Friday, June 5, 2015

"Suffer the little children" Part III

This is the third of three posts in a series. (Part I)

In Part II, I focused on a mistake in the argument of Essay 1 in the report of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage (esp. pp. 21-27). I also made brief comments about pp. 37-38 and pp. 40-42. The mistake is supposing that there is only one alternative to a Kantian understanding of Christian marriage, namely, a utilitarian understanding. Another and better alternative is the one on which much catholic moral theology has been based for centuries: an Aristotelian understanding of human flourishing. This perspective was ignored by the authors of Essay 1, which presents the framework for understanding marriage offered in the Task Force report as a whole.

In this Part III, the format is something like a commentary, with a substantive introduction and then a discussion of a few points in Essays 4, 7, and 5 of the Task Force report. I also offer at the end a brief reflection on the real disagreement between traditionalists and a progressive but not liberal individualist account of marriage equality (ME but not ME2, from Part I).

* * *

The authors of Essay 3, “A History of Christian Marriage,” begin with the following observation:

The history of Christian marriage is as complex and diverse as the history of Christianity, with the meaning of the word “marriage” having changed and morphed as the generations of faithful Christians have sought to define for themselves the nature of a holy life lived out in the midst of daily life. In the same way, in varied contexts, societal and cultural understandings of marriage have interfaced and shaped our understandings of Christian marriage over the course of the last two millennia. (p. 45)

The Task Force does a good job in several parts of its report pointing out how past social and cultural contexts have shaped then current understandings of and regulations governing Christian marriage. The report is not, however, equally self-conscious. In the framing of its theological and biblical perspective, and in its recommendations for changes in the marriage canon, it does not notice how some features of our current social and cultural context in the U.S. have influenced the report.

I attempt in this Part III to describe the extent to which the Task Force report is committed to the liberal individualism of what has been referred as WEIRD culture – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (see Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010, The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33:61-83).

In this Part III, especially in the five-section introduction, the canvas is large and the brushstrokes are broad. I am attempting something a bit more ambitious here, and this is somewhat long for a blog post. I am grateful you would read even part of this. I attempt here to set out a way of seeing things which is quite different from that adopted by the Task Force. The principal focus is the same as before: the proposal to eliminate the statement of purposes of marriage from the marriage canon and the Declaration of Intent.

* * *

Introduction, in five sections:

Let’s look at things from the perspective adopted by the Task Force. If we consider marriage from the point of view of a couple only, and note that we are currently talking specifically about amending our marriage canon to include same-sex marriage, it makes sense to eliminate a statement of purposes of marriage. The vows cover the important commitments that each of the two persons make to each other, and there is no call to refer to procreation in marriages of same-sex couples, which is not an issue, except in cases where the couple will choose to involve a third person as a donor and/or surrogate.

Still, should we consider and understand marriage from the point of view of the couple only? No, we shouldn’t.

Human social groups like congregations and communities, dioceses and states or nations, fare best when they attend to maintaining group cohesiveness and to replenishing group membership. Making the nurture of children a high group priority is an important part of this. Pulling back from that priority in favor of greater individual independence would be unfortunate for vulnerable and needy children and for Christian communities.

The thesis of this introduction is that there are better and worse ways to sustain the cohesiveness and thus effectiveness of groups of various sizes. The better ways involve fostering group loyalty and responsibility and also respect for the authority of officials that lead group cooperation.

Research has shown (see Haidt, 2012, The Righteous Mind, for a review) that, while political conservatives tend to value loyalty to the larger group (like the nation) and respect for authority within the group, political liberals and libertarians are suspicious of them as antithetical to their liberty. They tend to find group loyalty and respect for group authorities at odds with their strong impulse to resist oppression. But this leads them to act as if they assume that the larger community – the Church or nation – will always be there to support them, without their loyalty and respect. So they spend a great deal of their energy looking for and resisting oppression and relatively little fostering larger group cohesiveness and sustaining membership.

Conservatives, by contrast, tend to be concerned about free-riders, whom they see as cheaters, people who are benefiting without contributing or contributing enough, and they are angered by the disloyalty and disrespect they sense among liberals and/or libertarians.

* * *

I share here something I wrote in March, 2011. I sent it to the members of my small group following the Consultation in Atlanta, which was part of the Blessings Project, developing what became “I will bless you and you will be a blessing.” This is my attempt, in a voice other than my own, to express a traditionalist perspective on the move within The Episcopal Church (TEC) toward same-sex marriage:

We are each born a single new thread in a woven fabric, inheriting our place in a tradition that has been refined over hundreds of years, thousands even. The tradition has survived so long because it affirms relationships of mutual support and love in a specific way.

I was born to parents who had become one family, completing each other by their union, to which I was added by my birth. My siblings were added later, and I became a brother as well as a child, as an essential part of who I grew up to be. In a way, my parents had always known or at least hoped I would be born, even before they met each other. I too grew up knowing or hoping I would have children, as I have had, marrying (thanks be to God) as I had always assumed I would. I of course chose whom to marry, but not whether. My wife and I chose when to have children, but not whether.  I didn't of course know all the steps in the dance before the next piece of music began, but I always assumed that to dance was my destiny. It is who I am, who each of us is ideally. It is what keeps our tradition, and the people of God, thriving.

This way of ordering things socially and morally means we inherit roles, whether we would necessarily choose them or not. We have less choice than we might like, but if we all perform the roles we inherit, we are all much better off than if each of us does our own thing. In fact, we *are* these roles: husband or wife, father or mother, daughter or son, sister or brother. And we are born to be them.

