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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Love, Sex and the Bible, Part Deux

I've promised myself one hour to do this. I'm up to my armpits in pastoral work, but I've also promised to respond to the thoughtful and intelligent and uncomfortable comments posted below at the essay, "For the Bible Tells Me So." You've all be brave and wonderful and you deserve a response from me.

I'm going to go way out on a limb and say this first: As one who has been a devout practitioner of faithful, covenanted monogamy for the past 33 years, I think that it may well be true that monogamy is a social construct (clearly not a biblical one) which has its greatest value in supporting patriarchy.

As a spiritual discipline, however, it is not without merit. Indeed, I have found that in my own life, it has enormous merit.

Am I 'aping the cultural stigmata" (that was Tillich, I think. No footnotes here. I'm done with my doctoral paper)?

I would no doubt, be found guilty by a jury of my peers.

Here's the thing: As a priest, I am duty-bound to uphold the 'doctrine and discipline' - as well as the Constitution and Canons - of The Episcopal Church. The majority of the Anglican Communion not withstanding (well, the men in purple, anyway), the 'standard' which is upheld in The Episcopal Church is pretty clear.

Institutional memory being as short and as flawed as it is, I am going to remind everyone that in the year 2000 General Convention, meeting in Denver, passed Resolution D039 which said,

Resolved, That the members of the 73rd General Convention intend for this Church to provide a safe and just structure in which all can utilize their gifts and creative energies for mission; and be it further

Resolved, That we acknowledge that while the issues of human sexuality are not yet resolved, there are currently couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in marriage and couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in other life-long committed relationships; and be it further

Resolved, That we expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God; and be it further

Resolved, That we denounce promiscuity, exploitation, and abusiveness in the relationships of any of our members; and be it further

Resolved, That this Church intends to hold all its members accountable to these values, and will provide for them the prayerful support, encouragement, and pastoral care necessary to live faithfully by them; and be it further

Resolved, That we acknowledge that some, acting in good conscience, who disagree with the traditional teaching of the Church on human sexuality, will act in contradiction to that position; and be it further

Resolved, That in continuity with previous actions of the General Convention of this Church, and in response to the call for dialogue by the Lambeth Conference, we affirm that those on various sides of controversial issues have a place in the Church, and we reaffirm the imperative to promote conversation between persons of differing experiences and perspectives, while acknowledging the Church's teaching on the sanctity of marriage.

I voted for that resolution in 2000. I'd vote for it again. In fact, I think we ought to pay much closer attention to what we've done in the past so we don't have to reinvent the ecclesiastical wheel.

Does that mean that I do not think there is a place in the church for those who practice polyandry or who are promiscuous? By no means! Hell, if there's a place for a sinner like me, there's a place for absolutely everybody!

Yes, I even mean homophobes. Yup, bigots, too.

Ah, but you can't mean even the pains in the rump neo-Puritan, orthodox, conservative evangelical reasserters?

Yup, them too.

When I say 'absolutely everybody' I mean ABSOLUTELY everybody.

They don't, of course. And therein lies the problem. But that's another issue for another discussion.

Bottom line: I think the challenge to the status quo - even my comfortable niche in it - is critical to the integrity of the church. Jesus challenged the status quo of the Temple in his day. I think the Body of Christ should do no less in our own day and time. And, Jesus welcomed absolutely everyone. So should those of us who purport to follow His Way.

But, that's not the question I asked originally. My original question was whether or not Jesus or Moses had anything to say about celibacy outside of marriage. The answer is they did not. Neither did they have anything to say about abortion.

One old sour-pus wag reminded me that neither said anything about incest, either. You know, somethings are so obviously heinous, with such an instinctive sense of wrong, especially when it involves (as it most often does) an adult who is perpetrating this act against a child, they don't even need mention.

It's like rape - of any kind. Rape is not an act of sex. It's an act of violence that involves a sexual act. Incest and rape are abuses of power. Period. End of sentence. To try and equate them with the love shared by LGBT people doesn't even deserve the dignity of a response.

