Having just written about the need for more subtle approaches to talking about God, I feel that I ought to add a major corrective to that argument. It seems to me that any intellectual approach to commending Christian faith, even if it is set in the context of communal ritual practice and contemplation, is insufficient of itself to commend that faith to others. The only thing that can offer a compelling commendation of living faith is the visible transformation of human lives. Pope Francis has recently published a ‘call to holiness’ in his exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. In this inspiring and challenging text, he insists that ‘throughout the history of the Church, it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measure not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity.’ (para. 37) He also makes it clear that ‘God is mysteriously present in the life of every person’ (para. 42) and not only in the lives of those who attain perfection.
The key to a life lived towards holiness is a life lived in response to the call to love: ‘Jesus clears the way to seeing two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother or sister. He does not give us two more formulas or two more commands. He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so many other faces. For in every one of our brothers and sisters, especially the least, the most vulnerable, the defenceless and those in need, God’s very image is found. Indeed, with the scraps of this frail humanity, the Lord will shape his final work of art.’ (para 61)
I was delighted to be involved in the decision of our church (The Scottish Episcopal Church) to open the sacrament of marriage to people of the same sex. I don’t want to rehearse any of the ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments for the simple reason that these arguments are mostly made on entirely different grounds and, therefore, rarely find points of contact. This partly because, in dealing with traditional material, some focus on content and some on intent. But I wonder if there is some potential for a more illuminating conversation based not so much on hermeneutical principles as on mystical theology. In other words; how does participation in the sacrament of marriage enable a more Christlike life? Here are one or two thoughts:
- Joyful self-giving to the other mirrors the divine love which delights to seek out the beloved.
- In many different ways, this love opens out in hospitality and in caring for others, including children.
- Marriage is a school of virtue, enabling an ever-deepening exploration of what it means to give way to the other in mutuality and humility.
- The union of one person with another is reflective of the union of the holy Trinity and, therefore, of the divine will for the Church and for all humanity – ‘that they may be one.’
- The promise of faithfulness speaks of, and is sustained by God’s faithfulness to humanity, even in times of the most severe trial. Faithfulness is expressed powerfully in the willingness to forgive.
Of course, this is a pattern of loving that is not restricted to marriage, but it is expressed sacramentally in marriage as an icon of the fundamental pattern of all Christlike relationships. It seems to me that the gender of the partners does not play a fundamental role in this way of speaking about marriage and that is why I strongly resist any suggestion that we are changing our theology of marriage in extending it to people of the same sex. I will continue to preach the same sermons with the same cheesy jokes in the marriages I conduct, whatever the sex of the partners. What is a Christian marriage? One that gradually shapes us in the way of loving that Christ exemplified for us.