For we are none of us our own, nor are we complete in ourselves. We are who we are by being part of the fabric, first of the nuclear and extended family of our childhood, then of the nuclear and extended family of our children. When one loses a spouse, a sibling, or a child, one loses a precious part of oneself. The loss can be devastating. It may take months, years, to get your bearings again, to deal with the hole in your heart. Even if you remarry after the death of a spouse, or have another child after loosing one, you are never quite yourself again, the way you were. This shows our incompleteness apart from each other.

To move away from the nuclear and extended family as the fundamental unit -- replacing families with "households" of individuals -- is to abandon the mutual support and love families entail. Of course not every family is perfect or even healthy, but that does not mean that the standard, the ideal, should be changed to conform to our brokenness.  If we understand the person as a chooser, a free agent in society and morality, if we accept "no fault" divorce and remarriage as normal, if we condone same-sex unions as on an equal footing with the traditional norm for families...then we suppose that each of us is fundamentally a consumer. Some of us desire this type of car, others that type. Some of us want this sort of companion, others that sort. Some like chocolate, some strawberry. Some of us would really rather not have children, or not be formally married, but would rather cohabit. If it is all a world of consuming what we desire and can afford, we are morally adrift, following our own desires rather than God's purposes for us.  With each new desire and act of consumption, we move on as we please.

I am being asked by my Church not simply to accept others' choices but to condone a startlingly different understanding of myself. It is an understanding on which, as a consumer, I have freely chosen one of a number of acceptable options. My "partner" happens to be my wife. I happen to have chosen to have children. I have chosen to stay married to the same person through better and worse, thick and thin. But I had other options.

No. I learned as a child and have always known the form of mutual support and love that would sustain me. It is not perfect, but it is the inheritance of millennia of experience in our tradition. It does not maximize my choices, but it assures me and everyone a place. It does not give me everything I want, but it guides me to want what will complete me as a child of God. It does not guarantee everything will go as planned, but it makes clear the rules and the consequences.

The change I see occurring in my Church feels worse in a way than losing a sibling or child or spouse. It feels like losing the whole world. I'm forced to choose between the fabric, of which I am one thread, and my Church, which has always been the fabric of my very being. It feels like being unraveled or torn from the weaving of God. I feel a deep and profound despair. I don't want to be angry, but the only other emotions I feel are loss and violation.  

No one has assured me that this is how they see things. So I may have missed or misstated important features of the lived perspectives of real people in The Episcopal Church. But this at least was my attempt in March, 2011.

I offer this description as a model of one perspective that motivates sustaining group cohesiveness and replenishing group membership. The individual members of the group feel deeply their relationship and commitments to the larger group. All other things being equal, such a group has a better chance of surviving and flourishing than if the orienting perspective of the group is that each is on her or his own, free to form small-scale partnerships to be sure, but with no overriding inherited commitments to the group as a whole. Get married if you want, or not. Have children if you want, or not. It’s all up to you.

* * *

What follows in this section is a very different sort of account, one based in an evolutionary perspective on human nature. The voice of the previous section might find the following account deeply problematic. Nonetheless, it provides a complement.

What is required to sustain large human social groups? Think of cities and nations. Or think of multi-congregation religions spanning much of a continent or even large parts of the globe, which for instance might cooperate in disaster relief for people in a distant part of the world, or organize a coordination of services in their own neighborhoods for children growing up in poverty.

The answer about what is required lies in the fact that we are not only selfish. We are also groupish (see Haidt, 2012).

Our groupishness, so-called, refers to inner promptings that lead us to make certain demands of each other, without which even small cohesive human social groups would not be possible. On a strictly evolutionary (and non-Christian) account of morality, morality is the demands we make of each other and of ourselves that are required for sustaining cohesive groups for the sake of cooperation for mutual survival. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Etc. It’s all about maintaining group cohesiveness for the sake of cooperation for survival – according to an evolutionary account.

In human evolution, especially during the radical climate shifts of the Late Pleistocene, there were periods when food was plentiful but then extremely scarce, then plentiful, then scarce. During such times, the individuals in the groups that didn’t cooperate well didn’t make it. So over centuries, millennia, groups containing significant numbers of individuals that were prompted to make these demands of each other and of themselves survived, and this type of individual became more and more prominent in our species. Selfishness was maladaptive and lost ground. We eventually became hyper-social, capable of enormous but still relatively stable social groups.

Some evolutionary theorists add to this account of morality the idea that we have a hair-trigger tendency to see agency behind things that happen to us, rather than to see coincidence and luck, good or bad. For instance, that storm is because the gods are angry; the bushes are rustling because there is a predator there; the drought is a punishment; the bountiful food supply is a reward. They see this tendency giving rise to early human practices of honoring and serving unseen lawgivers and/or enforcers. These practices received more and more elaborate cultural expressions up into recorded history, when written scriptures began to tell the stories. As a result, according to an evolutionary (and non-Christian) account, you get the whole show – morality plus, and reinforced by, theology. Honor the god of your particular family or village or tribe. Don’t make idols of other gods. Observe holy days. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Etc.

Of course not everyone believes in human evolution. Not everyone believes morality can be accounted for as an evolved feature of humans. And/or not everyone accepts evolutionary accounts of the functions of religion. Evolutionary accounts can tell us only so much, and some of it is pretty one-sided.

