What is deemed "liberal," in one decade is often judged to be "conservative"--even "biblical" and "orthodox"--by a later one; and what is judged to be "conservative" in one decade is often deemed to be "way out" and "off the map" by a later one.
The treatment of marriage and sexual relations between human beings by The General Convention of The Episcopal Church, its Canon Law, and the common pastoral practice of the dioceses during the twentieth century, and on into the twenty-first, well illustrates how that which is once seen as liberal is later viewed as conservative, and what is once viewed as conservative is later seen, even by conservatives, as intolerable.
Sixty years ago there was intense debate as to whether it were possible at all to have a second marriage after divorce blessed in church by a priest. Conservatives said "no" or "yes, but only under extremely limited circumstances" while "progressives" said "yes; under specifically listed [and generous] circumstances."
Today, the progressive liberals press for most or all divorcees to be given a fresh start through a church wedding (serial monogamy) and they also press for the blessing of same-sex partnerships (considered as civil unions or "marriages"). In contrast, while conservatives or "the orthodox" totally oppose same-sex blessings, they are generally content—in pastoral practice if not in doctrinal statement—with serial monogamy, as long as it is not too blatant. (In 1947 it was difficult if not impossible to find a divorced and remarried priest in pastoral ministry; now up to one quarter of such are divorced and remarried.)
To be fair, most of this development of pastoral practice and public doctrine in the Church has paralleled or simply followed the changing marriage laws in the U.S.A. of both the Federal and State governments. In other words, it is a very clear example of the Church adapting its position to the changing culture which sociologists have called "a divorce couture." First, the Church allowed—even encouraged--a growing number of divorcees to be remarried in church and then, secondly, did much the same for sex couples so that they could have their partnership blessed.
Accompanying these very observable changes have been others which are there to be seen, but can be missed unless one is looking for them. There was a change of doctrine concerning "artificial birth control." What was once condemned was slowly accepted from the 1930s and this acceptance and use rose dramatically with the arrival of "the Pill" in the 1960s. This extensive practice contributed to, but did not cause, the change in the definition of marriage, which began from the 1960s to lose its close connection with procreation as a major purpose and adopted instead as its primary purpose the mutual happiness and satisfaction of the couple concerned, with procreation as optional. The emphasis upon personal fulfillment and satisfaction in turn opened the door to arguments not only in favor of easy divorce and remarriage but also the right of any type of "loving couple" to personal happiness according to their "orientation." Further, this "therapeutic" emphasis helped to make illegitimacy and one parent homes acceptable and even "normal." Finally, the availability of abortion served in the last resort as a perfect form of birth control for the married and unmarried woman alike.
It is fair to say that American law and culture—not too long ago—reflected an attitude towards marriage which included permanency along with sexual complementarity and mutual fidelity. In fact, the definition of marriage by John Locke was generally accepted at the Founding of the nation and long after. He wrote: "Conjugal society is made by a voluntary compact between man and woman; and though it consist chiefly in such a communion and right in one another's bodies as is necessary for its chief end, procreation; yet it draws with it mutual respect and assistance, and a communion of interests too, as necessary not only to unite their care and affection but also necessary to their common off-spring, who have a right to be nourished and maintained by them, until they are able to provide for themselves." In American law and culture, followed by in American churches, we have seen first the undermining of permanency, then of mutual fidelity and then of complementarity. Today in American law marriage is a contract but a less binding one than for virtually all other forms of contract.
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I often wonder whether the African and Asian bishops who have been so upset—even enraged—by the acceptance by The Episcopal Church of same-sex unions truly realize that this particular matter has been discussed and debated within TEC since the 1970s, and that it is part and parcel of the massive change in attitudes to, doctrines of and practice of sexual relations in both the USA generally and TEC in particular. In other words, had not TEC liberalized its doctrine of marriage in canon law in 1973, in its Marriage Service (1979), in Resolutions of General Convention and diocesan conventions, and in pastoral care and practice, and if TEC had not allowed divorced, and divorced and remarried, persons to be ordained and engage in parish work and pastoral care, then TEC would never have come anywhere near to its present adoption of same-sex blessings and the like. For most clearly the latter are parasitic on the former and would not exist without the preparation of the way by them.
In other words, what needs to be put forward is a renewed doctrine of sexual relations and marriage, which brings all of us under the Law of Christ, declares to us what is not merely the ideal but the norm, and which judges equally those who unyoke and re-yoke marriages as well as those who engage in same-sex activities. Unless I am severely mistaken, there has been from "the orthodox" very little critique of the divorce culture within TEC and its offshoots, but much criticism of the "same-sex" culture. Indeed a crisis in the global Anglican family has been caused by excessive attention to this latter issue by the "orthodox," and the former—the invasion of the church by the divorce culture and of marriage by the therapeutic, self-fulfillment culture—has been treated pretty much as "normal," at least in North America, by the same people.
Regrettably the reports and resolutions of The Lambeth Conference from 1930 onwards up to 1998 concerning the doctrine and practice of marriage, the use of artificial birth control and same-sex relations do not provide a clear word for the global Communion to follow. Rather, this "instrument of unity" sends forth a mixed message when it come to clarity concerning holy matrimony and relations between the sexes. In contrast, the declarations (Encyclicals) of Popes since 1930 and the teaching of the recent R C universal Catechism present a very clear statement of the meaning and purpose of marriage and sexual relations. Happily, the Marriage Service in the classic edition of The Book of Common Prayer (1662) and the Canon Law of the Church of England in place till very recently, do/did testify to a full Christian doctrine of marriage.
I personally cannot see any revival of the Anglican Way in North America which does not include a readiness and resolve before God to face this situation where the whole doctrine of marriage and sexual relations is deeply affected by the American Zeitgeist, and where the Church is not only in the world but also of the world and for the world, and where morals are based on what sociologists call "rights-monism."
[For an excellent collection of essays on the changes in law, public policy and culture with respect to marriage in the U.S.A. over the last century see The Meaning of Marriage (edited by R. P. George and J.B. Elshtain, Spence Publishing 2006). And see also Allan Carlson, Conjugal America: On the Public Purpose of Marriage , Transaction Books, 2007, which is very useful. ]
-- The Revd Dr Peter Toon