Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Rethinking Marriage-Again

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Rethinking Marriage-Again

Article excerpt

CHARLES E. BENNISON, JR.*

Heterosexism-the systemic benefiting of heterosexual persons to the disadvantage of gay men and lesbian women-lost some of its grip on our church and culture a year ago, if a significant shift in common parlance is any indication. Where talk in the media had been limited to speaking of "same-sex unions" or one of that term's cognates, the nomenclature "gay marriage" and "lesbian marriage," previously only cautiously mentioned, began to appear regularly. In the lead editorial of its edition on Easter Day, April 7, 1996, for example, the New York Times appealed for what it called "the freedom to marry" for gay and lesbian couples. The Episcopal Cathedral Teleconferencing Network, in publicity for its program November 23, 1996 on "The Proposition of Marriage," asked: "Why will six out of ten marriage vows taken today be shattered by the year 2000? Samegender unions take place, sanctioned or not. Should we stop judging and see the good?" Conservative religious groups, seeking to discredit the gay marriage concept, began arguing that its proponents were out to reframe the entire institution of marriage. Most of the proponents of civil and ecclesiastical sanctions and celebrations of the unions of homosexual couples realized that the nature and purpose of marriage constitute the underlying question. The linguistic shift in the culture is simply a telling sign that church and society are rethinking marriage-again.

Inasmuch as the emerging dialogue about marriage in the Episcopal Church is really a debate over our putative scientific knowledge about human sexuality, it is tantamount to the kind of scientific revolution Thomas Kuhn called a "paradigm shift."1 A true paradigm shift occurs, according to Fritjof Capra, only once every three to five hundred years.2 During such moments those accustomed to the old paradigm find it difficult to understand, and immunize themselves against, the arguments made by proponents of the new. Their resistance arises from deep emotional reactions based on a fundamental fear that if all they had once "known" to be true-that "God is male and is addressed as such," that "only men can be priests," that "higher forms of life are divided into male and female," that "the marriage of one who has been divorced is contrary to God's will," and that "a lifelong, committed sexual union is possible only between a man and a woman"-is now discounted as untrue, therefore maybe nothing can be known to be true. They sense what is at stake is the question whether or not, and by what authority, we can ever really, incontrovertibly, and absolutely know anything at all.3

For such people the church's liturgy is looked to as a "consolidation ritual" cementing connections to the past, affirming as true what has been assumed, and attempting "to create and maintain a particular culture, a particular set of assumptions by which experience is controlled."4 Proponents of the new paradigm at the same time look to the liturgy as a "transformation ritual" providing through symbol and metaphor an imaginative portrayal of what the future might hold. For them the liturgy is the "holding environment" where "one party has the power to hold the attention of another party and facilitate adaptive work."5 It is, as Walter Brueggemann argues, a "social construction of reality": it is constitutive and not merely responsive, an "obedient participation in a world yet to be decreed and in process of being decreed through the liturgical act," and "an act of embracing an alternative future".6 Thus the same liturgy which some use to find comfort when facing change can be used by others in a polemical fashion to delegitimize the prevailing paradigm in favor of a new one. Because the legitimized paradigm institutionalized in the church's present marriage liturgy is a heterosexist one directed against gay men and lesbian women, a change in the rite is required to delegitimize that paradigm.7

There is no better starting place for considering a change in the marriage rite than with the scholarship of Kenneth W. …

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