But the irony is that a scientific, evolutionary account of morality is in some important respects more in sync with conservative and/or traditionalist understandings than with liberal and/or progressive ones.

Why should Christians pay attention to evolutionary accounts of morality and religion? Because they offer insights about how to sustain the large-scale, multi-level organizations that make respecting the dignity of every human being possible in practice – not only with our lips but in our lives.

* * *

How does this relate to sustaining our churches and our Church?

According to a widely known though now somewhat dated sociology of congregations, there are four basic types of congregation, categorized by size. These sizes are referred to as family size (<50 people), pastoral size (50-150 people), program size (150-350 people), and resource (or corporate) size (>350 people).

The social dynamics of these four types of congregation are roughly parallel, in part, to the four types of social organization observed by some anthropologists and paleoanthropologists: the band (25-50 people), the tribe (100s), the chiefdom (1000s), and the state (100,000s and up). The chiefdom is in one respect more like a diocese, and the state more like The Episcopal Church (TEC).

The key thing is that, for social groups of much larger than about 150 people (the Dunbar number), in which most relationships cannot be or at least are not primarily face-to-face, the larger group can maintain cooperation only by being a group of groups. This is true of program and resource size congregations, and also of chiefdoms and states. For instance, the congregations of some program and resource size parishes consist of three different groups: Rite I, 8 o’clock folk, “contemporary” service folk, and/or “traditional” Rite II service folk. Any one of these sub-groups may itself actually consist of sub-groups, if the larger sub-group is around or much over 150 people.

How do we hold large congregations and even small dioceses together, let alone The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion?

If you could simply assume personal loyalty to one’s congregation and something like brand loyalty to The Episcopal Church, it would be much easier. Perhaps people wear the logo of their congregation on t-shirts or polos, cardigans or sweatshirts, and they may have Episcopal shields on their cars. They may wear the seal of their diocese at Diocesan Convention or General Convention. This is one way we display group loyalty that is felt independently of the displays. (Think also of the logos for college and professional sports teams, or bumper stickers for political candidates or various causes, etc.)

By the same token, it would be much easier to hold together large church organizations like one’s diocese or The Episcopal Church if we could just assume respect for the authority of your Bishop and/or the Presiding Bishop.

But imagine trying to sustain group cohesiveness without either of these two things. Imagine there is no group loyalty within, let alone beyond, face-to-face relationships, whether real or virtual (electronically mediated), and neither is there respect for the authority of congregational leaders, let alone respect beyond regular face-to-face interaction with those organizing the activities or life of your diocese.

It might be possible on occasion to coordinate large-scale efforts, when interests and commitments happen to coincide, say, for disaster relief in a poor country or in a refugee crisis in a war zone. But this kind of large-scale cooperation would be the exception, not the rule. You couldn’t count on it, because it depends on a coincidence of independent commitments and interests, not on a shared sense of responsibility or values.

Furthermore, how can we count on replenishing the memberships for our congregations, dioceses, and The Episcopal Church? We don’t need every family in our congregations having babies – but if none do, and if we don’t make a priority of welcoming and supporting families with young children, our congregations and dioceses eventually age themselves out of existence, no matter how vibrant they are before the blossoms drop and the leaves turn and begin to fall. Surely our experience has taught us by now that when we don’t make children a priority, their families usually find places that do.

What’s needed is a common understanding among group members that they have duties to their groups, and not only or primarily rights, and that they occupy inherited (not only chosen) roles in their groups which must be performed if the group is to succeed in providing cooperative mutual support.

* * *

What’s needed, that is, is something like the perspective offered in italics in the second section of this introduction. Not exactly that perspective, perhaps. But something more like it than the one articulated in the Task Force report.

Almost twenty years ago, Rick Shweder and his colleagues (1997) described three different types of morality found in cultures across the world (see Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, & Park, 1997, The "big three" of morality (Autonomy, Community, Divinity) and the "big three" explanations of suffering, in A. Brandt & P. Rozin (Eds.) Morality and Health, New York: Routledge).
  • The ethic of Autonomy is focused on individuals and their rights. It presupposes that humans are fundamentally independent, though they can enter into some kinds of agreements that establish duties to perform their contracts.
  • The ethic of Community is focused on social groups and the duties individuals have to them. It presupposes that humans are fundamentally interdependent, though relationships have to be nurtured and tended and sometimes go bad.
  • The ethic of Divinity is focused on the relations maintained between humans and divinities and on regulations governing human purity and pollution. It presupposes that humans are fundamentally dependent on God or the gods and that special steps are required to pursue elevation and avoid degradation.

Some societies in some cultures focus predominantly on one or the other of these three ethics. Some blend them in different proportions.

Note: I wrote a summary of the three ethics a few years ago, presenting them as strands in the moral discourse of the U.S. and the West more generally. I emphasized how early childhood experiences could lend themselves to any of the ethics; if you would like to explore this idea of the three ethics more fully, please see this link.

The public discourse in the U.S. and the West more generally is WEIRD, focused almost exclusively on the ethic of Autonomy. The private home lives and the religious lives of many – and the public political discourse of many political conservatives – are nonetheless often based in the ethics of Community and/or Divinity. The Hindu temple town in India where Shweder’s early work was based is focused on the ethic of Divinity, with heaping measures of Community.

In what follows I will focus on the contrast between the ethics of Autonomy and Community. We Christians integrate the ethic of Divinity with another or a blend of the other ethics, and that is not necessarily a point of difference. I will focus on the contrast between Autonomy and Community as the principal point of difference.

