In The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, we state unequivocally that marriage is only between "a man and a woman," and yet what is interesting to me is that we also unequivocally deny the three main lines of support throughout church tradition for restricting marriage to a man and a woman. We seem to be cutting off the branch we are sitting on.
Historically, marriage has been restricted in the Christian tradition to heterosexual couples for one of the following reasons (these, of course, are not mutually exclusive). After each one, we will note the official UMC response in the BOD.
1) Patriarchy: Men and women are made to go together because men are fit to lead/rule and women are fit to follow/obey.
- We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage. (161 B)
- We reject the erroneous notion that one gender is superior to another, that one gender must strive against another, and that members of one gender may receive love, power, and esteem only at the expense of another. (161 E)
2) Complimentarity: Men and women are made to go together because we need one another to balance out our gifts/skills and to complete our humanity. This view rests on a strong gender essentialism whereby it is assumed that all men and all women inherently have certain traits by virtue of their biological sex.
- We especially reject the idea that God made individuals as incomplete fragments, made whole only in union with another. (161 E)
3) Procreationism: Men and women are made to go together primarily because this is how babies are made, and reproduction and the nurturing of offspring are essential features of what God intends for marriage.
- We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. (161 B)
And yet, after all this we still assert in the BOD that gay marriage is "incompatible with Christian teaching" (161 F). In light of this, I think a fair and modest proposal to our sisters and brothers on the traditional side would be to explain to us how we can continue to hold this view while denying the main lines of support that have traditionally gone into this negative judgment. If we reject patriarchy, complimentarity, and procreationism, as we officially do in the BOD, then on what basis do we continue to make this judgment about gay marriage? If the fundamental goods of marriage are " love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity" (161 B), then why exactly does a marriage have to include a male and female partner? Hasn't experience clearly taught us that same-sex couples can exemplify all of these virtues?
I realize that some conservative folks might say all of this is unnecessary because the Bible forbids it and that is the end of the story. I have found it interesting, though, that most conservative friends feel the need to say more than just "the Bible says so." Most conservatives I know are not simplistic fundamentalists. They understand that biblical passages have to be interpreted in the light of larger ethical themes and frameworks. The "parts" must be interpreted in the light of the "whole," as we say in the BOD.
But if, as United Methodists, we go with the BOD in denying the three major ethical frameworks for interpreting Scripture that lead to a traditionalist conclusion, then on what basis do we keep the conclusion?
In short, it seems that if as United Methodists we are going to affirm that the fundamental meaning of marriage is a "covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman," we owe it, at the very least, to gay couples to explain why this last requirement is so. Without the resources of patriarchy, complimentarity, and procreationism, what kind of explanation can we give? And, if we resort to simplistic appeals to what "God says" or "the way things have always been," why should we expect them to listen?