Thinking Anglicans

Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships

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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.

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Father Ron Smith
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“… 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.” – Jeremy Fletcher –

Well, this observation alone would commend the book to anyone who believes that God is present in ALL loving relationships. Can’t wait to read it!

Richard Ashby
Guest
Richard Ashby

Sorry, Mr Song. You have missed the bus. No amount of speculating about ‘covenented relationships’ is going to change the fact that by lamentably failing to embrace civil partnership the Church has only itself to blame for now being presented with the challenge of equal marriage. The Church has a choice between rejection, which will confirm its inherent homophobia, or full acceptance, and the prospect of fulfilling the generous inclusve mission of its head. There is now no middle course.

JCF
Guest
JCF

Um, the same-sex horses have long since galloped off, joyfully, for the pasture called “Marriage”. Offering them a shiny new coat of paint to the barn is just Too Little, Too Late.

[But it does look like an interesting book. Lots of academic (Meaning #4. “Scholarly to the point of being unaware of the outside world”) books are.]

Tim Chesterton
Guest

Well, your review intrigued me so much that I just bought the Kindle edition, Jeremy, so when I’ve read it I’ll let you know what this person who ‘comes from a conservative position’ makes of it. Cheers.

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Of all the myriad of points I would like to make about this, a question first.
How would the covenanted relationship deal with married same sex couples who want and do have children?

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

” What he proposes is a third possibility, equal in status to both marriage and celibacy: ‘covenant partnership’ “ Any two people can sign any piece of paper they want, and they can throw a party to celebrate signing that piece of paper. If they can get a vicar or similar to sign it as well, so much the more joyous. None of that alters the fact that in most of the developed world, same-sex marriage is either straightforwardly legal, or will shortly be. Society is not going to recognise some bizarre lash-up which is another “marriage but not quite”… Read more »

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

I found the book thought-provoking and it made some valuable points, though I did not agree with everything in it. I suppose it depends on whether people are interested in what marriage is and, if it is (or could be) a good thing, why.

Stephen Morgan
Guest
Stephen Morgan

This is just a book-plug, isn’t it? I didn’t realise you could do that on TA. Otherwise I agree entirely with IO.

Simon Dawson
Guest
Simon Dawson

I have not read the book, but I look forward to studying it shortly. I can speak from some personal experience of a church-based same-sex covenant. Back in 2001 my partner and I asked that we be allowed to mark our relationship in some way in our church. The rector and archdeacon both agreed (in less politically charged times) and we created a service based on the idea of covenant and blessing. The two of us were to make a covenant with each other; a covenant witnessed by God and our friends and family. And we were to ask God… Read more »

Simon Sarmiento
Guest

I don’t think the book reviewer is proposing anything, rather the book author, Dr Song, is.
And the review is certainly not a book-plug.

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

Erika, I think the author is hazy on the status of relationships where there are children of whom only one partner is the biological parent (applying equally to male-female couples where the man could not have children so donor insemination was used, or indeed widows/widowers remarrying). In my view he over-emphasises the centrality of procreation to marriage in Christian tradition. But he flags up interesting ideas about partnerships and the Kingdom of Heaven.

Cynthia
Guest
Cynthia

Unacceptable and outdated. No separate and unequal solutions are acceptable. We are not second class Children of God. The idea of “procreation as the raison d’être” for marriage became mostly extinct in the 1960’s. Even so, as Erika points out, plenty of LGBT couples have children. The idea of positioning these children in a separate and unequal status, or stigmatizing them in any way whatsoever, is absolutely immoral. There’s a ton of literature on this. CoE is decades behind. This proposal is not new ground. It’s just more insult by people that would have LGBT people, and our children, continue… Read more »

Mark Bonnington
Guest
Mark Bonnington

Thanks Jeremy for the helpful early (in my case, pre-) view of Robert Song’s new book. I’ve ordered it and am looking forward very much to the read, partly encouraged by your review. My reaction to your summary (and I stress not yet to the book) is that I wonder if it does not see eschatology too one-sidedly as a blessing and a common hope with no dark side, no note of judgement which robs it of any challenge to cheap grace in all its forms. Both sides of the discussion agree whole-heartedly that being dragged along reluctantly (kicking and… Read more »

Richard Ashby
Guest
Richard Ashby

He and other evangelicals ought to have been doing this thinking 20 years ago. But they didn’t and maybe they couldn’t. As a result they are really the ‘left behind’ and apart from the committed few the debate is over in society and indeed in much of the church. Christianity as an excluding religion has had its day and has no future except in a few exclusive ghettos. This is irrelevant now.

