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On Christian Marriage
By Catherine Sider-Hamilton
Jul 08, 2019
Turning and turning in the
The falcon cannot hear the
Things fall apart; the centre
Mere anarchy is loosed
upon the world.
I find myself often thinking of these lines from Yeats’ “Second Coming,” as a kind of anarchy— theological, moral, and ecclesial—engulfs the Anglican Church. The debate about same-sex marriage in the Anglican Church of Canada has been terribly destructive. The fruit it has born, this scattering of the church, is a sign both of the significance of the question, and of the vise in which the church (at least in North America) is caught, gripped by opposing narratives about the world.
People still say to me that this is not a question that should split the church. But it is not a question that stands alone; hence its power. As Professor Joseph Mangina has pointed out about questions of ethics in general, this one too goes to the root of who we are and who God is.
The question of same sex marriage is part of a larger narrative that runs from Genesis to Revelation through the cross of Christ. It tells a story of the Creator God and his good creation, of man and woman made in the image of God to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth—and in this way to share in God’s creative purpose. It tells of the cunning of the serpent, and the human desire to be as gods, knowing good and evil, deciding good and evil for themselves. And in the wake of the fruit-taking, it tells of shame and pain and a new distance from God. No longer the walk with God in the garden at the time of the evening breeze: “the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees” (Gen 3:8).
Interestingly, it is precisely the sexual relationship that is immediately disrupted by sin. Where before the man and the woman were naked and were not ashamed before each other (Gen 2:25), now they are ashamed by their nakedness and the sexual relationship that was a joy (this at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh! The man and the woman shall cleave to each other!) becomes a source of pain (Gen 3:16). There is no longer—our foundational narrative tells us—a straight line from the sexual desire with which we are born to blessing.
The story, of course, does not end here. If we hide from God, God does not abandon us to ourselves. There is the election of Israel (“and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” Gen 12:3) and there is the coming of the Christ. In him, in whose face shines all the glory of God, God comes to meet us in our darkness. It is on the cross, in the moment of Jesus’ God-forsakenness, that we are brought again into the presence of God.
Atonement, being at one with God: this is what the cross means for the world (John 17:11, 21). It undoes the fruit and the shame and the hiding, the decision to be as gods ourselves, so that we might know again “the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” And as it was the cleaving together of man and woman that was distorted by sin, so it is marriage of man and woman that stands as a sign of this new communion. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32). The union of man and woman in marriage is in Christ an image and pledge of our longed-for communion with each other and with God that is the goal of creation.
This is one narrative about the world: a narrative both of the goodness of the world and its distortion by sin, a distortion in which even (especially) sexual desire is caught. It is, too, a narrative about redemption and new life. Because the way to that life passes through the wilderness of sin, it is a narrative in which the cross is central.
To insist on marriage as it is given in creation and given anew in Christ and the church is to choose this narrative, the biblical narrative, and not another; to choose this world, this God-created, God-redeemed world, and not another. To insist on the marriage of man and woman is to insist on the concreteness of the story. It is to say that the long journey from our turning away from God to the knowledge of the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, the journey from our darkness to His light through the cross of Christ takes place in our bodies as well as in our souls.
It is creation that is healed in the cross of Christ; this real world. And so, if creation matters, if we are not simply Gnostic, the difference between man and woman matters, in the matter of marriage. It is a difference not chosen, but given to us, by the God who has made us. It is a difference that is defining: in this cleaving together of man and woman is marriage; it is its nature. It is a difference that is fruitful: “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” It is a difference that reflects the face of God: “Let us make the human being in our image … so God created the human being in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26-27). And it is a difference that speaks to the redeeming grace of God: for it is in this difference that we may, by the grace of God, enact in marriage the unity, the longed-for peace between creature and creature, and creature and God, that is the fruit of the cross and the sign of our redemption.
These are not easy things to say to gay and lesbian people. There is heartache in the clash between same sex desire and the Christian vision of marriage. Accepting the Christian vision of marriage means a degree of suffering and self-denial that heterosexuals need never know. Yet it is a suffering for the sake of Christ, a self-denial born of faithfulness to the Christian narrative. And in it there is a witness to the church, for in such suffering, the gospel tells us, we see the face of Christ.
There is another narrative, a narrative of the individual and of identity, of the individual and of desire, and the expression of individual identity and the fulfilment of individual desire as the goal of our being. This is an essentially secular narrative and it has captivated the church. Between these two narratives there is a chasm and straddling this chasm the church is torn apart.
Whether we can recover from this rending depends in part on our steadfastness. By this I do not mean simply “staying,” because the lines defining who is staying and who is leaving, as dioceses depart already from the teaching of the wider church and clergy depart from their dioceses, seem to me so unclear. By steadfastness I mean holding to the Christian narrative, of creation and new creation, sin and redemption, the anguish of the cross and the peace of God that passes all understanding. I mean proclaiming this narrative with our lips but above all in our lives—in our marriages and in our singleness—so that the world may know by the shape of our lives that God lives and loves and saves, and that it is this world of flesh and blood, of Jew and Gentile, of tree and rock and river that he longs in Christ to bring under his wings.
To do this requires a certain truthfulness, a cleaving to hard words, words like “sin” as well as salvation, “corruption” as well as goodness, “judgement” as well as blessing. We speak in a world that turns on the axis of the cross. Everything we say and everything we do comes up against this fact. At the foot of the cross, words like “tolerance” and its mate “diversity” reveal their essential thinness, their breath-taking inadequacy as a true account of love.
We proclaim a different love, one that spans a sinful world in its outstretched arms, one that knows even God-forsakenness for this world’s sake. To speak this love truly is in this time a kind of witness, and always our hope.