May 4, 2014

Thoughts on Bishop Gene Robinson’s divorce

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.


19 Responses to Thoughts on Bishop Gene Robinson’s divorce

  1. Earl H. Foote says:

    Ryan, you make some very valid points. I share some of your concerns about the “shrinking” of marriage to merely a contract of convenience. I disagree that God cannot be pleased by a married same-sex couple. I am afraid, however, that one side effect, whether or not intended, of same-sex marriage is the tendency to take marriage less seriously. This started, it should be noted, long before the current controversy. It is hard to see how we follow the strict original teachings on marriage if we allow divorce–but I cannot take the Catholic position that divorce is never permissible. I think that Anglicans need to look deep within their souls. The very premise of the Church of England was the right of Henry VIII to dissolve his first marriage basically at his convenience. Perhaps, and I think you hinted at this, the institutional Church should address the problem of failed traditional marriages before worrying about the nature of same-sex relationships.

    • Warren says:

      Your statement, “The very premise of the Church of England was the right of Henry VIII to dissolve his first marriage basically at his convenience,” is false, but widely believed. Henry truly believed that his marriage to his brother’s wife was invalid because it violated Church law, and the Pope was wrong to give the dispensation to allow it for purely political reasons. It was never a divorce, but an annulment. Henry was certainly not a good man. Believing his later marriages to be valid, and therefore indissolvable, he found excuses to murder the wives he wanted to be done with.

      Divorce continued to be forbidden by the Church of England (and TEC) until well into the 20th century. A contributing factor to the problem Ryan Hunter addresses, in my opinion, is that some Anglicans do not consider Holy Matrimony a sacrament. In other words, it is not only that, ” . . . those leading the movement to redefine marriage in society seek . . . the desacralization and desacramentalization of marriage . . . ,” but equally (of more so) that the desacralization and desacramentalization has been a contributing cause of the problem.

      • Warren says:

        I just checked, and found that I was wrong. It was not until 9 July 2002, that the General Synod of the Church of England voted to accept a motion that “there are exceptional circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in church during the lifetime of a former spouse. So divorce and remarriage was forbidden by C of E through its entire history until the 21st century. Remember Charles and Camilla had to make do with a civil ceremony, because they could not be married in the Church.

        With regard to Henry VIII, he did not have Jane Seymour killed. She died shortly after the birth of Edward. He also did not have Anne of Cleves killed, but obtained another annulment.

        • Heather says:

          “Divorced, beheaded, died: divorced, beheaded, survived,” is the old ditty that helps one remember the fates of Henry VIII’s six wives. Although, as one writer points out, he did not obtain divorces but annulments from two of his wives.

          There was nothing “convenient” about his first annulment to his marriage with Katherine of Aragon. He was desperate for a male heir, thinking England would never accept Mary, his daughter by Katherine, and only living child at the time, as Queen. (He was wrong on this of course; his daughter by his second wife Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth, did all right.) As far as the writer’s comment about coming up with excuses to kill his wives, he is half right: Anne Boleyn was executed on trumped up charges, but later wife (#5) Katherine Howard did indeed commit adultery, a treasonable action, as it throws the paternity and legitimacy of future children into question.

    • Dave Gingrich says:

      The moment Government got in the business of saying who is and who isn’t married, this was all unavoidable.

  2. cleareyedtruthmeister says:

    Well thought-out, Ryan.

    This goes to the notion that, in modern progressivism, marriage is being used as a means to an end–legitimacy, etc.–rather that a (sanctified) end in itself.

    Perhaps most interestingly, the same individuals fighting for marriage redefinition are often the same ones who have told us for decades that marriage is an outdated social institution…but, sadly, they are the ones currently in charge of vast arrays of media and political institutions.

    Christians have an obligation to stand for traditional marriage, and that includes not only opposition to marriage redefinition but correcting the mistaken, unbalanced cultural ethos, largely begun in the 60’s, that sexuality is the primary defining characteristic of humanity.

    • Dennis Arashiro says:

      Traditional marriage did not recognize marital rape as a crime. All laws criminalizing marital rape were enacted since the 1970’s. How traditional do you want marriage to be?

      • Duane says:

        That is a red herring argument if I have ever seen one.

      • cleareyedtruthmeister says:

        If you are suggesting that traditional marriage proponents endorsed rape until the1970’s then you are living in an alternate reality. Because something is not addressed by statute does not imply endorsement.

  3. Greg Paley says:

    I read somewhere that, after his retirement from his grueling job as bishop, he was “working with young people.” I’m sure that had nothing to do with his “divorce.”

  4. John Smith says:

    I never understood the concept that gay marriage was threatening marriage. Marriage in America has been a legal, contractual institution divorced from any concept of sanctification and sacredness for decades. Given the relative ease by which one can change partners and the quick acceptance of the same by churches (can’t offend potential or powerful members) what can you expect? By the time gay marriage came around the damage was already done. Gay marriage was just the headline announcing it.

    • Steven H. Zinser says:

      Unnatural marriage does not threaten natural marriage any more than an unnatural diet threatens those eating a natural one.

      The problem with an unnatural diet is that it could be dangerous, depending on the lengths one is willing to go with it. The same with unnatural marriage and with unnatural sexuality. They are a deadly behavior as attested to by far too many diseases, defects, and deaths.

      Those who hate homosexuals encourage them to continue their unnatural behavior. Those who care about them encourage them to stop their unnatural behavior.

      It really is that simple. Unnatural marriage is simply a subset of unnatural, dangerous behavior.

      Natural marriage, on the other hand, is wholesome and potentially life creating.

