What has redefined marriage to do with the Church?

Not long after I last posted here on marriage a friend drew my attention to this excellent article by John Milbank. Milbank is a prominent Anglican theologian and prime mover in Radical Orthodoxy and thus an important contemporary voice. (I should perhaps add that he examined my PhD in the ’90s and was very kind and supportive to me when I contacted him 5 years ago in the course of exploring  my vocation).

In it Milbank tries to find a way to move the current debate on marriage in the Church beyond its polarisation between “traditionalists” who defend marriage as it has been understood in the Church over the last few centuries and “progressives” who seek to extend it to same sex relationships on the basis that its real theological significance is to be found in mutuality and love not in procreation and sexual complementarity.

The “political” outcome of Milbank’s argument, in the Church context, is a position that would affirm same-sex relationships (he advocates the blessing of civil partnerships) while reserving “marriage” for heterosexual couples.

In arguing for this third way he advances some (characteristically) very interesting and fruitful thoughts while also putting forward some, familiar to those who have any acquaintance with Radical Orthodoxy, that I disagree with strongly.

In short his arguments can be represented as:

  • any talk of “rights” in regard to marriage (abstracted from any system of law) are symptomatic of a liberal individualism he rejects entirely
  • the “right” to marriage (defined by international law) relates to heterosexual marriage
  • marriage is a historical reality given its meaning by societies and bound to them
  • this historical reality does not have to oppose same-sex relationships. it is not directly relevant to them
  • marriage is, in fact, a “public good” related to the formation of families and nurture of children
  • the redefinition of marriage that has already privatised it is related to a “loss of sexual difference” and the “technologisation of childbirth
  • these factors have lead to a collapse of an old understanding of marriage that was central to the structure of society
  • this is all a very bad thing and should be resisted
  • this does not exclude the possibility of a value and recognition of same-sex relationships but this should not take the form of “marriage” since this would give ground on the defence of forms of social order opposed to liberal individualism that should not be conceded

What I really like about this is that it recognises the social nature of marriage and its historical specificity as an institution and also recognises that the argument over the extension of marriage to same-sex couples cannot be isolated from thinking about what marriage now means. I like, too, that it draws attention to the crucial significance of shifts in the relationships between the sexes and the closely related issue of the new contraceptive and reproductive technologies of the last 50 or so years.

It is operating at a level of theological seriousness and profundity that puts most of what passes for discussion of this issue to shame. It is asking us to think seriously about what our Christianity means to us and what our attitudes to marriage and sexuality tell us about  what we really value and what we think God wants for us.

However there are some assumptions being made with which I have enormous problems. It is typical of Radical Orthodoxy (in my opinion) that it looks backward, that it is nostalgic. My impression of it is that it would ideally re-create Christendom, an integrated society in which the Church takes its place as a full partner of the civil authority in an order that recognises Christian values as shaping the whole of life. In this sense it is thoroughly Anglican in its conception of the relationship of Church and State and thoroughly Catholic in its affection for the old ordering of that relationship, and indeed Milbank, like his mentor Rowan Williams is pretty solidly identified with the Anglo-Catholic tradition within the Church of England.

I would prefer to argue for a notion of God’s providential rule that goes through the modern present. The current (liberal) ordering of things (including the dominance of the market as the means of organising economic life) bears the marks of the Fall but so did all previous and alternative orderings (I’ve written on this before, here and here). Thus, in this case, I agree that the “marriage” that Christendom defined is being swept away by social and technological change. “Marriage” is on the way to ceasing to exist as a lifelong bond of one man and one woman with the creation and nurture of children as its core reality (here the prevalence of cohabitation and divorce and their general social acceptability are crucial phenomena).

Sex has begun to be separated from reproduction and that separation is being completed. The family as an economic unit is less and less relevant given the equal participation of each (adult) individual in a thoroughly marketised economic life. The differences between men and women are being reconfigured and renegotiated in ways that make them fluid and unstable. All of this is seen by Milbank as disastrous, and so it is if your aim is to preserve the past.

What, though, if one found that faith in God involved, among other things, embrace of these changes as Providential? Might one decide that the task of the Church is not to defend the old definition of marriage, whether by excluding same-sex couples or by persuading them that they should conform to a (redefined) marriage?

I don’t know where this line of thought might take one and I’m not ready to say that I’m sure it’s the right direction but I am pretty sure that exploring it would help us move forward from what has become a stale and repetitious rehearsal of well-worn and clichéd party lines into a debate which would help the Church (catholic) to find a voice people outside it as well as inside it might think worth listening to.

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