Evangelical Anglican disarray on same-sex marriage

by Christopher Brittain

Christopher Brittain is the Dean of Divinity and Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. The following is an article in which he examines the attempts of some leading evangelical theologians to address same-sex marriage and the rise of affirming theology and practice across Anglicanism.

Andrew and Stephen
It is striking the extent to which some opponents tie themselves in knots as they seek to prop up the case against same-sex marriage, even as the theological foundations of the ‘traditional’ position erode around them.
The rhetoric employed by opponents of same-sex marriage in the Anglican Communion has reached a new stage. To be sure, there is nothing new about the political manoeuvrings in Canada prior to its General Synod this summer, or at the international level in anticipation of Lambeth 2020. What is new, however, are signs of lost confidence in standard arguments against homosexuality among thoughtful conservative evangelicals.

It is particularly striking to note the extent to which some opponents tie themselves in knots as they seek to prop up the case against same-sex marriage, even as the theological foundations of the ‘traditional’ position erode around them.

A case in point is a recent blog by Ephraim Radner, Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, and a colleague of mine in the Toronto School of Theology. Radner’s address leaves me pondering the current state of evangelical Anglican opposition to same-sex marriage. There is evidence that evangelicals like him are experiencing theological disarray, even as they are intensifying their political mobilisation within the churches of the Anglican Communion. I’ll turn to Radner’s argument shortly, but first I want to offer some observations about this trend in evangelical Anglican theology that sets Radner’s approach in a wider context.

Symptoms of theological disarray

Signs of dis-ease over the theological stability of the case against homosexuality have been in evidence for some time. At the outset of the twenty-first century , the British theological ethicist Oliver O’Donovan acknowledged that it had become problematic to claim that the Bible unambiguously rejects homosexuality. The “theological weight” of the debate over homosexuality, he writes, “cannot rest wholly upon biblical exegesis.” Why? Because of the complexities surrounding the exegesis of the seven ‘controversial texts’ that may – or may not – refer to what today we mean by the word ‘homosexuality’. As O’Donovan puts it: “Faced with yet another attempt to get at the meaning of arsenokoites by philology, I cry: Enough!” For this influential evangelical, Scripture does not seem to speak sufficiently clearly and definitively when it comes to same-sex relationships.

Also striking is the obvious discomfort that many evangelical Anglicans express in the face of the blatant homophobia and persecution suffered by LGBTQ people. Robert Song laments the way that “the churches now give the impression to many … to be positively immoral [for] their perceived persecution of gays and lesbians.” For him, this has become a form of “anti-witness.” Mark Vasey-Saunders goes even further, arguing that LGBTQ people have been used as a “scapegoat” for a “deeper crisis of identity within conservative Christianity.” According to him, “evangelicals have been acting out of fear for some time on this issue, for reasons that go largely unexamined.”

Where have such concerns left conservative evangelical Anglicans who remain uncomfortable with the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church? Unwilling to assert the anachronistic view that Scripture is clearly against the contemporary concept of ‘homosexuality’, while at the same time concerned to avoid the ‘scandal’ and ‘anti-witness’ of overt ‘homophobia’, their tactic has shifted to express ‘love’ and ‘pastoral concern’ for LGBTQ Christians, while insisting that marriage must be restricted to a man and a woman.

This is a striking change of strategy on the part of Anglican opponents of LGBTQ inclusion in the church. But how coherent and compelling is it – on biblical and theological grounds? Not very, as is evident in the attempts of Ephraim Radner to suture a disintegrating coherence in evangelical theology’s approach to homosexuality.

On Radner’s ‘On Christian Marriage’

Radner’s position sits within the trend of self-described evangelical Anglicans who at least implicitly appear to accept that the debate over homosexuality cannot be settled solely through biblical exegesis, while expressing a desire to avoid demonising LGBTQ persons. Like O’Donovan, Song and Vasey-Saunders, he offers accounts of gay people he knows and likes, and he publicly accepts that LGBTQ people can be members of Anglican congregations. Where he draws the line, however, is at Christian marriage. The reasons for doing so, however, are both intriguingly novel – itself a remarkable accomplishment in the context of a well-travelled conversation – and astonishingly obscure.

