Should straight people be allowed to get married – a sermon preached on 30 July 2017

The question that remains with me after all these years of debate about marriage has still not been resolved, even after this year’s General Synod.

I’ve read theological opinions about marriage. I’ve debated about marriage. I’ve gone on the radio to talk about marriage. I’ve spent my time wishin’, and hoping and praying that we would change our discipline on marriage.

And still I feel as though the big question remains unresolved. Unconsidered even.

The question is this…

Should, on the basis of the biblical evidence, heterosexuals be allowed to get married at all.

Should one man and one woman be allowed to stand before God in a holy place and pledge their troth to one another in the company of their friends.

Should the church pronounce a blessing upon such couples?

And I have to say that on the basis of reading the bible, it seems very far from certain that they should.

In these weeks as we go through the book of Genesis reading these glorious stories of humanity we find so much talk about marriage.

But, I fear, not all of it is good.

And today’s story is no exception.

Jacob offers to work 7 years labour for Laban in exchange for the younger daughter whom he clearly has eyes for.

Jacob whom we recently met pulling the wool over his brother Esau’s eyes then has a trick served on him by Laban who pulls the veil over the wrong daughter’s eyes and palms Jacob off with the elder daughter instead.

No bother, Jacob says, and here I think the story does tend towards the slightly unbelievable, I’ll take the pair and agrees to Rachel becoming his wife too in exchange for another seven years work.

Two wives for fourteen years hard labour.

All I’m saying is that I’ve been working for you as a congregation for 11 years and so far you’ve not even supplied me with one wife.

I must remember to put it on the Vestry agenda.

Those of you who have heard me preach on this text before will know that it is one of my fabourites. And Leah in particular is one of my favourite characters in the bible. Not because of her valour or her spirituality but because we know almost nothing about her except knowing something about her eyes.

Our translation describes her as having lovely eyes. Some compensation for not possessing the preferred delights of her sister maybe. But the translation is but that – a mere translation. The Hebrew word is soft.

Soft eyes. That’s what Leah has and you can translate it just as accurately by thinking of Leah having eyes that were made soft by weeping.

Perhaps her eyes were softened because she wasn’t the preferred one. Jacob clearly fancied her sister more than he fancied her.

That one word, capable of being translated two different ways – as meaning lovely or meaning tearful is a reminder that the bible as we hear it is an inherently ambiguous book. Don’t forget that the Hebrew texts we have come to us without all the vowels and the Greek texts we have come to us with no spaces, capital letters or definitive versions.

When we are asking what the bible tells us about marriage or anything else, the best we are going to get is a broad brush artwork.

Whilst we are on the topic of marriage, it is worth saying again that the Scottish Episcopal Church did something in relation to marriage which deserved worldwide headlines, not recently but in 2007. We didn’t get the headlines then but we did something that will resonate through the church forever because it recognises things about the very nature of God which we have come to behold and which are worth sharing with others.

In 2007 we agreed a marriage liturgy which presumed that the two people getting married were equals. There was no giving away of a bride by her father to a husband. There was no unequal set of promises. There was just a couple meeting as equals before the Lord and their friends.

We decided that heterosexual people could get married but we would treat them as equals for equals they are.

And funnily enough we ended up with a liturgy for doing so which is appropriate for our most recent decisions in this area too.

How very far we have come from the days of Laban and Jacob and Leah and Rachel.

The arrangements we heard in scripture this morning were clear. It was a same-sex agreement – the father dealing with the husband and doing deals in which the goods exchanged are his own daughters – women who are presumed to have no say in the matter.

But don’t get too caught up in the idea that this is all about wicked men trading in women. The women get caught up in the patriarchal presumptions of the piece too, going on to vie with one another to produce children for Jacob the paterfamilias, even offering their own handmaid-slaves to bear him babies when they couldn’t do so. They are implicated in some very questionable behaviour to our eyes too.

Our new wedding service was one of the first to presume that two people getting married are fundamentally equal.

That should have got us the headlines much more than anything we have done recently as a church. It was a much more profound change and break from tradition.

In it we were saying that some of the ways of thinking about relationships between people have changed fundamentally from the ways people thought in biblical times.

Does it matter?

You bet it matters.

