Friday, 28 February 2014

Different Understandings of Marriage

The Church of England's understanding of marriage is defined in Canon B30.
The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
In addition, B31 specifies impediments which invalidate an alleged marriage. If one of the partners is below the age of 16 the purported marriage is void. The same applies if the two partners to the purported marriage are closely related to each other as defined by the table of kindred and affinity published with this canon. B32 specifies "certain impediments to the solemnization of matrimony", presumably distinguishing these from "impediments to marriage" itself (B31) which suggests to me that the minister who contravenes B31 may face consequences but the marriage would not be void.

This understanding obviously differs vastly from the understanding of marriage held by any who are prepared to contemplate human-animal marriage-like arrangements. But it also differs to a greater or lesser extent from the understanding of those who
  • allow not only for the betrothal of minors but for actual marriages involving children, e.g. in Ethiopia, Niger, Mali, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and other places, including some provinces in Canada, if the bride is with child and written parental permission is given
  • allow for the marriage, e.g., between an aunt and her nephew which is apparently the case in Austria, France, Argentina, Brazil and Australia (see avunculate marriage)
  • allow for a man or woman to enter into more than one concurrent marriage, e.g. in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other places
  • allow marriage-like arrangements between more than two people (although practised, such group marriages do not seem to be legally recognised anywhere)
 The Church of England's understanding of marriage differs also from the understanding of those who
  • deny that marriage is designed to be permanent and lifelong*
  • deny that marriage requires a complementarity of sexes
  • deny that marriage demands sexual exclusivity
  • deny the desirability of linking procreation with marriage
*All Christian churches agree that marriages are for life but there is disagreement as to whether this means that marriages should not be broken (the Eastern Orthodox position) or cannot be broken (the Roman Catholic position). The position of the Church of England agrees with the Eastern Orthodox rather than Roman Catholic view but there is disagreement as to whether this was its historic view.

 The Church of England's understanding of marriage differs also from the understanding of those who
  • enter marriage with the hope and plan that they will not have children
  • enter marriage with the intention of refusing sexual intercourse
  • enter marriage without the aim of caring for one another
  • enter marriage with prenuptial agreements
Given the increasing divergence between the Church's understanding of marriage and the understanding of marriage held in British society at large, paragraph 3 of Canon B30 has increased in importance:
It shall be the duty of the minister, when application is made to him for matrimony to be solemnized in the church of which he is the minister, to explain to the two persons who desire to be married the Church’s doctrine of marriage as herein set forth, and the need of God’s grace in order that they may discharge aright their obligations as married persons.

Error in the Bishops Guidance on Same Sex Marriages

There is a lot of excitement about an (alleged or apparent or possible or real) error in the House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage (on which I have reflected here). A number of academics have now written to the House of Bishop. Among them the Bishop of Buckingham who reproduces the letter on his blog. 

The offending statement is this
There will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.
Not so, the academics point out:
This is inaccurate. Civil law and church teaching have diverged before, on at least two occasions. The first was in relation to the marriage to a deceased wife's sister, the second in relation to the remarriage of divorcees.
The letter does not actually tell us why the divergence of church teaching and civil law in these two cases is thought to affect "the general understanding and definition of marriage" but points instead to a summary by one of the signatories, Scot Peterson, of the "robust discussion of this topic" in recent days and stresses that
We are all in agreement that the statement in the Bishops Guidance is mistaken and misleading.
Not only that. It seems to these academics that the error "forms an important part of the case which is being made" which is why they tried to resolve this with "Mr Arora and Mr Fittall" [Revd Arun Arora, Director of Communication, and Mr William Fittall, Secretary to the House of Bishops] but these attempts "have failed."
There is growing concern amongst the academic community about the situation.
Some of these academics "are anxious to improve channels of communication with the Church" in the hope that their "research and scholarship can be used constructively."

This is maybe by way of contrast to the response they received from William Fittall who had the audacity to disagree with their reading of the situation.

Bernard Randall suggests in a comment thread at TA that while the prohibition of incest can be considered part of the general definition of marriage, the question what constitutes incest is not:
the Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act changed the definition of incest, to remove DWS from the forbidden list. Incest changed, not marriage.
He also suggests that what allowing for a second marriage changed is not so much the definition of marriage but the definition of adultery but accepts that this may come down to a judgement call. What is noteworthy about the academics' letter is that they do not allow for the possibility of disagreement on this. They refuse point blank to allow the Bishops to distinguish between diverging understandings of marriage at the margins and at the heart of what constitutes marriage.They may have a good case for their reading but is it strong enough to silence the other side with claims of historical blunders?

