What Would Jesus Do?

by Lorraine Cavanagh

The Revd Dr Lorraine Cavanagh is an Anglican priest in the Church in Wales. She has published a number of books, among them Making Sense of God’s Love: Atonement and Redemption which was one of the first in the Modern Church Series ‘Making Sense of Christianity’ (SPCK).

Dr Cavanagh has written the first of a series of articles on marriage equality and theology for us, entitled ‘What Would Jesus Do?’. She explores marriage as a covenant between two individual people alike in some aspects, different in others, compatible and incompatible and finding in their relationship tenderness and joy as fundamental.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Of whom, or what, is the Bard speaking? Is the sonnet a love poem addressed to the beloved, or is it a poem about love itself? I think these lines, and this sonnet, is as good a place as any to begin a discussion aiming to prise open the lock on the Church’s ambivalent, and thereby ambiguous, approach to marriage. In the context of the sonnet I have just quoted its ambiguity lies in the fact that were the Church to adopt these words as part of all its marriage ceremonies it would place the meaning and purpose of marriage, and of the Church’s role in ‘brokering’ the marriage covenant, in a quite different light and at the same time deepen and add weight to the meaning of marriage itself, especially as it is covenanted in a church context.

First of all, the meaning of marriage: Marriage, like the Church itself, is often still thought of as an institution, rather than as a union between persons, a union which honours the integrity of personhood, rather than a spurious complementarity of gender. Do opposite genders always complement each other? There is no reason why they should, other than the biological ones needed for procreation and with the advances in medical research made over the past decade, these are already changing. We need to be more truthful about the ‘givens’ of gender complementarity today if we are serious about helping all married people to continue to lend stability and coherence to an increasingly fluid society. For this reason, it becomes important to hold to the integrity of persons, rather than gender complementarity, as that which makes the marriage union unique. Unlike animals, human beings do not simply mate. They make a commitment. They covenant with each other and it is this covenant, rather than the procreative act, which will ensure the survival of the species, and even the planet, for the future.

True marriage, whether gay or heterosexual, is as much about covenant as it is about depth and tenderness. It is about free choice and commitment between two people, along with the integrity required to undertake the responsibilities entrusted to them in that commitment. While the idea of marriage as an institution (which the Church wants to uphold) lends gravitas to the (heterosexual) married state, it does not speak to us in the way Shakespeare does in the sonnet I have briefly quoted. Institutions do not on the whole evoke feelings of tenderness in regard to sexuality, which is what people who undertake a lifelong commitment to one another are going to need for the duration of the journey. And yet the institution seems to want to control and contain its mysterious powers as they are manifested in married love, often destroying its joys in the process. Catholic teaching on sexual abstinence as the only allowable form of contraception is a case in point. The institution is afraid of tenderness. Tenderness is anathema to its very existence.

In marriage, both heterosexual and gay, sex will play a crucial part in a life of ongoing tenderness, but its importance will diminish over time. One of the reasons why marriages can falter in mid-life is because the parties involved are often unable to accept the fact of their own sexual diminishment. The gradual waning of eros is part of life and integral to our mortality, about which most of us are also in denial. In time, this gradual ‘dying’ of eros will leave more space for other loves to grow and flourish; philos, the kind of friendship which is the hardcore foundation of any good marriage and agape, the love whose heart is Christ’s and the love of God for all humanity. A marriage of integrity is a commitment to all three of these loves, from its very beginning, but not always simultaneously. When any one of them is either diminished or restricted (as for example in denying LGBTQ+ people the right to be married and their eros honoured by the Church), the meaning of marriage is diminished in equal measure for everyone. This suggests that restricting the eros of marriage to persons of opposite genders compromises the idea of marriage itself and hence of our shared humanity. The Church should take care. It is treading on holy ground. Perhaps now is the time for the Church to return to lessons not yet fully learned from those who, back in the 1980s, wore bracelets with the letters WWJD written on them. What would Jesus, and the disciple whom he loved, do, in regard to legislating for love and marriage? Probably very little.

Lorraine Cavanagh
26 April 2019