree this is correct. In effect, the BCP '79 sets out common ground for debate between the right and the left on same sex unions. We should ask first and foremost whether they are consistent with the Scriptural unitive end of marriage.

If so, it is not correct to say as Harmon does that "marriage is a relationship intended for procreation" and leave it on equal ground with (an inchoate version) of the unitive end. For that would imply, given Harmon's subsequent quote from Stott, marriage apart from procreative intention is necessarily immoral and forbidden to Christians. Stott is quoted writing this:

Scripture envisages no other kind of marriage or sexual intercourse, for God provided no alternative. Christians should not therefore single out homosexual intercourse for special condemnation. The fact is that every sexual relationship or act which deviates from God’s intention is ipso facto displeasing to him and under his judgment.

Harmon's is not the traditional Anglican understanding of marriage. The BCP 1662 provides a blessing for the woman past child bearing, in which it is said:
O God, who hast consecrated the state of Matrimony to such an excellent mystery, that in it is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church,
an end also part of marriage in the BCP 1662 where the woman can bear children:

DEARLY beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church


First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name. Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body. Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.

Thus, the BCP 1662 does not envision the procreative end (referred to in the bold-faced passage above) as necessary to marriage, whereas every marriage must satisfy the unitive end, which is treated as sufficient without the procreative end. Even going back behind the BCP '79 to the BCP 1662 will not secure a theology implying the necessity of the procreative end for marriage. Starting with the texts of the New Covenant gives the proper theological context for explaining why this is so. Beginning with Genesis does not, and as we have seen, even misleads.


At 1:49 PM, Blogger Closed said...


Would I be remiss in asking if the unitive end is not firstly about sex but rather about self-donating/kenotic relating of which sex can (note not necessarily always so) be a sign? That it's a pattern of relating and a quality of relationship that is primary concern? This is the reason why C and I exchanged crucifixes rather than rings.

At 2:05 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

I think you are right if you mean kenosis can be a species of unitive relating. I'm not sure if there can be a non-kenotic unitive relating--interesting question.

We should leave room for unity achieved with, say, mutual ecstasy which implies a self-forgetting in the other. If you grant that is kenotic, we are on the way to seeing all unity here as kenotic, IMHO.

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Closed said...

Ekstasis or ecstasy plays a large part in perichoretic thinking in the East regarding the Trinity, and of kenosis, as well, which is not separable from perichoresis, but that same way of relating among creatures, which we enter into in Christ as members of the Body. In fact, I would say that this ecstasy is that form of relation, but due to sin, and our having formed ourselves inward, it is oft a sacrifice of the self, meaning ego, to relate thusly amongst one another. Marriage is a context in which to school our desire to that end and learn to relate ecstatically again.

I think reframing sexual joy in this way orients toward joy and widens kenosis considerably, while also not reducing it to sexual joy either.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger ruidh said...

I think it's crucial to examine the unstated assumption that the instruction to Adam and Eve "Go forth and multiply." is even operative today. The world was a very different place when, in the context of the story, A&E are asked to fill it. Today, we have largely filled the world and a blind insistance that we continue to multiply is irresponsible at best.

The NT completely changes the focus from propagation to adoption. God adopts us as children. We are told to care for widows and orphans. The emphasis here is completely different.

This is the context in which we need to examine whether non-procreative relationships should have a place today which they didn't in the distant past.

At 11:03 PM, Blogger Marshall Scott said...

Interesting, Scotist. I think the reflection on 1662 is particularly helpful, as some at Harmon's end of the spectrum had said that all this trouble really began with the acceptance of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (Either Harmon or Zahl or both). From that point of view the fact that the 1979 rite sees the unitive function as primary is not relevant. (Not my point of view, but, again, I think I've run across the sentiment.)

At 8:15 PM, Blogger Closed said...


Given that Humphrey takes Ephesians as the starting point, it might make sense to take a look at her perspective?

At 3:33 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


I agree with you that the order to procreate is conditional, and not necessary for a blessed union. Moreoever, it sounds right to say that the NT shifts emphasis over to adoption.

Nevertheless, I question whether the procreative imperative is negated or otherwise compromised because of overpopulation. Rather, it might well be overpopulation is primarily an effect of procreation in conditions of socioeconomic inequality, in which case the procreative imperative implies a certain course of social reform.

After all, in theory couples in a grouping could reproduce, and as a whole remain below the replacement rate.

At 3:40 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

It seems BCP 1979 and GC2003 are well within the Anglican tradition, not in the sense of maintaining strict equivalence but in that they work out implications of principles in the first prayer books.

The unitive end is already primary in 1662 and before--the tolerance of GC2003 for blessing SSUs rests on that primacy. Objectors from the right would have to step outside the Anglican tradition to elevate the procreative end to equality or superiority with respect to the unitive end. It seems obvious--the whole back to 1662 maneuver is a fudge.


Post a Comment

<< Home