A good priest barred from ministry
I was not the only one to announce a move last Sunday. A nearby friend who has served the Church for 30 years also announced that he too would be moving on - but to no further priestly duties. You see, he and his partner of many years had dared to get married. His partner being another man, this marriage breached the clergy disciplinary rules of the Church of England. The authorities could not actually throw him out of his parish, but made life difficult by refusing to give him a curate and warning him that when he left, he would never be able to get another post as a priest. So now that he has decided to leave, he is taking early retirement, and will not be licensed anywhere to exercise any priestly ministry at all, even unpaid. He will effectively be debarred from celebrating the Mass or any other sacrament.You could of course say that this is quite right and proper: he knew the result, deliberately contravened clergy discipline, and now must face the consequences. You could add that the Church has made this decision to avoid schism over issues of sexuality. But this line of reasoning falls too readily into the modern tendency to view opinions as absolute, and argument as nothing but the mutually irreconcilable expression of personal and ultimately unchangeable views - two parties shouting at one other from separate hilltops. Moderns resist getting back to first principles and seeking truth: but that is what I want to do today. As we make our May devotions, I want to get back to the biblical narrative of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and suggest that it gives our Catholic faith the potential for rapprochement with modern scientific understandings of human sexuality.
You cannot hope to understand the New Testament without some understanding of the Old, and Mary’s story is no exception. The Jews were always great storytellers, and they still are - take Sigmund Freud and Woody Allen for a start – and Mary’s story is a quintessentially Jewish story of a mother and her son. Mary and Jesus became the most famous parent-child pair in Christian tradition, but their story builds on and challenges a far older analogue, namely the story of the father and son from whom Jews, Christians and Muslims alike claim lineage: Abraham and Isaac.
You may well recall that story with a shudder: the horror of a man submitting to God’s instruction to sacrifice his only son as a burnt offering. But it is not just a horror story of old, or a Sunday school parable about the extremes of true faith. Christians are called to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New. So, let’s take Abraham’s story in parallel with Mary’s. There is that divine command and expression of consent: Abraham’s “Here I am, Lord,” and Mary’s Fiat, “Be it unto me according to thy Word.” There is that same foreknowledge of what will happen, the prophecy that Mary’s heart will be pierced as she sees her own son suffer. But the ends are quite opposite. An angel appears, a deus ex machina, to save Isaac and offer a ram in his place. But the angels do not save Jesus. Mary is there at the foot of the Cross to watch her only son die.
That word “only” - the “only” son - is important, in both stories. Abraham actually had another son, Ishmael, but by another woman. The phrase ‘only son’ in the Bible means the heir, the one who would inherit the father’s birthright and continue the family line. This is also the sense of Jesus being God’s and Mary’s “only” son. Isaac and Jesus are the true heirs of their fathers and will continue the family line.
Except, of course, that Jesus does not.
This is where Mary and Jesus’ story becomes a direct challenge to the Jewish story of Abraham. For the Sadducees especially, who denied the resurrection, the only way to live forever was through your descendants. This kind of ‘eternal life’ was marked by your name - that is to say, the man’s name - being passed on through the generations. So in the Old Testament story, Sarah rather vanishes from view once her job of producing Isaac is done. We do not hear about her again until Abraham buries her.
But in the New Testament, it is quite the opposite. It is Joseph who vanished from the plot, and Jesus even keeps being referred to not as Joseph’s but as “Mary’s son.” And then, even more scandalously, he does not marry, does reproduce, does not continue his adoptive father’s line of David. In his preaching, he rails against family, calling his disciples his true mother and siblings, saying that he will set fathers and sons against one another. All this is utterly opposed to the religious worldview of most of his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus preaches not about the physical fruits of love, but about its spiritual fruits - a theme taken to the extreme by St Paul, who condemns marriage with very faint praise.
We do not have to rely on proof negative. Mary’s relationship with God the Father gives a positive value to loving relationships which are not predicated on sex. Theirs is a relationship not of sex, but of love and of mutual consent. Christians are called to emulate Mary’s relationship with the Father and so to give spiritual birth to Christ ourselves. We also see in their relationship an analogue of the trinitarian love between the Father and the Son, which overflows into creation as the Holy Spirit. That is what our human marriages are about, too: the growth and overflow of love between one another, for the parturition of spiritual fruits. Marriage is as much for the hallowing of sexual instincts and for mutual comfort as for the "increase of mankind." This is not how the Christian vision has always ended up being interpreted. The Church has at times reverted to the old patriarchal ways demanded not only by ancient Jewish and pagan religion, but also by Charles Darwin. The French author Michel Houllebecq’s recent novel ‘Submission’ fantasises almost approvingly about a Europe in which Islam effectively outbreeds Christianity by men perpetuating their patriarchal line through multiple wives; the image of Victorian patriarchs with vast beards going forth and multiplying still finds expression in Amish and Mormon communities to this day; and there are many in the West who bang the drum for “Christian family values,” whether or not they have any real commitment to Christ Himself. And yet the story of Mary and Our Lord’s own teaching militate against this patriarchal view, apparently setting us up for evolutionary failure, precisely so that we might trust in God’s supernatural agency rather than in our own natural reproductive abilities - for it is the Resurrection, not childbirth, which gives us eternal life.
So I put it to you that Christianity is absolutely not about perpetuating our parents’ or grandparents’ line, or even their values; that Mary’s story is God’s direct challenge to patriarchal lineage, rebutting the importance even of the kingly line of David; and that we Christians are not a genetic race from a patriarchal line, but God’s own spiritual offspring given true birth in the waters of baptism by sharing in the death of Christ.
And I suggest that our religion, so ambiguous about the status of physical procreation, and so clear about the importance of the fruits of love, is far more sympathetic to loving homosexual partnerships than it has historically allowed.