Why the church cares so much about marriage: A General Convention interview with Cameron Partridge

The Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge of the Diocese of Massachusetts is a member of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, which is proposing to the General Convention changes to the Episcopal Church's marriage canon.  Partridge served on the task force's subcommittee focused on the biblical and theological dimensions of marriage.  He recently sat down for an interview about his experience and perspective on the work.

First, some background:

The 2012 General Convention created the Task Force on the Study of Marriage and gave it a broad mandate:  "identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical and canonical dimensions of marriage," including issues raised by legislation in the U.S. and other countries where the Episcopal Church is located that authorizes, or forbids, marriage or civil unions between people of the same sex.  It asked the task force to develop tools for theological reflection about those issues.  It also referred to the task force a resolution (2012-D091) that had been submitted but not acted upon.  That resolution suggested amendments to the church's marriage canon that would make it gender neutral (for example, substituting "two people" for "a man and a woman.")

The task force of 12 individuals divided itself into three smaller working groups, one focused on biblical and theological dimensions of marriage, another on the historical, liturgical and canonical ones, and a third devoted to consultation on changing norms.

Their resulting report includes seven essays and a discussion guide, "Dearly Beloved: A Toolkit for the Study of Marriage."  The task force also put forward two resolutions for the General Convention's consideration this summer.

One would revise the marriage canon, streamlining and reordering it, according to the task force's report, to follow actual pastoral practice more closely and to focus less on the purposes of marriage in general and more on the vows actually found the Book of Common Prayer rite.  The proposed resolution also removes gender-specific language from the canon.

The task force's second resolution asks the General Convention for a continuation of its work so that, according to its report, the church can further "study and possibly respond to the changing realities in society and in our congregations that challenge marriage as the norm for adult relationships and what it means to be a 'household' or even a 'family'"--a topic, the task force reported, that "loomed large on the periphery of the current study on marriage."

The interview with Cameron Partridge follows.  He is the Episcopal chaplain at Boston University Partridge Cameron Courtesy Photo The Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge and a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, where he also serves as the counselor to Episcopal and Anglican students.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Episcopal Divinity School.  He holds, among his academic degrees, a doctorate in theology from Harvard Divinity School, focusing on gender, sexuality and embodiment in Christian thought.

What did you bring to the task force’s work from the context of being a priest, scholar and chaplain in the Diocese of Massachusetts, where marriage of same-sex couples has been legal since 2004?

I think probably first I brought a longer-range experience of living where there is marriage equality than anybody else on the committee, because Massachusetts happened to be the first in the nation to have legal marriage equality.  So the pastoral challenge of living into that has been with us in this diocese longer than other dioceses.  I think we are among the first to do full liturgical marriage equality in our diocese under the rubric of generous pastoral response that was passed [by General Convention] in 2009.  Part of the witness that I was able to bear in that was that, while I would  never describe our diocese as monolithic, when it comes to marriage equality, I feel like we’ve been able to live into that pretty gracefully. We’ve simply waded into these waters together. 

And then, as a campus minister, I bring experience of working with young adults all the time, and of talking with people who are really in discernment about what they want the shape of their life to be like including in terms of relationships and whether they feel called to marriage or not.  Generationally speaking, I brought more of a young adult voice to the table. 

I also brought being an openly trans person to the table.  Certainly part of my contributions include the experience of being someone who has been in a long-term same-sex partnership that is now a  marriage that happens to be a different-sex marriage at this point.  That’s not necessarily a common experience--it’s not as uncommon as some might think--but I was certainly the only person with that combination of experience on our committee.

Is there a particular learning or insight you’d point to in the work that you hope would be a take-away for people?

I would love for more people to think about marriage as a vocation, one among several--not the only relational vocation there is, by any stretch, but one to be discerned carefully, and when discerned as your vocation, to be lived into joyfully. 

As I’ve interacted with some of the provincial meetings, I’ve had some questions bubble up around the role of procreation and marriage.  There are lots of really interesting angles on that.  I really emphasize the rubric of adoption.  That is the mechanism of our baptismal incorporation into Christ’s body.  It’s adoption--choosing God and being chosen by God and choosing one another--through which we create family as Christians.  When you look at family, and you look at marriage, and you look at having children through that lens, it’s all adoptive.  And if it happens to be biological as well, wonderful, fabulous—and it’s adoptive.  We have to choose one another again and again and again over the course of our lifetime.  I notice that has come out in some of the questions where people have wondered if somehow marriage equality would undermine a place for procreation in our understanding of marriage, and my answer is, not at all.  In fact, it really underscores the adoptive mechanism through which we choose one another, whether we discern a call to have children or not.

Any surprises or new insights for you personally as a result of this work?

Historically, Ephesians 5 has been a really important touchstone through which Christians have thought about marriage, and it has been a problematic one in terms of how women have been understood to be in relation to men in terms of questions of headship.  And so I will admit that that’s been a troubling passage for me for years, but it was also really clear that if we were going to go there in terms of Christian theology of marriage, we need to unpack that passage. 

What I experienced in that process was that I really was encouraged to look at the Greek term mysterion--how does the word “mystery” work in Ephesians as a whole, and then how is that mystery at work in marriage.  It’s the new humanity in Christ, that’s what I was brought to, that marriage becomes part of this broader expression of new humanity in Christ that we’re incorporated into.  “The wisdom of God in its rich variety” [from Ephesians 3:10] is one of the phrases that brought home to me a way of thinking about how marriage embodies that mystery in its rich variety.  That was really opened for me. 

