Responses to TFSM


I read this week that a Southern Baptist church where I served as a summer youth minister decades ago and first preached official sermons (WAY back in the day) has been booted out of the denomination because an unpaid pastor affiliated with the congregation performed same sex weddings when they became legally recognized in Alabama. More info about that story is here

This was on my mind as I worked my way through the Task Force on the Study of Marriage report. I haven’t been in contact with that congregation in years, but I remember them as a faithful group of dedicated Christians intent on following Jesus together. I suspect they stayed in the SBC as long as they did because they were truly committed to relationship and reconciliation – being the church together. They were an unusual SBC church even when I was there, but their teachings and practices were consistent with some strains of Baptist identity. They were a minority witness.

There is a place for church discipline. I don’t remember Baptist polity well enough to comment on this particular event, so I am not commenting on whether the actions of the SBC were appropriate or inappropriate in this case. I’m simply noting with sadness that the SBC has a lost what I remember as a really great church. The minority witness had some important truth to share with the majority.

I’m in a very different place now. I serve a congregation blessed with a healthy percentage of gay and lesbian members, and I came here from a similar Episcopal congregation. Both congregations offer liturgical blessing on same sex relationships. The Episcopal Church has been moving in recent years toward greater inclusion and welcome for all people, and this is something I celebrate. It may be that my congregation is closer to the majority witness of our church.

But I remember from my Baptist days what it was like to be a minority witness. The minority witness also has an important word to speak. The two can push against each other in helpful ways, leading the church to greater faithfulness and effectiveness in mission (like gears turning each other). So to that end, as I summarized the TFSM report in an earlier post, I think it important to summarize some objections that have been expressed about that report as well. I don’t know at this time if TFSM or these objections will turn out to be the minority or majority voice at General Convention, but both voices need to be heard to propel us forward.

I turn attention first to the Fully Alive project . Two essays are currently posted on the site – I assume more are forthcoming. This is a project of the Communion Partner Bishops, from what I can tell a group of 7 active bishops and 9 resigned bishops and a whole bunch of clergy who hope to live out the principles of the Windsor Report and support the development of an Anglican Covenant. They have serious concerns about the current direction of the Episcopal Church and ask, “Is this any longer a church one wants to join?” Here are summaries of the two essays on their site.

Marriage in Creation and Covenant, originally published in Anglican Theological Review. These authors note (rightly, in my opinion) that TFSM did not adquately consult Anglican Communion partners in their work (as they were asked to do) and did not consider the perspective of those who favor a more traditional understanding of marriage. They raise concerns about the historical essays in the report, claiming that these are biased and limited in scope. They object to the way Scripture, tradition, and reason were appropriated in the TFSM report. They argue that the breadth of biblical witness was not considered in the report. We seek the most fitting construal of Scripture’s wholeness, within which the best accounts of Christian beliefs and practices, including marriage, will be those that cohere best with the whole of Scripture as guided by the Christ-centered rule of faith. Although in our weakness and self-interest our attempts may be selective, they should never aim to be. Similarly, when we study sacred tradition, we look for the thread of Christ-shaped coherence, even amid great diversity. 

The heart of their argument is that changing our teaching on marriage represents a serious shift in doctrine, not just in discipline or practice. (The TFSM report made the opposite claim). The doctrinal shift has to do with Christian anthropology, how we understand ourselves as human beings. Here they turn to Augustine, who emphasized procreation as one of the goods of marriage (along with fidelity and sacred indissolubility). To be created male and female is to be empowered to be fruitful and multiply, and so to fill the earth and have dominion over it as God’s image-bearers or vice-regents in the world. Marriage is thus a creation good, given along with human nature and God’s creative calling for us.

I think what they are saying is that the male-female nature of traditional marriage has traditionally been understood to reflect God’s loving purposes for the world in ways that other unions cannot. They imply the TFSM report does not adequately address this question.

The essay includes a warning. But, finally, if TEC will move ahead to solemnize same-sex marriages without further consultation or consideration, indeed, without a clear rationale, let it consider what sort of future it is offering to traditionalists.

The essay invites further study of this topic and calls for deeper theological work. If it (TEC) is to reformulate its theology of marriage, let the alternative be richer, more grounded in Scripture, tradition, and reason, not less so.

I don’t agree with everything in this article (and I’m still trying to understand parts of it), but I think it important to note that many who do not support same sex marriage are coming from a deeply principled stance. These authors state that TFSM did not provide solid enough biblical and theological grounding to convince them to change their minds.

Scripture and Sexuality: Further Problems with the Report on the Task Force on the Study of Marriage

This essay is actually two responses by professors at Trinity School for Ministry and Nashotah House. These responses are also published in the June 28 issue of The Living Church.