Tim Chesterton
Guest

I love the way people are dismissing this book without actually reading it. I’m fairly sure i won’t agree with everything in it, either, but I’ll wait ’til I’ve read it before I express an opinion on it.

Father Ron Smith
Guest

All of this seems to beg the question of – whether there are couples around today who live together, have children, and do not seek the ‘blessing’ of either secular or religious marriage? Such people may look at the divorce statistics and wonder what is the benefit of a piece of paper, when their commitment to one another in love gives them all they need to live out their loving monogamous relationship.

Our daughter and her partner are one such couple. Do we treat them differently from the rest of our family? NO!. Does God treat them differently?

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Thanks Savi. This review makes a lot of non-procreation as a starting point for having a separate institution also for straight couples who want to remain childless. If that’s the starting point, we’re in for trouble. People who may not want children when they marry nevertheless end up having them later. Married people end up not having children. Gay couples have children. In second marriages people marry without wanting joint children although they may each have their own already. The second question is whether the CoE will from then refuse marriage to straight couples who admit they’re not planning to… Read more »

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Tim,
presumably, the review was to give us an idea of the thrust of the book and its key arguments.

If that’s the case, it’s perfectly acceptable to say that, based on the review, it doesn’t look like it’s worth rather a lot of money.

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

Robert Song’s book is not prescriptive about answers, Erika, and recognises the point you made: ‘What if a heterosexual couple who had embarked on a covenant partnership then decided they wanted to have children? Or if they had embarked on marriage and then had decided they wished to be childless?’ He flags up a series of possibilities at the end, including thinking of marriage as a form of covenant partnership. I think it is useful for theologians to keep addressing such questions as the significance of lifelong committed relationships within the broader context of salvation in Christ. In addition many… Read more »

Rob MacSwain
Guest
Rob MacSwain

In the acknowledgements of his book *Strangers and Friends* (1995), the late Michael Vasey thanked Robert Song as someone who not only believed in the book but who had “gone to great lengths to support and help me in the writing of it.” I read and commented on Robert’s own book in manuscript and am thanked for doing so, and he pays tribute to Michael’s crucial influence as well. Before denouncing Robert’s book, I suggest that people read it first. It is one thing to know you are right on a given topic, it is another thing to produce cogent… Read more »

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

The usual argument against forbidding marriage to opposite-sex couples where one party is a post-menopausal or otherwise infertile woman is that miracles can happen, and therefore such a marriage is “open” to procreation.

I’ve never heard of a vicar forbidding marriage to a woman who has had a hysterectomy, bilateral oophorectomy or similar, so presumably the scale of the miracle is quite substantial. In which case, why can’t the same potential for a miracle make lesbian women “open to procreation” as well?

Laurie Roberts
Guest
Laurie Roberts

‘…I’m fairly sure i won’t agree with everything in it, either, but I’ll wait ’til I’ve read it before I express an opinion on it.’

So easy to say when this issue is for you, not an issue, but a subject – an academic subject.

Meanwhile, millions of us (continue) to be born, to live with little chuchly help, and die.

Sobering stuff.

should I / we ‘contribute’

‘Towards a Theology of Complacency & Neglect’ ?

Laurie Roberts
Guest
Laurie Roberts

And there was I this past sixty odd years, thinking that marriage is a covenanted relationship.

CRW
Guest
CRW

What does think book think gay people with adopted children should do?

Cynthia
Guest
Cynthia

Essentially, how would that read if the topic was race instead of orientation? It would look dreadful and everyone would rightfully denounce it as racist. That is exactly the moral level of this book, as presented in the review. There isn’t any “different” treatment that is just. And it is particularly unjust to the most vulnerable, children. Some may regard my view as politically radical. I regard the homophobic view as radically indifferent to the plight of children, and radically blind to the moral issues. I don’t find it to be respectable theology. I think we can well imagine what… Read more »

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

For me there’s this sense of weariness when people earnestly debate various ways of blessing various conceivable forms of partnerships. I’m sure it’s all worthy and it helps people to discuss gay relationships a bit longer and feel terribly constructive about coming up with third, fourth and fifth ways. But please… A little realism? We are getting married now just like any other couple. Do people really believe that this fight will be over until the church accepts that and treats us completely equal to others? By all means, have more intermediate books and debates and resolutions. But don’t kid… Read more »

Cynthia
Guest
Cynthia

“I believe it would be a sad day if it were regarded as irrelevant or even offensive to reflect thoughtfully on the theological meaning of any sacrament or covenantal bond.” It’s great to reflect on the sacraments and covenants. It is immoral to relegate a class of people to different treatment regarding those sacraments and covenants. It has a clearly harmful effect on children. Again, there is such a tendency here to subject vulnerable human beings to abstract argument while ignoring the moral issues. Does England not have any theologians writing on morality and ethics in regard to the issues… Read more »

