This is the final post about the Controversy Conference in Aberdeen last month, summarizing Vigen Guroian’s lecture on same-sex marriages and the roundtable discussion at the end on how the Church should deal with the homosexuality issue.
Guroian, a pugnacious Armenian Orthodox priest, offered a provocative lecture that, unlike the others, explored a contemporary manifestation of controversy in the Church–in particular, the conflict over same-sex marriage. He confined himself narrowly to the question of same-sex marriage, rather than venturing into related questions about homosexuality. He argued, fascinatingly, that on a Protestant view of marriage, it was impossible to continue to hold the ground against homosexual marriage, since Protestantism had desacralized marriage, made it essentially a civil, rather than an ecclesial, matter, and had taught that a marriage is constituted by the consenting wills of the two parties. Indeed, he pointed out that the notion of consent as the essential constituent of a marriage infected the entire Western tradition, including the Catholic Church, deriving as it did from Roman law.
Once this becomes the defining element, he suggested, why couldn’t we reach the point where two non-sexually-involved cohabiting individuals, of whatever sex, requested a “marriage” for economic reasons? In response to the arguments for same-sex marriage, we should not try to fight out the battle on legal grounds, but should re-assert marriage as an institution of the Church, and the Church’s definition of marriage as the true one. This means retrieving the sacramental character of marriage, and insisting that it is the sacramental union, rather than the consent of wills, that constitutes a marriage. Practically, this means that ministers should stop signing civil marriage licenses, pretending that when they perform a marriage it is at all the same thing as the now-meaningless civil institution, and it means that we should liturgically re-situate marriage ceremonies within Eucharistic celebrations, as was originally the Church’s practice.
When asked in the Q&A what resources there might be in the Protestant tradition for making these same sorts of points that Guroian was making from an Orthodox perspective, Guroian unapologetically replied that there were none–that was the problem. Protestantism, he suggested, had attempted to keep the soul of the Church without its body, and it was able to do this for four centuries because Christendom provided the body for Protestantism, the outward form and support and cultural presence, but now that Christendom was collapsing, Protestantism was being left naked and floundering.
Of course, all this was quite provocative and much could be said in argument over the details; nonetheless, the central claims intrigued me and I confess that I am very sympathetic with them. I have for some time now been unable to understand how we can have a properly Christian understanding of marriage without a sacramental understanding, and I agree with Guroian that Protestantism’s theology of marriage is much too anemic to offer a real bulwark against its militant secular offspring.
Finally, I wanted to say a few words about the roundtable discussion at the end, which, after a fascinating exchange between Leithart and Webster on theological method, zeroed in on the controversy over homosexuality, particularly in view of recent events in the Church of Scotland. Asked how he would respond if he were a Church of Scotland minister, John Webster made some hesitant stabs before throwing the hot potato to Dr. Leithart, who answered unabashedly that, once the Church of Scotland made its decision clear that it was going to tolerate actively homosexual ministers, he would feel the need to lead his congregation out of the denomination–not out of all Christian communion with them, to be sure, but out of the denomination. This prompted an irrepressible flurry of discussion and protest, aimed primarily at Leithart, though it was more questioning than attacking. Webster wanted to emphasize the need to be patient and not to break fellowship short of heresy–ultimately, he believed, the homosexuality issue was a heresy issue, a question of the authority and thus deity of Christ, but we had to stay and push back and force the discussion to the point where that was admitted, before we could think about breaking fellowship. Brian Brock wanted to emphasize, likewise, our duty to be a faithful witness, a witness that would be taken away if we were simply to leg it to the next denomination. I asked why we had to talk about leaving a denomination, when, if we were faithfully protesting against high-handed sin, we would be kicked out in due course anyway, and shouldn’t we wait for that to happen, rather than initiating the separation? Leithart accepted to some extent all these caveats, and in the end, he and Webster weren’t too far apart, it seemed. Most interestingly, several younger evangelical students voiced very strongly the objection that it seemed very hypocritical for conservative Christians to take such a hard-line disciplinary stance on this issue, when for decades there had been almost no concern or exercise of discipline in conservative churches over equally blatant violations of the Christian economic ethics (more important in the NT than sexual issues). Naturally, I was sympathetic to this line of criticism, but ultimately, I concurred with Leithart’s rebuttal that it wasn’t that simple, because most the economic sins being critiqued, however serious, were harder to pin down for church discipline than was open homosexuality; and I also countered that just because we’d been too soft on one sin didn’t mean the best thing to make things right was to start being soft on other sins as well. Nonetheless, I do think that conservative Christians need to remove the log from their own eye first before they get all high and mighty about issues of sexual morality, as I have suggested in previous blog posts, and it was fascinating to hear a lot of other guys my age who shared the same concern.