The Chicago Consultation is a group of Episcopal and Anglican bishops, clergy and lay people who support the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. Their website offers theological essays, Bible studies, videos and links to other materials that support an inclusive reading of Scripture. Their support for GLBT Christians is part of their wider mission to “strengthen the Anglican Communion’s witness against racism, poverty, sexism, heterosexism, and other interlocking oppressions.”
…Several biblical authors use marriage as a symbol for the relationship between God and Israel, and Christ and the Church. But, as with many of the issues surrounding sexuality, the picture is far more complex than mere equivalence. Not only is marriage only one of many symbols for this relationship, but the marriage symbolism itself is ambivalent, capable of standing for both good and bad relationships between God and God’s people.
There are many earthly phenomena — and Jesus assures us (Matthew 22:30, Mark 12:25, Luke 20:35) that marriage is an earthly phenomenon! — that the biblical authors use (in addition to marriage) to represent the relationship between God and Israel or Christ and the Church: monarch and people, tree and branches, father and children, shepherd and sheep, master and slaves, head and body, cornerstone and building. These symbols all depend on the cultural understanding of those to whom they speak. As noted in an earlier portion of this series of essays, the Letter to the Ephesians collects and intertwines a number of these symbols, in addition to marriage. As Paul himself recognizes, his blending of these symbols gets a bit confusing, as he spins out the various cultural themes of leadership and authority, the relationship of one to many, the nature of organic or bodily union, and love and care.
Thus the Scripture does not single out marriage as a unique symbol for the divine/human relationship — and one can carry the analogy or symbol too far — as some have suggested Paul does — as if women should literally treat their husbands as if they were God. Nor should one carry away from this symbolic usage the notion that because marriage is a symbol for the divine/human interaction it is therefore in itself divine — it remains, according to Jesus, a terrestrial phenomenon. (Luke 20:34-35) So to confuse the symbol with what it symbolizes is a category error. More than a few theologians have of late wandered off in a direction more suggestive of pagan notions of hieros gamos than is warranted by strictly orthodox theology. This includes suggestions that the relationship of a male and female somehow more perfectly embody the imago dei than either does individually. This is very shaky theological ground upon which to tread, as I noted in an earlier section of this series, for it undercuts the doctrine of the Incarnation….
…Given that heterosexual relationships can be used as such multivalent symbols, positive or negative, single and plural, and even with a degree of sexual ambiguity, can faithful, monogamous, life-long same-sex relationships also serve in symbolic capacity — towards good? I will explore the negative imagery in later reflections on Leviticus and Romans, but will note here that the same linkage between idolatry and harlotry is made there between idolatry and some specific forms of same-sexuality. But what might a faithful, loving same-sex relationship (as opposed to the cultic activity described in Leviticus or the orgiastic in Romans) stand for as a symbol — not in the cultures of those times, but in our own?
It is clear that the prevailing biblical symbol for heterosexual relationships is intimately (!) connected with the assumption of male “headship” — thus the related analogies with master and slave, head and body, and so forth, assume a cultural notion of male authority, likened to the authority of Christ over the church. So powerful is this imagery that men become “feminine” in relation to God — as C.S. Lewis noted in his emendation to the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust.
But what of Christ — who voluntarily (and temporarily) assumes the position of a subordinate — not only in the great kenosis of the Incarnation, but in the symbolic act of the Maundy footwashing — while remaining Lord and God? When Jesus assumes the position of a servant to wash his disciples’ feet, he is also assuming the position of the woman who washed his feet with her tears. It is no accident that Jesus uses this powerful acted symbol to show his disciples the danger of assuming the position of authority over rather than assuming the position of service to. (It is perhaps ironic that in the Roman Catholic Church only men are to take part in the Maundy ritual as either foot-washers or as those whose feet are washed. How much more powerful a symbol it would be if a bishop were to wash the feet of women?)
Jesus is secure in his knowledge of himself, yet is free to set aside the role of authority to assume the role of a slave, a role played elsewhere in the passion narrative by a woman. As is obvious, in a same-sex relationship there are no stereotypical sex roles for the partners. They are, like Jesus, free to take upon themselves, in a dynamic interchange, various opportunities to love and to serve. This flexibility is no doubt one of the reasons same-sexuality is seen as a threat to entrenched systems of automatic deferral to culturally established hierarchies. Like Christianity itself, same-sexuality “turns the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) by challenging the “natural” roles assigned by culture. Same-sex couples are thus capable of being truly natural symbols for the mutuality of equals, free from the traditional roles assigned by the culture to men and women. Whether the culture sees this as a threat or a promise will depend upon what they value.
Read the whole essay here.