Book Review: “Covenant and Calling”.

I really would have liked to be able to recommend this book, but sadly, I simply cannot. In fact, When I was offered a review copy for Quest, I accepted gladly, looking forward to what seemed to be a worthwhile endeavour. Song’s aims are laudable, he’s a reputable academic in a good university with good credentials in both religion and queer studies (including queer theology). The reading list he provides as an appendix is good, with reliable texts by a balanced range of authors, and the book comes with warm endorsements from people I respect. Unfortunately, on first reading I was so repulsed that I could not even finish it, resulting in constant nagging from the Quest Bulletin editor, waiting for the promised review. On eventually picking it up again, my view had softened a little (I did at least complete a full, careful reading), but my core objections remain.

Covenant and calling

Song’s intention is to steer a calm, thoughtful middle course between the two hostile positions in the polemical struggles over gay marriage, and to come up with a proposal that will be acceptable to all but the extremists on both sides. The solution he comes up with has some merit, and is worth serious consideration: to restrict “marriage” to its traditional use with opposite – sex couples “for the purpose of procreation”, but to accept that same – sex couples also deserve recognition, albeit under a different name. This has been tried before, for example as “civil partnerships / civil unions” in secular law, but has been found wanting. Separate can never be equal, is the objection, and opposite – sex couples who cannot or do not want to procreate, are not excluded from marriage.

What makes this suggestion novel and not inherently discriminatory, is that unusually, he wants to restrict marriage, reserving it exclusively for those couples who do intend to have children. The important distinction, he argues, should not be based on the sex of the partners, but on their willingness and ability to bear children. It’s not a solution that I find particularly viable, but it is certainly one worth serious discussion.

What I found disappointing was not his proposal, but his reasoning, which is completely unconvincing. I was constantly left with the impression that he had reached a conclusion, and then looked for arguments to back it up. For instance, his central proposition is that in Christian tradition, marriage has “always” been between one man and one woman, for the purposes of procreation, depending heavily on Aquinas, who was clear that this is one of three goods of marriage. Yet he also acknowledges that there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that marriage is about babies. It’s a little strange, to say the least, that procreation is central to the Christian tradition, when there is no evidence at all that it mattered one iota to the key figure in that tradition, after whom it is named.

Far more serious, is the total absence of any consideration of the real history of marriage. The “Christian tradition” as he describes it, dates back to Augustine. That’s a major part of the full Christian history – but what he overlooks, is the distinction between theological theory, and actual marriage in practice. It was not until late in the first millenium, five centuries after Augustine, that the Church placed any importance on marriage in church – except for priests. For long after that, marriage was still not to have babies, but to protect the legal status and inheritance rights of those that resulted. The result was, that for ordinary people with no property to bequeath to their children, most simply did not bother with marriage, at all. That was reserved for the rich and powerful.

It is also disturbing that while claiming that tradition that doesn’t really exist, he ignores the fact that tradition and practice can change. An absolute prohibition on divorce for example, was a firm part of that tradition, with much stronger scriptural support, but his own Anglican church has been able to accommodate a change there. For same – sex couples, the traditional objection to same – sex relationships was not simply to marriage, but that they should not exist at all. Yet, he is able to accept a change in that tradition too, acknowledging that for people with a natural homosexual orientation, a committed, faithful sexual partnership with another may well be a valid calling, equal in value to either marriage or celibacy. If long – standing Christian tradition is able to adapt on those counts, why not on his core argument (resting on unsound foundations) that Christian tradition has “always” been between one man and one woman, for life – for the purposes of procreation?

Most damningly, for someone proposing what he thinks is a novel solution of “covenanted partnership”, there is not even a single word about a similar practice that was a fixture of Christian rites for many centuries in the early church. John Boswell has produced extensive evidence for the existence of formal liturgical rites in the Eastern church for blessing same – sex couples, and Alan Bray has found similar evidence in the Western church, where they were known as “sworn brothers” – or even, “wedded brothers”. Scholars disagree about the exact significance of these partnerships, and there are undoubtedly significant differences between this practice and the solution proposed by Spong. It is however, remarkable that he does not even attempt to acknowledge their existence, let alone discuss their relevance (or otherwise).

Among gay and lesbian Catholics, there is significant divergence of opinion concerning church response to same – sex couples. Even among those who support full legal equality in marriage, there are some gay Catholics who do not want their own unions called marriage, and certainly not in church. There are strong arguments from those quarters, for a revival of this tradition of blessing same – sex couples, without conferring the word “marriage”. On the other side of the debate, there are others who hold to the traditional teaching demanding celibacy for gay people, who also see value in reviving this tradition, on the basis that these unions were not necessarily sexual, but made provision for mutual companionship and support.

This is a discussion deserving serious attention. It is tragic that a writer proposing a “solution” along similar lines, has simply ignored the historical evidence, blithely accepting and basing his argument instead on the falsehood that Christian marriage has “always” between one man and one woman.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: “Covenant and Calling”.”

  1. I think it was Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP who argued that respect for diversity argues for some kind of recognition of the uniqueness of procreative unions; I think his argument is sound. I do not see why the Church cannot bless same sex unions.

    God Bless

    1. Chris, I agree that it’s a reasonable case to make, in terms of Church and the sacrament of matrimony. When it comes to legal recognition in civil law, it’s another matter entirely. It’s simply not realistic for the state to make childbearing intention a condition for marriage, and if they want to make special recognition for the important social role of parents, and their mutual legal commitment, then that should commence when child rearing actually begins – and that apply whether the parents are man / woman, two men, two women, or genderqueer and any other. The value to the child, and to society, does not change according to the parental gender composisition.

    2. It is interesting to note, that in the official USCCB book for celebrating the Catholic rite of marriage, the intent of the spouses to have children is optional. We marry heterosexuals who are, for example, beyond the age of child bearing. We also consider the blessed virgin Mary and Joseph to be married although they had no intent of procreating children.

      God Bless

  2. If we take the Bible literally, all of us are bastards as there is NO evidence that Adam and Eve were ever married. We have also descended from their offspring presumably Seth and Cain who got their wife’s from God knows where. I have always wondered if the first homophobe was Cain, who slew Abel becuase Abel was not a hunter, but gre vegetables instead. Was he so different because he chose that lifestyle and perhaps was gay also?

    Terrence, you yourself, as I recall, are a divorcee and wonder if the church does not accept persons who are divorced but whom they might also believe to be homosexual as well. We know that Saint Peter was married but We have no knowledge that Paul was ever married. Why then is the work of Saint Paul so much more important to the church’s doctrine than Saint Peter?

    Terrence, we appreciate your good work in helping the church to accept all persons, including homosexuals, who may or may not have been married and fathered children. Has their prior experience as a progenitor made any difference in how the church should treat homosexuals?

    1. “there is NO evidence that Adam and Eve were ever married”. Absolutely correct. Formal marriage, whether as a legal contract or as a church ritual / sacrament, most certainly did NOT begin with Genesis. Spong’s repeated claim that it did, was one of the features that most angered me on first reading.
      “Has their prior experience as a progenitor made any difference in how the church should treat homosexuals?” I have no idea whether it’s made any difference for “the Church” (ie Vatican and bishops), but it should. I’m personally extremely interested in the continuing synod tussle over divorce, remarriage, and communion, because there are so many points of analogy. When Pope Francis says, “They (divorced and remarried) are not excommunicated”, we can also echo,”They (gay and lesbian married Catholics) are not excommunicated”, either.

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