The focus on group loyalty and respect for the authority of group officials discussed in the previous section is at home most in the ethic of Community. But the perspective on marriage articulated in some of the essays in the Task Force report is primarily based in the ethic of Autonomy, including the theological framework in Essay 1 that relies on Kant.

The basic proposal in the essays is that individuals may choose to marry or not, to raise children or not, with no preference for any option from the point of view of the Church. Calling this choice a “vocation” and this social and/or legal contract a “covenant” puts an attractive veneer over the liberal individualism at the base of this perspective, but the fundamental idea is still that individuals are independent and free to choose their own paths, engaging others only so long as they give informed consent – with no pre-existing obligations except those one has chosen to accept either implicitly or explicitly.

If this were not the case, we could expect to see the suggestion that a couple's "vocation" with respect to children would be tested somehow in Christian community. The pre-marital counseling might be an appropriate setting.

Normally, vocations are not chosen but discerned, as coming from outside oneself, whether one welcomes them or not. There is no sense in the Task Force report that individuals might need to have their choices or vocations reviewed by the church or their religious community. Individuals are free to enter whatever agreements they think best, though the person doing the pre-marital counseling might try to help the couple clarify their values and hopes.

An alternative and opposed perspective is that the family is fundamental, a constituent of the body of Christ, which is a constituent of the larger humanity which Christ calls us to join with him. Of course celibacy and/or singleness is a good and fitting role for some and can allow a very great devotion to the good of hurting and vulnerable people. It can also allow a greater devotion to study of the scriptures and to prayer. I know some single people and some gay and straight couples who are without children who fit this description, whose freedom for devotion to goods other than the nurture of children is exercised in their lives and is an example to others.

That devotion to the good of others and/or to study and prayer cannot be offered as fully by those who have to devote themselves to a great extent to caring for their own children and families. But the assumption is that being called to celibacy or singleness and/or childlessness is a special vocation. It is not the default. The choice to marry and/or nurture children, on this perspective however, is the default. It is the assumed vocation. It is assumed as part of our understanding of God’s purposes for human community.

In the essays in the Task Force report, and in the recommendations it presents, we see the following:
  • The statement of purposes of marriage within the context of the Church is eliminated, and the vows of each individual to the other are emphasized.  
  • Inter-religious marriages and marriages with nonbelievers are countenanced to such an extent that the understanding of Christian marriage is evacuated so that such marriages are in no way distinct within an official church rite from marriages between Christian couples.
In this way, the argument of the Task Force report as a whole gives expression to the broader social and political climate of WEIRD culture. Christian marriage is adapted to the social and legal understandings articulated in public discourse in the U.S., focused almost exclusively on the ethic of Autonomy and, in Essay 1 of the Task Force report, which establishes the theological framework for the whole report, on Kant’s Enlightenment moral philosophy.

So just as historically earlier ideas of marriage are observed in the report to conform to cultural norms dominant at the time, so the idea of marriage presented in the current report conforms to the broader secular culture today. The ideal of Ubuntu – I am because we are – is nowhere in sight, except perhaps as an attractive veneer.

Here ends the Introduction.

* * *

In light of the argument of the preceding introduction, it is possible to see the liberal individualism of the Task Force report standing out in higher relief. I will focus on some parts of Essays 4, 7, & 5, having focused on Essays 1 & 2 in Part II.

The authors of Essay 4 describe anthropological accounts of rites of passage, including marriage, given by Arnold van Gennep (1960) and expanded and modified by Victor Turner (1969/1995). They discuss this anthropological work in order to show something important about marriage, namely, the three phases we see in the process of separating from unmarried life, the transitional time, and the adjustments that follow the marriage rite when new roles and a new life are begun.

The authors of Essay 4 helpfully draw our attention to the importance of the transitional time known as betrothal, when the two people have promised themselves to each other but have not yet formally begun married life. But in their description, they miss an important opportunity to observe the function of rites of passage in traditional cultures.

The authors of Essay 4 begin well (on p. 64) in the following, though the account veers off course (on p. 65):

Van Gennep asserted that…rites of passage served core sociological, cultural, psychological, and political purposes within a society. They help keep society intact. They serve the needs of not only the individual but, just as important, they serve the greater good by making ways forward that mediate against chaos, confusion, and anomie within particular communities during specific moments of transition and change...

Victor Turner built on the work of van Gennep…Turner paid particular attention to the period of transition leading up to the rite that finalized the change of status of the person or the community. What he witnessed in his anthropological research was a kind of liminality that was particularly at work in this transition time. Individuals during this period were “betwixt and between,” neither fish nor fowl. This period of liminality often both allowed for and required a kind of suspension of former rules and categories in relations to the person in transition. Because of this, there was a sense of graced time which created an experience which Turner described as “communitas.”

Note: The Latin word “limen” (s.), “limina” (pl.), may be translated “threshold.” A liminal space is between being in one place and being in another; it is in-between places, and in an important way in Turner’s analysis it is a nowhere.

Communitas is about more than just everyday communal relationships. It is a shared ethos and experiential context that allows for greater freedom, greater intimacy, and higher levels of care and bonding than might normally be part of the fabric of everyday life in society. During periods of communitas, trust is built. Relationships are forged, and bonds of affection are created. This period of communitas, this liminal period in the life of an individual, created a kind of elasticity of identity that encourages and allows for greater adaptivity, creativity, and spontaneity...

