Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Stephen Noll at ICCA: Holy Matrimony After Obergefell

A highlight so far of this International Catholic Congress of Anglicans (And let no one misinterpret my affectionate humor this week – this is an excellent and edifying conference.) has been Stephen Noll’s excellent talk on marriage after the Obergefell decision and how we Anglicans, along with other Christians, should proceed now.

His talk covered so much ground, yet in a succinct manner, that I dare not try to excerpt it.  Instead, with the gracious permission of VirtueOnline, I repost it in full. 


Holy Matrimony: After Obergefell
A Presentation to the "One Church, One Faith, One Lord" International Catholic Congress of Anglicans in Ft. Worth, Texas
July 13-17, 2015
By The Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll
Professor Emeritus, Trinity School for Ministry
Chairman, Task Force on Marriage, Family, and the Single Life, Anglican Church in North America

One gratuitous cut in the recent actions by The Episcopal Church was the deletion of the title "Solemnization of Holy Matrimony" from the revised canon on marriage and its replacement with "Celebration and Blessing of Marriage." Such a cut is fitting, I suppose, since what the new Episcopal rites are celebrating is neither holy nor is it matrimony. One cannot solemnize that which is repugnant to the explicit teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and the conciliar wisdom of His Church through the centuries.

Jesus and Holy Matrimony
Holy Matrimony is the unique teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?" He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (Matt 19:3-8)

The Pharisees' question was a legitimate one, even if offered in bad faith. The Law of Moses constituted a political covenant, in which sinful men and women sought recourse from unhappy and harmful marriages. All societies in history, even Christian ones, have made some provision for divorce and subsequent remarriage.

But Jesus' reply goes behind the Law: "from the beginning it was not so." He then goes back to the foundational texts in Genesis: "God created man male and female" (Gen 1:27) and "the two become one flesh (Gen 2:24)." Let's look at these two texts in reverse order.

The author of Genesis (let's call him Moses) concludes the tale of "Adam in Search of a Wife" thus: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Gen 2:24). This sentence is normative for the institution of marriage, let's call it matrimony. Matrimony is political in that when a man and woman wed, they form a new family, a new building block of society. Matrimony is generational, in that this new family derives from its forebears and generates heirs. It becomes a link in the "begats" of human history. Matrimony is sexual and procreative: it is the "cleaving" of the opposite sex partners that results in a new creature, a son or daughter. It is in this way that the woman "helps" the man's "loneliness" by becoming the mother of all living. Hence it is fitting that "matrimony" honors the mother. On the other hand, sexual activity without the possibility of procreativity -- and this is clearly the case with homosexuality -- is an abomination.

Up to this point, I suspect the Pharisees agreed with Jesus, but Jesus doesn't stop there. He takes them one step back to the real beginning in Genesis 1:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them, and God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1:27-28).

The climax of the six-day creation is God's deliberate creating and blessing of man in his own image, that image being dual and complementary, male and female. Jesus sees in this prior creation and blessing something that goes beyond the political, generational and sexual foundation of matrimony. That something has to do with the unique Person and action of God. St. Paul refers to that something as the "mystery that is between Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:32), and I believe Jesus intended to ground monogamy in the relational unity of the Godhead, the Holy Trinity.

God creates and God blesses, from which Jesus concludes: "What God has joined together, let not man put asunder." It is God's special presence that makes Christian matrimony holy and makes the marital bond unbreakable. This truth may not have been obvious to first-century Jews, who permitted divorce and even polygamy, but after the coming and teaching of Jesus Christ, the Church taught that holy matrimony is the lifelong bond between one man and one woman.

The encounter of Jesus and the Pharisees repeated itself in the patristic period. Roman law and morals affirmed monogamy and the patriarchal family as "natural"; however pagans were lax with regard to divorce and (male) promiscuity. St. Augustine reflected the classic position, for the Western Church at least, in his identification of three "goods" of marriage:

• procreating the family (proles) -- Augustine linked the obvious natural good of begetting and raising children with the tempering of promiscuity which accompanies family life;

• maintaining faithful conjugal love (fides) -- Augustine speaks of the natural companionship of the two sexes, even after childbearing years.

