Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Like a Horse and Carriage

Counterpunch had an article on same-sex marriage the other day, by an Episcopal clergyman named Raymond J. Lawrence. Lawrence announced that "the Bishops of the Episcopal Church have finally granted permission for blessings of homosexual relationships, and also of homosexual marriages in those states where such marriage is permitted legally." I found the latter development more interesting, because it apparently puts same-sex and mixed marriages on an equal footing, instead of the union ceremonies some churches have foisted on same-sex couples. I've argued before that same-sex couples who want to can and should have wedding ceremonies even where civil marriage isn't available to them, just to highlight the difference between civil and religious marriage. Maybe they could enlist the Church's help in doing this; but that's not what caught my attention about Lawrence's article.

"There's a catch," he warned, to this new Episcopalian openness:

Contingent on the ecclesiastical blessing is the requirement of those receiving the blessing to commit to a life-long, sexually exclusive relationship. The Church is imposing on homosexuals the same burden it places on heterosexuals. The Bishops could hardly do otherwise unless they rethink their entire approach to sex. They could not grant more sexual freedom to homosexuals than they grant to heterosexuals. Thus they have now decided to impose the same medieval burden on both: sexual relationships limited to one exclusive relationship for life. This is an instance of the proverbial new wine poured into old wineskins. It’s as if the leadership of the Church has not read any of the recent scholarship on the ethics of sex and marriage.

In spite of the fantasies of the Bishops, the old Christian medieval dream is gone for good and will not return. The traditional Christian doctrine of sex and marriage has more holes than Swiss cheese. Premarital virginity and lifelong sexually exclusive relationships have gone the way of the abacus. A bride decked out in white symbolizing her virginity, processing down the aisle to be joined to her husband, after which they will have their first sexual experience, and forever after cleave only unto each other, is so anachronistic as to be funny.

I find this ironic. Pouring new wine into old wineskins is exactly what the same-sex marriage movement is all about, as far as I can tell. Despite the movement's official focus on secular civil marriage, many of its spokespeople, pundits, and hangers-on make it clear that they have fantasies much like those of the Episcopal episcopate. This blogger, for example, whose well-received fantasia on love and marriage I've quoted before:
The campaigns against gay marriage reason that gays already possess civil rights, that we may procure civil unions. (When in history has love been civil?) And so we are relegated to using the technical term, Partner. It is a word with business connotations, and not romantic, certainly not spiritual inference. Husband. Wife. These are words we gay men and women long for because they signify the validity of choice: they are garlands of a ceremony in the interest of a sacred pursuit; they validate and defend a deep intimacy in the public realm; they are shield and banner.
Obviously the Bishops aren't the only people who haven't read the recent (and not-so-recent) scholarship on the ethics of sex and marriage. Lawrence mentions the not-so-recent theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), who he says "urged the churches to get out of the marriage business altogether and leave it to the civil authorities," but Mark Jordan's Blessing Same-Sex Unions (University of Chicago Press, 2005), despite my atheist disagreements with his standpoint, would be a good place to begin for those interested.

I think it's significant that Lawrence repeatedly refers to monogamous marriage as "medieval," which I think is at least partly an attempt to avoid dealing with some basic facts. He claims that "the biblical texts fail [to] support the medieval dream of an exclusivist lifelong monogamy," but this is over-simple to put it nicely. Sure, the Hebrew Bible doesn't expect males to have only one (female, of course) sexual partner during their lives, but it holds women to stricter standards. The New Testament is a different story, with both Jesus and Paul not only demanding monogamy for both sexes but seeing any kind of erotic life as incompatible with true devotion to God. (To paraphrase an old joke about Unitarians, Jesus and Paul taught that a person should have at most one spouse.) Christianity rejected the polygyny that Judaism had regarded as normal, not for moral reasons but in order to conform with Roman custom, and many early Christians went further, choosing to reject marriage altogether. Lawrence thinks that the church should adapt to human sexual needs, which is reasonable enough, but Christianity was never a reasonable faith. Rather than promising fulfilment of the flesh, Christianity offered and demanded its purification. That probably is "anachronistic," another word Lawrence likes, but so is exhanging any kind of vows in front of a clergyman.

Lawrence continues,
When I was a young Episcopal cleric just out of seminary, the older priest whom I assisted once blessed a newly constructed highway overpass at an opening ceremony in Newport News, Virginia. He did not even inspect the overpass to see if it were well built. He wasn’t competent to make such an inspection. I thought at the time and still do that the blessing was a silly gesture, but it was what some people wanted. The point is that an Episcopal priest has traditionally been free to bless anything without approval from bishops and without close inspection of the value of the blessed object. They bless houses, animals, treasured objects, …and overpasses. Why, then, all the fuss about blessing sexual relationships? If a kangaroo and a silver medallion, why not a human relationship? The Church could bless homosexual relationships, heterosexual relationships, and an occasional ménage a trios [sic] if so requested. Certainly more deserving of a blessing than an overpass might be. The clergy need not inspect the integrity of any object of their blessing.
Indeed, why is a clergyman needed at all? Many laypeople bless the meals they are about to eat, dining without benefit of clergy. They could do the same with one-night stands, without any lack of seriousness. Doing so might be a reminder that all human contact can be significant, and even transitory relationships still involve human beings who deserve to be taken seriously.

If Christian gays want religious blessings for their marriages, though, why shouldn't they conform to the general standards of their cult? Some will no doubt go with current trends and revise wedding procedures to suit themselves, as many heterosexuals do, but it's clear that many same-sex couples want to be part of tradition, even when (like Raymond J. Lawrence) they're poorly informed about the vagaries of their traditions. Monogamy is probably more honored in the breach than in the observance, but that may just mean that same-sex couples will also participate in the ancient tradition of marital and sexual hypocrisy, where today's vows are stretched or ignored when it becomes convenient.