Turner’s studies of this period of liminality led him to believe that its significance to the change of status process was so central that he renamed van Gennep’s three stages of rites of passage as the pre-liminal, the liminal, and the post-liminal stages. He also revised van Gennep’s work (and the work of others who were exploring ritual) to assert that while at times rituals become the vehicles for societal stabilization and support of the status quo, at other times they become the means to overturn the status quo and create greater systemic change in the society. (pp. 64-65)

The authors state that in liminality “there was a sense of graced time.” It “allows for greater freedom, greater intimacy, and higher levels of care and bonding than might normally be part of the fabric of everyday life in society.”

But this seems to betray a misunderstanding of liminality and communitas. At least the authors put the emphasis in the wrong place. They focus on the freedom and possibilities of affiliation created in the in-between. But in doing so they fail to note how rites of passage in traditional societies move individuals from a time of being someone, through a time of being no one, without role or status, to a time of being a new someone, with a new role and status. That is, the authors of Essay 4 fail to see that in traditional societies a liminal phase is peculiar because of the way one is without identity, a no one, in such a phase.

Identities and duties in traditional societies are based on social roles; they are not aspects of individuals independently of their roles. An unmarried child or young adult has certain duties in their family and society, but a married person has a different identity and different duties in their family and society. That’s why you need a rite of passage, with a marked transitional phase, so that the individuals and their families and community can adjust to the significant changes being brought about.

Turner (1969/1995) describes liminality as follows:

The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial…Thus, liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon…Their behavior is normally passive or humble; they must obey their instructors implicitly, and accept arbitrary punishment without complaint. It is as though they are being reduced or ground down to a uniform condition to be fashioned anew and endowed with additional powers to enable them to cope with their new station in life. Among themselves, neophytes tend to develop an intense comradeship and egalitarianism. Secular distinctions of rank and status disappear or are homogenized. (Turner, 1969/1995, p. 96)

Yes, there is opportunity for affiliation not normally available, between those similarly being “ground down,” but this may not on reflection seem like much of a “graced time.” Turner continues:

It is as though there are here two major “models” for human interrelatedness, juxtaposed and alternating. The first is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of “more” or “less.” The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of a society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders. (Turner, 1969/1995, p. 96)

Here Turner sets out his general thesis that societies embody tensions between structure and anti-structure, with the liminal, transitional phase of rites of passage, and accompanying communitas, being a period of anti-structure. He continues:

From all this I infer that, for individuals and groups, social life is a type of dialectical process that involves successive experiences of high and low, communitas and structure, homogeneity and differentiation, equality and inequality. The passage from lower to higher status is through a limbo of statuslessness…Furthermore, since any concrete tribal society is made up of multiple personae, groups, and categories, each of which has its own developmental style, at a given moment many incumbencies of fixed positions coexist with many passages between positions. In other words, each individual’s life experience contains alternating exposure to structure and communitas, and to states and transitions. (Turner, 1969/1995, p. 97)

After noting that some religions tend to regard this earthly life as itself a long transition and that some religious orders adopt the attitudes and behavioral characteristics of liminal entities (p. 107), Turner offers the following observation:

In modern Western society, the values of communitas are strikingly present in the literature and behavior of what came to be known as the “beat generation,” who were succeeded by the “hippies,” who, in turn, have a junior division known as the “teeny-boppers.” These are the “cool” members of adolescent and young-adult categories – which do not have the advantages of national rites de passage – who “opt out” of the status-bound social order and acquire the stigmata of the lowly, dressing like “bums,” itinerant in their habits, “folk” in their musical tastes, and menial in the casual employment they undertake. They stress personal relationships rather than social obligations, and regard sexuality as a polymorphic instrument of immediate communitas rather than as the basis for an enduring structured social tie. (Turner, 1969/1995, pp. 112-113)

The period of liminality and communitas is a time or phase of anti-structure which in traditional societies is transitional. It is not, according to Turner, as the authors of Essay 4 suggest, primarily a period of personal freedom, including freedom even to undermine the status quo – unless individuals are independent and fundamental, as they are in WEIRD cultures but not in traditional societies.

This misunderstanding of liminality and communitas is part of the larger assumption of liberal individualism in the Task Force report. It reveals a blindness to or ignoring of the collectivism of most traditional societies, articulated in the ethic of Community. The ethic of Autonomy is what you get if you reject structure and embrace anti-structure as normative – but then find yourself needing some rules for how people are supposed to treat one another in the absence of the structures provided by everyone having roles within established and inherited social systems.

And that misunderstanding and blindness, I suggest, are part of a failure to see the statement of purposes of marriage in the Book of Common Prayer and our marriage canon for what they are: teachings about how marriage serves a larger good than the good of the couple.

