Covenant and Calling: a review (part ii)

81J9ukeqSeLIn the first part of his book, Song has explored some of the dynamics of marriage and sex in scripture and theology, and along the way has dismissed the most popular arguments for accepting same-sex unions as on a par with marriage.

He then turns to the question of ‘covenant partnership’, and appears to hit another nail into the common arguments for same-sex marriage. Some relationships which are not heterosexual, it is said, can express the same virtues of marriage in a generic but ungendered relationality. Song appears to have in mind here the position of Jeffrey John, which parts of his previous argument actually seem to parallel. But this is also close to the ‘kinship’ view of James Brownson, though Song does not mention him. Whilst Song is ‘sympathetic’ to this approach, it will not do for him, since ‘it is in danger of denying the goodness of the material creation’ (p 24).

 This includes not merely the materiality of creation but also the form in which it is made…To abandon the notion of sexual differentiation entirely in favour of a generic relationally…is to run the risk of denying any meaning at all to the phrase ‘male and female he created them.’

This has consequences for theological thinking about marriage, and removes us from the biblical understanding.

 In particular, [this approach] may come to serve as a legitimation for modern notions of abstract individuals contracting together for reasons of mutual benefit (p 26).

Song then goes on to explore the significance of his earlier conclusion that procreation is ‘theologically redundant’ in marriage. He highlights the differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant teaching on the question of childlessness, distinguishing between marriages which happen to be childless and marriages which are entered with the intention of being childless. Catholic theology explicitly rejects the latter, but Protestant theology has given such marriages more recognition; might deliberately childless marriage offer a pattern for a non-procreative covenant relationship? To open the discussion on this, Song summarises his argument so far in these terms:

If we are to introduce the category of covenant partnership at all, the fundamental distinction it connotes is not between heterosexual and homosexual relationships but between procreative and non-procreative relationships.

This then leads to the fourth section (chapter 3) on sexual differentiation, sex and procreation. Here he argues that sexual differentiation is fundamental to marriage. This is not about hierarchy between the partners, since the most persuasive reading of the biblical texts is that marriage is about mutual subordination in a context of basic equality. It might, though, be about complementarity—so Song lists, then questions, the three main articulations of this. First, the form of male and female bodies in particular the form of the genitals suggests comlementarity—but ‘without an understanding of their function, namely reproduction, their structure is meaningless’ (p 45). Second, complementarity could be found in psychological difference—but perhaps the next batch of research will undermine this. Thirdly, we might turn to marriage as a theological model (as in fact Song has earlier)—but most who do this return to its procreative nature.

Covenant relationships clearly do not have to be sexually differentiated, and we find examples of them in scripture, such as between David and Jonathan. But could they be sexual? It seems clear that procreation is not the only purpose of sexual activity; we see in Genesis 2 the language of ‘union’ and in the Song of Songs sex as an expression and fulfilment of desire. This, combined with the notion that contraception is acceptable,

…is to admit that sex may have, intrinsically and objectively, a different and separable meaning from procreativity.  And this in turn implies that covenant partnerships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, may be sexual in nature (p 59).

And the nature of desire in sex means that (as Rowan Williams has argued) sexual activity can also point towards our desire for God.

It is in this section that Song does most of his work ‘towards a theology of same-sex relationships.’ But it is not clear to me that he is being entirely consistent with his previous argument. If heterosexual marriage-with-sex has such an important role in offering an analogy for God’s relationship with humanity (as he has earlier argued), how can we now simply separate sex within marriage leading to procreation from sex without marriage as an expression of pleasure? In what sense does the latter point to God when removed from the former? What God has joined (the act of sex and the context for sex of heterosexual covenant relationship) let not theologians divide! This division arises from Song’s own dividing of Gen 1 from Gen 2, rather than seeing both of them together as providing a theological understanding of sex-within-marriage. If sex is expressed genitally, how can we so easily dismiss the form of the created body the moment we focus on desire—something again Song himself has argued against?

