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.