Monday, 4 February 2013

Conjugal, union and teleology: the ResPublica report on SSM

As the UK Parliament prepares to vote on Tuesday on same-sex marriage legislation, the Red Tory think-tank ResPublica has published a report by Phillip Blond and Roger Scruton proposing an alternative approach to marriage and same-sex relationships - Marriage: Union for the future or contract for the present.  (The ABC Religion & Ethics site also carries a summary by Blond and Scruton.) 

At one level, of course, this is a heated political debate and the ResPublica report is obviously timed to address this debate.  There is, however, another aspect to the report.  Both Blond and Scruton are serious Anglicans.  Blond - ResPublica's director - is a theologian.  He had an essay in the original Radical Orthodoxy book and his Post-Secular Philosophy is generally regarded as part of the Radical Orthodoxy 'canon'.  Well-known philosopher Scruton has published powerful critiques of the Enlightenment and modernity.  His recent Our Church is an apologia for Anglicanism from the perspective of a cultural toryism.

There is, then, good reason for other Anglicans seriously attending to this contribution to the debate in the public square.  The report contrasts "conjugal marriage" with the "partnership model".  The contrast is - as the report's title suggests - between a future-oriented covenant and a partnership whose focus is on present fulfilment of the partners:

We argue in this paper that what primarily threatens traditional marriage is simply another view of the meaning and role of marriage. The shifting conception of marriage from a conjugal to a ‘partnership’ model is what most endangers it.

Whereas conjugal marriage connects the bond between men and women to a future beyond themselves, both in respect of children and the needs of wider society, the partnership model is primarily about the people themselves. The conjugal and the partnership model represent two competing ideas of marriage. The first, the traditional and conjugal, extends beyond the individuals who marry to the children they hope to create and the society they wish to shape. The second is more contractual and restricted to the two individuals involved. We believe that the latter view represents a much weaker and narrower understanding of marriage.

Marriage is exclusively heterosexual because it concerns the union of the different sexes and, unlike same sex relationships, that union can and often does produce children. Conjugal marriage is first and foremost about the creation and care of children. It is about creating a public institution that celebrates and secures the right environment for the education and upbringing of children.

We might recognise such a "conjugal" understanding of marriage as sacramental.  One obvious critique of the report on this point is that the conjugal/sacramental understanding has not been - for some considerable time - the State's understanding of marriage.  Blond and Scruton, however, appear to accept this viewpoint:

When the Government usurped the rite of matrimony, and reshaped what had once been holy law, it was inevitable that it should loosen the marital tie. For the Government does not represent the Eternal, nor does it have so much regard for future generations that it can disregard the whims of the merely living ...

As a result marriage has ceased to be a rite of passage into another and higher life, and become a bureaucratic stamp, with which to endorse our temporary choices.

Why, then, seek to maintain an aspect of conjugal marriage as a sacrament - sexual difference - in a secular state?  What Blond and Scruton seem to suggest is that we should do so because of the cultural benefits which have flowed from this understanding:

We may not identify with that great current of ideas and emotions now. But we are downstream from its benefits. The recognition of women as the equals of men, the disgust that we feel when women are treated as chattels, the desire that women move in our society face to face with men, neither veiled nor concealed but competing on equal terms and entitled to equal respect – all this, it seems to us, is the gift of a history in which monogamous marriage has been the institution that defined what the sexes are for each other.

It is surely a matter of prudent debate for the Church as to whether or not seeking to maintain in a law the outline of a sacramental view of marriage is a significant matter.  As Blond and Scruton acknowledge, "we may not identify with that great current of ideas and emotions now".  What the report does achieve, however, is to provide an excellent articulation of how the sacramental understanding of marriage is oriented to the common good.  It could, therefore, contribute to the Church's apologia for sacramental marriage in the midst of the secular society.

It is in their key recommendation to the State that we might accuse Blond and Scruton of colluding with the secular society's 'partnership' rather than sacramental view of marriage: "Firstly, to the State - leave marriage as it currently is".  Can the Church really affirm such a position?  In light of the secular society's de-sacramentalised understanding of marriage, can the Church's proclamation in the public square be "leave marriage as it currently is"?

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the report's stance against SSM is its exploration of diversity.  SSM denies diversity by failing to respect the nature of same-sex partnerships:

We have profound reservations about same sex marriage not just because of the harm it does to a vital heterosexual institution but also because we reject the implication that in order to be equal and respected homosexuals should conform to heterosexual norms and be in effect the same as heterosexuals. In this sense we believe same sex marriage to be homophobic – it demands recognition for gay relationships but at the price of submitting those relationships to heterosexual definition.