The authors of Essay 4 add a reflection from Ronald Grimes (2000):

The ritual studies scholar Ronald Grimes has written about the ways in which contemporary society has compromised the fabric of North American and other westernized rites of passage to a degree that is potentially detrimental. The movement out of singlehood into marriage requires comprehensive transformations for the individuals involved and the families of which they are a part. Virtually every aspect of one’s life is changed through the act of marrying; economic, political, legal, emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual changes are expected of those who marry. In a different period in history, couples took months or even years to make these changes. (p. 66)

And that seems to be clearly on the right track. But then the authors state the following:

In the 20th century, in large part in response to changing patterns of marriage and divorce in contemporary North American society, the Church added a canonical requirement for premarital counseling prior to marriage in an Episcopal rite administered by an ordained Episcopal minister. This premarital counseling requirement set up and made use of a period of liminality in which the couple could explore the depth of change that marriage would bring to their individual and shared lives. Effective premarital counseling is meant to foster the development of “communitas.” (p. 67)

Here again we see the misunderstanding or misplaced emphasis. In modern societies, there is no genuinely liminal period, because there is no period in which the members of the couple are no ones, “ground down,” betwixt and between fundamental identities and so having none – because in modern societies, individuals are thought to have personal identities independently of their social roles and statuses, independently of their societies. What the required pre-marital counseling provides is good, and it may well be a conscious attempt to simulate something like the liminal phase of traditional rites of passage, but it is quite partial, taking so little of a couple’s daily lives during the month or so of the counseling, so it is at best a glimpse of liminality, with only a mere peek at communitas.

Near the conclusion of Essay 4, the authors state the following:

When marrying couples have prepared themselves for marriage; have worked with families and friends to create new bonds of relationship; have already publicly lived into vows of mutual support and fidelity; have expressed to those around them the commitment they are making to a lifelong union that will not be undone by prosperity or adversity, then these couples have made their rituals into subversive acts – prophetic acts that challenge the values of the society around them and call that society to a richer, fuller, more robust way of living human life. (p. 68)

But is that sort of marriage subversive? Is doing something right, in a context in which it’s come too often to be done wrong, disruptive? We should say, rather, that it is restorative, redeeming. It shows and calls the larger society to what God intends.

* * *

Essay 7 discusses the current state of marriage in the culture or cultures of The Episcopal Church. There is much here too that is valuable, but again it would be nice to have seen some things pointed out that were not. Early in Essay 7, the authors give the following statistics:

For example, by age 25, 44 percent of women have given birth, while only 38 percent have married. Overall, 48 percent of first births were to unmarried partners. (p. 90)

This emphasizes the finding reported in Essay 7 that many more people today, across socioeconomic categories, are delaying marriage without delaying living together; however, the economically less well off and less educated are not thereby delaying child-birth. The authors of Essay 7 next, starting off well, frame their account of the current state of marriage in the following way:

Why should we care? [Because m]arriage is not merely a private matter; it is also a complex social institution. Stable marriages better the chances for stable families, generally ensuring greater prosperity for individuals and families as a whole. Marriage contributes to the stability of neighborhoods and school systems, and helps families and individuals weather difficult economic times…

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer emphasizes that marriage is both a private matter for the couple and a public covenant. The underlying assumption in our prayer book is that the very private love of the couple entering into marriage has public and sacramental value to the community as a whole – they are to “make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that [their] unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair” (“The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage,” 429). (p. 90)

I would have been glad to see the authors go one step further in the second of these paragraphs, adding the one main point I have been emphasizing in these three parts of “Suffer the little children”: marriage is not only a private matter and a public covenant, but it is also crucial for the public good, especially because it is an excellent and/or the best context for the nurture of children. It is understandable that the authors do not take this extra step, since the Task Force recommends removing the bearing and nurture of children from the marriage canon and perhaps eventually altogether from the conversation.

Still, in one of the bullet points in their executive summary, followed by two sentences three paragraphs later, the authors seem to agree:

Delayed marriage, especially among less-educated adults, has significant economic impact especially for children in households with unmarried partners or with single parents...Data are clear that unmarried couples break up more frequently, often leaving young mothers to be responsible for raising their children alone. This contributes to, or begins a cycle of, poverty that can exist for generations. (p. 88)

No one, of course, wants children to have to grow up in economically distressed, parent-absent households. What is needed to decrease the rate at which this happens?

These matters are very complex, and I cannot hope to do them justice without going on much longer than I already have – so I will confine myself to a few observations and hunches. I do not worry so much about the accuracy of the coverage of the data in Essay 7, which is insightful and a must read for those of us in The Episcopal Church who think about these issues. I do worry a bit about the authors’ focus and placement of emphasis. I’d like to see them note explicitly some things they pass over.

Here are four thoughts: 

(1.) Economic pressures affect marriage and child-bearing patterns, for instance, from shifting jobs availability as many blue collar jobs have been removed, and as college-educated job seekers are expected to move to new locations early in their careers, often more than once. Also, cultural pressures affect marriage and child-bearing patterns, for instance, culturally supported, strong extended family and/or clan networks, which are associated with lower divorce rates, among Hispanic/Latino Americans, Asian-Americans, and American Indians as observed in Essay 7 (pp. 94-96). Pressures and restrictions, of course, whether economic or cultural, can limit individual freedoms and choices. Ideally, we’d like to ease economic pressures that discourage marriage and the nurture of children within stable marriages. But would we be willing to increase cultural pressures that urge marriage instead of cohabitation and the nurture of children within stable marriages? I have tried to articulate my concern in these three parts of “Suffer the little children” that the recommendation of the Task Force to amend our marriage canon moves in the wrong direction. It decreases cultural pressure where it should be increased.

(2.) Political liberals tend to want to ease economic pressures, even when this doesn’t encourage good long-range decision-making. They want to reduce suffering first and foremost. Political conservatives and libertarians tend not to mind keeping these economic pressures high, if they promote good decision-making. Let people suffer the economic consequences of their bad choices. They’ll correct themselves that way. On the other hand, political conservatives tend to want to keep cultural pressures high too, to promote good choices. Political liberals and libertarians tend to want to reduce these pressures in order to maximize individual liberty. If I am right that the move to eliminate the statement of purposes of marriage amounts to an effort to ease up on the cultural pressure supporting the nurture of children, the proposal fits fairly straightforwardly with the usual tendencies of political liberals and libertarians but not of political conservatives. It fits with liberal individualism and the ethic of Autonomy, not with the ethic of Community and of traditional societies.

