The lesson of equal love

by Rosemary Hannah

Following a first degree in theology and biblical languages from the University of St Andrews, Rosemary Hannah’s doctorate at the University of Durham was on the Victorian Third Marquess of Bute, the subject of her later published biography. For many years she was Church History Co-ordinator at the Theological Institute of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Rosemary has published on the interface of patron and architect in the 19th century and has contributed to various radio and television programmes.

The 1549 marriage service gives prominence to the mystical union between Christ and his Church, hinted at generally but found explicitly in Ephesians 5.22–32. This serves to give a scriptural basis to marriage, which the Reformers often found to be very much lacking. Marriage had, after all, just lost its status as a sacrament, and could therefore use all the bolstering it could get. But the other very convenient thing was that in an age of huge flux, where hierarchy was endlessly threatened, the relationship between Christ and the Church could offer a model where there was love but also dominance.  Even today, we do not seriously imagine the Church can tell the Second Person of the Trinity what to do. Equally, we believe that we are loved, and we love in return. So, we are back to the bonds of love.

The balance of contemporary scholastic opinion is that the author of Ephesians is probably not Paul. The writer of the Ephesians passage comes from a context where marriage is seen as definitely hierarchical. Quite likely his injunction to wives to be subject to their husband’s authority reflects a problem for the wives of pagan husbands. Even so, Christian husbands are to love pagan wives as their own flesh. The problem was, of course, greater for the wives, because while a man could compel his whole household to be baptised and follow the Christian faith, a woman never could, and must accommodate her faith to what was possible. That this was very occasionally fatal is too clearly shown by the fate of St Perpetua. Ephesians, whatever its date, is written in a context where it did not seriously occur to anybody that equality of the sexes was a possibility, still less desirable. We, however, live in a social context where it is equally impossible to imagine the opposite.

The fact, of course, is that a small minority of Christians are not prepared to consider the possibility that the Bible is anything other than a very simple rule book. The idea that some passages were culturally conditioned is anathema, and the thought that they could be re-interpreted to account for a different culture inadmissible. Even so, they are hard put to it to actually affirm the old simple hierarchy. They generally chose to put the emphasis on the awful responsibility of the husband to be like Christ and the self-sacrificing of the wife to her one particular man.

For those who do give the words of the Bible some kind of critical evaluation – and they include most members of most denominations – there is a sifting of degrees of truth. Precedence goes to the words and actions of Jesus. Then to any ideas which occur very frequently and by different authors (the demand for justice and mercy would be an obvious example of these). In what you might call the relegation league belongs anything which appears to be attributed to a famous name, but not actually written by the person named (pseudonymous writing) and anything which appears to have been determined by a cultural attitude which we have good reason to regard with suspicion. The acceptance of slavery is the classic case here. Ephesians falls into both camps. This is a kind of truth-by-numbers game, and that has to be somewhat uneasy, but it seems the choice is ultimately going to lie between believing the sun once stood still in the sky and that tattoos are wicked, and on the other hand sifting helpful truths from culturally conditioned advice.

The idea of Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church reaches back to Jesus himself and the images he uses of the Kingdom being like a great feast, a marriage feast. This becomes elaborated and he likens those waiting for his Kingdom (with or without oil in their lamps) to bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom. After that the image of Christ as bridegroom becomes more generally used. The question is whether the main point of this analogy is the dominance of the bridegroom or something else.

As Jesus tells his stories, the main point seems to be the intense joy of the wedding banquet and feast and its plenty. Persons who do not understand the treat to which they have been invited (the guest with no garment, the unresponsive invitees, the maidens with no oil) are the ones condemned. Where there should be love and rejoicing and society, there comes a deadening lack of response. So, one would like to think, response is all with Christ and the Church.

Thus, today, most Christians see the point of this analogy lying, not in the dominance of Christ, but in the offering and receiving of grace, with love and the response to love. In an ideal marriage, each member of the couple offers the undeserved gift of love and forgiveness. Each member likewise receives it graciously. The serious theological question here is not whether two men or two women can as well model the love between the Church and Christ as an opposite-sex couple can. The question is whether a man and a woman can model it without the woman being set in a position where she is wholly subservient to the man. Or to put it another way, the problem is to find a way that the love of Christ and his Church can be modelled without ‘He for God only, she for God in him‘. Once that love is seen as mutual, with both partners as Christ, both as the church, then it becomes a lovely thing. In that way, it is actually easier for a same-sex couple to model that love than an opposite-sex one. Gender does not come in to cloud the issue.