In effect, the letter-writing academics argue that each divergence in law, however slight, reflects an essentially different understanding of marriage, while the House of Bishops' statement worked from the assumption that  any divergence which did not require a re-writing of the definition of marriage as found in Canon B30 is not one which affects "the general understanding and definition of marriage". The use of the word "general" rather than "legal" in the guidance suggests to me at the very least that the legalistic approach of the academics is not the only defensible.

The  Deceased Wife's Sister Marriage Act never came close to touching Canon B30 although it affects Canon B31. Allowing for second marriage while the partner to the first marriage is still alive left Canon Law itself unchanged. There may be an argument as to whether or not it required a re-interpretation of Canon B30. Maybe surprisingly the academics appeal to Princess Margaret for the view that the Church of England had always considered marriage indissoluble rather than to the Archbishop at the time who has written on Marriage and Divorce (see excerpts here) and seems to be closer to the view that the life-long design of marriage means that a marriage should not be broken rather than cannot be broken.

See also Frank Cranmer on the Law & Religion UK site, An error in the House of Bishops' Guidance on Same Sex Marriage? - perhaps not.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Jacob Milgrom on Homosexuality

Excerpts from Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Yale Bible, vol. 3; Yale University Press, 2007):

     Thus the difference between the biblical legislation and other Near Eastern laws must not be overlooked: the Bible allows for no exceptions; all acts of sodomy are prohibited, whether performed by rich or poor, higher or lower status, citizen or alien.
     Many theories have been propounded to provide a rationale for this prohibition. One must surely exist, since this absolute ban on anal intercourse is unique not only in the Bible but, as shown in Olyan’s (1994; 1997a) recent, comprehensive study, in the entire ancient Near Eastern and classical world. To be sure, a rationale is given with staccato emphasis—the pollution of the land—in the concluding exhortation (vv. 25, 27, 28), but it does not explain the individual prohibitions in the list, which, as shown (see introduction) must be older. Olyan (1994: 197–204) faults the regnant explanations, namely, idolatry (Snaith 1967; Boswell 1980), blurring of boundaries (Douglas 1966: 41–57; Thurston 1990), wasting of male seed (Eilberg-Schwartz 1990: 183; Biale 1992: 29), and mixing of semen with other defiling liquids (Bigger 1979), on the grounds that either they do not share the same universe of discourse of the list or, conversely, their rationale for the list does not fit this very prohibition. (page 1566)

     The common denominator of all the prohibitions, I submit, is that they involve the emission of semen for the purpose of copulation, resulting in either incest and illicit progeny or, as in this case, lack of progeny (or its destruction in the case of Molek worship, v. 21). In a word, the theme (with Ramban) is procreation. This rationale fully complements (and presupposes) P’s laws of 15:16–18. Semen emission per se is not forbidden; it just defiles, but purificatory rites must follow. But in certain cases of sexual congress, it is strictly forbidden, and severe consequences must follow.
     Indeed, it is the assumption that H is fully cognizant of P that throws light on an anomaly that, to my knowledge, no previous scholar has dealt with: Why is masturbation—the willful spilling of seed—not proscribed? (page 1567)

     An ancillary question concerns birth control. May a married couple practice coitus interruptus? The example of Onan (Gen 38:8–10) is irrelevant. His act is condemned because he refused to act as the levir and thus denied an heir to his deceased brother. Analogously to the case of masturbation, the silence of our text would permit the inference that birth control was not prohibited as long as the couple reproduced itself…
     Female sexual relations are nowhere prohibited in Scripture, nor anywhere else (to my knowledge) in the ancient Near East. Surely, lesbianism was known! Gerstenberger’s (1996: 297) conjecture that these prohibitions, composed by men for men, evidence neither knowledge nor interest in female relations is a stab in the dark; besides, it is refuted by one of the main rationales behind these prohibitions (see note on “to uncover nakedness,” v. 6). Hebrew Scriptures ignored it (contrast Rom 1:26) because in the act no bodily fluids are lost (cf. Pope 1976: 417). The legal reason for interdicting anal intercourse (see below) is the waste, the nonproductive spilling, of seed—the equivalence of Onanism (Gen 38:9–10)—which, in this case, does not occur.
     Finally, it is imperative to draw the logical conclusion of this discussion for our time. If my basic thesis is correct that the common denominator of the entire list of sexual prohibitions, including homosexuality, is procreation within a stable family, then a consolatory and compensatory remedy is at hand for Jewish gays (non-Jews, unless they live within the boundaries of biblical Israel, are not subject to these laws; see chap. 20, comment d): if gay partners adopt children, they do not violate the intent of the prohibition. The question can be asked: Why didn’t the biblical legist propose this remedy? The answer simply is that this option was not available, since ancient Israel did not practice adoption (cf. Tigay 1972; Knobloch 1992; the alleged cases of Est 2:7; Ezra 10:44 [the latter MT is suspect; cf. Williamson 1985] reflect foreign practice). (pages 1568-69)