(3.) Marriage is hard work sometimes, regardless of how well suited the couple are for each other. Child-bearing and the nurture of children are also hard work, especially for women, increasingly for men. In the relative absence, then, of cultural pressures supporting marriage and the nurture of children, people need a well developed ability to delay gratification for the sake of long-range goals. Staying married through bad times as well as good, and devoting substantial personal resources to the nurture of children, including material resources, time and energy, and lost opportunities, require the ability to delay gratification for the sake of long-range goals. The capacities to plan for the long-range and to delay gratification have to be nurtured beginning early in childhood. Some components of these abilities are innate as part of one’s temperament, but some are the product of early experiences and habituation. Another crucial ingredient of healthy development is good, positive adult role models in early childhood. Furthermore, not long after children begin school, their peers begin to have as much or more influence on children’s development as do their families. The deck almost seems stacked against stable marriages and healthy practices in the nurture of children. That is why it is important to have supportive lessons from one’s religious community and other cultural pressures that support marriage and the nurture of children. Why would we move to reduce those pressures in the current culture of the U.S. where they are already so weak, except out of a sense that individuals should be given maximum liberty to pursue their own projects and desires? 

(4.) There is likely a connection between the facts, on the one hand, that over the past 50 years half of all marriages have come to end in divorce, from about one quarter in the 1950s and 1960s (pp. 76-77, and see p. 59 & p. 92), and, on the other hand, that rates of cohabitation before marriage have increased in the same time period by nearly 900% (pp. 88 & 93). Young people seeing their parents go through divorce might naturally hesitate to enter right away into marriage. The changes have been felt unevenly, though, as the authors of Essay 7 point out.

Marriage remains the norm for adults with a college education and a good income but is now markedly less prevalent among those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. (p. 91).

They also note the following:

While earlier generations looked at marriage as their entry point into adulthood and a crucial vehicle for defining themselves as mature individuals, today young men and women expect to achieve individual and autonomous identities before they become bound as a couple...Also helping to redefine marriage is what many sociologists call the “soul mate ideal.” As women have become more economically equal and empowered, marriage for them has been drained of its primary economic incentive. Young adults are now more inclined to focus on marriage for its potential for deep emotional and sexual connections. (p. 92)

Marriage used to be a rite of passage for economically well off and well educated young people, marking them as adults. It no longer performs that function for the well off, so they delay marriage and cohabit, planning to marry some day. For the not well off, marriage has lost some of its significance as one of the marks of middle class status, and they may or may not ever hope to marry.

The authors of Essay 7 offer a helpful overview of the current state of marriage in many of the areas where The Episcopal Church has congregations. Perhaps it is asking too much that they would have drawn out implications of their findings that run contrary to the Task Force recommendations.

* * *

I conclude with two brief sections: one on the argument for the recommended amendment of the marriage canon and one on the common ground that might exist between traditionalists and progressives.

Essay 5 is about the history of the marriage canon. The heart of the argument at the end of Essay 5 is stated briefly in three paragraphs. Its conclusion is that we should eliminate the purposes of marriage from the marriage canon, by deleting the Declaration of Intent. The three paragraphs are these (emphasis added):

Subsections (d)-(f) spell out the Declaration of Intent, which the member of the clergy must have the couple sign before proceeding with the marriage. The prescribed declaration is a series of statements to which the couple must assent: marriage is lifelong; a union of heart, body, and mind, intended by God for mutual joy, for help and comfort in prosperity and adversity, and for the procreation and nurture of children when God so wills; and pledges the couple’s utmost efforts to establish the relationship with God’s help. Traditionally, the prescribed declaration is signed as part of the required pre-marriage counseling.

The proposed revision of Canon I.18 deletes the declaration from the canon. The language of the declaration rings of a creedal statement, a statement of belief that may not be accurate. The couple is required to declare their belief in a set of statements about marriage; but the intentions of marriage are properly about performance, not belief. Since baptism is required for only one partner to the marriage, the declaration may force a false compliance on a nonbeliever or a person who holds to a tradition with a different theology of marriage or no theology at all.

An unbaptized nonbeliever or an atheist may marry in the church for the sake of a spouse, but that person ought not to be placed in the situation of affirming a belief about whether marriage is “intended by God.” Again it is the performance of the content of the vows that is the proper focus of the couple’s intention. The marriage liturgy itself includes the Declaration of Consent, as well as the vows, and the wording in the proposed canonical revision points to these as the operative texts. (p. 82)

It is hard to know what it means to say that “the intentions of marriage are properly about performance, not belief.” Intentions for performance of course presuppose beliefs. If I intend to pay you my debt, I must believe there are such things as promises and indebtedness, and such things as money or other instruments of payment. If I intend to form a life-long bond with you in which we will become as one and you will become another myself, an extension and part of my own identity, I must believe such fusings of persons in heart, mind, and spirit are possible. And so on. So the claim that the intentions of marriage do not involve beliefs is a nonstarter.