It is difficult to distil the case he makes in ‘On Christian Marriage’, but the basic account runs as follows. The “essence” of marriage, according to Radner, is that it is the way in which the human flesh of Jesus Christ was brought into being. Without the existence of this specific human flesh – the product of specific acts of human procreation – the Incarnation could not have occurred. As Radner writes, “Without marriage of man and woman, no Messiah.” For this reason, he continues, marriage is “not just a practical arrangement between human beings,” but “it is about how the Messiah comes into his flesh,” and thus determines how “the Church come[s] into the flesh of the Messiah.”

Perhaps this summation is enough to illustrate why, when I first heard this argument in a public address, I had trouble tracking its logic. For, when Radner writes, “what it means for God to become a human being” entails that God comes “that way, just like us,” he is leaping over several inconvenient details.

First, there is a causal fallacy in the emphasised phrase, “that way.” For while it is true that all human beings are products of the procreative combination of male and female gametes  – Radner makes much of gametes – it’s been rather conclusively substantiated that marriage isn’t required to achieve this. Yet Radner implies that the fact that eggs and sperm are necessary ingredients for reproduction renders the Incarnation of Jesus dependent upon the genealogical accounts in Scripture (“the way Adam [the first Adam] moves to Adam [the second Adam]”). However, while the humanity of Jesus is clearly linked to the reproductive cycles of human life, if Radner really wants to emphasise the biological processes here, it does not follow that marriage is an essential component of this – but only copulation.

Second, there are some inconvenient details in the birth narratives in the Gospels that problematize Radner’s argument. The first chapter of Luke suggests that Mary wasn’t married when her pregnancy is announced by the angel Gabriel. As such, any theological use of the genealogy rehearsed in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – which progresses from Abraham to Joseph the husband of Mary – must take account of this fact. Moreover, in the biblical account, Joseph can at best be described as the step-father of Jesus. As such, Jesus belongs to this genealogy only by adoption, but not biologically.

It’s puzzling, therefore, that Radner essentially describes this genealogy as the assembly line of the flesh of the Incarnation. Although Radner does gesture at dealing with the notion that Jesus was “born without a human father,” it is only by asserting that the virgin birth “is jumping right in the middle of redemptive genealogy.” All I could make of this statement is that he is suggesting that it’s the exception that proves the rule – hardly a compelling treatment of the biblical record.

There are additional puzzling surface details in Radner’s defence of the priority of heterosexual marriage in the church (for example, his suggestion that Paul views marriage as a sacrament, which is both anachronistic and also biblically inaccurate). Yet more significant are deeper theological problems. By seeking to prioritize marriage, Radner essentially divinizes it. It is not simply a “good” or a “gift” from God; it is the “vehicle” of “the divine flesh coming into the world.”

I don’t generally describe myself as a Reformed theologian, but I’ve read enough Calvin and Barth to be deeply uncomfortable with Radner’s emphasis on this point. Is it really appropriate – biblically and theologically – to suggest that God needs the institution of heterosexual marriage to conduct God’s work of salvation?

Anticipating that Radner might respond by suggesting that God doesn’t need the “instrument” of marriage, but merely chooses to use it, I expanded my investigation in search of clearer understanding. This led me to an address from 2017, ‘Talking about how to talk about homosexuality’. Part lament over social change, part nostalgia for the nuclear family – which is, one might recall, a rather modern development – the core of this article doubles-down on the theological weight Radner ascribes to heterosexual marriage.