[Milgrom observes that Lev 18:22 "must indicate anal penetration" and believes that the plural indicates "the context of illicit carnal relations" from which he wants to draw the following conclusion:]

     Thus since illicit carnal relations are implied by the term miškĕbê ʾiššâ, it may be plausibly suggested that homosexuality is herewith forbidden for only the equivalent degree of forbidden heterosexual relations, namely, those enumerated in the preceding verses (D. Stewart). However, sexual liaisons occurring with males outside these relations would not be forbidden. And since the same term miškĕbê ʾiššâ is used in the list containing sanctions (20:13), it would mean that sexual liaisons with males, falling outside the control of the paterfamilias, would be neither condemnable nor punishable. Thus miskĕbê ʾiššâ, referring to illicit male—female relations, is applied to illicit male—male relations, and the literal meaning of our verse is: do not have sex with a male with whose widow sex is forbidden. In effect, this means that the homosexual prohibition applies to Ego with father, son, and brother (subsumed in v. 6) and to grandfather—grandson, uncle—nephew, and stepfather—stepson, but not to any other male. (page 1569)

David Runcorn Reads Leviticus 18

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22, NRSV)
In his contribution to the Pilling Report David Runcorn attempts to show that “it is at least questionable whether the concern here is with homosexuality at all.”
This is part of an argument that seeks to demonstrate that what is condemned in Scripture has no relationship to the “contemporary phenomenon” of faithful, committed, and we may now add egalitarian, relationships.
DR postulates that “the setting” of Leviticus 18 is “a culture in which male role, status and behaviour is the sole, driving concern.” Even overlooking the unwarranted use of the qualifiers “sole” and “driving,” we should ask whether this is the only factor of its setting which is relevant here. The justification for the limits on sexual activity given in Lev 18 itself, in the frame in verses 1-5 and 24-30. These limits were meant to differentiate Israel from the Canaanites whose behaviour in this realm is judged abominable.
This raises, possibly unanswerable, historical questions but certainly should caution us against painting the whole of antiquity with the same brush of obsession with “male ownership and possession” – attitudes to homosexuality in ancient Canaanite, Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts need to be compared with what we find in Scripture.
What is, however, even more remarkable is that DR then makes it sound as if “the controlling belief in male dominance and superiority” is not only the setting but also the intent of this biblical law. Is a prior conviction that all strictures on homosexual activity express a concern with male status the reason for thinking such a concern lies behind Lev 18? Or is there anything in Lev 18 itself which would point us in this direction?
DR appeals to difficulties in translating Lev 18:22 but believes that “the concern here seems to be men behaving ‘like women’ (ie passive/submissive) in same sex intercourse.” In fact, it seems to be reasonably uncontroversial to say that the text condemns “a man treating another man sexually as he would treat a woman.” DR interprets “the insertion of the penis” as an “act of male possession” and suggests that it would have been considered inappropriate for a man to take possession of another male in this way.
DR offers no evidence for the claim that penetration equals possession in biblical law but an argument to that effect can be found in Gareth Moore, A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality (London: Continuum, 2003). Given that biblical laws concerning slavery allow for men becoming the possession of another man, it might have been useful to explain what exactly –in this viewwas abominable about a sexual act of possession in the cultural context postulated.
The view also fails to explain the rationale of the next half-verse. If sexual penetration is all about possession, it makes sense to prohibit the penetration of a woman by an animal (Lev 18:23b) but it is less clear why the penetration of an animal by a man (Lev 18:23a) is condemned. This suggests that maybe there is more here than a concern with property and hierarchy.
The concern with penetration does, however, explain the absence of condemnation of lesbian sex in Lev 18 and Garteh Moore is right to point out that Lev 18 does not prohibit, e.g., men kissing each other.
Seeking to understand the logic behind a condemnation is a good thing. Moore offers a helpful illustration (Question of Truth, pp 63-65). But we should not dismiss the relevance of a text on the assumption that it was driven by a concern which is no longer ours. We have not yet fully understood and heeded Scripture, if we content ourselves with ignoring a text because we know ourselves more enlightened today.
As a self-professed evangelical, DR needs to face the question whether God’s instructions for Israel were indeed concerned with strengthening male status and on what grounds this was appropriate then but is not appropriate now. Why did God apparently reveal laws which were not merely designed to function in a male-dominated society but actually shaped to further strengthen male status?
Given the rationale for the condemnations in Lev 18 offered in the passage itself, should we conclude that Canaanite culture was insufficiently androcentric in God’s eyes? Maybe reducing this text to a concern for male status is ill advised in the light of textual features which are thereby ignored.