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

“‘What if a heterosexual couple who had embarked on a covenant partnership then decided they wanted to have children? Or if they had embarked on marriage and then had decided they wished to be childless?'” This is angels on a pin stuff. No-one, outside a few obsessives with approximately zero traction in either the church or society more widely, has the slightest difficulty with married couples not having children, and the idea that they are not really married is hardly a mainstream concern. I guess that if you are one of those obsessives you don’t have the emotional skills sufficient… Read more »

John Bunyan
Guest
John Bunyan

To continually label all those who oppose same-sex marriage (which is not authorised here in Australia)as “homophobic” does not help the cause of those who support it. Opponents here range from the conservative PM, Mr Abbott and the former Labor PM, Ms Gillard, to the liberally minded Primate of Australia, the Archbishop of Melbourne – and myself as an ordinary, ancient, C.of E. chaplain, theologically radically liberal (but admittedly culturally conservative).

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

I would be very surprised, Cynthia, if a theologian who wrote a theological reflection on ethnicity which tried to apply a just and consistent approach to both ethnic majority and minority people’s experiences was instantly condemned as racist without even bothering to read what he had written. It might be argued that every right-thinking person knows exactly what marriage is and why it matters to Christians, but I keep meeting people (even among those who are also LGBT and supporters of equal marriage) whose views are not identical to my own, which have developed over the years. I found Robert… Read more »

Laurence Cunnington
Guest
Laurence Cunnington

“To continually label all those who oppose same-sex marriage …as “homophobic” does not help the cause of those who support it.” John Bunyan

Other than the fact that it’s a label you don’t want attached to yourself, in what way is it unhelpful?

Jeremy Pemberton
Guest
Jeremy Pemberton

We are continually being told that we cannot use the word homophobia to describe attitudes and actions by churches and their leaders who are opposed to giving LGBT people equal rights in society. Not even in the church, note, but in society. This, of course, includes their opposition to equal marriage. Homophobic behaviour is behaviour that either directly or indirectly does harm to LGBT people. By that measure the Church of England has a fairly severe problem with institutional homophobia. The sooner its leadership faces up to this, the better. Bleating about it not being helpful is not going to… Read more »

Jo
Guest
Jo

Calling it something different won’t stop it being homophobia.

Tim Chesterton
Guest

‘So easy to say when this issue is for you, not an issue, but a subject – an academic subject.’

Laurie, since you don’t know me from a hole in the wall, that’s a very big assumption to make.

Dennis
Guest
Dennis

I’m sorry but yes, that ship has sailed. If you are opposed to marriage equality you are homophobic. I’m sorry if you don’t like the term but you can’t hold these views and object to the term. There was a time when it was permitted in polite society to hold reactionary views on race. And I remember people just forty years ago complaining about being called racists. But their objections had no weight. By all objective measures they were racists. Similarly in this age the denial of marriage equality to a class of people because of their sexual orientation is… Read more »

Cynthia
Guest
Cynthia

“To continually label all those who oppose same-sex marriage (which is not authorised here in Australia) as “homophobic” does not help the cause…” Homophobia and racism are equally sinful. Ignoring the harm caused by homophobia on vulnerable people, most obviously on children, is far less OK than calling homophobia what it is. Are you going to have a separate covenant for bi-racial couples? No! Are you going to stigmatize their children with a second class covenant? No! That’s where Western society is now, for the most part. Not that we’ve solved the racial issues, we most certainly have not. But… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

I loved the link with Simon Dawson’s Partnership Blessing, contained in his comment, above. I suggest that anyone who feels God may deny Same-Sex Blessings might just tap into the link – and reflect again.

Tim Chesterton
Guest

According to the Collins English Dictionary, homophobia is ‘intense hatred or fear of homosexuals or homosexuality’.

So, sorry, but I am not automatically homophobic because I have a certain view of what marriage is. Rant about it all you like, but a ‘phobia’ is a fear. And I’m sorry, but calling me a homophobe does not ‘encourage me to repent’. What it actually does (when I encounter the label used ad nauseum, on threads like this) is to cause me to ask myself, ‘Honestly, why do I bother?’

Stephen Morgan
Guest
Stephen Morgan

..the review is certainly not a book plug…

Maybe. What about the colour picture of the cover, name of publisher, ISBN, number of pages and retail price?

