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  • He Answered Them

Exploring the Theology of same-sex marriage

Updated: May 28, 2022

On Monday 23rd May 2022 the General assembly of the Church of Scotland voted in favour of the Church conducting same-sex marriages. It is a debate that has rumbled on for some time, with the original motion being placed for consideration in 2017.

My intention in this multiple part post is not to determine if the decision reached was the correct outcome, but to highlight the care in which the Church approached this highly sensitive issue. Many people believe the Church to be an archaic and oppressive institution that is fundamentally judgemental; although there is always some truth in a stereotype, it is clear the Church engaged with this issue thoroughly and carefully: the length of time it took to reach the voting stage is a testament to that.

In my opinion, framing the debate as a gay rights issue is a false conflation; this falls squarely into a pastoral care issue for Christians who are in same sex relationships. I believe that the decision of the Church of Scotland is primarily pertinent to members of the Christian LGBT community in the understanding that the Church should only consider providing the ceremony to those who profess a Christian belief.

This framing of the debate immediately pulls us away from the political context and back into the religious context; this in-turn allows us to evaluate the question from the less emotive, theological point of view: there must be a theological process behind any aspect of Church life regardless how anodyne or controversial the subject matter.

This neatly segues us into the main theology used in the debate. The full report can be found here. I am very pleased to state that one of the members on the Theological Forum of the Church of Scotland is one of my university lecturers, it cheered my heart to be able to watch the debate (which streamed live on the CofS website) and to see the participants engage in civil, measured debate; if one was so inclined to view such discussion, it would be made immediately clear the amount of respect for opposing views that was present in the chamber.

Analysing the Theology of Marriage

Professor Jean Porter of Notre Dame University is a leading expert in Thomas Aquinas’ Theology, writing the paper ‘The Natural Law and Innovative Forms of Marriage: A Reconsideration’ which was extensively used to highlight some of the paradigms of marriage.

It is important to recognise that the Church had no initial authority over the marriage union. Marriage occurred in the secular forum under the authority of the father whose son or daughter was set for the union. The couple would then attend the church steps (not enter the sanctum) for the priest to bless the union; it wasn’t until some time around 1000 AD that the church developed canon law which claimed the right to regulate marriages and judge on disputes.

Marriage was adopted as a sacrament within the reigning Medieval Church; the idea that a couple would offer themselves back to God as a living sacrament. During the reformation the idea was re-secularized when the protestants no longer recognised this act as sacrament. Although the protestants did not recognise it as a such, they still believed it carried a deep significance, stating in the Westminster Directory for the publick worship of God:

“Although marriage be no sacrament, nor peculiar to the church of God, but common to mankind, and of publick interest in every commonwealth; yet, because such as marry are to marry in the Lord, and have special need of instruction, direction, and exhortation, from the word of God, at their entering into such a new condition, and of the blessing of God upon them therein, we judge it expedient that marriage be solemnized by a lawful minister of the word, that [he] may accordingly counsel them, and pray for a blessing upon them.”

At this point, we could recognise that the secular authorities, i.e. the parliaments of Westminster and Holyrood merely wish to re-assert the original secular claim on marriage which the reformation went some length to begin; but then we would have to also recognise that the union was also never under the authority of the state either, with it being historically under parental control.

Some are reluctant to extend marriage to same sex couples as they are engaging in sexual acts which are intrinsically sterile (no chance of conception); however, it must be noted that marriage does not immediately assume procreation. Marriage would not be denied to a heterosexual couple beyond child-bearing age nor a couple who use contraception; both these examples are not true of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What the Church of Scotland correctly recognised is that marriage:

‘has other entirely legitimate and worthy aspects. Among these are (1) that marriage provides a framework for mutual personal and financial support. It (2) focuses recognition of those claims and it (3) gives ‘public expression to interpersonal love’. It allows the sexual expression of love to be seen ‘within the context of an overall pattern of life’.[1]

Marriage is not merely about sex. Indeed, Mary, mother of Jesus was married to Joseph and is held in Church doctrine to be a perpetual virgin.

It is also pertinent to consider Luke 20:34-36 when Jesus is asked about the marital status in heaven of the woman married to seven brothers. It indicates that in the coming Kingdom of God marriage will not feature:

‘Jesus answered and said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; nor can they die anymore, for they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.’

I will continue with this post in following part as we look at the argument put forward by Robert Song in his paper ‘Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships’ This was also extensively used and engages with the writings of the Apostle Paul and the passages pertaining to homosexual acts, (Romans 1).

[1] Theological Forum Paper on Marriage. Church of Scotland 2017

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