I do not gloat over retired Episcopalian Bishop V. Gene Robinson’s announcement, nor I hope will any of us. Having endured and witnessed my own family’s trials and sufferings amidst divorce, I recognize that it is utterly impossible, and inhuman, to rejoice whenever two people come to a parting, whether it involves the end of a marriage or otherwise. I cannot condone the relationship Bishop Robinson was in, but my heart is not made of stone, and, so, naturally, I cannot help but feel pity for the sense of loss he and his former legal partner Mark Andrew naturally feel. Yet the sad reality is that retired Bishop Robinson’s kind of thinking about what marriage is exemplifies the perfect embodiment of the desacralization of society and of the world itself within the progressive worldview. This worldview does not entail merely the creation of a hitherto unrecognized form of marriage, but the desacralization of the very concept or idea itself into something that hardly resembles a marriage.
Robinson’s own words on his recent legal divorce from his male partner (legally his husband) speak volumes. His understanding of his now former gay union is, strikingly, no more or less profound than his retroactive understanding of his earlier heterosexual one, when he was married to a woman with whom he had two children (Robinson had come out to his wife prior to their marriage, and they divorced in 1986, two years before he entered into a formal relationship with his now ex-husband). In how Robinson has referred to both his unions– one heterosexual, the other homosexual — it is clear that they were primarily contractual negotiations to him, in which he felt love and affection, but no sense of obligation to lifelong commitment or a mutual transformative growing in holiness.
Robinson’s 2003 consecration as The Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop ignited a firestorm of controversy within the increasingly liberal mainline Protestant denomination between theological and political liberals and conservatives (often respectively self-styled as “reformers” and “traditionalists”). Tens of thousands of more conservative Episcopalians broke communion with the progressive leaders of The Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) under Archbishop Robert Duncan, while many thousands of others joined other Continuing Anglican churches faithful to biblical, orthodox Christian teachings in what became known as the broader Anglican realignment. Still thousands of others have converted to either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, which are, respectively, the first and second largest global Christian communions and which have upheld decidedly traditional doctrinal positions on matters of human sexuality.
Robinson’s ten year tenure as Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, which ended last year with his retirement at 65, saw a decline in both regular service attendance and the number of registered, active Episcopalians in his diocese, mirroring general demographic decline in what was once considered the principal denomination within the American Protestant establishment.
It is always important to reiterate that our issues with Bishop Robinson, TEC’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and all theologically liberal/progressive activists in the other mainline denominations in no ways include a judgment on the character of any of the individuals we are discussing. I do not know Bishop Robinson personally, and I have only met him once. In the course of our brief conversation, he struck me as a kind, fundamentally decent man. My concern with what he has expressed over the years, especially with regard to marriage, is that, from his perspective, there is no objective holiness or sanctity within marriage itself. For any bishop in any Christian tradition to articulate this view and remain a bishop is fundamentally problematic and concerning.
Within the progressive understanding, marriage ultimately becomes simply a contract which can be severed at will, and any holiness Robinson and those sharing his perspective might associate with either of his unions or their own is simply the conditional happiness of either or both parties involved. The problem in his understanding of what marriage is isn’t unique to his approach to the question of same-sex unions, but a far more profound one: Robinson sees any kind of marriage as simply a contractual understanding with no inherent sanctity, no inherent theological, ontological or salvific value.
Marriage for him involves no ontological change, nor does it serve, most importantly, as what two millennia of Christian teaching have constantly understood it to be: a transformative means to both husband and wife’s salvation together in an iconographical context, through which the man is called to love and sacrifice himself for his wife, and the woman is called to love and honor her husband. Missing completely from Robinson’s public articulations on what he understands marriage to be is any notion of either spouse incarnating between and among themselves the deepest bonds of love, affection, fidelity, and godly living.
Never mind that, iconographically and ontologically, two men or two women simply cannot replicate or embody the Church’s understanding of what a marriage is, even if we were to try to raise a homosexual union up, ontologically, and somehow imagine it mirroring a heterosexual marriage in a common striving toward godliness — Robinson’s own words make such an attempt to try to do this utterly impossible. Whether applied to heterosexual or homosexual unions, the understanding of marriage which Robinson puts forth fundamentally ignores the profound iconographical, scriptural and ontological significance which the universal Church Tradition accorded to marriage for two millennia. Thus, regardless of what one might think of Robinson or his position on marriage, what is beyond doubt is that his understanding of marriage is entirely outside the mind of the Church and the Scriptures as the Church has understood them for some 2,000 years.
Foundationally, the basis or unifying bond of any contract is the mutual initial agreement and consent of both parties. All that sustains it is their continued shared agreement and positive sentiment, that’s it. Once that’s gone, what remains? Essentially nothing. God does not enter into the equation except when people want to have Him validate their agreement and celebrate their choice to live as they will. Ultimately then, a marriage thus becomes as unserious in terms of commitment as a business arrangement. I cannot but shudder at this.
We all know of some heterosexual couples who treat marriage with this kind of cavalier lack of seriousness or commitment. Certainly many Hollywood celebrity couples articulate and publicize certain subjective understandings of marriage which are, at best, a profound impoverishment of the sacramental Christian understanding. Likewise, I think we all know of gay or lesbian couples, perhaps friends of ours, who are monogamous and deeply committed to their relationships. The notion that monogamy is something unique to heterosexuals is easily refutable by the reality of heterosexual infidelity, infidelity-related instances of divorce, etc. The legal reality of gay marriage makes inevitable the reality of gay divorces.
Yet the greatest problem with Robinson’s understanding of marriage is not that he is seeking to extend God’s blessings to homosexual couples for something we fundamentally do not believe God would bless. God’s providence stands far outside of human reckoning, and the simple reality is that whether or not a gay or lesbian couple wants a priest of this denomination or a minister of that one to bless their union is ultimately irrelevant, both to God and the Church. Any such union is blessed only outside the Church, and either in ignorance of or defiance of two thousand years of Christian understanding and knowledge of who and what God is.
The Church understands such a blessing to be simply impossible in the theological, ontological and soteriological sense. All that is being blessed is a contract between two people who have decided they want to live together in a committed relationship with certain legal protections and benefits. This no longer bothers me or disturbs me the way it used to because I have come to rely on and trust in God’s inscrutable, all-knowing providence. Because such a contract can only occur outside the Church, and thus, outside Christianity itself, my prayer is simply for the conversions of hearts, souls and minds. We have to let God be God when it comes to this conversion, and trust in His glorious providence and grace.
The real danger of Robinson and those in TEC, the ELCA, UCC and other liberal denominations is far more subtle than an apparent desire to extend God’s blessings to something He clearly will not. The extension of legal protections and certain rights to same-sex couples threatens nobody and undermines nothing, and, again, since same-sex unions are impossible in the mind, life and timeless teaching witness of the Church, let us not worry ourselves about those entering them, but simply pray for their illumination. What Robinson and all those leading the movement to redefine marriage in society seek is fundamentally far more disturbing than the extension of certain legal protections, which threatens nobody: the desacralization and desacramentalization of marriage itself, and by default, the world.
Given the trajectory of recent Supreme Court decisions, the normalization and expanding legalization of same-sex relationships is inevitable in our political society, but the Church’s mission and life does not concern itself with the way or mind of the world. The normalization of a broader society which views marriage itself as little more than a contract concerns me far more.