Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Blessing for Study Only: The Conclusion

Let me start this summary post by saying that I have doubts that this rite will be approved as such. Its existence is something of an act of appeasement, but the only ones who are likely to satisfied by such a rite are "moderates" who are uncomfortable with homosexual marriages but who acknowledge that the church needs to do something towards homosexual families (for in the end, isn't that where is is all headed?). Those moderates are going to have trouble as more and more state governments find themselves conducting homosexual weddings; the pressure of social justice will trump theology, and the homosexual activists will put them on the spot and make their position politically untenable. The heteronormative side (and for all it's a faux-clinical sociologism, it's an accurate enough nutshell description that I'm going stick with it here) isn't going to find these blessings even slightly acceptable, and of course the homosexual activists want marriage, period, except for a small contingent who want to argue that there is something special about same-sex relationships that frees them from the commitments of marriage. This last group, I think, cannot prevail either; the argument about homosexuality that can win has to argue for exact equivalence.

And that's where we start running into trouble in this rite. There has been a running theme in these posts that this liturgy is trying to both be and not be a marriage. I see four different inputs, in fact:
  • The baptismal rite, which has contributed mostly structure

  • Enriching Our Worship, which is the source of a lot of dubiously orthodox variation in the common elements of the rite

  • The marriage rite, which contributes the core elements and language

  • Novel lessons and rewrites which attempt to make this not the marriage rite
I personally don't see the reason for taking on the baptismal rite structure, but though it is a very prominent change it has the least impact to the significance of the rite. The EoW revisionism is utterly unacceptable to me, but it's potentially an independent issue: the rite could be made to use orthodox language (though I suspect that the anti-dominical crowd is entirely subsumed within the supporters of same-unions/marriages, and that the two issues are locked together through common participation in a modernist theological worldview; but they could be addressed as separate issues.) It is the mixture of novel and marital material that presents the central issue.

The rite is obviously trying very hard to NOT be a marriage rite, and anything that can be explicitly linked to marriage is conspicuous in its exclusion. Conversely, for all the appeal to baptism, and for all that the rite is reordered like baptism, marriage is plainly the starting point. As I said at the beginning, nearly every element of the marriage rite appears. OK, so what is this rite actually doing? Well, that's a very good question. Our theology admits that marriages have a reality outside of what we do in church, as reflected in the considerable difference between the celebration of a marriage (which is to say, a wedding as something done in church) and the blessing of an existing civil marriage. I have to presume that, on some level, this same-sex blessing rite reflects the same connection to a civil unions, which is why there's that rubric allowing the bishop to change the wording of the pronouncement so as to reflect the laws of the state. So what's going with those unions? Well, from a legal POV they are supposed to force everyone to recognize the couple as a family; and I would assume that they are intended to have the social/moral effect of authorizing sexual relations (and by extension, prohibiting other relations).

Or to put it more baldly, they are weddings-in-everything-but-the-name. So here's Sarah Breuer's explanation of the blessing she had after she was married in Canada:
That was the clearest way we could think of to satisfy our bishop's direction that it be very clear that the service in our parish was NOT the performance of a marriage or blessing of a marriage contract.

But it's quite difficult, if same-sex couples may be blessed at all, to figure out what, if anything, ought to be radically different in the liturgy. One priest friend objected that the vows we used were too close to those of marriage. When I asked her what we should promise to do differently -- eliminate a commitment to fidelity? say we can call the whole thing off if the "richer/poorer" or "sickness/health" thing makes it difficult? -- she couldn't think of what to change.
Breuer took a different liturgical starting point, but in the end that question of what to promise differently hangs over the the matter, and in the end, the answer given seems to be, "we will always say 'covenant' instead of vows, and never say 'marry', 'husband', or 'wife'." And ontologically, well, she had a same-sex marriage: the government in Canada said so, and I don't think that blessing it as if it were something else changes that; nor do I think that she had any intention of reinterpreting her state of connubiality to fit what her bishop would or would not allow.

And that's where I expect this to be headed: I think this is going to be set aside in favor of approving same-sex marriages, and that therefore this material is going to be used to "update" the marital rite instead.

And right away, in the readings, a problem appears: most of the OT lessons are fighting against this. Three of the readings specifically establish the ancient understanding based on the complimentarity of the sexes. Well, if same-sex marriage is the same thing, then those readings don't really tell us anything about marriage, it appears. So what does? Well, that is a very good question. Back in the discussion of the readings I noted that the readings abandoned any material about marriage per se in favor of readings about the Christian life in general or (in the case of the OT readings) a couple of passages extremely problematic even in the context of homosexual relationships. Those latter surely do not inform heterosexual marriages, and if we have to exclude the most traditional passages as opposing homosexuality, then we have virtually nothing left except for one passage from the Song of Songs, which may be Solomon's, but which is devoted to romance, not the life of the household.

And that's the core of the theological difficulty. Back at the beginning, I referred to one position as the "heteronormative side", which is to say, those who hold to the ancient pattern of marriages between men and women as a norm, a moral rule. But beside the norm stands the normal. That, more than anything else is what drives everything about this issue: "treat us like normal people" is the homosexual cry. Well, OK: on some levels I don't think this is even vaguely arguable. The notion that two people need to have some sort of ceremony to put legal force behind the permission of one to visit the other in the hospital and otherwise see to their care is absurd on its face. But this has nothing to do with sex, and it has a great deal to do with the way hospitals are run. Invoking normality here is going to lead directly to the statistical normality of marriage as the union of a man and a woman into a household, a family, out of which children proceed. The fact that in general such marriages do not begin with children, and that they are expected to continue after said children are grown, or that the marriage may be infertile either through physical defect or age of the couple or contrivance: all of these are nonetheless edge conditions, through the edges be rather broad as these go. If homosexual marriages are "just like" the ordinary kind, they nonetheless fall into the edges as well, being infertile and uncommon. This doesn't imply that there is "really" something wrong with them, but rather that they don't have a claim to dictating the nature of the ordinary, male-and-female, child-bearing variety.

That's one of the two big risks here (the other being that the anti-dominionist heresies will gain entrance to the marriage rite). If you read what Wikipedia has to say about marriage, you will find that they (at the moment, at least) define it as "a social union or legal contract between people that creates kinship." Well, no, not really: that would be adoption. Why is the definition so, well, wimpy? Because (as you can see from the thirteen pages of archived discussion) in an attempt to cover everything they've basically taken out any character, because there is always some edge case somewhere which contradicts any definite character the state of matrimony is commonly said to have. The temptation is going to be to cut down what we now say about normal marriage so as to fit homosexuality into the same pattern. Marriage may thus be pried free of scripture because too much of what scripture says states that the normal pattern is a man and a woman. Trying to find marriage simply in agape leads to its dilution into all interpersonal relationships. Where does one find the requirements for chastity, fidelity, and permanence, for instance? The challenge of theological justification for homosexual marriage is to find it in theology which does not disrupt the teaching we already have about marriage between men and women. This rite, and its justification, doesn't provide a road map for that.

No comments: