Tears in God’s Wineskin: a theology of hospitality

by Elaine Ambrose

Elaine Ambrose is a member of the Church of England in London; she has studied at The London Bible College and Heythrop College, and her PhD  studies were at King’s College London.  She writes on the challenge to Christian theology of the marriages of same-sex couples.  Her website can be found here for other excellent and interesting articles.

Considering a theology of same-sex marriage

Although 2013 saw the passing of same-sex marriage laws in the United Kingdom, Christian debate for and against the new institution continues. The issue of same-sex marriage first became a hot political topic in 1980s America when the Christian Right began opining loudly against gay men and lesbians who were claiming their relationships to be marriages and families and seeking social and legal recognition of them. A similar climate formed in the UK under the Thatcherite homophobic rhetoric against the ‘pretend family’.

Today the church is challenged afresh to revisit the theology of marriage, consider its biblical foundations and recognize that we may have turned the concept of marriage into an end in itself, forgetting God’s intended purpose for the institution. Our understanding of the Sabbath illustrates this point particularly well: the Pharisees of Jesus’ time applied enormous time and effort to upholding the Sabbath, transforming the day God bestowed on humanity as a blessing into a duty-bound rubric. What God intended as time for rest and to contemplate his goodness through communal worship became an end in itself. Jesus countered this misconception by pointing to the Sabbath’s purpose, rather than elevating its institution, telling them, ‘The Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). The religious leaders saw only the end product and had allowed it to take prime place, marking it with a plethora of rules to be held out of obligation, rather than appreciating God’s intention and encouraging people to keep the Sabbath out of love. Consequently, the simple need for rest and worship God had addressed in creating the Sabbath was overwhelmed by observation and obsession, turning the Sabbath into an institution.

We encounter similar difficulties when we consider marriage, with the paradigm for its institution found in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. While this is not the only consideration in forming a theology of marriage, it is the foundation referred to by Jesus when questioned about divorce and again by Paul in his advice to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5. We observe that male and female come together to ‘complete’ one another in joy, and become ‘one flesh’ in a unique way intended from creation. Kathy Rudy considers why this has set such a rigid format in the minds of many Christians exclusively for heterosexual marriage and family, and sums up, ‘Because gender is the first organising category for conservative theology, females are initially sorted from males; femaleness and the home exist on one side, maleness and public work exist on the other. The two categories meet only on the terms of the heterosexual family, the entity that grounds the whole system. In this system where God is male, women relate to God directly, and men can only know God one step removed. In using the heterosexual family and the model for Christian theology, the ideology of domesticity constructs and verifies the idea that heterosexuality and the nuclear family are both necessary and intrinsic to human existence. If God is the father and women are responsible for conducting that relationship, then the family the home and the heterosexual relationship appear to mimic the most holy way of negotiating life.’ [1]

Following this form, marriage has been concluded to be solely between one man and one woman, nullifying any contemplation of same-sex marriage and disallowing argument for its possibility. However, beginning with this ‘end product’ of Genesis 2, without consideration of God’s intentions, encounters exactly the same risk the Pharisees faced, limiting the Sabbath to duty and forgetting God’s intention. Genesis 2 concerns neither marriage nor procreation. Its importance is not in providing an understanding of creation and the created order but of relationship – humanity’s relationship with God, the world and one another. The command to be fruitful and multiply is found in the first account of creation, not in the story of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 2, we find the creation of Adam alone and his being placed in the Garden of Eden with everything needed to nurture his body and a perfect relationship with God to feed his spirit and soul.

Even so, something is missing, as God observes, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’ (Gen. 2:18). Another relationship is required to fully complete human life, so God creates the animals, but none of them meet this need, then he creates Eve from the very flesh and bone of Adam to join him in a unique relationship that fulfils the human desire for companionship.

In Adam and Eve’s commitment the ‘one flesh’ is united together in marriage and the desire of one human being for another to complete them is something all human beings can relate to: the why and how of falling in love, and yearning to express that love through life-long commitment. We recognise, of course, that not everyone finds their life-partner but the hope of meeting the person who completes us exists throughout life. However, what of those whose attraction is not toward the opposite sex? What if the person fallen in love with, the one who completes the God-given need within each of us, is of the same sex? Should this negate the fundamental human need for companionship and the way in which God addresses it?

Those attracted to their own sex still have the same longing for fulfilment and completion through a one-to-one relationship, a re-uniting of the ‘one flesh’ as instituted by God. Focusing on the end product of marriage as solely for male and female rather than on the need God addresses in the Garden of Eden, which is relationship, we make exactly the same mistake as the Pharisees who elevated the Sabbath to monolithic proportions and viewed it as something greater than the human need for the Sabbath. Jesus is compelled to correct the Pharisees’ misrepresentation of God’s blessing, reminding them that the Sabbath was created to meet a human need and was not an end in itself.

When we lift up marriage and restrict the institution solely to an observation of Adam and Eve, we forget that marriage was ordained by God to meet a human need and was not to be an end in itself. For the Christian church, marriage was not a recognised rite until the eleventh century, as Joseph Martos notes, ‘[B]efore the eleventh century there was no such thing as a Christian wedding ceremony, and throughout the Middle Ages there was no single church ritual for solemnizing marriages between Christians.’ [2] Only after the Council of Trent did a standard Catholic marriage rite come into existence to eliminate abuses in the practices of private marriages. After centuries of ecclesiastical tradition and teaching concerning marriage as an institution, a challenge is long overdue that is no less appropriate than Christ’s challenge to the Pharisees of understanding the importance of the Sabbath.

Could it be possible that the desire to find the one who completes us is the same for all human beings, whether we be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or transgendered? Could it be possible that the response of God to that desire is the same for everyone irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity, that is, the opportunity of marriage for all people with the one who completes them, whether the opposite or same sex? Until the church is willing to consider marriage more deeply, and initiate its theology within the purposes of God, rather than upon its being uniquely an end product for male and female, we continue to run the risk of utterly missing the point of marriage, just as the Pharisees completely missed the point of the Sabbath. It is fair to say that the majority of heterosexual Christians generally find difficulty and embarrassment with open discussion concerning joys and issues relating to heterosexual sexual intimacy. Throw homosexual sexual intimacy into the mix and the response tends to lie somewhere between complete mystification and apoplexy. The church has a common inclination to become overly embroiled on the intimately sexual aspects of same-sex relationships, which heterosexuals tend to find tricky or impossible to identify with. What is important is that we consider same-sex relationships in the context of love, desire and attraction, aspects which heterosexuals can certainly recognise and empathise with.

The first ‘gay-affirming’ churches, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches founded in 1968 by Reverend Troy Perry, produced a liturgy of Holy Union which generally copied traditional church wedding ceremonies while changing the pronouns to fit same-sex couples. [3] For the following five decades and for those same-sex couples desiring a church-centred commitment ceremony blessed in God’s eyes, the rite of Holy Union was sufficient. However, deeper understanding and a desire for greater equality resulted in the consideration of marriage for same-sex couples, (predominantly in the West). The longer same-sex couples were together the more they discovered that while God may love and embrace their relationship, where the law was concerned there were those who did not.

Homosexuality was [partially] decriminalised in the 1960s and same-sex couples began making their homes together, although for the next thirty to forty years the law remained immovable concerning their legal status. Next of kin rights for one partner if the other was hospitalised did not exist and there were no rights to a partner’s body when the other died, as reflected throughout the 1970s and 1980s, during the HIV and AIDS [4] crisis, when people were dying at an alarming rate in the UK and America. Reverend Elder Jean White of the then London Metropolitan Community Church was conducting sometimes 3 or 4 funerals most weeks for about three years, sometimes requested directly but often asked for because other church leaders simply would not go near the bodies, their partners or families. Rev White even occasionally allowed her own home to be used as an impromptu chapel of rest when funeral homes refused to take those who had died from AIDS-related illnesses. [5] There were no rights to bequeath property to a surviving partner without having it contested by family members, if one partner had a chronic medical condition the other had no say in their treatment or care and having children through in-vitro fertilisation was disallowed, as was adoption.

Same-sex couples were ineligible to be considered for joint contracts or credit accounts and the Inland Revenue allowed them no tax breaks or credits. They recognised that the longer they lived together, the more everyday obligations of living life as partners became complicated because their partnership had no legal standing. Discriminatory practices used against same-sex couples were countless under UK law, other European laws and similarly under American federal and state bureaucracy. If couples were wealthy, they could instruct a solicitor to construct legal documents and contracts to help protect the relationship, but these could provide no guarantee in a court of law, because the couple were not married. Thus the fight for marriage equality began and for the next three decades various arguments were heard for and against allowing same-sex couples to be treated as equal to married heterosexuals under the law and in the church. Concerning property, medical conditions and having or adopting children, most of the once so unyielding legal barriers have been dismantled. Some rights have been gained through the acceptance of civil unions and recognition of domestic partnerships, blessings and, as previously mentioned, holy unions. However, the right for same-sex couples to legally marry has so far been adopted into law by only a handful of countries to date, although the number is steadily growing. [6]

Amongst Christian groups and the popular media, the definition of marriage has been discussed, classified, re-defined and re-defined again, with an almost resolute determination to ensure it belongs solely to one heterosexual male and one heterosexual female, frequently with the added caveat of, ‘in accordance with biblical tradition.’ However, any considered glance through the Scriptures will reveal that marriage was anything but ‘traditional’ since it includes husbands having multiple wives, kings having multiple wives and multiple concubines, daughters being sold into slavery as wives, one husband with one wife, and rape victims being expecting to marry their violators. Yet still an appeal to the Bible as holding the blueprint of traditional marriage being one man and one woman rings out loudly. Not surprisingly, theologians such as Elizabeth Stuart comment wryly on such misplaced reverence, ‘The uncritical worship of marriage serves to obscure its changing history, its patriarchal construction, the problem of domestic violence, its part in bolstering capitalism, and other possible models of relating.’ Stuart is suspicious of what she regards as the idolatry of marriage within the Christian community. [7]

Certainly, in the United States Christian supporters of marriage exclusively for heterosexuals frequently opine that ‘traditional marriage’ can only be understood within the domain of one man being bonded to one woman, providing a clue as to why anything outside this realm, anything that challenges or contradicts this heterosexual idyllic way of being, is regarded with complete disgust, as total anathema. Heterosexual family values are regarded as being intertwined with both the saving of men and Christian salvation itself, as Rudy concludes, ‘Gay people have become the backdrop against which the traditional family, along with saved Christian America, defines itself.’ [8]

Sadly and perhaps ironically, with the developing attitude and behaviour of many heterosexual couples, the definition of marriage no longer holds the essence of a lifetime commitment of fidelity, integrity and love. With divorce for first-time marriages approaching 45–50% in the UK and only a little less for second marriages [9], I sometimes wonder how it is that the gay community is so frequently blamed for causing the institution of marriage to ‘fall apart’. This is particularly questionable with cheap and easily available fast marriages available in places like Las Vegas and when certain reality television shows bring men and women together into relationship purely for entertainment purposes. Realistically, the heterosexual community has needed no help from the gay community to allegedly ‘destroy’ marriage, and growing numbers of both same-sex and opposite-sex couples seem to no longer believe marriage to be a goal for a committed couple simply because the average heterosexual couple is no longer considered a good role model for marriage.

What then really stands behind the fiery rhetoric, protests and campaigns and what is it that many heterosexuals simply have not wanted to give to homosexuals? In simple terms it boils down to human equality, no more, no less, but not equality the way it is currently discussed and debated. The issue does not concern what the church should or should not do, accept or not accept, embrace or exile. It is not about laws that allow people to live their lives well and in relative safety.  Legally established same-sex marriage conveys a final demand that heterosexuals recognise and accept non-heterosexuals as equal to them as human beings, which is something heterosexist normativity refuses to do.

In the film Lincoln [10] is a scene that clarifies perfectly what the argument of marriage equality is all about. President Abraham Lincoln is discussing with a political ally how to achieve the passing of the 13th Amendment and the ally attempts to explain why it is such a difficult task. The challenge, he explains, is not in bringing an end to slavery but rather in recognising that for the country as a whole, passing the 13th Amendment will by default ‘give the negro the vote’. In short, the moment black people can no longer be held in slavery, they must be fully recognised as human beings with all the rights and privileges attached to being fully human. This perhaps explains why it took a further 100 years after Lincoln for black Americans to gain the vote, but the somewhat prophetic dialogue prepared the way for the civil rights movement and an eventual definition of human rights. For gay men and lesbians, marriage equality is the final argument concerning whether or not they are fully human and thus eligible to live with the rest of heterosexual humanity on an equal footing.