Our recent decisions wouldn’t have been made without our decisions some years ago.

And it matters because there is this notion that marriage teaches us about the nature of God, about the way God loves the church and the way things are amongst human beings.

Patriarchy is not dead. It rears its ugly head in new ways all the time. In the church at the moment it is being taught as a virtue by those who are seizing on the word Complementarity to describe the relationship between men and women in marriage. (As though a same-sex couple is incapable of offering complimentary gifts to one another).

Our new way of understanding marriage teaches us about God. Teaches us that God is interested in equality in equity and in right relationships between people on earth.

If we think of it informing what we know about the relationship between Christ and the church, it teaches that Christ is beguiled by humanity and the church is entranced by the love of God in Jesus.

Christ and the church are holy lovers, not an unequal relationship where one party dominates  and subjugates the other.

For in all these things we are more than mere conquerors through the one who loves us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor patriarchy, nor discrimination, nor angels, nor archbishops, nor church arguments present or church arguments to come, nor powers of unfairness, nor heights, nor depths, nor twitter, nor Complementarity nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Comments

  1. Meg Rosenfeld says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, especially when I remember that before my now-husband and I could be married by a priest in my home parish–St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Los Gatos, California–in 1970, we were required to read St. Paul’s horrible bit about women subjecting themselves to their husbands and so forth. “We don’t believe any of this,” I said, firmly, and the priest indicated that he didn’t believe it, either, but the church required it before he could marry us. You may recall that in some parts of the world, 1970 saw the reawakening of the women’s movement, which had been effectively shut down following the second world war.

    Your final paragraph is masterly, and I literally hooted with happy laughter and total agreement as I read it. As we said in the 1970’s, “right on!”

  2. I find it interesting that the SEC is so far ahead of the CofE. Particularly as opinion in the CofE hasn’t moved to the marriage of equals that the SEC implemented 10 years ago.

    Perhaps if we had followed your lead than, we might not be facing another three years of natter, natter and argument, when it’s pretty straight forward. Two people love each other, want their commitment recognized in front of family and friends in their Parish Church with God’s blessing.

    We go around in circles to try to dig out the theology, but miss out entirely the human pain and suffering we continue to cause people, every day of the week.

  3. Keith Battarbee says:

    I enjoy enormously reading Provost Kelvin’s posts, and note with pleasure that St Mary’s Cathedral was the first church in the SEC to opt-in to celebrate same-sex marriages 👍 but I find myself impelled once again to come to a modest defence of the SEC’s sister church to the south … The C of E’s Common Worship marriage liturgy does, admittedly, still offer ‘give away’ and ‘obey’, but as sidelined options relegated to footnotes. Altho’, when she and he have to do/say something, he by default gets first shot, the rubric explicitly allows she before he. And the marriage vows are identical. So I think we are also on our way south of the Border towards celebrating marital equality – & I look forward to the day when gender assymetry disappears in the permissible choice of marital partner. It will take a few years yet, sadly, but it’s coming.

  4. Amen!

  5. TracyvWB says:

    1993. Husband to be tells vicar in ore-marriage meeting that no, despite his vicar beliefs that someone has to be in charge, no thank you we will have a modern set of vows with no obey clause. Wedding day- vicar puts it in anyway. First action of husband post wedding- to absolve me of my shocked and quiet ‘I will’.

  6. Thank you, Father Kelvin, for your insights into the biblical understanding of marriage – for, let us not forget, those are against SSM are invariably as taken up with the O.T. as well as the N.T. in their opinions about binary marriage.

    The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the same God as is depicted by the writers and prophets of the O.T. However, Jesus revealed God’s tendency towards goodness and mercy as being in excess of that written of in the O.T. “Ïn Christ, there is neither male nor female” (Paul) was a brand new revelation of God’s purpose for all humanity, not only heterosexuals.

  7. margaret of the sea of galilee says:

    Actually, Jewish Tradition has Leah as having eyes of different colours
    זגדנית
    “zagdanit” in Hebrew

  8. Robin McGregor says:

    I cried my little heart out reading this. Not only for my own small life or that of my partner, not only for Leah for whom I’ve always had the greatest sympathy, but for the women and men who have endured the unnecessary hardships of headship, the subjection that was thought to be necessary obedience, and all who have had the church besmirch the possibilities of mutual love.