Besides, this is not about playing a game of 'theological gotcha' - which the neo-Puritans take such delight in.

While I'm at it, I want to mention that I got more than my fair share of hate mail on this. I just want to say to the anonymous coward who wrote that hateful post (which I obviously did not publish) who asked if my beautiful daughter, who many of you know died three years ago, didn't died of AIDS:

You may call yourself a Christian but you clearly don't know anything about Jesus. May God have mercy on your soul - and, as a tribute to the eternal mystery which is our God, S/he no doubt does.

I'm deeply grateful for the discussion - painfully honest and frank - which has gone on here. I don't profess to understand polyandry. I don't judge it. I just don't understand it, is all. That probably says more about the lack of my moral imagination than it does about the person who is able to love and be intimate with more than one person.

I've got another question - well, two, actually - to ask which I hope will also stir some imagination and provoke further intelligent conversation. I want to continue the discussion about polyandry.

I'm not asking for a refutation of the position. I know that most of you who read this blog probably share most of what I've written. I'm asking you - and I'll do the same thing - to use your religious imagination.

I'm asking you to consider what has been written in the comment section of the posting "For the Bible Tells Me So" and imagine that 'Firenel' is right. I'm asking you to consider that these three Christian people have come before the church, asking for a blessing on the covenant they have made. (Note: Not a blessing on their relationship(s). A blessing on their covenant to be faithful to each other. Yes. All three of them. One covenant between the three.)

Here are my questions:

First: How would you, the church, respond pastorally to their request?

Second, if you were a priest in the present climate of the church, might your response be any different?

I look forward to your remarks.


Mary Sue said...

Huh. I was thinking over this exact same case study today on the streetcar. Wiiierd.

Anyway, to start at the top: I believe there is a place in my church for every single person in the whole wide wonderful world.

What this means, though, is that no one can save seats. Scootch in close and get comfy. You're going to rub elbows with someone, and it could totally irritate you, but suck it up. (Moi? Preaching to myself? Well, duh!)

Now, back to the case study: As in all things, I come at it from my own history and prejudices, which are both unique and yet totally similar to other people's experiences.

My first question is whether or not the covenant is an equal one. Sharing with one partner is difficult enough, with two it's four times as hard, and goes up exponentially from there.

Power: it's behind so much of what is called The Current Unpleasantness, and it makes me wonder about things that are none of my damn business, to wit the balance of power in relationships of certain newsworthy figures.

Now, do I have to 100% be certain with a burning in my bosom that these three folks asking for a blessing of their covenant are equally yoked? ARe you kidding? Do I look like God? None of my business, just like Jamie Lynn Spears' relationship is none of my damn business.

Now, if I was a clergyperson approached to be doing the blessing, and they convince me to the same standard as any other couple that they are sincere and are going to give it the ol' college try... Well, hell, of course I'm gonna do it. How openly I do it, though, would probably count on how likely I figure I can get away with it. The likelyhood of me performing such a blessing at the main Sunday service if my bish is kind of hinky is pretty slim.

On a weekday afternoon with just the triad and a few witnesses? Yah, shure, you betcha.

But I'm a professional troublemaker. 'Swhy I'm not clergy, the Holy Spirit and the Diocesan Conventions tend to call older folks to the episcopacy, God doesn't want me giving them a heart attack.

JimB said...

I am a layperson. I would feel free to attend a blessing of their covenant. I would as a delegate to diocean convention vote for a study on the ethical boundaries for such relationships.

When I was a postulant for priesthood and dinosaurs roamed the earth, I recall saying that part of the vocation was taking on the discipline. I am a layperson, no one will look at me and see the whole church. So, as a servant of the whole church, I would have to limit myself to praying with them.

