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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sermon on Civil Union / Gay marriage debate


It has been some months since I wrote anything in this blog - but here is the draft of the sermon I gave in the Cathedral this morning.

The debate in parliament on what has been characterised as ‘gay marriage’ has dominated many of the headlines this past week and the Prime Minister has warned MPs that the debate could become emotive.  There has also been a great deal of email traffic on the subject and I was at a diocesan meeting recently where someone reported that an influential parishioner had warned that if the Anglican Church came out in favour of gay marriage, he/she would withdraw their support.  

What do we think about this?  I am still thinking my way through the subject and in this sermon I am not telling anyone what they should think but rather sharing where my thinking and my prayer seem to be taking me.

I think one of the most obvious facts we need to be clear about is that not everyone in this debate is talking about the same thing.  For instance church and state views on marriage are not identical.

One fact is certain.  The church did not invent marriage and certainly does not ‘own’ it.  Marriage has ancient roots in human society – anthropologists speculate that it began when hunter-gatherers began to settle and form agrarian societies, possibly in Mesopotamia about 5000 years ago.  

Also over many centuries marriage has tended mainly to be not about ‘love’ but about an ordering of relationships with a very pragmatic and secular purpose, namely to ensure that property was secured.  Until relatively modern times, even in Christian and church contexts, this attitude was influential.

Today, what marriage and civil unions have in common is that they are both a way of ordering human relationships.  I understand that the Civil Union legislation in New Zealand is largely based on the Marriage Act.  As I have attempted to follow the debate I have sometimes wondered what the problem was – and how marriage and civil union can be deemed substantially different in what they set out to do.  I struggle to see a difference.

So I am trying to think this through theologically.  To do this we need to begin at the beginning (Theology 101!) - with understanding ourselves (all humanity irrespective of belief) as created by God and, most significantly, ‘created in the image of God’.  This means that in all our diversity and with all the divergent complexities of genes, physiology and psychology that form us as human beings – we all carry the divine imprint ‘the image of God’.  That is our distinctive claim as human beings and on that foundation we build a vast range of attendant theological claims – including, for instance, human rights, theologies of knowledge and creativity and so on.

(Someone may say – ‘what about evil?’  How can the image of God square up with the fact of evil?  Well let’s think of the image in us as being ‘defaced’ and needing to be restored: that is the redemptive work of Christ and our task in this life is to so live and work that, by God’s grace, the image of God shines clear through us.)

What I notice however is that, in the church, we repeatedly seem to ignore this fundamental reality about ourselves.  We have a history of doing this quite ruthlessly: we repeatedly demonise those who think differently from us.  For example, the church labelled Galileo as a heretic and started the Crusades saying this was God’s will: so much for us acknowledging the image of God in the other!

When we read the Epistle and the gospel texts set for this Sunday we encounter what the Apostle James calls ‘the law of liberty’ and what Jesus speaks of as being ‘within…the human heart’.

Please bear with me if I boldly over-simplify here!  If I understand the gospel at all, it is that we are called into a greater and more radical freedom than we can imagine, and more than we may be comfortable with!  At the very centre of it all, what deeply matters is who we are in our hearts and who we are becoming - together!

So, let’s think about marriage – briefly.   Since 1563 (The Council of Trent) the church has understood marriage as a sacrament.  I think this is absolutely right – but I am speaking as an Anglican theologian – and the sacramental nature of marriage lies not in what the church does but in the relationship itself.  It is in what the couple gift to each other: their love and commitment to each other through all the hazards of life.  Together (in the old language of the catechism) their life together is sacramental - an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’.  They are each bearers of the grace and love of God, of healing and wholeness, to one another and to the world.

Notice, if you would, that I am not talking about gender here, but about the signs of grace and holiness that flow through our human capacity for love and commitment: whether ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ the capacity and the call for us to be bearers of Christ to one another remains at the heart of our deepest relationships.  Whatever name we may give to any ceremony that acknowledges this does not seem to me very important.
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