The argument is far from a sentimental portrait of romantic human relations. Whereas in ‘On Christian Marriage’ Radner suggests that “desire, affection, cohabitation, fidelity” are not essential to marriage because its raison d’être is solely procreation, in the ‘Talking about…’ article Radner describes all of creaturely existence as follows: “everything we have to say about the use of our bodies is also defined by this birthing, conceiving, and dying movement.” He continues, “how our lives are genealogically ordered in struggle, suffering, love, and final endings constitutes the shape of our creaturely character.” Radner highlights what he takes to be the theological significance of this perspective: “this is Jesus’s own life, the life God himself took on.”

In my view, this is not biblical but natural theology. It is a vision of the Christian life based on the rhythm of creaturely procreation and mortality. The “shape” of human life is not described as being rooted in one’s relationship to God and to one’s neighbours, but merely according to one’s biological temporality. According to Radner, human beings are merely “creatures who are part of a network of generations.” While I’ll grant that I’m shaped by my ancestors, surely this has to do with more than gametes; surely the patterns of relations, the lives modelled, the affections shared, all represent a more significant “network” that has formed me than the mere biological “flesh” that I inherit.

An understanding of human life rooted in Christian anthropology, it seems to me, offers a very different understanding than that offered by Radner. A theology of the shape of Christian life should be defined by Christ and the Trinity. As Kathryn Tanner puts it, “United by Christ through the workings of the Spirit, our lives … are to be formed according to the mode of Jesus’ own life.” Such a perspective “understands God as the source and securer of good gifts.” According to Tanner, it is thus not “genealogy” – that is, procreation in the context of heterosexual marriage – that constitutes the pattern of creaturely existence, but rather our imitation of “the way that Jesus is constituted,” and “the way that Father, Son, and Spirit are constituted as the ones they are in virtue of their relations with each other.”

Moreover, if the Christian life has to do less with conforming with our “flesh,” but rather with living according to the spirit of the pattern of relations modelled by Jesus (Romans 8:5), then surely LGBTQ people are as capable of taking up this form of life as anyone else, including in the context of Christian marriage. The key to the Gospel is the “saving relation” to Christ, not our biological genealogy.

If it is correct to understand Scripture and doctrine to be teaching that human relations ought to reflect the structure of God’s own relationship with us, then in the two articles under consideration Radner has things backwards. He would have the Incarnation of Christ conform to the structures of human existence, rather than understand the “essence” of human existence in terms of the movement of divine love modelled to us by the divine triune persons. Christ’s flesh defines our flesh, not the other way around.

Thus, although I disagree profoundly with Radner’s position, after wrestling with it I am left baffled and bemused, rather than annoyed. How can such an accomplished theologian write, unabashedly, that “the Christian church’s role … is to embody and enact the forms of creaturely life that define genealogical faithfulness.” Really? The function and mission of the community of the disciples of Jesus is to safeguard heterosexual marriage? This is a far cry from Micah’s definition: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8); nor does it resonate with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3–11), the ‘Great Commission’ (Matthew 28:16–20), or Paul’s description of the identity of the baptised (Galatians 3:28).

Hope and persistence

I could go on, but I trust the point is clear: Ephraim Radner’s definition of the church of Christ and its mission strays quite some distance from both Scripture and the theological tradition. When God’s very capacity to dwell among human creatures is said to be dependent on the patterns and rituals of heterosexual marriage, evangelical theology has arrived at a rather curious place.

Radner, like some of his fellow conservative evangelicals, appears to articulate a position against same-sex marriage that is in search of a theological rationale. Arguments such as his leave me with the impression that, when it comes to human sexuality, evangelical Anglican theology is currently in disarray. I’ll refrain from speculating on the reasons for this. Instead, I simply highlight how unfortunate this is, since tensions in the Anglican Communion are high, and militants are mobilising for a fight.

Granted, conservative evangelical Anglicans don’t have a monopoly on confused and confusing theological arguments. So perhaps the most faithful response I can offer to Radner’s article is to conclude that it’s time for me to call up my learned colleague and ask him whether we can together revisit the debate over the meaning of arsenokoites. Hope and persistence, after all, are Christian virtues.