Why does the church care so much about marriage?

I think that our questions about marriage are related to and an outgrowth of our previous questions about the human person.  Questions have birthed other questions, and this is the most recent such birthing.  So it’s about what it is to be human, and how we live into our vocations as human beings in relationship with one another. 

Marriage is also a liturgical matter.  What is it that we will codify, if you will, as a church?  We’re not the only Christians who do this, but we have a particular emphasis on the liturgical realm being where we do our theology.  We do our theology in other ways as well, but we are very clear that [liturgy] is an important arena in which we do that.  So anytime there’s a liturgical shift, we get energized about it. 

I think also another dimension of why this has energized us so much is that it reflects an interface between church and state.  Does it make sense to be more mindful of our interface and think carefully about how we use that interface?  I think people across the political spectrum are interested in that question. 

A Supreme Court ruling is expected in June on whether same-sex marriage is constitutionally protected.  How might that set the context for, or potentially affect, the deliberations at General Convention?

My hope is that that decision will precede our own conversation.  If the Supreme Court takes away the impediments to marriage equality across the country, then all dioceses will be in the pastoral context that we [in Massachusetts] first found ourselves in in 2004.  The sense of the gap between the church and people’s lived realities will be acutely felt.  We will simply need to own up to the decisions that we must make, and the pastoral implications of those decisions will be right before us. 

One of the task force’s resolutions proposes changes to the marriage canon, specifically to introduce gender-neutral language.  What’s the thinking behind the chronology of making canonical changes before any changes have been made to the prayer book, which remains gender specific?

The canon change seeks to open space for liturgical change to happen, whether it happens more formally through the Book of Common Prayer revision process, or whether it happens through the voting forward of provisional liturgical marriage rites, or whether what happens is a continuation of generous pastoral response.  In any of those scenarios, the canon change resolution simply opens up space to acknowledge either what already exists or what may come to exist more fully. 

How would you respond to those who might take a position that, with the pastoral generosity allowance in place, with liturgical rites available, with those bases covered, why not just keep things the way they are?  Why change the language of the canons?

There’s a second-class citizenship that is encoded in the current status quo, and that is why it’s important to not keep it that way.  It’s important that we clearly all stand at the table together, even in our differences, but the potential disagreement over theological differences is not equivalent to the experience of being a second-class citizen in your church because of your sexuality or your gender.  It’s just not the same.  And that’s not to diminish the deeply felt sense of alienation that people can have when the theological norms that they’re used to are not necessarily the sole norms at the center.  They’re norms among other norms.  But that felt experience of change, as challenging and alarming as that can be for people, really is not the same thing as having been a second-class citizen in your own church for your whole life because of who you are.  And if we vote to keep things the same, we are basically suggesting that they are equivalent, or that being a second-class citizen doesn’t matter as much as no longer being the sole norm at the center of the system.  And that is troubling.  I’m clearly speaking for myself here, I’m not speaking on behalf of the committee.

How would you characterize the range of viewpoints on the committee?

We’re not all in the same place.  I think there may be some misconceptions out there that we’re all kind of far to the left.  I don’t think that’s the case.  We’ve come to be a community, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know people on this committee who come from different places around the church with really different sorts of experiences, different parishes or other congregational affiliations, different contextual realities when it comes to marriage equality and whether that’s considered a norm or considered to be really very much not a norm.  So we have taken care to get to know one another, to share our own stories about marriages we’ve known in our lives, and we were not always in agreement about things.  I couldn’t make a claim that we are a perfect microcosm; in fact, I’m sure we’re not, but we’re also not a monolith by any stretch of the imagination.  There is diversity, but we could have reflected more [diversity] if we had been constructed differently.  That’s one of the reasons why we constructed that second resolution [to continue the task force’s work], in part because there were questions that came up that were really important that we knew were beyond our scope, but also because, as those questions deserve addressing, they deserve addressing by a greater range of people, including in terms of age.  I was the youngest committee member, and I think it would be good to have some younger folks in there.  We could have been more diverse in terms of race. 

Can you say a little more about why the task force felt its work needed a continuation?

We would love to help generate different practical resources.  Actually, in a recent provincial gathering, someone said:  Did you all talk about marriage prep resources?  Yes, we did, and a desire that there be more of them was part of what came up. 

It’s also that questions [came up] about how do we even understand notions of family, of household.  When we look at some of the changing demographics, trends, norms around marriage, people marry later and later, when they marry at all.  Marriage numbers themselves are not as high as they’ve been.  Divorce rates are high.  It’s a question of really engaging what sorts of relationships people are called to.  How do we support people rather than just saying, either you’re married or you're single and celibate and that’s the end of the story?  What about folks who are called to relationships but are not called to marriage?  The church does not really have anything for them, other than individual pastoral care, which I know lots of clergy and communities do very well.  But I think they can sometimes feel isolated in their carrying out  of that pastoral care.  How might we have some conversation about that, at the very least, and generate some resources for people to use on the ground? 

Any last word you’d like to offer now, before the convention takes this up?

I think there are a lot of people in the church who would love for us to take the step, pass this resolution and move forward on marriage equality, and there are others who may feel that that will be too upsetting and destabilizing.  So my word would be to have courage.  My feeling is that we know what we need to do, and we just need to have the courage to do it and live into it. It’s just time.

--Tracy J. Sukraw

Learn more about the Diocese of Massachusetts at General Convention here.