The other part of the argument about nonbelievers and non-Christians is peculiar. The canons require that one member of the couple be baptized. The Declaration of Intent requires that both can truthfully affirm that they intend to perform God’s intentions for marriage. There is no inconsistency here unless we assume that Christian marriage should be available to non-Christians who reject the Christian idea of marriage. That’s what’s peculiar. Why suppose that?

The assumption of the authors of Essay 5 seems to be that Christian marriage should be fully available to those who reject Christian understandings of marriage, who, as the argument suggests, may simply be doing their partner a favor by getting married in a Christian ceremony. Why not say the same thing about baptism? So-and-so wants to be baptized for the sake of her grandmother, so we can drop the baptismal covenant from the ritual for all persons because we don’t want to force a false compliance in a few cases. No. Or how about ordination? No.

We don’t remove the requirement of assent to Christian understandings because Christian sacraments presuppose Christian understandings. We should make no apology about that. If Christian understandings concerning a sacrament are not valid, the sacrament doesn’t exist, except as an empty ceremony. We should not evacuate our sacraments just to accommodate those who already believe Christian sacraments are empty ceremonies. That’s how they become empty ceremonies.

* * *

My thesis in this Part III has been that there are better and worse ways to sustain group cohesiveness and replenish group membership. The better ways make possible large-scale, multi-level cooperation for mutual flourishing. And such cooperation is required for respecting the dignity of every human being in more than words. I have argued that the Task Force recommendation, that we eliminate the statement of purposes of marriage from the marriage canon, makes sense only if we make WEIRD assumptions about marriage and about morality more generally.

The ethic of Autonomy works well as a way of relating to strangers and/or people with whom we do not share basic cultural assumptions and commitments. That is, it works fine for inter-group or between-group dealings. It was invented during the Enlightenment for increasingly multi-cultural interactions so that there would be an alternative to cultural and ethno-racial imperialism. But the ethic of Community is far more effective for sustaining in-group cohesiveness and replenishing group membership. It works well for intra-group or within-group dealings.  

There is one primary place where the real disagreement lies between a traditionalist understanding of Christian marriage and the progressive position I support, what I identified in Part I as marriage equality (ME) without liberal individualism (which I called ME2). That one place is found in the following paragraph. I have copied it here from the second section of the introduction above. I highlight parts of three sentences for emphasis:

To move away from the nuclear and extended family as the fundamental unit -- replacing families with "households" of individuals -- is to abandon the mutual support and love families entail. Of course not every family is perfect or even healthy, but that does not mean that the standard, the ideal, should be changed to conform to our brokenness.  If we understand the person as a chooser, a free agent in society and morality, if we accept "no fault" divorce and remarriage as normal, if we condone same-sex unions as on an equal footing with the traditional norm for families...then we suppose that each of us is fundamentally a consumer. Some of us desire this type of car, others that type. Some of us want this sort of companion, others that sort. Some like chocolate, some strawberry. Some of us would really rather not have children, or not be formally married, but would rather cohabit. If it is all a world of consuming what we desire and can afford, we are morally adrift, following our own desires rather than God's purposes for us.  With each new desire and act of consumption, we move on as we please.

Put simply, marriage equality (in the sense of ME) does not require a consumer or free agent model of human nature, though liberal individualism (as in ME2) offers such a model of the person. The decision we in The Episcopal Church have been dealing with about same-sex unions is not a decision for or against embracing liberal individualism and the ethic of Autonomy as the official Christian worldview or ethic. That is because marriage equality (ME) is consistent with a traditional understanding of God’s purposes, with one principal amendment to our former understanding.

Support of marriage equality (ME) requires that we suppose that sex difference is not essential to the monogamous, indissoluble, covenanted companionships that God blesses. The idea that God blesses non-heterosexual relationships of this sort only requires the following: God’s design requires sex difference as normative when procreation is mandatory for group survival, when extinction is a real possibility. When that condition is relaxed or does not obtain at all, then procreation is beneficial and a priority but not mandatory or a necessity for every biologically capable couple.

There is of course far more to be said here than I would want to add to this Part III. It is possible to get into the thicket very quickly, and in other contexts that would be important. But I end simply by noting that support for marriage equality (in the sense of ME) involves noticing how same-sex couples can exhibit the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) in their relationships. They can be and have been for me positively humbling signs of the kind of all-giving love that Christ displayed for humanity.

Seeing that requires not arguments and reasoning so much as witness and experience of the wonderful gay and lesbian couples by whose presence among us we in The Episcopal Church are so blessed. Opportunities for this witness and experience are not equally available to all of us, often through no fault of anyone concerned, but they are becoming more available.

Some of these same-sex couples are doing difficult but remarkable work by nurturing children who, without the devotion and self-giving of these couples, would be pushed from foster home to foster home or would be living dangerously and precariously on the street.

Whether generally as examples of the fruits of the Spirit in their relationships, or in particular as exemplars of self-giving love in their nurture of children, these same-sex couples bless us.
* * *
15 People were bringing even infants to [Jesus] that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. 16 But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Luke 18:15-16, NRSV)


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  2. Don, once more, I think you have misunderstood the Report of the TFSM almost entirely. How you can perceive a value of "Autonomy" in an ethic of mutual submission -- as Essay 1 frames it, escapes me. But you continue to do so, and this utterly vitiates any of what follows. In short, the Task Force is advancing support for ME, not ME2.

    As the entire basis of your argument centers on this misperception, there is really nothing else to add.

    1. Thank you, Tobias+. I look forward to working with you at General Convention.