Robert Song’s Covenant and Calling: towards a theology of same-sex relationships is a book I have wanted to be persuaded by more than anything else I have recently read, for two main reasons. First, I was privileged to be in a small discussion group with Robert at a recent CEEC consultation on the issue of same-sex unions, and found him to be a fascinating, warm and engaging person with whom I had much in common theologically. Secondly, this is, in parts, a quite beautifully written book. At just over 100 pages, it is not long, and some of the argumentation is quite dense; yet at points its articulation of the meaning of marriage is nothing short of exquisite. John Barclay describes it as ‘provocate, beautifully argued’ and Sam Wells calls it ‘reverent, responsible and seriously thoughtful.’ And yet, like many beautiful things, it is (I concluded) deeply flawed in the shape of its argument, and as a result I suspect it will achieve the opposite of what it sets out to do.
The Preface, where Song sets out both his approach and its context, is in some ways the most important part of the book. He quite rightly does not ‘want to ask so much about sexuality as about the relationships in which sexuality is expressed’, this includes not only ‘Christian understandings of marriage and celibacy also what these tell us about our created, bodily natures and our hope in Christ’ (p ix). Following Augustine and others, he is quite clear that both sides of the debate have not sufficiently recognised ‘the significance of the advent of Christ for sexuality. Sex BC is not the same as sex AD’ (p x). His central question, then, is about the effect of ‘partially realised eschatology’, living in the ‘now and not yet’ of the coming kingdom, whether this allows for a third way of relating between celibacy and marriage, and (crucially) he asks ‘Could such a relationship could be sexually expressed?’ As I read through, I wanted to see whether Song answered that question convincingly.
He is quite clear that he is not taking an approach that is ‘programmatically “liberal”‘, and as demonstration of this he decisively rejects what I think are the three main approaches to the question from the ‘revisionist’ side. First, he does not argue for a ‘ principled methodological privileging of experience over Scripture, tradition or reason.’ In particular, this makes him wary of adopting too easily the language of contemporary culture, and he rejects the use of ‘rights’ as the ‘primary moral language’ of Christian ethical debate. Secondly, he rejects an approach driven by a missional agenda or the need to make the church connect with culture.
This is a time for discernment, and not for panic. The way in which contemporary Western cultures think about and perform sexuality has itself become far too distorted for us blithely to assume that simply signing up and joining in could clear up the churches’ remaining problems. Sexuality pursued in a consumerist mode, which all too easily becomes sexuality that is pornographic, predatory or promiscuous, is not the finest basis from which to launch a defence of Western values. (p xiv)
The third approach Song rejects—and I think the most significant—is one that ‘seeks to play down the created nature of bodies and bodily difference, and as a result…arguably run the danger of being incipiently ‘docetic’ in nature.’ Here Song has put his finger on a crucial issue in the debate, but one which is not often addressed. A Christian sexual ethic cannot be one in which ‘one’s sex is immaterial’.
An emphasis on relationality which sees one’s sex as indifferent disregards the sexed nature of bodies that is in some sense given with creation— even if, as we shall see, the precise nature of this needs to be carefully thought through (p xvi).
In saying this, I think Song rules out most of the popular approaches to the biblical texts (such as James Brownson’s) found in the ‘revisionist’ case. ‘Eschatology may be the fulfilment of creation, but it is not its denial.’
If the Preface is the most important part of the book, then chapter 1 on ‘The Beginning and End of Marriage’ is the most fascinating. Song offers a careful reading of the Genesis account and their significance in the light of reflections from the fathers, and weaves into this the impact of Jesus’ celibacy and teaching on eschatology. In many ways he gives us a convincing and nuanced understanding of the two creation accounts, and observes that ‘God declares that they are made male and female, with an intrinsic mutual relationally.’ But he then makes what I think is the first misstep—and one that is crucial to his later argument. In Genesis 1, sexual differentiation is linked with the task of ruling over creation (as God’s vice-regents) and this is effective through procreation, which is therefore a primary purpose of marriage. Song fails here to give sufficient attention to the second creation account, in Genesis 2, where procreation appears not to be in view at all, but the existential recognition and attachment which is (in the narrative) a solution to the problem of aloneness.
A brief tour of patristic exploration (including Augustine’s suspicion of sex as the place where human rationality fails, which is a Bad Thing) leads Song to identify the ‘goods’ of marriage as faithfulness, permanence and procreation. There is some parallel here with Jeffrey John’s formula of ‘permanent, faithful and stable’, and it is not difficult to see the direction this might then lead when (either because of the coming kingdom, or the advent of birth control) procreation becomes less important. What appears to be completely missing from Song’s discussion here is the notion of union, expressed in Gen 2.24 in the language of ‘cleaving’ or unity, and the very strong ‘becoming one flesh’—language that both Jesus (Mark 10.8) and Paul (1 Cor 6.16) redeploy.
The next section is a fascinating exploration of the function of marriage as an analogy for the relationship of God with creation—and here Song makes a much stronger case than I had expected, one that is usually seen as the province of the most theologically conservative. Here he rejects any pragmatic or situational understanding of marriage:
It is one thing to say that I pledge my troth as long as it suits our well-being, and that of our children and a wider society, another to say that I pledge my troth because that is what marriage is (p 12).
Then follows a detailed exploration of the impact of eschatology on this whole understanding. If the gendered nature of humanity and the role of marriage is connected to procreation, and this is the way that dominion is exercised, and this is vital because people die, then in the new age where there is no death, there is no need for procreation and therefore no need for marriage. This is, of course, the essential logic behind Jesus’ response to the Sadducees in Matt 22.30, and leads to the logic of celibacy. ‘Celibacy, in other words, has become an appropriate stance for those who wish to live in the New Age.’ It is not surprising, then, that Jesus and Paul live out just this vocation—and it is vital that we recover this perspective, without giving up on marriage.
If we in the contemporary Church have a need now, one might say that it is to recover the significance of authentic celibacy. Against the heritage of Protestant ideals of the family, against post- and sub-Freudian assumptions about the necessity of a healthy sex life for psychological wholeness, against the late modern capitalist consumerisation of sexuality, a renewed understanding of the theological significance of celibacy and avowed singleness is surely essential to the Church’s truthful witness (p 22).
Thus far, thus ‘traditionalist’—though of course Song is here challenging ‘traditionalist’ discourse about marriage and sexuality as much as anything, and at the same time offering fascinating reflections and insights. But in doing so he has set the bar very high for the acceptance of same-sex marriage—or perhaps, to borrow a different image, he has described a very fine eye in the marriage needle through which the camel of same-sex unions must pass if he is to answer his earlier question.
I will explore how he approaches this, and whether he succeeds, in the next post which can be found here.
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