On the other hand, that which God has divided let not theologians join! In his discussion of the meaning of sex here, Song makes no reference at all to one of the most striking features of the biblical approach—and one that makes both the OT and the NT distinctive within their social and cultural contexts: sexual activity is a strictly bounded thing. There are certain relationships within which sex may occur, and a good number of relationships and context where it may not occur. In other words, there are strict boundaries around the kinds of relationships, covenant or otherwise, that can become sexual. You might regret or resent this (as Diarmid MacCulloch clearly does in his current TV series Sex and the Church) but it is impossible to ignore it when considering the meaning and purpose of sex from a theological perspective.

So when Song draws the line of demarcation between procreative and non-procreative relationships, he is doing so over an already existing demarcation between sexual and non-sexual relationships. This means he is creating not two but three categories: non-procreative non-sexual relationships; procreative sexual relationships; and the middle category of non-procreative sexual relationships. Since Scripture locates sex as pleasure and sex as union firmly in the second area, and these relationships are heterosexual, Song is left without any clear justification for why the third area might include same-sex relationships—other than reasons he himself has previously  ruled out. If the theological logic of NT eschatology has led Paul and Jesus to see celibacy as an appropriate alternative to marriage, rather than sexual, same-sex covenant relationships, what has changed at the level of theology which would lead us to come to a different conclusion?

In his last major section, Song returns to the exegesis of particular passages. He sets out a fairly conventional reading of Romans 1, whilst noting Paul here is not ‘providing a complete, considered sexual ethic’ (p 67). What is slightly odd is Song’s failure to note the importance of the ‘visible creation’ in Paul’s rhetoric, which as Robert Gagnon has noted is a key part of Paul’s argument, and chimes with what Song himself has said earlier about the goodness of the material creation, including its form in the male and female bodies. Lev 18 and 20 ‘are difficult to see as referring to something other than homosexual anal intercourse’ (p 69), and cannot be dismissed as no longer applying to Christians. This is because we cannot throw out OT law in general, but also because we find NT texts reapplying these particular principles. In 1 Cor 6.9 and 1 Tim 1.9, ‘Paul is restating the Leviticus case, which in turn is based on the claims in Genesis about sexuality in creation’ (p 70).

How then does Song fit the previous argument within this reading of the texts?  It is by ‘drawing a contrast between the surface meaning of texts and the deeper structure of the biblical story’ (p 63). Song is clear that, in trying to do this, he has his work cut out for him.

We can therefore be open to taking the criticism on the chin: even if there is no surface trajectory in the New Testament towards same-sex relationships, there are still a variety of reasons for finding such a rationale that arise from within the New Testament and that are in sympathy with its fundamental commitments.


Song needs to be given credit here; he is quite honest in admitting that the NT texts themselves offer no trajectory whatever in the direction that he wishes to travel. But in doing so, he is creating yet more challenges. In relation to the text of the NT itself, he is in effect arguing that it is theologically and semantically incoherent—that what we read on the surface actually points, not just at right angles, but in the opposite direction to the ‘deeper structure’ of the biblical story. That would mean that, on this vital question of human anthropology, and the implications for sexual ethics in the light of eschatology, the actual texts of the NT are fundamentally misleading.

He is also arguing that his own understanding of the implications of eschatology for sexual ethics are to be preferred to either Jesus or Paul’s. Jesus offers no revision of the Jewish understanding of Lev 18 and 20 or the creation narratives in this regard, and Paul, seeing himself as in continuity with the teaching of Jesus, relocates the Levitical prohibitions precisely within an eschatological context of the coming kingdom. Yet Song suggests that both Jesus and Paul have failed to understand the ‘deeper structure of the biblical story’.

Despite having, from the outset, rejected the ‘programmatic liberalism’ of prioritising experience over Scripture, it is hard to see that Song has not done something similar, by prioritising a theological pattern over against what Song agrees is the meaning and significance of the relevant texts. In amongst this, what we are left with is a lucid, elegant and powerful theological case for retaining much of the church’s current teaching on the nature of marriage.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

16 thoughts on “Covenant and Calling: a review (part ii)”

  1. Ian,

    Thanks for this second installment. While I understand the train of argument, I think it’s important to distinguish two aspects of human origin as presented in Genesis.