Religious and political conservatives do not use politically incorrect language, of course, preferring moral and ethical terminology, faith dogma or ideas concerning what is or is not natural, but human equality is exactly what is being discussed. As long as same-sex marriage is denied equality with heterosexual marriage and is prohibited in churches, Christian and political conservatives can rest assured that gay men and lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people are not fully human and therefore do not have to be considered equal socially, religiously or legally. The black community has occasionally observed that gay equality is not a civil rights issue and the gay community has received criticism and condemnation for almost five decades for making civil rights arguments, and they are quite correct. The argument does not concern civil rights at all, but is rather properly about human rights. It might be argued that the gay community has for years been drawn into the wrong religious and political conversation. The right to not to be fired from a job, the right to choose where to live in relative safety and the right to medical care etc., these stands have been taken and won in a growing number of countries, as has more recently the right to marry in registry offices and in certain churches. However, non-heterosexuals remain considered by many heterosexuals to be less than 100% human because their love and the expression of that love is simply not viewed as the same as the love and the expression of the love of heterosexuals.

As long as certain religious and political conservatives officially repudiate or prohibit same-sex marriage in church, they can continue to assert that non-heterosexuals are not equal to heterosexuals, echoing George Orwell’s words from Animal Farm, ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’ [11] In this climate, selective scriptural text is used merely to support negative argument and maintain exclusive heterosexual rights over marriage, as Deryn Guest notes, ‘When certain Jewish and Christian faith communities and their leaders are outlawing practising lesbian and gay Christians/Jews from churches and synagogues, when politicians are using scripture in the House of Commons and Lords to uphold discriminatory laws, it is clear that scripture is a significant weapon to wield in social, political and religious debates.’ [12]

Supporters of equality understand that when gay men and lesbians are allowed to marry anywhere then the final battle preventing them from being regarded as fully human as heterosexuals will be lost. Consequently, the religiously and politically conservative will inevitably fight to the very end before having to acknowledge and affirm that heterosexuals and homosexuals are 100% equal as human beings, and the lives and loves they each express are equal.

[1] Kathy Rudy, Sex and the Church – Gender, Homosexuality and the Transformation of Christian Ethics (Boston MA: Beacon Press Books, 1997) p.38–39.

[2] Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 2001), p.351.

[3] For the history and development of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches see Troy Perry’s work, Don’t Be Afraid Anymore: The Story of Reverend Troy Perry and the Metropolitan Community Churches (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1990) and The Lord is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay (Texas: Liberty Press Inc., 1987)

[4] HIV and AIDS: Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

[5] I am indebted to Reverend Elder Jean Anne White and the several conversations we shared, concerning the HIV/AIDS crisis in the UK, relating to how MCC was affected and the astonishing amount of work Rev White performed both religiously and socially for those directly affected by death and bereavement when the doors of expected social and pastoral care were closed to them. Conversations in Brixton, London during June 2008.

[6] The first laws passed enabling same-sex marriage were enacted during the first decade of the 21st century. As of May 2014, countries allowing same-sex couples to legally marry include ArgentinaBelgiumBrazilCanadaDenmarkFranceIcelandNetherlandsNorwayPortugalSpainSouth AfricaSweden and the United Kingdom, with the United States and the Republic of Ireland following suit in June and November 2015 respectively.

[7] Elizabeth Stuart, ‘Is Lesbianism or Gay Marriage an Oxymoron? A Critical Review of the Contemporary Debate’, in Adrian Thatcher (Ed.), Celebrating Christian Marriage (Edinburgh & New York: T&T Clark, 2001) p.273

[8] Kathy Rudy, Sex and the Church, p.59

[9] Statistics taken from The Marriage Foundation Organisation. See also the Office for National Statistics, available online at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/previousReleases

[10] Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg (Prods.), Steven Spielberg (Dir.), Lincoln (United States: Dreamworks, 2012).

[11] George Orwell, Animal Farm (New York: Signet Classics, 1986), p.133.

[12] Deryn Guest, When Deborah met Jael: Lesbian Biblical Hermeneutics (London: SCM Press, 2005), p.241