  5. Katy says:

    Ryan, you’re making an artificial distinction when you say that the “gayness” of marriage (which the Church disapproves but doesn’t threaten the Church/broader society) is not what affects the watering-down-ness of marriage into a contract, and it is the latter, not the former, that is dangerous. The two are the exact same phenomenon. I would say the egg in this chicken-egg situation is the watering-down-ness that started with the widespread use of oral contraception (severing the sexual act from the procreative act, which attempts to separate what God has joined together), coupled with no-fault divorce laws that took root around the same time. So heterosexuals started this process. But as soon as you separate the procreative function from the purpose of the conjugal act, then you have nothing but arbitrary reasons to prevent any sort (i.e. gender) of any number of parties (why just 2?) from claiming their act to be conjugal. In other words, the contract-ifying into a non-permanent, non-exclusive emotional commitment between consenting adults came first, and the same-sex-attracted people demanding their unions be defined as marriage is simply an extension of the same logic. They are the same thing. I refer you to George, Girgis and Anderson’s “What is Marriage: Man and Woman, a Defense” for a much fuller, non-religious treatment of this subject. Your argument that marriage is being desacramentalized is fundamentally a religious one (religion being the realm of sacraments), which is both uncompelling to the unconverted and also unnecessary for the defense of true marriage. God bless!

  6. Todd Collier says:

    John, you are quite right. The introduction of “no fault” was indeed the “slippery slope” its opponents predicted. As with many things, the change had the best of intentions, but when you move the “boundary stones” you tend to place yourself under a curse – even if only the curse of unintended consequences. So what is the Church to do? We can either give up – which would help us get along better with society – or we can renew our commitment to the orthodox understanding of life as a sacred gift from the Father which should be lived in accordance with His Word. Days like those of Hosea 9:7&8 seem to be upon us.

  7. Siouxfan says:

    Not what man may say but what does God say read Matthew 19:3-9 God is the final Judge!

  8. Tracy says:

    Overall, this reads as a wooden account of the meaning of marriage which I would expect from someone under 25, or someone fully persuaded by the Roman Catholic philosophical tradition regarding marriage. But that does not cover every serious Christian. Unfortunately, it also manages to fit the model of other R & D writings, which lightly malign persons and ideas which are anathema to them.

    As to the decline in membership of a small rural diocese in New Hampshire — we’d need a whole other article to understand what might be happening there. But Mr. Hunter must think this fact tells us something about Robinson.

    I also take enormous exception to this slam on Robinson as well. “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.” Let’s be clear: What is missing from Robinson’s public articulations about marriage is any notion that one’s genitals have to be of two different sorts in order to enact “the deepest bonds of love, affection, fidelity and godly living. ” That Robinson does not articulate a full theology of marriage in the announcement of his divorce hardly seems proof that he doesn’t have one, or that his marriages have been “merely contractual.” One can surely believe that marriage is a lifelong commitment and be committed to growth in holiness — but still divorce. For a description of the anguish of that kind of decision Mr. Hunter might read Still:Thoughts on a Midfaith Crisis, by Lauren Winner.

    But this pales in comparison to Greg Paley’s inference in his comment above that Robinson has been inappropriate with the young people with whom he works. Lacking a grain of evidence, that sort of charge is appalling. Morally bankrupt.

    • cleareyedtruthmeister says:

      I will let Greg speak for himself, but your comments demonstrate a disturbingly shallow understanding of Ryan’s article, not to mention ignorance of Robinson’s past statements about sexuality and marriage.

  9. Chad Adamik says:

    Hi Ryan: My agreement or disagreement with your premise concerning marriage is beside the point in my response. I would like to ask if either you or anyone else knows for certain the reason behind Bp. Robinson’s divorce?

    I believe this question is relevant because the reader of your article is led to infer that Robinsin’s views on marriage is directly related to his divorce. The problem with such an assumption is that there are many people who share your views on marriage, Ryan, yet have gone through the tragic reality of divorce. To make the inference that Robinson’s view of marriage led to him casting aside his marriage to his long-time partner is making too quickly a rush to judgment.

    I understand that Robinson’s views challenge your own, but perhaps a bit more fairness is in order? Unless one knows for certain that Robinson and his partner divorced because “oh, we just grew apart” or if Robinson had met someone else, this article just takes too many liberties with the circumstances. People may divorce–regardless of their views on marriage–because their partner either is abusive, is addicted and will not get treatment, is cheating and does not seem able or willing to remain faithful, to only name a few situations that might make living together in the bonds of marriage impossible.

    When one gets divorced, why assume it is ever an easy decision? Again, do we know this about Robinson’s frame of mind?

    Until one knows for sure the reasons behind Robinson’s divorce, making the inference between his views and his divorce is not about being unfair to a highly public official of a major church denomination (something which he chose). It’s being unfair to all who have gone or are going through a divorce. It casts a shadow of judgement upon them and their core beliefs which seems contrary to the example of Christ.

    With that said, if It comes out that Robinson was unfaithful or didn’t seek out counseling and some sort of spiritual direction, then that will make a difference.

    In the meanwhile, may I suggest that sometimes it is more effective to speak to these issues without calling anyone out until details are made public? (And why call out a gay couple? Are there no examples of heterosexual church leaders to be found?)

    Peace, Chad

  10. Ravensway says:

    “The extension of legal protections and certain rights to same-sex couples threatens nobody and undermines nothing…”

    Excellent points all except this one above which, to my mind, destroys all the others combined.

    Children are threatened, both the natural and adoptive children of homosexually behaving parents These children are deliberately deprived of their inherent need for both a father and a mother.

    Furthermore, the values and beliefs held by homosexually acting parents are passed onto their children who continue the cycle of dysfunction into future generations.

    So yes, legal protection and rights to homosexually behaving individuals is a threat and undermines a great, great number of people, both in and outside the church.

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