This then leads to a proposal in the report which will in all likelihood influence current Anglican theological reflection on how the Church should respond to same-sex partnerships:

To the Churches, we recommend that they recognise that the demand for same sex marriage comes from a serious desire for permanent loving homosexual relationships to be recognised and embraced by society ... The demand for secular marriage equality is in part an appeal for religious acceptance, which the Government’s proposals cannot offer. We believe the Churches should consider offering not civil partnerships but civil unions to same sex couples a celebration and a status that recognises a transition from partnership into permanence.

The proposal is not new - significantly, John Milbank has previously argued for it.  What is quite striking about this proposal, however, is that it addresses a challenge to the Church in the context of the current SSM political debate:

We urge the Church to explore the teleology of same sex relationships. If there ever is to be proper Christian care of homosexual people, it must craft a good life for them also – so as to make for them a place of permanent stability and reciprocal love and genuine recognition.

This request for the Church "to explore the teleology of same sex relationships" implicitly states that the Church has not yet adequately done so.  It also points us in the direction of how the Church might "craft a good life" for those gay and lesbian Christians who do not discern a vocation to celibacy. 

That two Anglican intellectuals, professionally engaged in the public square, have published a thoughtful, challenging and at times provocative contribution to the SSM debate is to be welcomed.  The contrast they establish between 'conjugal marriage' and 'partnership' can contribute significantly to the Church's public reflection and proclamation.  The challenge to the Church to reflect on and more convincingly articulate "the teleology of same sex relationships" needs to be taken up.  The SSM debate has revealed something of the poverty of the contemporary Church's understanding of both the sacramentality of marriage and the nature of discipleship for gay and lesbian Christians.  This report points us to fuller and deeper responses to both.


Tobias Haller said...

I wish I'd read this earlier today, as it represents precisely the kind of fuzzy thinking that I was addressing. Marriage is not based on people being a means to an end, but as finding an end in themselves. This is a basic ethical principle: people are to be loved, not used. That marriage can have good results for the future is well and good, but that is not the essence of marriage. Genesis 2 is about the companionship of the couple, as a solution to unwanted solitude; it is not about procreation.

The telos of marriage is in the couple itself: this is what "conjugal" means. Trying to give it a novel meaning is not particularly helpful, but it does reveal the problem with a philosophical stance.

If you like to see it, I've said more at my blog.

BC said...

Fr. Tobias, many thanks indeed for your comment. I think I personally would perhaps hesitate before accusing Blond and Scruton - two accomplished thinkers - of being "kind of fuzzy" in their thinking. Blond and Scruton are seeking to summarise a commonly accepted understanding of the Christian tradition's view of marriage.

I say this not to foreclose any discussion of development, but merely to recognise that they are seeking to summarise the tradition as it has been understood.

I would perhaps have two initial questions about your comment:

1. To suggest that marriage "is not about procreation" surely fails to reflect the Christian tradition's understanding that being open to procreation is part (albeit only part) of the nature of marriage. In other words, Genesis 2 is to be read alongside Genesis 1. This has been reflected in Anglican liturgy. The CofI 2004 rite, for example, states: "It is intended that they may be blessed in the children they may have". Would a marriage liturgy without any reference to such openness to procreation not sit very uneasily beside this aspect of the Christian tradition?

3. The reference to Genesis 2 almost inevitably raises the issue of sexual complementarity in marriage. If it is to be a (the?) determining text in our understanding of marriage, surely we do have to recognise that gender - an essential and inescapable part of our existence as embodied beings bearing the divine image - is not an insignificant matter. This grammar is reflected, again, in Anglican liturgy: the CofI 2004 rite describes marriage as "a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh". Is it not the case that to have a marriage liturgy which does not embody this grammar would place it in a difficult relationship to Genesis 2?

I raise these questions not because I believe that the Church should be necessarily opposing equal civil marriage. (In this regard I am firmly with John Milbank.) And I am increasingly convinced that the proposal made by Scruton and Blond of blessing same-sex civil unions should be accepted by the Church. (I think it is fair to say that this is an increasingly common position in Anglicanism in the British Isles.)

What I am, however, unconvinced by is the contention that same-sex marriage can easily be reconciled to the Christian tradition's understanding of the relationship between marriage, procreation and the complementarity of the genders.

Tobias Haller said...

Thank you, BC. I'm afraid I have to stand by my "fuzzy" assessment as the thesis presented does not in fact cover the evidence. This teleological approach also leads into very unhelpful backwaters: what, for instance, does it say to the couple who are incapable of procreation? Further, it runs up against ethical issues involved in treating persons as means to ends rather than ends in themselves: as Buber would say, as It rather than Thou. The fuzziness, however, is largely philosophical: it has to do with the meaning of "essential" -- and something that is capable of being removed from the equation cannot be held as essential -- and no one denies that procreation is not a necessary part of marriage.