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Savi, “What if a heterosexual couple who had embarked on a covenant partnership then decided they wanted to have children?” Is he actually suggesting that straight couples should not get married? Or that they get married in a registry office instead of having a church wedding, and then have a covenanted partnership service in church afterwards? Why would they do that? Does Dr. Song imagine there are straight couples who want to be legally married but who don’t believe they’re as married in God’s eyes as another couple, and therefore would prefer a separate partnership arrangement in church? Because with… Read more »

Jeremy Pemberton
Guest
Jeremy Pemberton

Tim – you have provided us with a splendid example of the etymological fallacy. Words mean what they come to mean in the context in which they are used – not what they might be assumed to mean from their etymological foundations. Collins focuses on human feeling, but you will note that on here, and frequently in other places, homophobia means, according to those people who are on the receiving end of anti-gay prejudice, words or actions which result directly or indirectly in harm to LGBT people. In other words, by their words and actions homophobes are identifiable. I don’t… Read more »

Tobias Haller
Guest

As I’ve noted many times in the past, the root of at least part of the problem is the linkage of procreation with marriage as an essential character rather than (in some but not all circumstances) a possible outcome. Ultimately this is a category error. One could, for example, on the basis of Genesis 1 as well as science, argue that the sex difference is intrinsically linked with procreation — but marriage is a moral and human act. The novel concept of “open to procreation” isn’t really a helpful addition to the debate — and in the long run reflects… Read more »

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

Robert Song clearly does not suggest that same-sex couples and their children should be stigmatised with a ‘second class covenant’, Cynthia. Indeed he does not rule out the possibility of celebrating marriage for same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples, raising the possibility that marriage, while dating back to ancient times, may have ‘become something new in Christ.’ I acknowledge your indignation that LGBT youth are sometimes rejected by ‘religious’ parents – but if one condemns books such as this which might help to change the minds of such parents, and maybe offer the young people themselves a different way of… Read more »

Cynthia
Guest
Cynthia

“So, sorry, but I am not automatically homophobic because I have a certain view of what marriage is. Rant about it all you like, but a ‘phobia’ is a fear. And I’m sorry, but calling me a homophobe does not ‘encourage me to repent’. What it actually does (when I encounter the label used ad nauseum, on threads like this) is to cause me to ask myself, ‘Honestly, why do I bother?'” If you care about suffering and the moral and theological issues that cause it, and you are a Christian, then you might feel compelled to “bother.” I would… Read more »

Tim Chesterton
Guest

‘”religious” parents making outcasts of their LGBT children’

Feel free to ask my LGBT children if I’ve made them outcasts. Email address supplied on request – email me privately at timchesterton@outlook.com.

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

I don’t know why Tim sometimes doesn’t explain himself very clearly, maybe he thinks it ought not to be necessary. Tim is the one and only person I know who is genuinely not sure about the theology of gay marriage but who is nevertheless fully inclusive of gay people. It’s not a front, it’s not a pretence. Any tension inherent in that position he bears himself and does not transfer it to gay people. Tim, you probably don’t realise just how few of you there are. Those of us who spend a lot of time on TA are likely only… Read more »

Tim Chesterton
Guest

Erika, you have a point. However, I’m just getting weary of it all, and I would probably be best to stay away.

And Cynthia, I am bothered, truly, I am. I’m just tired of having people tell me that the steps I’ve taken are not enough.

However, this is not about me, so I’m done.

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

“Feel free to ask my LGBT children if I’ve made them outcasts”

But you’d refuse to attend their weddings, presumably? Or are you one of those flexible anti-marriage types, who only want to deny it to people you don’t know?

JCF
Guest
JCF

Tim may have left the thread, but this issue remains (helpfully illuminated by Erika): “I have a certain view of what marriage is” Don’t we all? Some of us may wish housework to be equally shared, others divided by radically different percentages. Don’t get us started on sex! [Is it really a marriage if there’s “bed death”? Can there be too much?] Etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum. Many of us have known couples where we think “why don’t they pack it in—they’re obviously so unhappy together”. Conversely, we see “the Ideal Couple” divorce, w/ painful regularity. …but none of our… Read more »

Cynthia
Guest
Cynthia

“Feel free to ask my LGBT children if I’ve made them outcasts.” Under no circumstances did I say or imply that ALL LGBT children are outcasts. What I said is that in the US, about 40 percent of homeless teens are LGBT teens who were cast out of their particular “religious” homes. It is an appalling statistic, but it hardly accuses all parents of throwing out their children! My own parents were awesome and two generations ahead of the curve. What I’m saying is that exclusion causes suffering. The message of “other” and “less than” has always exposed the scapegoat… Read more »