15 February 2013

On gay marriage in the Church

Recently in a discussion over on Facebook, the topic of gay marriage within the Church came up. The thing is, on the one hand I'm convinced that gays should not only be welcomed into the Church, but should not be barred from receiving Holy Orders or serving in offices of the Church. But on the other hand, I also believe quite strongly in marriage (in spite of the breakdown of my own) and that a "gay marriage" within the Church is not, at least on the face of it, possible. I'd like to explain why and sum up my arguments in the other discussion.

The major complaint I have with those arguing for sacramental gay marriage is that they inevitably reduce marriage to be merely the celebration of the love between two people. That love is of course a wonderful thing and should be celebrated, whether the partners are male or female (or transgender, while we're on the subject), but to make something be truly "marriage", it has to be about more than that.

To try and differentiate, I'll talk about "matrimony" and use that term to refer to the Church's sacrament of marriage. Note that this has little to nothing to do with civil weddings and how the state chooses to view such partnerships – this discussion is strictly about Holy Matrimony as the Church defines and celebrates it.

It's self-evident that matrimony involves love between two people, but to reduce it to just those two people makes it stunted. Matrimony also means providing a foundation for something else, producing children. (Edit: As someone else pointed out, "matrimony" comes from "mater"/"mother" + "monium"/"the state of", i.e. "the state of motherhood/parenthood".) Some would of course quickly argue that I'm trying to make marriage be only about making kids, but that's simply wrong – holy matrimony offers a healthy and blessed foundation for reproduction, but that doesn't mean that the newlyweds absolutely must take that offer. Some may simply decide not to have kids, some may not be able to, but that doesn't change the basic assumption that one integral aspect of matrimony is indeed providing a basis on which we produce the next generation and pass on our love to them.

I don't marry someone because I want to have kids, I marry that person because I love that person. That love in turn produces the wish to create children as an expression of that love, not just to the betrothed, but to their children, to God, and to the wider community of the Church – and above all to create new life. By marrying and having children, we too become creators of life like God, a form of theosis if there ever was one. If matrimony is reduced to just those two people, then all those other forms of love are ignored, and it is stripped down to something much more mundane.

None of this means, however, that gays can't have a sacramental wedding in the Church. I mean in no way to degrade or denigrate gay partnerships. The blessing of a same-sex partnership in the Church is just as sacramental as any other liturgical action of the Church: Anything the Church does in corporate, assembled, ceremonial fashion is a sacrament, so long as it does not contradict Scripture and Tradition.

Of course, you may be thinking of the Seven Sacraments – baptism, Communion, confirmation, penance, matrimony, Holy Orders, unction of the sick – and wondering how I can claim gay partnerships are on that list. I don't claim that at all. What I do claim is that that list is not exhaustive. Any sacramental rite the Church performs is a sacrament, and that list is meant to mean a minimum of what the Church must do, not a maximum. So that list can be expanded by any local church, with the sole limitation that it can't contradict Scripture and Tradition, while also not requiring any other local church to accept that rite. So some local churches may choose to bless same-sex partnerships, some may not, and it is best left to them to decide, rather than try to redefine one of those seven sacraments to suit one's own personal tastes and wishes.

Some people are called to receive Holy Orders and be priests, some are called to matrimony, some are called to both, some to neither. There is no right to receive sacraments, only a calling. Perhaps gays are simply not called to matrimony under this definition, but they are called to express their sacred love in other ways. Why not celebrate that for what it is, as yet another expression of love, rather than try to bend and twist existing millennia-old sacraments to suit one's own preconceptions?

Thus it is of great importance to clearly define what matrimony is, while not degrading or ignoring one important aspect of it. In the process, we have to orient ourselves on the wider Body of Christ – that is, with the wider ecumenical community and with Scripture and Tradition. Otherwise, we cut ourselves off from that wider Body of Christ. On the one hand, one can certainly understand the blessing of same-sex partnerships to be a sacramental rite, not least because there are indeed some precursors in Tradition (even liturgies!), but one cannot redefine one of the basic Sacraments of the Church without also making those same sacraments – and with them the Church – completely arbitrary. Holy Matrimony is one thing, sacramental blessings of partnerships another, but please, let's not confuse the two.

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