• forming a sacred bond (sacramentum) -- holy matrimony creates a new covenant relationship between the partners with God and in that sense grace perfects nature. In his beautiful wedding sermon from prison,

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, describes the movement from betrothal to espousal in this way:

As God today adds his "Yes" to your "Yes," as he confirms your will with his will, and as he allows you, and approves of, your triumph and rejoicing and pride, he makes you at the same time instruments of his will and purpose both for yourselves and for others. In his unfathomable condescension God does add his "Yes" to yours; but by doing so, he creates out of your love something quite new -- the holy estate of matrimony.

While the Reformers objected to some of the medieval developments of marriage, including its inclusion in the seven-sacrament system, they accepted Augustine's typology of goods, as is clear in the Marriage Preface in the Book of Common Prayer. Strange as it may sound, the Prayer Book statement about "avoidance of fornication" is an affirmation of the sacredness of marriage for those who remain sinners redeemed by grace (simul justus et peccator).

The other main change at the Reformation was the shifting of many marital matters from the clergy and church courts to the magistrate. This change is not as drastic as it may seem since the Reformers looked to a "godly prince" or a national church that would affirm and support the Christian understanding of marriage. In some cases, the state was actually more conservative than the church. Cranmer's liberal revision of the divorce canons was ultimately rejected by the Elizabethan Parliament.

The Ethic of Intimacy and the Obergefell Decision

The description of matrimony as I have sketched it here has been the historic understanding of Western society. That description now has a competitor, which I call "the ethic of intimacy." The English sociologist Anthony Giddens (The Transformation of Intimacy, 1992) defines the ethic of sexual intimacy in this way:

• Sexuality in its modern usage does not mean "two sexes" (the Latin root of "sex" means "to cut in two") but rather plastic sexuality. "Plastic sexuality is severed from its age-old integration with reproduction, kinship and the generations."

Plastic sexuality makes possible confluent love, the opening of one person to another for the purpose of self-realization and self-enhancement. Confluent love is often expressed in terms of spirituality and justified in terms of human rights.

• Whereas romantic love fastens on one "special person," confluent love is realized in one or more special relationships and hence may be monogamous or polyamorous.

• The special relationship has no external supports and must continually be negotiated in a rolling contract. Lest intimacy slide into codependency, each partner in such a relationship must be willing to grow or break apart at any point.

• Traditional marriage has no special claim on intimacy and in fact is often an instrument of codependency to be overcome.

In Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in Obergefell, the Supreme Court has, in effect, enthroned the ethic of intimacy as the law of the land. This observation is counterintuitive since Kennedy employs the trope of "marriage as a fundamental right" to, in effect, outlaw marriage. The social commentator Russ Douthat notes this irony in his analysis:
Kennedy's opinion ... is relentlessly upbeat about how "new insights have strengthened, not weakened" marriage, bringing "new dimensions of freedom" to society. But the central "new dimension of freedom" being claimed by straight America is a freedom from marriage -- from the institution as traditionally understood, and from wedlock and family, period.

The normalization of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is not the root cause of the revolt against marriage in the West today but merely a symptom. The ethic of intimacy has infiltrated the whole of its culture and institutions. Simply look at a "PG-13"-rated movie or TV sitcom. Note that a popular U.S. ex-President is a notorious womanizer. Note the prevalence of the "hook-up culture" among Western university students, the proliferation of "no-fault divorces" and the disappearance of marriage as a norm in Europe and among the poor in America where 70% of inner-city families are headed by a single woman.

Note, finally, that the progressive churches in the West are piling on, invoking the blessing of God on the ethic of intimacy. The logic of The Episcopal Church's "Task Force on the Study of Marriage," which recommended the canonical redefinition of marriage, fits hand in glove with Kennedy's argument in Obergefell.

Defending and Restoring Holy Matrimony after Obergefell

For those of us who believe that holy matrimony is instituted by God and is not revisable by man, the Psalmist's question arises: "if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11:3). This is a difficult and pressing question for church bodies and for individual clergy and laity. It is early in the post-Obergefell era, but let me make some provisional suggestions.