I know that wont satisfy some of the others here, but it is the best I think I can do. I really do want that study funded and executed. I might answer very differently if it were done, if the same sort of discernment the church has done on lesbian / gay relationships were done. Maybe we are being called to undertake it.


Josephine- said...

First, thank you for being so damn honest Elizabeth.

As to the question, that's a very hard one. Like Mary Sue my initial gut question was one of power. For two people to be in an equal and supporting relationship is hard enough, the minute those numbers go up it becomes so much harder.

And of course history will always color things, and historically and culturally speaking the most unequal power arrangements in relationship have often occurred in 3+ relationships.

It would take a great deal of listening, questioning and discerning for me to feel comfortable that this was indeed an equally supportive and healthy relationship. Clergy or laity.

Now if I was clergy? I'm an applicant for ordination in my diocese and I know this place well enough to know it wouldn't fly, ever. The best I could do as clergy would be private prayers with the triad. Yes, that's probably cowardly.

Grace said...

((Mother Kaeton,)))

First, I want to say that I'm so sorry to hear about the hate mail that you've been receiving, and this comment concerning your daughter. How can these people even claim to be Christians, and lay down to sleep at night. I don't know.

But, to answer your question. I guess, for myself, I would not be able to seperate blessing this covenant with affirming the relationship.

I have no question that Firinel is sincere, and I can't judge anyone's heart before God. But, I know that as fallible humans, we can easily be misled, and deceived in our thinking.

Sometimes what seems subjectively to be so right to us, and working in the short term, can prove to be disasterous in the long-term, and not God's ideal will for our lives at all.

I think we should just all hold each other in prayer. I totally agree that we should never reject one another no matter what.

Frair John said...

`Ama Elizabeth,

I'm speechless over the cowardly and hatefull thing written to you. So much anger and hatred is pitiable.

On another note, I will point out that non monogomus relationships in the OT are generally mared by violence and tragedy. Other than that, I think you are on to something.

Bill said...

Lets try this again. My view is that the number of people in a committed relationship should not be subject to the vagaries of governments or religions. The Hebrews of the old testament obviously allowed it. Abraham had two wives and two concubines. King Solomon had more than any man’s fair share. Why a man would want to do that is beyond me. Now I realize, that Abraham took long walks talking to God, so that he could get some piece and quiet.

A marriage contract between a man and a woman was simply a way of predicting the right of succession. It simplified all the nasty fights over inheritance and property rights. Governments went along with this because of the clout of the Roman Catholic church. Then it became institutionalized and the rest is history.

What is the track record for a man and a woman relationship. Let me see, Oh Yes, a divorce rate of better than fifty percent. How about child abuse, spousal abuse, and child abandonment in man and woman marriages. You can’t blame any of that on the gays.

I don’t care if you have two people, three people or six people. If what you have is a loving, caring, and productive relationship, that’s ok by me. It is only the narrow minded Christian concept of marriage that defines what is right and wrong. What if sociologists tell us tomorrow that a three-some is the ideal marriage. Then you would have at least two incomes and a built in baby sitter when you need to get out for a while. Human relationships should be defined by humans and not by institutions entrenched in two thousand year old concepts. What is it about people that we are not happy unless we are making someone else’s life miserable.

Dr. Alice said...

I've read this post twice, and I really am absolutely baffled by your posing this question. When did it become unacceptable for the church, or priests, just to say "no"? To say, "What you are doing is morally wrong and neither I, nor the church as a whole, will countenance it"?

I am not asking this question in a sarcastic manner, believe me. I think you are confusing legal rights with what the church can or should do. Would such a threesome have the legal right to choose such a living arrangement without being arrested? Yes, and well they should. It is not the state's place to legislate morality. However, it is the church's place to do so and I do not see why any priest would have qualms for even one second about turning down their request.

Hurt their feelings? Well, too bad. Seriously. That's just too ridiculous.

MarkBrunson said...