I've addressed the points your raised about procreation and complementarity at length in my book on the subject. Briefly, putting procreation at the center is not the Christian teaching. The Church has taught that procreation is a blessing, a good -- not an essential but a beneficial element. Making it central -- particularly as a telos -- displaces it from its proper place. As to liturgy, usually the references to procreation are in the preface or exhortation. It is not part of the vows themselves. The first marriage liturgy of the Episcopal Church lacked this feature, and only made passing reference to procreation in a closing optional prayer. (One thing envisioned was the lively possibility of women marrying after they had passed childbearing years.)

As to "complementarity" -- this is a novel notion that makes it's appearance in Christian thinking only in the mid 20th century. Union does not depend on complementarity in order to take place. Again, I've written extensively on this elsewhere. There is, in fact, no reference to complementarity in Genesis 2: the language is all about similarity: bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, which can be united because it is the same, not different.

Thanks for the opportunity to say this at greater (though abridged) length....

Peace be with you.

BC said...

Fr. Tobias, again thank you for your comment.

I think I was careful in my former comments to state that I did not believe that "putting procreation at the center" is what the Tradition teaches. Your contrast between understanding procreation as a "blessing" rather than "essential" is fair.

But perhaps we should recognise that procreation is a 'good'/'gift' whose relationship to marriage is intimate - so intimate, in fact, that the Tradition's reflection on marriage has almost always had a place for discussion of procreation. For English and Irish Anglicans - and, I would guess, the vast majority of Anglicans - our liturgies have always reflected this understanding of marriage being open to procreation.

I accept that a *theory* of complementarity of the genders is a mid-20th century development. The grammar, however, has been consistently present in the Christian tradition - for better and for worse.

If we take Genesis 2 as our controlling text (setting aside Genesis 1's reference to procreation), rather than the text being only about similarity, surely we are confronted with a picture of diversity-in-communion. There is both sameness and difference in Genesis 2: both "flesh of my flesh" and "woman"/"wife".

What I am trying to suggest here is that the Genesis 2 does point to gender having meaning and significance, rather than being regarded as an entirely artificial construct.

Your book - which I have sitting beside me and think is an important contribution to Anglican reflection on these matters - does admit that Genesis 2 has a "suggestion of partial complementarity". Yes, you do state that it is due to an "archaic world view", but I do wonder if other readings of Genesis 2 - which recognise complementarity as having a deep foundation in the text - should be easily disregarded.

In summary, I think it is difficult to regard the Tradition as not saying that these gifts - procreation and gender - have a relationship to sacramental marriage.

Tobias Haller said...

Thank you, BC, for your further comments.

First of all let me make a correction to my earlier note written in some haste. The first edition of the American BCP makes no reference to procreation in its marriage liturgy. Such reference first appears in the 1928 version in an optional prayer for the gift and heritage of children. It is the 1662 BCP that, while it makes reference to procreation in its exhortation, has a rubric specifying that the particular prayer for the blessing of procreation upon the couple is omitted when the woman is past childbearing years.

I did not by any means intend to suggest that procreation and gender are irrelevant to marriage. What I am suggesting is that the former is not essential to marriage, and it seems to me that the emphasis placed upon it as a telos in the work at hand is problematical on that ground: it is best seen as a blessing rather than a purpose. Even its "intent" is not required as those incapable of it cannot properly "intend" it, and yet are not denied marriage.

It is perhaps an example of philosophical slippage from "children are best conceived and raised within the context of their biologial parents' marriage" and "this is the reason marriage exists." I argue it is one of its uses -- but the evidence seems clear that it is the contract of the couple to a life together that forms the essence of marriage -- come what may, for good or ill, and that includes children. That, I hold, is the actual traditional understanding of marriage, which has been lost in the efforts to shore up heterosexual privilege.

But I'm not denying that gender has meaning and relevance. As I hoped to make clear in my more expensive work it is the nature of this relationship that is at issue, and I find the term "complementary" to be sadly wanting (!) for the reasons I laid out.

One of those reasons is that two entities can form a union even when they are not complementary. Since the authors appear to be willing to grant the term "union" in the civil context, even they appear to recognize the unitive of nature of same-sex marriage, though they want to reserve that term. Unless this is merely a political ploy, or sop to upgrade from "partnership," then it seems to me that it seriously undercuts their own argument about the necessity of complementarity for unity.

Thanks again for posting a link to this article, and for your willingness to converse about it.