    • Dear Robin,

      I echo your sadness at the inadequcy of the response of the Church to the reality of LGBTI representation amongst ordinary human beings, Unfortunately, our young people are turned off by the conservative agenda, which condemns the thought of human love between same-seks persons. Today, my wife Diana and I are in Amsterdam where, fortuitously, the famous Gay Pride Parade is taking place – on the great canals of this city, where all sorts of boats and floats proclaim the City’s welcoming of all people who are different – regardless of their innate sexual identity.

  9. David Shepherd says:

    ‘Complementarity to describe the relationship between men and women in marriage. (As though a same-sex couple is incapable of offering complimentary gifts to one another).’

    Hmm.., unfortunately, that’s not what’s meant by complementarity.

    St. Augustine articulated the teaching, when he wrote concerning the good of marriage: ‘‘there is good ground to inquire for what reason it be a good. And this seems not to me to be merely on account of the begetting of children, but also on account of the natural society itself in a difference of sex. Otherwise it would not any longer be called marriage in the case of old persons, especially if either they had lost sons, or had given birth to none. But now in good, although aged, marriage, albeit there has withered away the glow of full age between male and female, yet there lives in full vigour the order of charity between husband and wife’

    So, St. Augustine’s discourse from Genesis sees the good of marriage as comprised of the begetting of children and the natural society itself in a difference of sex. He readily accepts that a marriage might exist without begetting children, but not the latter good of natural society itself in a difference of sex.

    If the forward-thinking secular world is ahead of the Church on this, then you might consider the European Court of Human Rights ruling in Schalke and Kopf vs. Austria.

    The couple unsuccessfully sued the Austrian government for an alleged contravention of their Human Rights at the European Court of Human Rights because there was no provision for same-sex marriage.

    The decision of the highest court in Europe said this: ‘Neither the principle of equality set forth in the Austrian Federal Constitution nor the European Convention on Human Rights (as evidenced by “men and women” in Article 12) require that the concept of marriage as being geared to the fundamental possibility of parenthood should be extended to relationships of a different kind.

    ‘Fundamental possibility’ provides automatic contingency. Childless and elderly couples have not sought to appropriate this automatic contingency for parenthood.

    My 10-minute whiteboard session shows (with case law examples) what happens when marriage’s automatic contingency for parenthood (presumption of legitimacy) is misappropriated: https://youtu.be/VVH1ZSss9c8

    The International Lesbian and Gay Association certainly sees marriage as a lot more than just about two people who love each other. There’s ample case law to show that marriage is used as the primary legal mechanism for prioritising the parental intentions of same-sex couples, even at the expense of the known biological father.

    Dispense with complementarity in marriage and you can assert a presumption of parenthood which dispenses with it too.

  10. The Revd Dr J.R.Bunyan says:

    This is not a reply regarding the question of same sex marriage, something far from being settled in Australia (and though a liberal Anglican, supportive of civil unions, I happen to be one who does not believe marriage can between a man and a woman – we have to accept that different views exist in the Church on this matter without calling one another names). It instead is just a response to a surprising statement made somewhere by the Provost. The Queen is not – and the monarch is not – a Presbyterian. The monarch is a member solely of the Church of England. Queen Victoria had a great affection for the Church of Scotland (one of the things she shared with Dean Stanley of Westminster) and attended the Presbyterian church when at Balmoral, a custom followed ever since by the monarchs, but when she first took Communion in the Church of Scotland (a rare event there and in some still places still only a few times a year), there was fierce protest from members of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of England. This would not have occurred if there had been accepted idea that she turned Presbyterian on crossing the border.

    • The Queen doesn’t have an official status in Church of Scotland but the only church that she is associated with is the Church of Scotland. To all intents and purposes, whilst she is in Scotland she and her family are regarded as being of the Church of Scotland. This has been so since Victoria’s day. It is from the Church of Scotland that the Queen generally appoints her chaplains in Scotland.

      She most certainly doesn’t belong to the Scottish Episcopal Church. However, I’m told her mother very much was an Episcopalian, and I’ve heard reports of her sneaking off to an early communion whilst at Balmoral before attending Crathie Kirk with her daughter.

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