You know, in your comment on the sour-puss "wag" -- that's always bothered me. It seems that they can't tell the difference between say, homosexual relations and incest. They say that they have to "give up" things just like we're expected too - they give up things like infidelity and violence.

How sad is it that Reasserters seem to have so little natural morality that they have to be forced not to do heinous things and consider giving those heinous things up a real sacrifice!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Doc. I'm sure you know that sarcasm is angry humor. No, you're not being sarcastic, but you are clearly angry - enough to put words in my mouth or, rather, to angrily ask why I'm even asking the question. I simply should dismiss the threesome.

In your anger, you missed the whole point of this post. I am asking my readers what THEY think. You've done that - I'm clear what you think - but you've angrily judged me in the process.

How dare I even ask the question much less think or even entertain such thoughts? What kind of priest am I, anyway?

Interesting. Hmmm . . .I wonder how you where you would describe yourself as being on the theological spectrum?

Let me take a wild guess . . .

Allen said...

I've pondered this off and on for a couple of days and come up with the following thoughts.
First, while there's a clear scriptural witness that monogamous marriage between a man and woman was normative for the early church, some of us are now prepared to extend the church's blessing to marriage between two people of the same sex.
Second, traditional marriage is a dyad, there is one relationship and two promises.
Third, a marriage among three people actually amounts to three relationships and six promises -- that is, the triad subsumes three dyads. Each person has an individual relationship with each of the other two. The three individual relationships amount to a single complex, as it were.
Fourth, that picture of the triad differs from polygamy in which there are several marriages between the same man and each woman and it differs from polyandry in which there are several marriages between the same woman and each man. In polygamy, as usually understood, the wives do not marry each other.

The conclusion I draw is that it would be less of a reach for the church to bless three simultaneous one to one marriages than for it to bless one group marriage.

In response to Bill, it's my understanding that the idea of "traditional" monogamous marriage was already enshrined in Roman law (promulgated by Augustus in 18 B.C.E.) and thus was part of the culture at the time of the early church.

Finally, I have to say I'm glad I'm a layperson and will not have to face the difficult pastoral question of what to do should a triad present themselves for the blessing of the church.

Aurora said...

People frequently make statements like "oh, it's hard enough for two, it would be harder for more!" and it makes me wonder - how do they know? Have they been in a relationship involving more than two people? Why is that sort of accumulative logic sound when dealing with human emotion?

Anyway, I've purposefully avoided staying out of this conversation, since it seems people are discussing whether or not my family is welcome - I just wanted to point out that perhaps people ought to make less assumptions about what is or isn't difficult to me, when I've explicitly said that it's not.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hang on, hang on, hang on, Firinel. No one said you are not welcome. I - and many commenters -have made it explicitly clear that you ARE welcome. No contingencies. No

We are discussing - in very frank and honest terms - the blessing of the covenant between more than two people - something which even you must admit, not only pushes the envelope but stretches the paradigm of what has been understood to be the nature of a committed relationship.

I'm not saying you're wrong or you're right. You are who you are and your relationships are what they are.

The question before the church is: What to do? How to respond pastorally? How to respond liturgically?

I'm happy to host this discussion. I know how it feels to be talked about, which is why I'm hoping you - and any others you know - will take an active part in the conversation.

Welcome, my dear. It's not an easy place, but it's one you share with me and millions of others who do not fit the dominant paradigm.

Bill said...

Allen, the monogamous marriage existed in Rome further back than Augustus:

"Generally, all Roman citizens and some non-citizen Latins had connubium. However, there was no connubium between patricians and plebians until the Lex Canuleia (445 B.C.). The consent of both patres familias was required. Bride and groom must have reached puberty. Over time, examination to determine puberty gave way to standardization at age 12 for girls and 14 for boys."