David Runcorn Reads Genesis 18-19

David Runcorn’s contribution to the Pilling Report suggests a reading of Biblical texts which would allow us to affirm same sex partnerships without setting ourselves against Scripture. Assuming that all same sex relationships known to biblical authors were abusive, he argues that biblical prohibitions on same sex sexual activity do not apply to the “contemporary phenomenon” of faithful, committed relationships.
This post examines whether David Runcorn’s readings (DR) are sufficiently plausible to justify the claim made in the Pilling Report that Biblical teaching concerning sexually active same sex partnerships is very uncertain. A first post examined David Runcorn’s reading of Genesis 2.

Genesis 18-19
DR believes that the “actual concern” of these chapters is hospitality and that this is “very relevant to, and all too often ignored, in this debate.” As with Genesis 2, DR only allows for extreme positions. The goodies believe that Sodom’s sin is “a failure to honour the stranger in the midst” and the baddies that homosexual desire is condemned.
The situation is more complex. Genesis 19:8 refers to Lot’s responsibility to protect his guests rather than “the covenant obligation” of the inhabitants of Sodom “to honour the stranger in the midst” (what covenant?). DR asks in this connection

(But what should be the marks of a Christian reading of this harrowing story, set in a male-centred world in which a binding hierarchy of social obligation requires the honouring of (male) guests above the most basic obligation to protect your own family? In such a world a man will offer his own virgin daughters to distract gang rapists rather than breach this code. Doesn’t this culture reveal unredeemed extremes of violent sexism and patriarchy?)

I’m glad DR finds Lot’s offer horrific but he misunderstands the way biblical narrative works when he assumes that the narrator commends Lot's offer because the story is told without judgement on Lot.
Seeking a Christian reading of this story, it would have been appropriate not to ignore the passage in the New Testament which makes explicit reference to the sin of Sodom:

Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the towns surrounding them, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in gross immorality and pursued strange flesh, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 1:7)

The concern in Jude is with people who “pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness” (v. 4, NRSV) and the “likewise” in verse 7 refers to angels transgressing (v. 6), most likely a reference to the episode at the beginning of Genesis 6. There is a discussion to be had whether the phrase “strange flesh” refers to homosexual activity or not, but there is little doubt that in Jude the sin of Sodom is sexual immorality.
Sodom’s sin comes to expression in attempted gang rape of Lot’s guests. Whether or not, in the perspective of the narrator, this is aggravated by the fact that the rape in question was homosexual in intention may be a matter of discussion. Clearly one should not deduce from the narrative a condemnation of homosexual orientation as such. (DR conflates “behaviour” and “orientation” in such a careless manner that it is likely to frustrate anyone who thinks that a distinction can be made between the two.)
DR rightly cautions against taking this story of abusive and violent behaviour to condemn all homosexual orientation and relationships as evil. But many “conserving” evangelicals will not recognise themselves in his characterisation of their reading. Nor will they easily accept that they are members of a community that excludes LGBT people “to ensure the maintenance  of its own hierarchical, moral or social preoccupations.” In some cases this may be because they are blind to their prejudices, but not in all. 
Again, DR may have some appropriate scorn to offer to knee-jerk homophobes but little food for thought for any who have engaged thoughtfully with these texts before.