    Genesis 1 provides no explanation of God’s involvement in engineering marital permanence. In Genesis 1, all animal species are commanded to ‘be fruitful and multiply’, including man. As you explain, the Genesis 1 account establishes the human race as co-regents with God. Naming and numbering involves guardianship taking careful stock of all animal life (Gen 2:20) in a manner that resembles God’s guardianship of the celestial creation (see Ps. 147:4; Is. 40:26)

    In Genesis 2, the bond between Adam and Eve is through physical derivation. Sexual differentiation is engineered by God to take advantage of this bond of derivation.

    ‘The man said,

    “This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
    she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.”

    That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.’

    God’s intimate involvement in deriving one gender from the other was to establish His permanent archetype for gender interdependence in founding permanent human families, whether childless or not.

    The ongoing debate appears to hinge on the question of whether, absent procreation, prioritising the importance of sexual commitment makes gender difference irrelevant to marriage.

    It presupposes that procreation was the only reason for Eve’s sexual differentiation. Ergo, if you have no intention to procreate, there is no need for gender difference in marriage.

    We can dither over St.Paul’s language, and while his position on headship may make modern readers uncomfortable, it is the one aspect of the Genesis account that has no direct connection to procreation:

    ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve.’ (1 Tim. 2:13); Again: ‘For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.’ (1 Cor. 11:8)

    It means that a divinely ordered precedence was established by deriving Eve from Adam. Paul is careful to remind that derivation does not eradicate interdependence: ‘Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.’ (1 Cor. 11:11)

    The problem is that, without procreation and or any acceptance of the precedence that originates from the creation account, theologians are at a loss to explain why gender difference matters in marriage.

  2. Thanks again for this, Ian, another thorough and clear breakdown & rebuttal.

    Regarding MacCulloch, I don’t think that he resents the biblical position; he’s said that it’s simply wrong. What he does oppose is one particular theology being imposed across the church, especially on those who share none of its first principles.

    For whatever reason, hearts and minds are fixed on this issue, which makes me think books like this, while well meant, will achieve little. We instead need books setting out a case for divergent practice within the same denomination. The case for genuine and mutual tolerance.

    • I think MacCulloch resents the way the church has held on to the biblical position because (as you say) he thinks it is simply wrong.

      If the divergence in the church is because the two groups share nothing in terms of first principles, I think the quest for unity is futile.

      • They share much: not least, for the majority of both groups, the first principle that God uniquely revealed himself in Jesus the Christ, whose death and resurrection promise new life to all. On that bedrock, there can be diversity. As this blog by a pastor-turned-episcopalian puts it:-

        “At St. Peter’s, we recite the Nicene creed every week. But the practice of the liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer in general, and the shared experience of the Eucharist in particular, is what holds us together. Beyond that, there is plenty of room for difference. The emphasis is not on sharing dogma so much as it is sharing the cup.”

        It’s not about whether sexuality can be classed as a thing indifferent, but about whether people who disagree on what’s adiaphora can inhabit the same space. I’d argue that they already do, and disagreements over sexuality ought to be treated like those over divorce, pacifism, sacraments, and salvation.

    • James,

      The problem that remains is one of reception. Initially, what you call genuine and mutual tolerance’ might provide a basis for co-existence with the same ecclesiastical polity.

      Given that, as you say, there are those within Church of England membership who consider the biblical position to be wrong, how long will that tolerance hold?

      I think it’s naive to assume that those who claim that they, in all conscience, cannot accept the biblical position, would be bound by an agreement by which they can exercise discretion in their roles of authority for this matter (or any other divergence from the biblical position) without seeking to influence others.

      The reality is that while the Church of England is tolerant of divergent reasoned interpretations of scripture, it is not latitudinarian.

      The post-Pilling pastoral guidance states that: ‘The 2005 pastoral statement said that it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships and that clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who registered civil partnerships…

      ‘Those same sex couples who choose to marry should be welcomed into the life of the worshipping community and not be subjected to questioning about their lifestyle. Neither they nor any children they care for should be denied access to the sacraments.’

      ‘The same approach as commended in the 2005 statement should therefore apply to couples who enter same-sex marriage, on the assumption that any prayer will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching and their reasons for departing from it. Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways.’

      Given that authorised public liturgy is expressive of the church’s Canon Law, it would be useful if you could explain whether tolerance involves agreeing a same-sex marriage rite that diverges from Canon B30, or that it involves re-defining the following in gender neutral terms:

      ‘The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”

      How could this be changed to reflect a genuine and mutual tolerance between those who agree and disagree with the biblical position without adapting every other Canon to accommodate every other divergence within the Church?

