Keeping us all in order

order chaos

men and women in marriage, a new report from the Church of England, which has just been published, is the work of the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission (FAOC).

The Commission was formed from two previously existing bodies: the Faith and Order Advisory Group, which dealt mainly with ecumenical relationships, and the Doctrine Commission, at one stage a fairly theologically adventurous body.

The new Commission, however, took its name from the former of these constituent bodies. Doctrine disappeared from the title – a terrible loss – and faith and order were emphasised. As the report men and women in marriage says at paragraph 50: ‘names govern how we think, and how we think governs what we learn to appreciate.’

Given the name change of this particular commission, one can’t help thinking that the Church of England’s leadership has become less appreciative of doctrinal exploration and more enamoured with keeping faith (and the faithful) in order.

Maintaining order in the Church is, of course, part of the role of the Church’s leadership, but without theological exploration orderliness can easily become inflexible, brittle, and cold.

Many people, following Nietzsche, have explored the dialectic between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in culture. ‘Apollo’, often associated with the male principle, represents rationality, the drawing of boundaries, and the ordering of chaotic nature. ‘Dionysus’, usually associated with the female principle, represents the teeming fecundity of the imagination, the unconscious and, of course, sex.

According to this model, especially as controversially developed by Camille Paglia, civilization, including Christian culture, has emerged from the successful ordering of the chaotic in nature, and yet, some of the most exciting and important works of art have been those in which the Dionysian elements are present, albeit held in tension. Moreover, if civilization attempts to repress these apparently unsavoury aspects of reality, rather than engaging with them, nature has a nasty way of asserting its revenge.

It is entirely appropriate for the Church to seek order amidst the chaos of human sexuality, although, as the collect reminds us, it is God ‘alone [who] canst order the unruly wills and passions of sinful men’.

Historically, marriage and celibacy have been tried and tested means of ordering the erotic, but this is not so today in the United Kingdom where life-long marriage is under threat and the average marriage lasts just over 11 years.

men and women in marriage seems oblivious to this crisis of heterosexuality, especially the effects on the children of broken families.

Preoccupied with emphasising that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and not between people of the same sex, it ignores the fact that the ideal of life-long marriage between a man and a woman is patently not one that many British couples are able to live up to. To use the usual phraseology, many heterosexual couples appear to ‘fall short of this ideal’. Is it not time that the Church of England began to address this situation?

Insistent that children need both a father and mother – thereby diminishing the quality of parenting provided by parents in a same-sex relationship (a category not even included in the list of alternative family arrangements at paragraph 23) – the report is incredibly patronising with its talk of ‘ideal family’ units and the implication that children in homes that ‘fall short of this ideal’ are somehow disadvantaged. And if they are, then the report should be providing the evidence for that.

Names, according to the report, are what matter. The implication being that we must not refer to a civilly partnered same-sex couple as being married. Marriage is for men and women, and hence the report is entitled men and women in marriage.

The issue, it appears, is not so much sexuality as gender. ‘Biological differences,’ it states at paragraph 26, ‘do not cease to matter at the level of personal relationships; persons are not asexual, but either male or female.’ This statement could be deeply offensive to intersex people who, for biological reasons, might not be able to identify as male or female. Something similar was said in some issues in human sexuality but nothing seems to have been learned since then.

The emotional education of young children is said (paragraph 35) to ‘rely on the complementary gifts of men and women’ with no explanation as to what these might be, presumably because any lists would be hotly contested. It sounds cosy, but is another example of bringing order by drawing a boundary, and thereby ‘hollowing out’ the parenting gifts of couples of the same sex.

I think I’ve said enough to convey my impression of the tone of this report. I want to end though on a positive note, with a passage I was reading yesterday from Hospitable God by George Newlands and Allen Smith:

Christian notions of hospitality are always concerned with care for the stranger, the outsider. This instantly undercuts notions of privileged access to hospitality – there is no executive lounge here.

It’s the unreflective privileging of heterosexual marriage in this report that is deeply troubling.



  1. says

    As I said to a friend on Facebook, ‘Men and Women in Marriage’ thinks in binary. We are male or female; intersex human beings are airbrushed out; our gender is made central to our identity. It sets up the nuclear biological family as a norm, with no mention of the myriad ways children are brought up in real life (apart from adoption and that poor unfortunate single mother), the very different roles fathers, mothers, paid carers, grandparents, neighbours, teachers and others play in different families.

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