Marriage, Vocation, and the Revolutionary Church Tony Baker
A recent complaint from a friend about the Hunger Games trilogy brought into perspective something that I, in fact, really liked about the books. She loved the revolutionary spirit of the story, but (spoiler alert! spoiler alert!) really disliked the ending. “They stop fighting,” she complained, “and then move off somewhere and start a family, like they’re just giving up on the revolution and selling out to cultural expectations.”
Now, there are some of us who believe—and in fact have devoted our lives to the notion—that raising a family is not selling out, but ought instead to be the most radical of revolutionary acts. Roman Catholic theology has done us a great service by calling attention to the way that family life can create relationships of love, trust, and faithfulness that work to subvert the norms of modern liberal capitalist culture. David L. Schindler writes “It is inside the family that we first learn a ‘technology’ that respects the dignity of the weak and vulnerable” as well as “the habits of patient interiority necessary for genuine relationships: for the relations that enable us to see the truth, goodness, and beauty of others as given” (Ordering Love, p. 448).
It seems to me that the greatest insight of Suzanne Collins’s young adult trilogy parallels this theology. Subversive activity, even (especially?) armed uprisings, will always be ambiguous and open to disillusioning compromises. Those whose loyalties form around confidence in a shared moral high ground are liable, sooner or later, to disagree over the proper footing of that ground. When this happens, their loyalty to one another proves fragile. Only a deeper bond, one formed of love and irrevocable kinship, can hope to outlast the pressures of a fragmented and competitive society. With children, sisters, uncles, and cousins, we learn to practice life together, and that “together” engages our souls at a much deeper level than the sort of easily escapable commitments that form the pattern of contemporary life.
At the same time it seems to me that there is flaw in the Catholic logic, and one which Anglicanism, from even before its Reformation-era origins, has sought to address. The family does not, in fact, occupy the center of church life in Roman ecclesiology. The center instead belongs to a celibate male hierarchy. This means that while active human sexuality will not necessarily occupy a periphery in the teachings and internal workings of congregations, it will be peripheral to the leadership of the church as a whole. And regardless of the amount of effort that the Roman church puts into emphasizing the goods of human sexuality and family life, the theological implications of their ecclesiastical structure points in a different direction: the celibate male stands at the center of God’s revolutionary activity in the fallen world; the family is secondary.
Anglicans since the days of Tyndale have suggested that an ecclesiology in which marriage and ordination are not mutually exclusive sacraments brings the family from the secondary to the primary place. And although the arguments for female clergy have not always been very theological, this historical impulse might provide at least one aspect of the theology that has often been missing: it is not just the working father, who, stereotypically, leaves work to return to the realm of the oikos at 6:30 every evening, who can be a priest in God’s ecclesia; the mother as well, traditionally the primary caregiver, can lead the revolution.
This emphasis would give Anglicans a way of addressing broader issues of human sexuality as well, and construct a more theological space for various non-procreative commitments. This, though, is a counter-intuitive claim, since it might seem that by making families the center, all others are “marginalized.” This may be, but part of my argument is that there are better and worse ways of constructing the margins. Placing heterosexual, child-raising families at the center of the church by opening ordination to the married allows for a complex periphery, made up of others whose commitments are different, though potentially no less theologically rigorous.
To be sure, Anglicans have traditionally not been terribly good at working out this theology, but the potential is there to ask questions that Roman ecclesiology cannot accommodate. Rather than “to which of the two vocations are you called?” Anglicans can ask the more complex question: “if you’re not witnessing to God’s faithfulness and charity through marriage, procreation, and the raising of children, how do the commitments that form the center of your life bear witness?” Celibacy now takes shape in this rich and complex margin: What is the witness of the celibate, if clergy can marry? Also though, what of the divorcee? The widower? The married infertile couple? The married couple who has discerned a vocation involving commitments that make child-raising unwise? Finally, what about gays and lesbians? To what might these forms of life bear witness? Homosexual desire and union is different, theologically speaking, than the desire and union of women with men, and thus will bear witness differently. But bear witness it must, if it is to have a place in the church. This should, I think, be the primary critical question the church asks about non-normative sexualities: “Can this form of life bear witness to the creative, life-giving, faithful love of God?”
The point here is this: If our theological vocation-sorting need not be limited to a bifurcated “1. ordained celibate or 2. lay family-raising,” then a richer array of theologically serious human sexualities and bodily vocations seems possible. And while these will occupy the margins in a theological sense, the margins themselves can be “central” to the life and hierarchy of the church (since the family is, on this model, the normative human group, but the priesthood and episcopacy is not limited to spouses and parents).
A rich array of vocations is possible, but not automatic. Roman Catholic moral theology is, I would argue, much more rigorous and carefully thought out than anything Anglicans have to offer. My point here is not to disparage the accounts of marriage, sexuality, and human embodiment from fabulous theologians such as Schindler or popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but rather to suggest that, if Anglicans were to combine our own tradition with the careful theological work of these Catholic thinkers, we might develop a language for marriage and sexuality richer more spacious than any yet on offer. The revolutionary church, in this case, would be built around families, and contain a broad array of committed, theologically informed, human relationships. Could Anglicanism, in this way, provide a life-form for Christianity more subversive and visionary than any yet imagined?