David Runcorn Reads Genesis 2

The aim of David Runcorn’s contribution to the Pilling Report is to provide an alternative to the reading of the Biblical evidence concerning same sex partnerships adopted by “conserving evangelicals” and many others, including many who do not disapprove of same sex sexual acts.
David Runcorn’s minority report assumes that “faithful, committed same sex relationships” are a “contemporary phenomenon” with no parallels in the world of the Bible and that for this reason Biblical prohibitions on same sex sexual activity do not apply to these relationships.
This post examines whether David Runcorn’s readings (DR) are sufficiently plausible to justify the claim made in the Pilling Report that Biblical teaching concerning sexually active same sex partnerships is uncertain to a significant degree. (In some sense, our interpretation must always be provisional but there is a difference between a stance of humility and one which expresses a lack of confidence in being able to understand what Scripture says on a given issue. The latter is also an appropriate stance in some cases but not in other cases and may in fact express a proud refusal to accept what Scripture says.)

Genesis 2
DR acknowledges that the first two human beings were “made for each other” in a sense which required that they were of a different sex from each other. He could have used David Clines’ famous question “What Does Eve Do to Help?” (chapter one in What Does Eve Do to Help? And Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament [Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990]) to highlight that the woman was created to help the man to procreate.
DR then points out that this does not require us to believe “that the whole created order has a bi-focused structure” as is apparently argued by some. (DR provides no references here.) I’m glad to agree with DR that Genesis 2 does not “actually exclude any other kind of human relationships” but surprised to discover that he thinks anyone holds a view which, if pursued with rigour, would entail a denial of “friendship, community or society” other than marriage.
Marriage, as introduced in Genesis 2, is far more than the union of two individuals. In ancient Hebrew culture it expresses a vocation to community. This is often missed. But can the language of bifocus express this truth at all? Or is society itself bifocused – and if so how?

It is true that marriage “is far more than the union of two individuals” although the focus in Genesis 2 is on procreation more than relationships with the wider community and it is not clear what the basis is for the claim in the second sentence. (The footnote refers to pp 32-34 in Brueggemann’s Genesis commentary which do not obviously support the claim and are in any case not about Genesis 2.)
DR then goes on to argue that in the New Testament bifocus “is more often presumed to be part of the old order overturned by the gospel (male/female, Jew/Gentile, etc.)” with reference to Galatians 3:28. 
Given that Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (emphases added), it could be explored whether the first two binary oppositions are declared irrelevant within the church, while the male/female one is transcended without being altogether irrelevant. In any case, it seems a bold move to conclude from the absence of slavery and marriage in the perfected new creation to the absence of sexual distinctions.
Is DR fighting a straw argument of his own making? This impression is confirmed in the following which conflates “image of God” language (Genesis 1) with marriage (Genesis 2):
Is the claim being made that man and woman in married union somehow ‘complete’ the expression of what it means to be made in God’s image? It needs to be shown that God’s image in humanity is understood as expressed through marriage and sexual differentiation in Hebrew or Christian theology. And can this be so without implying sexual differentiation within God – something utterly foreign to the biblical tradition?

Maybe DR should have tried to differentiate his reading more explicitly from real, existing readings of Genesis 1 and 2 rather than setting it in opposition to a hypothetical construct of his own making.
The final two paragraphs in this section claim that Genesis 2 is awash with cultural assumptions which result in it being “a very long way from a Christian understanding of marriage.”
His ‘including’ reading highlights that a “hunger and longing for relationship lies at the good heart of being human.” From the fact that God waits with the creation of woman until Adam has recognised the need himself, he concludes that “only Adam, it seems, can recognize” who is a suitable helper for him. This is of course unwarranted, as any parent or teacher should know. In many areas it is important that learners get to develop an understanding of the needs and answers themselves; whether others do or do not already know the answer is neither here nor there.
(It is interesting to note that DR now claims that Adam’s reaction to the creation of woman recognizes and celebrate companionship when two paragraphs before they were considered a naming ceremony which expresses dominion over the woman. The male-centeredness is said to be subverted by the reference to “side” and the use of “helper”. I am confident that this revised reading can be shown to fit the details of the text better.)
“Marriage now appears almost as an aside,” argues DR by glossing “for this reason” as “while we are on this subject” (without justification or hint of any awareness of how such phrasing works in the book of Genesis). He wants to persuade us that what Genesis 2 is about is not so much the appropriateness of a woman to help the man to procreate but the need for everyone to find their life partner without having a companion forced on them.
In sum, DR claims that the choice here is between allowing for the possibility of same sex partnerships in analogy to marriage or to exclude “any relationships outside of heterosexual marriage.”