Thursday, May 14, 2015

"Suffer the little children" Part I

This is the first of three posts in a series.

The (Episcopal Church) Task Force on the Study of Marriage has submitted its report to General Convention. The report includes proposal of two resolutions. One resolution would amend the “marriage canon,” Canon I.18, the formal definition of marriage and rules for its celebration. The other resolution would provide for the expansion and continuation of the Task Force. 

The report, direct link:
The omnibus page of reports, see at the bottom:

The Task Force offers this video introduction to the report (HD, 18 min.).

The report also includes two appendices. One appendix contains seven essays on marriage, which provide background information, framing, and argument supporting the proposed changes. The other appendix contains a “toolkit” for the study of marriage, titled “Dearly Beloved,” released several months earlier, which offers ways to structure conversations with congregations or other groups about these issues.

I have concerns about the proposed amendments to the marriage canon and about part of the argument for them presented in the essays, not because they move us too fast but because they take us off in the wrong direction. The essays on marriage reveal what is wrong, in some specific places in some of the essays.

* * *

The term “marriage equality” has become a frequently used phrase. We can distinguish two types of equality that might fall under that term, one good, one not:

  • ME2 = Marriage equality is a leveling of our assessment of the contributions of married couples through both the elimination of recognition of the special value and gift of the nurture of children by any couple and also the elimination or diminution of reference to the larger common good, beyond the married couple, promoted by holy unions.

ME (marriage equality in the first sense) is a good thing. ME2 (marriage equality in the second sense) is not. The essays in the Task Force report support and defend ME but also ME2. (In the Introduction, the argument of Essays 1 & 2 is described as if it defends ME alone, whereas in fact it defends ME2 as well.) The arguments for ME do not commit us to, and are not sufficient for supporting, ME2. ME has been achieved, though tentatively at this point. ME2 would be something quite different.

Bottom line: Children and the nurture children, by same-sex as well as mixed-sex couples, are sidelined in the Task Force report in the interest of elevating to equal contribution all same-sex couples. Also, too few reflections are offered on the role of marriage and families in promoting common flourishing. But both children and the nurture of children should be priorities, in light of the essential role they play in the flourishing of religious communities and civil societies.

The point is not that the nurture of children should be mandatory for membership or recognition in our communities. Some couples choose not to raise children.

The point is rather that the nurture of children should be invited, honored, and privileged, because it is essential to the flourishing of communities – not least because so many children are not now receiving the nurture they need for healthy development, who then become adult members of our communities with understandable dysfunction. Those dysfunctions cause them and our communities far more suffering than good nurture of young children would have cost to begin with.

* * *

An annotated table of contents of Appendix I

APPENDIX 1: Essays on Marriage

(pp. 9-12; 4pp)

1. A Biblical and Theological Framework for Thinking about Marriage (pp. 13-31; 29pp) Flawed: Though much of the essay defends ME, there is little or no attention to the role of marriage in the common good, and a discounting or elimination of the importance any society must place on children and the nurture of children, toward a defense of ME2.
2. Christian Marriage as Vocation (pp. 32-44; 13pp) Curious: Beginning in section 3, the essay has a metaphor-rich, quotation-heavy rhetorical style, unlike typical scholarly prose, and yet it is footnote-heavy; it is not completely clear why this essay is separate from Essay 1, though they are quite different stylistically; and there are some moments of brilliance, e.g., in “Mystery of new humanity,” pp. 38-39.
3. A History of Christian Marriage 
(pp. 45-63; 19pp) Important but curious: The essay offers a sweeping, broad brushstroke history with no footnotes for checking sources, unlike scholarly history, but with study questions at the end.
4. Marriage as a Rite of Passage
 (pp. 64-69; 6pp) Missed opportunity: The role of marriage in social flourishing is glimpsed but missed or simply ignored and passed by.
5. The Marriage Canon: History and Critique 
(pp. 70-84; 15pp) Very helpful: Especially valuable as a companion to Essay 3
6. Agents of the State: A Question for Discernment
 (pp. 85-87; 3pp) For later reflection: This is a brief and helpful look at a question some are raising about whether the church should cease offering to perform the civil function in its marriage or blessing rites.
7. Changing Trends and Norms in Marriage (pp. 88-98; 11pp) Very important but curious: An overview of opinion polls and demographic data on marriages in the US, with anecdotal reflections from beyond the US, but there are no observations on or conclusions drawn about the role of promoting good marriages and families as a or the essential environment of the nurture of children.

