|Anglican Social Theology: Renewing the Vision Today London: SCM Press, 2014 ISBN 978-0-3340-5188-6. pp. xvii + 111. £16.99 pbk.|
Jeremy Fletcher reviews ‘Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships’
Robert Song is Professor of Theological Ethics at Durham University. He was an adviser to the Church of England House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, chaired by Joe Pilling, and therefore had a role in that group’s report, which he signed. Song says that the group ‘provided the context in which the thoughts in this book germinated’.
Covenant and Calling is fully aware of the wider context: that the Pilling Report contained its own ‘Dissenting Statement’ from the Bishop of Birkenhead; that it could only outline an indication of the processes to come, and could not make clear and unambiguous statements about same-sex relationships; that different views on same-sex relationships choose very different foundations on which to construct their arguments; and that such varying views rarely contain the tools for reconciliation to be achieved.
Others will be able to review Covenant and Calling using their expertise in biblical interpretation, in theological ethics, in systematic theology and in the study of eschatology. All of these are required fully to engage with what is a deceptively slim volume. My starting point is as a jobbing vicar who exercises a pastoral ministry recognisable to most Anglican parish clergy. My practical engagement with theological ethics is at the level of the remarriage of the divorced and what to do with the faithful Christian same-sex couple for whom the most natural thing in the world is to come to church following their civil partnership.
From this perspective, Covenant and Calling offers very little specific help, and it does not pretend to. It does not offer a magic bullet which will instantly transform what will be dreadfully painful ‘facilitated conversations’, soon to begin. Neither will it unite the Primates of the Anglican Communion joyfully around a solution to the intractable problem that in one province not to bless same-sex unions is an offence to the gospel, and in another province to bless them gives the same offence.
But … it does offer a starting point which may offer some common ground to those who are in disagreement. Song does not begin with the battleground of Scriptural texts, nor the claims of contemporary culture, nor an anthropological analysis of the role of marriage in society, but with eschatology. If, as Luke 20, Matthew 22 and Mark 12 state, there is no marriage or giving in marriage in the age to come, then how is our status as those ‘in Christ’ affected by the present experience of our future hope? As Song puts it “a created world of which marriage and the birth of children are crucial defining features will be fulfilled in a resurrected world in which neither is present” (p. 16). “The coming of Christ resituates marriage” (p. 23)
Song deliberately takes a conservative view on the temporal ‘goods’ of marriage, notably that, as a creation ordinance, marriage is defined by, or at least ‘open to’ procreation, and therefore has an inextricable relationship with differentiation of gender. He also recognises celibacy as an eschatological calling for some. What he proposes is a third possibility, equal in status to both marriage and celibacy: ‘covenant partnership’ which echoes the ‘goods’ of marriage insofar as they express the values of or future calling, but does not require procreation, since in the realm where there is no death there needs to be no birth. Song’s contention is that, just as most recognise that not every marriage requires procreation for its validity, so there can be a new set of faithful covenanted relationships which do not need to be defined as marriage in order to express our future calling and our present experience of the Trinity.
Crucially this does not need the situation of same-sex couples to be its starting point, in that deliberately childless marriages are of the same category. But it is clearly a framework which can see the faithful and permanent love of a non-procreating couple as an expression of the love of God, and that sexual expression not leading to procreation can be a physical expression of that covenant relationship. This would apply as much to same-sex as to heterosexual couples.
Song approaches this from various angles, including a view of Scripture which does not shy away from a ‘conventional’ reading of the six or so main texts, but allows for a recognition of a ‘direction of travel’ in the Bible which might allow for a reframing of relationships in the way he proposes. In that regard his treatment of Biblical interpretation and the issues of slavery and just war theory were very instructive to this ethical amateur.
Covenant and Calling has no direct answers to aid the Vicar responding to a same-sex couple who would like to marry. Rather, stepping back, it asks for a “major reimagination of the churches’ relations to the culture”, and guards against both an “endorsement of current trends” and a “reactionary response which condemns the sexual revolution out of hand” (p. 97). Robert Song offers some tools for engaging in this debate which I have not been offered before, and does so in a way which takes Scripture, tradition and contemporary society seriously, while seeking to transcend them all in an eschatological perspective I had not seen articulated in quite this way.
Song himself says that much of the approach is “tentative”, not least how to relate covenant partnerships to existing modes of civil partnership and marriage, and whether these can be expressed legally and liturgically. But there is enough here for those at the sharp edge of the debates to gather around, and at least to express their common understandings of the nature of their disagreements. And there is a future hope around which to gather too, for in the end all our understandings based in the experience of the created order will be taken up into the new age, and everything will be transformed.
Stanley Hauerwas’s blurb for the book talks about Robert Song opening up “a new space for discussions and questions”. It was certainly new for me, and was a welcome relief from the Prime Minister’s Question Time nature of much of the current debate. For that I’m grateful. Whether it will help in the next two years of facilitated conversations remains to be seen. And I’ll be fascinated to read what those coming from a conservative position make of it all.
Should you read it? Yes.
Jeremy Fletcher is the Vicar of Beverley Minster in the diocese of York.