      Also, why should these liturgical forms matter to those who express distaste for revelation and authority? Or is this just a tactical step towards them becoming unworkable and making the case for dispensing with them entirely?

      • David, if, in return for keeping the marriage canon as-is, lesbian and gay ministers gained freedom to contract a civil marriage and express their love sexually, I suspect a great many would take it. It would be a significant step forwards.

        Safeguards for those with a traditional position could, surely, be devised, as various provinces have done over ordaining women.

        • James,

          This is an interesting direction. I would tend to see such a ‘leap forwards’ in the light of what theologians call reception. GS 1557 has a particularly good section on this.

          I’m with Peter Toon, who explained in his leaflet, Reforming Forwards?:

          In its present form, Anglican ‘reception’ is not an appeal to the sureties of the past, or even to what has been. Instead, it is an appeal to what might be someday, with the associated permission to test or experiment with the proposed possibilities of the future. This kind of ‘reception’ is, thus, a novelty in itself. It is no longer a ‘reformation’ (an effort to achieve the original, pristine form). Rather it is a ‘reformation forward,’ so that the true form of the Church may not have been seen or achieved yet. That is not, however, an eschatological consideration, according to which we are not completely sure of what Christ will make of us. Rather, it is an inversion, an experiment to determine what we will discover of Christ and his Body, the Church.

          In the end, one is faced with this question: Is there justification provided in the Scriptures for a principle of experimentation?

          No previous effort at reformation or renewal has looked to the future, rather than to the settled past. It may even be said that the reformation forward is contrary to every basic principle of church polity.

          For the experiment to proceed, it must be permitted by human authority. But until the experiment succeeds, it cannot be known if the human authorities granting permission have the divinely given authority to allow the experiment.’

          While the decision to ordain women was strongly contested to be scriptural and apostolic by its proponents, the push for the church to affirm same-sex sexual activity is, for the most part, not saying that the Law, the Prophets and the apostolic witness have been misused and misunderstood, but that they are wrong.

          The recent ordination of women bishops was a logical consequence of the 1992 decision to ordain women to the priesthood. It’s also logical to assume that once the compromise is agreed, there will be a further push for an amendment to Canon Law on marriage, claiming that the reception of this development was already under way.

      • David (if I may), you note that there are those within Church of England membership who consider the biblical position to be wrong, how long will tolerance therefore hold. Indefinitely, I’d say, most of those in this position have been living with ‘the biblical position’ all around them since they were kids. I know I have. I suspect that the other side has never had to live in a minority position and fears that the liberals, for want of a better word, will behave just as badly as conservatives did in the past when they were in power.

  3. Thanks David. Several things by way of response.

    First, I think Robert’s argument is more nuanced, in that he does not want to move in one stride from other-sex marriage to same-sex marriage. He is careful to articulate the idea that marriage must be other-sex, but that there could be another kind of covenant relation which is same-sex and sexual. (I did not go through his concluding argument about this in the final chapter before his conclusion).

    Second, I don’t agree with you that order in creation establishes any sort of precedence. For one, the one created last is usually superior. For another, both those Pauline texts are in a corrective context, and Paul goes on in 1 Cor 11 to undermine the idea that men are the origin.

    Third, headship is not the only aspect of creation which is not connected with procreation: as Robert points out, the language of union and intimacy fulfil have no direct connection with procreation. So the question Song rightly asks is: if you believe in equality of the sexes, and if procreation no longer has theological priority, what exactly is gender differentiation about?

    I don’t feel I need to offer an answer to this, so much as to note that for Paul and Jesus, it was still essential to marriage, so that celibacy remains the only alternative to other-sex marriage.

  4. Ian,

    All good points. I would suggest that precedence does not connote superiority, but merely preceding in time and order.

    ‘But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.’

    Headship, in this context, connotes divinely ordered sacrificial guardianship. Christ is equal to God, yet prioritises His submission to the Father’s loving guardianship.

    Another apostle, Peter, highlights this of Sarah: ”Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.’

