Critiques of “Men and Women in Marriage”

The Faith and Order Commission which is responsible for the report Men and Women in Marriage is composed of 12 men and 3 women. There are 5 bishops, 8 priests and 2 lay people. Two of the bishops are positive about the place  of LGB&T people in the church and so are at least four of the priests. There are academics in the group. How did these members of the FAOC come to approve the release of a report which is so badly written and deeply flawed?

The Report is so out of touch, so wounding to many of us, so damaging to the communication of the gospel of love, that as I meditated I thought: someone’s head needs to roll for this dreadful error – it’s so bad it must surely be a resigning or sacking matter. But the person who wrote the report is a human being like me, capable of error and with vulnerable feelings. Yet someone did write this and they should be held accountable. That they were allowed to publish shows a very serious lack of awareness and a failure by the whole committee. There must have been dissenting views, so where is the minority report?

It may not be possible to find out, but what I can do is report the reactions of some of those who have posted critiques online (and I’d be happy to know of others who have critiqued the report).

Mark Vernon has posted an initial critique on his web site headed Where’s the good news?

Amongst the points Mark makes are:

Serious scholarly, psychologically-informed and humanly-compelling discussion is needed. The church has largely stymied its own contribution by its mostly hypocritical reactions to the discussion of human sexuality.

What is dismaying is the poor quality of the theology, history and psychology on display in the document. The document reads defensively and often rather literally-minded. There is little good news in it because it conveys such a narrow vision of human love and sexuality.

The non-negotiable, hard place is that marriage is a ‘creation ordinance’, defined as between a man and a woman, as apparently implied in Genesis. This is either making the norm the rule or reducing the rich myths of Genesis to a formula. If it’s the former, it’s simply a category error. If it’s the latter, it’s an appallingly reductive reading of scripture that strips it of life.

The document inadvertently shows its modern roots by quoting Jeremy Taylor. Presumably one of the committee had a dictionary of quotations to hand, as there is no sign that Taylor’s thoughts on love and friendship are reflected upon in any deep way. Taylor is quoted as if in support of marriage as a paradigm of society, when the word ‘society’ did not mean a form of social organisation at the time, but merely human company.

The document says that the lack of a clear understanding of marriage makes for ‘disappointments and frustrations’. I doubt whether marriage guidance experts would agree. Rather, it’s an inability to tolerate difference and diversity in marriages that makes it so rigid and unbearable that it falls apart in people’s hands.

Discerning the goodness of God in the natural world is advocated. But a paragraph or two after this moment of openness, it shrinks back to a narrow biologism that would embarrass even Richard Dawkins: our biological existence, apparently, means one man, one woman. The fact that homosexuality exists in nature is ignored.

The issue of parenthood is discussed, in terms of the ideal. Well, the evidence is pretty good now that a committed couple, with one parent who is especially devoted to attending to the child’s needs, is ‘good enough’. Further, ideal parenting is rejected in modern psychology, because it is recognised that the child needs parental ‘failures’, within safe limits, in order to gain a rich sense of itself. It is clear that good enough does not automatically mean heterosexual.

The thinness of the document means that it will satisfy no-one – not in the political sense of dealing with the issue of same-sex blessings and marriage, but in the deeper spiritual sense. Theologically, biblically, psychologically, spiritually, this is not life in all its fullness.

Other people have made different critical statements:

  • The report contains paragraph after paragraph of self-evident platitudes, most of which would relate equally to gay as to straight couples.
  • It focuses on child rearing whilst acknowledging in passing that the Church also marries barren couples.
  • There is no “natural” sexuality, dictated from the “onset” of anything, whether this was the world in its “creation” and evolution, or in human nature. The notion of such a sexuality, on the evidence in nature, and in human nature, is specious.
  • Many of us know from personal experience as well as clinical and pastoral work, let alone the huge array of studies available to any thinking person, that human beings can and do love across a wide, and fluid, range of affinities and attractions, and that channelling these into committed, loving, relationships, is challenging, and potentially hugely enriching, for all.
  • There is no “the woman” or “the man”. Accurate scientific appraisals in this domain look at continuous variables, not discreet ones as though they needed to be necessarily dichotomous or opposed. Many of us have loved women and men to the enrichment of our lives. We represent a wonderful array of life configurations, family structures, and commitments.

And asked different questions:

  • There are 12 men and 3 women on the FAOC. Does the gender imbalance make a difference? Are any of the members in civil partnerships?
  • How does this fit into the Pilling group’s task? It is a document one might expect following on such a report. This document for discussion would seem to be directing the outcome of the report.
  • On whose behalf are they speaking? Everyone knows the C of E is deeply divided on these issues so any ” we think ” statements come across as sad, wishful thinking.
  • To whom are they speaking? To the Church or to a wider world that doesn’t care less what they think but will have its view of the irrelevance of the Church confirmed.

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