The problem was that it didn't apply to all people and it definitely had to do with property:

"Who had control of the bride depended on the type of marriage. A marriage in manum conferred the bride on the groom's family along with all her property. One not in manum meant the bride was still under the control of her pater familias. She was required to be faithful to her husband as long as she co-habited with him, however, or face divorce. Laws regarding dowry were probably created to deal with such marriages. A marriage in manum made her the equivalent of a daughter (filiae loco) in her husband's household."

Marriage was about property and worshipping the spirits of their ancestors. The wife and all her property became the property of the husband.

The institution of marriage was simply a contract. It didn't become more than a contract until the church pushed its own agenda and that didn't happen until the Church established itself and its power.

Grace said...

Hey, Firinel,

I don't feel we should conduct litmus tests at the door for anyone coming in to check out the church.

But, friends, even brothers and sisters in Christ may not always agree even though we care for each other deeply. Even strong disagreement, not being there in your thinking, doesn't mean rejecting someone as a person.

Erika Baker said...

Sorry, ignore that last comment, I was looking for Firiniel's explanations on the wrong thread. Time for a coffee!!

I'd still be interested to know whether all three people truly love the other two as deeply, or whether there is some kind of imbalance in this.

I'm not saying I don't believe it, but I would find it very unusual for 3 people to meet who each end up loving the two with the same depth and passion.

All relationships that are rooted in complete equality, committment, love, faithfulness and the sincere hope that they will last a lifetime are blessed by God. So provided Firiniel's relationships are truly emotionally balanced, I would have no difficulty in recognising God's blessing upon them all.

JimB said...


Consider if you will, that when a priest meets with a couple that wants to be married, or if lesbian/gay to have its civil union blessed, there is an affirmative obligation to decline if the priest doubts that the intent is not "faithful and monogamous." They do decide and sometimes they decline.

It is not about welcome it is about responsibility. Clergy are under discipline, they act for and are responsible to the church.


Carl said...

Dear Mother Kaeton,

Thank you for your courage and honesty in looking at what for many people is a very scary, if not explosive, issue.

Just a few thoughts before I attempt to answer your thoughtful questions:

1. I agree wholeheartedly that "monogamy is a social construct (clearly not a biblical one) which has its greatest value in supporting patriarchy."

2. I believe that our society is functionally non-monogamous, especially if you define monogamy as "one man and one woman married and faithful only to each other until death." Frankly, we live in a sort of thwarted polyamorous culture that permits marriage to multiple partners, as long as it's only one at a time.

3. Bisexuality certainly begs the monogamy question. If it is possible to be sexually attracted to more than one gender, might this not suggest that it is also just as possible to enter into worshipful, loving, holy committed relationships with more than one person?

4. I think required reading for this conversation is Bill Countryman's amazing book Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today.

5. I spent seven years during a period of my life when I was estranged from Christianity exploring alternative spirituality, including the Wiccan/Neopagan community. Granted, that community is small and marginal, but this issue is very much alive within that sub-culture, and most Wiccans have a "love and do what you will" attitude toward polyandry.

Okay, to answer your questions: as a Christian layman, I radically believe in freedom of conscience and that participation in the Body of Christ is something that truly sets us free. I would question people desiring to enter into a polyamorous relationship in much the same way that I would question those desiring a monogamous bond: What is your level of personal maturity, how do you manage conflict, what resources are available to you to help you weather difficulties and change, what is your spiritual life like and how does that impact your relationship, and so forth. To a couple of three or more, I might also want to talk frankly about what happens if one person bails. Do the others continue the bond as a reduced configuration, or does it require continued affirmation/commitment from all individuals? I suppose you can see by where I'm going with this, that I am less interested in the external "correctness" of the proposed union and more concerned with the care of the souls involved. How the parties answer my questions would shape how willing I am to offer support and/or counsel.

2. I wish I could say that, if I were a clergy person there would be no difference in my response to this issue than what I envision my response as a layperson. But I know that the rules are different for clergy, and that's one of many reasons why I have never seriously pursued ordination. Frankly, I would probably encourage the persons seeking a polyamorous union to consider alternatives like a Unitarian, Wiccan, or even liberal house church setting for their commitment ceremony. At least in those settings there would probably be far less cognitive dissonance to deal with! I realize I'm copping out here, but man, that is a tough question! Thanks for asking it.