    ‘Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.’ (1 Pet. 3:4 – 7)

    It might not agree with feminist sensibilities, but it’s nonetheless part of the apostolic witness and it doesn’t connote a patriarchal arrangement of society that excludes women. In the church, women articulated direct unmediated revelation from the Holy Spirit.

    Sacrificial guardianship includes ‘submitting to one another in love’ because, as with Adam, that which is timed to follow in divine order is key to unlocking the divine purpose of that which precedes it.

    While Genesis initiates this order, in parenthood, the precedence is reversed. Men and women alike are commanded in both Old and New Testaments: ‘Honour your father and mother’. Again, in Christ, our children are our equals, but under our sacrificial guardianship.

    Even if same-sex pairings can exercise sacrificial guardianship towards each other, there is no sense in which they follow the pattern of divine order.

    We are under no more obligation to explain why it is so ordered, than to explain why God the Father is the head of Christ and not the other way round, or why mankind is any more the image of God than the whole of creation that reflects His greatness and power.

    Isn’t it God’s creational prerogative to order His universe and earthly human relationships as He pleases.

  5. Having also read Song’s book, I agree with your analysis and conclusions, and was I think a little disappointed in how ready he seemed to be to assume that his covenant partnerships may be sexual, when as you point out, actually none of his theology (which was I thought very good) really gave support for such a notion.

    However, I did find his idea of covenant partnerships an interesting one, and his theology of them as a third vocation to have perhaps some merit. It got me thinking whether there wouldn’t be room for the church to recognise celibate covenant partnerships as a third vocation, alongside marriage and solitary celibacy (albeit lived in community). Perhaps two (or maybe three or four) people, not called to marriage and thus to celibacy, might express their vocation through committing to one another in covenant partnership, embodying goods of mutual love, faithfulness and permanence.

    It might be said that there would be no takers for such celibate partnerships (or that the idea of them, for those of same-sex attraction, is naive). And perhaps indeed it is a pointless or misguided innovation. But Covenant and Calling did make me think the idea might possibly be worth exploring further, if only to have something more constructive to offer those who see the virtue of loving committed relationships, and for whom a life without marriage seems unbearably lonely.

    • Phil,

      An interesting and useful exploration. Would you think that such covenant partnerships should be in any way exclusive? On what basis do you think that exclusivity might be a considered important to them?

      • I think I imagined that they would be exclusive, in the sense that a person would only belong to one – they’re in place of marriage, for people not called to marriage. So they would live together as part of the loving commitment, and exclusivity would form part of the special partnership of sharing life together. They might also involve more than two people (though that might prove to be unwise through opening them up to internal jealousies).

        I can’t decide whether I actually think they are a good idea or not. Is close friendship not enough? Are such vows of permanent exclusivity a good idea outside marriage? Is anything gained by formalising and publicly sanctioning them? Is it too close to marriage? Or would it be a genuinely good and wholesome way of providing for genuine needs and embodying genuine virtues, consistent with biblical teaching?

      • Hi David (and Egghead),

        I realize this post was made years ago, but I only just came across it. I count myself as a person who would love a nonsexual covenant partner/partnership, that is exclusive. In fact, the more I’ve learned about romantic friendships from the 18th/19th centuries, as well as Boston Marriages, the more I feel I was made for such a relationship. I always assumed that in order to not live alone, I would have to find a husband. But I didn’t want sex (have never desired it, and in fact would prefer a nonsexual relationship). Yet I long to share my life with a special person whether male or female, to live together, vacation together, share physical and emotional affection, possibly make a formal commitment, and possibly even share a bed the way romantic friends did in the past. For me it would be much like a marriage, only obviously not viewed the same by God, and not sexual. But it would a committed, exclusive partnership/companionship.

        I realize many people do not understand such a relationship, or think it is impossible in today’s world. Maybe it is, but I hold out hope. I have been inspired by David and Jonathan’s relationship since I was a child, and perhaps now I know why.

        I would love to discuss this idea more with either of you, if you are still interested in the topic.

        • That is a very interesting perspective—thanks for sharing.

          But can I ask what would be ‘exclusive’ about this relationship? We live in a multigenerational household including several single people—so our home is not ‘exclusive’.

          What other things would you exclude? In other words, what would set this apart from a deep friendship?


Leave a comment