The first, by Dr. Wesley Hill at Trinity, posted here, argues that TFSM represents weak biblical and theological work. Hill offers some alternatives, briefly summarizing the writings of James Brownson and Robert Song, who from his point of view argue in favor of same sex marriage from a more coherent biblical and theological basis. Notice the distinctives of Brownson’s approach. First, he offers a serious effort to interpret Scripture as having a coherent development. The TFSM’s description of a grabbag plurality of biblical views of marriage is not the note Brownson sounds. He summarizes Song’s argument this way. First quoting Song, “Life in the community of the resurrection is life in which the hope of children is no longer intrinsic to the community’s identity.” In other words, with the coming of Christ, the axis of history has shifted. The need of the believing community to procreate in the face of death is gone, since Christ has defeated death. Therefore, since Christians believe that that decisive defeat of death has happened already in the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we are those who can sanction—and indeed celebrate—sexual partnerships that are not oriented to bearing children. Note that this is a biblical scholar who I presume does not support same sex marriage, quoting from writings that do support same sex marriage, to demonstrate the sort of rich theological conversation he would find helpful.

In another charitable move, he points out that traditionalist perspectives on marriage can be as guilty as TFSM of weak biblical and theological work. He concludes, Our interest in typologies and categorization (“Which view is the liberal one?” “What are the features of the conservative view?”) may blind us to the way in which engagement with Scripture, whether on the more progressive or conservative side, is a never-finished task and one that is far more complex, demanding, and interesting than the TFSM’s description might suggest. What’s needed now, in our current crisis, is fresh attention to this material. We need better, deeper, more serious engagement with Scripture and its Christian interpreters—. This is a thoughtful article, not very long, well worth reading.

The second letter is a response by Garwood P. Anderson at Nashotah House to Hill’s critique of the TFSM report, available here. He basically agrees with Hill, and commends the gentle nature of Hill’s critique. He concludes, Wesley, I’m afraid your essay is kindlier than this one, but I think we agree that ideally the House of Bishops would use this opportunity to take up its teaching office and, in light of the gravity of the questions at hand and whatever views are personally held, ask for a report evincing more competence, accounting for more diverse voices, and exhibiting more intellectual honesty. 

The Living Church published a response to these responses by A. K. M. Adam that is not available on the Fully Alive site. He says TFSM and its critics seem to have different goals in mind. The critics are asking for more time for impartial deliberation about this topic. TFSM appears to take its remit not as a further call to impartial deliberation, but as an effort to bring the wider church into the conversation that informs this task force, and the steps it proposes and the steps it anticipates. If I read Adam correctly, he defends the work of TFSM by saying that the church and world are headed in the direction of same sex marriage, and TFSM took it upon themselves to develop a biblical, historical, and theological argument to support that direction. (Which I suppose could explain why they chose not to consult Anglican communion partners as mandated.)

The final response to TFSM I cite is also in the June 28 issue of The Living Church – “A More Excellent Way: Good Order in Salt Lake City” by Bishops Scott Benhase of Georgia and Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh available here.

Regarding the proposal to revise the marriage canons, they note serious biblical, theological, ecumenical, and Anglican Communion challenges that warn against this. Suffice it to say that, if the task force’s report is any indicator, we as a church have not demonstrated that we understand the tradition we have received, and so we have not articulated how revision might in fact be a proper development of that tradition. According to the task force’s own admission, their work was not done in conversation with our ecumenical and Anglican Communion partners, as Resolution 2012-A050 directed. And it is far from clear that three years has been long enough for the process of careful listening that many have called for. They wonder if, instead of revising the canons of the church, we might be better off revising the Prayer Book, rather than approve a canon that would contradict the BCP.  The more excellent way Paul proposes, the way of love, urges that we find ways to “bear with one another” (Eph. 4:2) while we work out together what God may be doing in the body of Christ.

They also address a proposal not from TFSM but from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to authorize same-sex marriage and blessing rites. They question how to authorize them within current parameters. I Will Bless  You and You Will be a Blessing (the liturgy for blessing same sex covenant relationships) was authorized for trial use in 2012. However, our constitution currently allows us to authorize additional rites for “trial use” only with an eye to prayer book revision. We do have a number of rites in use that are not intended as part of a prayer book revision process, such as Enriching Our Worship, which are used with the permission of the diocesan bishop. They write, To regularize breathing room, we would support a revised amendment to Article X to create an authorized and permanent space for provisional alternative rites, subject to the permission of diocesan bishops. I presume this means that before we authorize rites for same sex marriage, a category for rites like this needs to be created, all part of moving ahead with good order.

A final note: I’m grateful to be part of a church where this sort of conversation can take place, and grateful our rules and polity create space for this sort of conversation. I don’t know what the outcome of these conversations will be in a few weeks, but I trust the Spirit is leading us into all truth. May God give us courage and grace to listen and grow together.