Many blessings,

Carl McColman
The Website of Unknowing

Erika Baker said...

I'm not following your point that bisexuality begs the monogamy question.

The fact that straights/gays are potentially attracted to every single member of the opposite/same sex does not mean they are incapable of settling down with one of them.

Why should that change when the pool of potential partners increases to members of both sexes?

Carl said...

Erika, thanks for your question. It actually first came up for me many years ago (back in the '80s, I think) when I was having a conversation with a priest about sexual ethics, and I mentioned bisexuality, and his response shocked me. He was a gay priest, radically committed to the full inclusion of lesbian and gay persons in the life of the church, but he categorically denied any place at the table for bisexuals. I asked him why, and he said, "because bisexuality implies something other than monogamy, for a bisexual person who was not called to celibacy would never be fully satisfied in a relationship with just one or the other." That set me to thinking about the whole question not only of the ethics of bisexuality, but also the ethics of monogamy!

I believe that bisexuality like other affectional orientations, goes far beyond genitality (is that a word?). To be bisexual, it seems to me, means not only being potentially able to love all human beings, but being attracted to loving male-gendered and female-gendered persons. It's not about "or," it's about "and." The and, as I see it, is where monogamy as some sort of natural imperative breaks down. If I am called to be faithful to a male lover and a female lover, what would that mean? I don't claim to have any answers here. But I think projecting onto bisexual persons the idea that they are called to love a man or a woman is just that — a projection of our culture's monogamist bias.

emmy said...


As I understand bisexuality in my own experience (obviously I cannot speak to anyone else's) it means that a person is attracted to men and to women, but not necessarily to more than one person at the same time (not any more than homosexual or heterosexual people are attracted to more than one person at the same time). It doesn't mean that a bisexual person cannot be in a committed, monogamous relationship. It does mean that a bisexual person wouldn't rule out a potential partner on the basis of gender.

There certainly may be people who are, as you say, "called to be faithful to a male lover and a female lover", but not all bisexual people understand their orientation in that way.

Carl said...

I agree, Emmy, and like you, I certainly cannot speak for all bisexuals! But just as we cannot assume that all bisexuals are drawn to love both a man and a woman, likewise we cannot assume that all bisexuals are merely called to love a man or a woman. That's the point I was trying to make.

Erika Baker said...

I don't know what we can assume about men and women in general, but I do know that the definition of bisexuality is to be potentially attracted to members of either sex.
I can only work within that definition and not expand it to mean any other potential sexual desires.

My own personal experience is that I fell in love with an individual who happenend to be male. We married and were very happy together for 20 years.

When that marriage no longer existed I fell deeply in love with an individual who happened to be female and who has been my partner for the last 5 years.
I fully intend this relationship to be lifelong and will not even look at other people, male or female.

But should I ever find that I am on my own again, I will be free to fall in love with another individual - whether that may be a male or a female. I will commit to that person because I love them, not because of their naughty bits.

It just all depends on how you define the words.

Bisexuality itself says as little about the morals of the person as heterosexuality or homosexuality.
Everyone can be attracted to 2 people, it's the choices you then make that define your moral status, not your sexuality.

Carl said...

I certainly agree that bisexuality does not require one to be polyamorous (which is what my priest friend apparently believed). But I suppose I also would hesitate to declare that a concept as political as "morality" requires us to be monogamous — just as I reject the idea that morality requires us to be heterosexual.

Erika Baker said...

I'm not sure what you're saying in your last post.
You seemed to say earlier that it is innately more difficult for bisexuals to be monogamous and I think this has to do with a faulty concept about bisexuality.

I didn't really want to get into other possible sexual moralities, none of which have to do with one's innate sexuality anyway.