Essays 2, 5, & 6 have footnotes; Essay 3 includes study questions; each essay includes a bibliography.

* * *

The Task Force members have put in many hours of work, informed by the wonderful variety of expertise offered by the members to the group. And there is much to be valued and appreciated in the essays on marriage included in the Task Force report. Here are two examples:
1. A combination of Essays 3 and 5, and parts of Essay 1, dispels the idea that there is a “traditional marriage” and a “traditional family” that go back maybe to creation, or at least to Christ. In fact, so-called “traditional marriage” may go back to some of our great-grandparents, or perhaps a bit further back, but marriage has changed substantially over the centuries, even within the Christian church. “Traditional marriage” is not one thing. 

2. Throughout the essays we find welcome affirmations and apt descriptions of ways in which same-sex unions can offer uplifting signs (outward and visible) of the fruits of the Spirit working in the lives of LGBT individuals and couples (inward and spiritual).

On the other hand, the Task Force, in its essays on marriage, advances an argument apparently aimed at elevating all same-sex couples to equal contribution with all couples who nurture children, whether their own biological children or children they have adopted. It does this by removing any suggestion that a married couple might through the nurture of children contribute more to the common good of its congregation and larger society, all other things being equal, than a married couple that does not do the work of nurturing children. In fact, the Task Force eliminates any substantial discussion or consideration of social flourishing as the larger good to which the flourishing of couples in their marriages contributes.

Instead of lifting up the nurture of children as a service to the larger community and not only to the children and for the personal fulfillment of the couple, the Task Force emphasizes the optionality of voluntary associations and their related duties and of the choice or “vocation” to care for children.

So we can see in the perspective defended by the Task Force a rejection of the common-good-centered idea of the moral and ethical life. Such a rejection has long been characteristic of liberal individualism and what Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) has famously called “the Enlightenment project of justifying morality” (see After Virtue, Ch. 5). According to the Task Force, the good to be achieved is – primarily or only – the flourishing of the couple. The couple’s well being is not subordinate to, not even described as a constituent part of, that of the congregation, or of the larger society, or of the body of Christ.

The immediate practical question, from my point of view, is whether to remove the statement of purposes of marriage from the so-called marriage canon, as the Task Force proposes in its first resolution, removing the statement eventually from the marriage rite itself, and perhaps altogether from the conversation. Another important question is whether we are officially to consider marriage not to be a sacrament. The issue behind the first or both of those practical questions is whether our understanding of marriage is based on liberal individualism or on a more traditional account of human flourishing.

* * *

In “Suffer the little children” Part II, I will describe in more detail what is problematic in the argument of the Task Force in Essays 1 and 2, esp. pp. 21-27, pp. 37-38, and p. 42.

In “Suffer the little children” Part III, I will reflect on how opportunities are missed in some of the essays in the Task Force report to explore common ground between the traditionalist and progressive perspectives.

1 comment:

  1. The main problem I have with this first section is the logical fallacy of a "zero-sum" game as you frame it. Marriage Equality (however you superscript it) does not necessarily "level" or "diminish" the importance of children in those marriages where children exist.

    On the contrary, it appears that you are devaluing or diminishing the importance of marriages that do not produce children. I'm sure that is not your intent.

    Or is it? Do you feel that marriages without children are somehow less or deficient?

    Far from rejecting the "common good" the Theological essay (page 20) makes a great deal of its importance.

    This is not a zero sum game -- all couples can be honored, in carrying out what they can -- a childless couple ought not be dismissed as doing "less" for the community.

    After all -- where would this leave celibates? I would say that you should be familiar with the important role that celibate religious communities played in the upbuilding of society in the middle ages -- and more recently.