Bearing Witness to Holy Matrimony
"You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). It is the Church's duty to bear witness to God's natural and spiritual purposes in marriage. It is also important for those in the Anglican tradition to make clear, in light of teaching and practice to the contrary, that we stand in the authentic tradition of the historic church. For this reason, the Anglican Church in North America has recently issued a statement which includes "Bearing Witness to Holy Matrimony" (

It is also the church's duty to teach disciples to observe all that Jesus commands (Matt 28:18). It is a sad fact that Western churches have frequently failed to teach and practice our Lord's standard of Holy Matrimony. We must redouble efforts to catechize on this subject.

I might add that it will be important for churches at all levels to make clear in their foundational documents their doctrine of marriage, as this will give evidence of their religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution. Please look carefully at "Seven Things All Churches Should Have in Their Bylaws" from the Alliance Defending Freedom (, as well as recent two recent webinars by Gammon & Grange and The Christian Legal Society.

Restoring Church Discipline
The issue of admitting same-sex married couples to the sacraments has recently arisen and will continue to do so. In my opinion, we must recover and apply -- discreetly but firmly - the disciplinary rubric of the Book of Common Prayer, translating "notorious evil-liver" in terms of the person whose manner of life is publicly contrary to the gospel of Christ. Such church discipline cannot be directed only at same-sex couples. There are many cohabiting couples and unrepentant divorcees who worship in our churches and present themselves for marriage and the sacraments.

Once again, let me add that there is a practical need for churches to establish formal membership and disciplinary policies and procedures. Discipline begins with the clergy, and clearly the churches will need to have adequate canons in place to deal with any clergy who violate Christian principles either in their manner of life or their ministries.

Taking Back Holy Matrimony from the State
Matrimony is a public institution but not necessarily a state institution. The recent ACNA statement avers:

Marriage is established by God for the procreation and raising of children and for the good of society. For this reason, governments have an interest in marriage and have delegated authority from God to protect and regulate it. But no court, no legislature and no local magistrate has the authority to redefine marriage and to impose this definition on their citizens.

After Obergefell, the question that faces us is: since the state has redefined marriage, what are we to do? One immediate question has arisen concerning the clergy: should they continue to officiate on behalf of the state, or should they encourage couples to obtain a civil marriage and then come to church for Holy Matrimony? And if clergy become conscientious objectors to state marriage, why not the couples seeking to be married?

Equally challenging will be the matter of divorce and remarriage. Since the state has abandoned any pretense of maintaining the marital bond, is it not incumbent on the church to adjudicate -- again pastorally but firmly -- cases of willful divorce and unrepentant remarriage?

Forming a Pro-Marriage Movement
In recent days, many commentators have drawn parallels between Roe v. Wade and Obergefell as judicial fiats that both reflected and sought to influence social trends in the USA. On the one hand, the parallels between the two decisions are sobering: 42 years on, Roe v. Wade still stands, and millions of abortions are still performed. On the other hand, the pro-life response to Roe has maintained a steady witness and has influenced public opinion in directions that are reducing the practice of abortion, though incrementally.

It will be necessary for a pro-marriage movement to form in response to Obergefell. It will have its own internal challenges and continuing attack from the progressive Left. It will have to formulate its fundamental focus, which I think will probably center around the issue of procreative sex and the right of every child to have a father and mother. I hope that it can join forces with the pro-life movement, since the issues of marriage, conception and birth are interconnected in God's design.

Finally, let me comment on the conciliar nature of this response. Leading up to the Obergefell decision, there were a number of joint statements from a wide spectrum of Christian churches and leaders and others such as Orthodox Jews and Muslims (see the last section of the ACNA Bearing Witness statement). There is also a broad pro-marriage consensus in the Global South as is witnessed by recent statements of Anglican leaders. If this consensus can work together, pray together, and repent together, I would hope that, with God's help, our churches and society might turn back to a saner and better understanding and practice of marriage as it was intended by God "from the beginning."

I wish I could repost the instructive question and answer afterward as well.  It addressed the legal situation in Canada and Australia.  If I happen to come across it, I will append it to this post.

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