June 2004

 

The word "sanctity" has been bandied about rather casually of late, most notably in the approved amendment to [the Canadian Anglican] General Synodís A-134 resolution, which affirmed "the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships." When asked from the floor what he meant by the word "sanctity," the framer of the amendment replied that it was intended in a "pastoral" not a "theological sense." Now THAT is a strange answer, particularly since the "sanctity" was twinned with "integrity," itself a word derived from the Latin integritas, meaning "wholeness, purity, blamelessness, innocence, integrity and chastity."

The answer is rendered even more dubious when we remember that, in the course of debate, an alternate reading (that called more generally for "love and support" of those in a same-sex lifestyle) was defeated.

Virtually every word, of course, has a "semantic range"óthat is, a word is somewhat elastic, and means various things in various contexts. What can and does "sanctity" mean?

Letís consider how we use the word traditionally in our own English culture. "Sanctity," along with its synonym "holiness" has a quaint air in our postmodern environment. Anyone encountering the word finds himself or herself immediately thinking in terms of religion, cult, and morality. Because of the way that the word has normally been domesticated, that is, applied to the "purity" of human beings, we tend to forget that originally "sanctity" was attached to a sense of awe, or mystery. However, even with this loss of memory, there is a hangoverówe speak of someone who has "the air of sanctity" and imagine, perhaps, a monk or a nun, someone separated out for Godís service. So the standard concise oxford offers these synonyms for sanctity: "holiness of life, saintliness, sacredness, being hallowed, right to reverence, inviolability."

Sanctity, then, is the state of holiness, and can naturally be applied to anything that the adjective "holy" traditionally describes: "holy water," "holy" altar, a "holy" person, the "Holy Bible," "holy matrimony," the "Holy Spirit," the "holy God, " "the holy One of God." In the Latin, the word sanctus is used to translate the Hebrew term Qadosh, and three Greek terms, hieros, hosios (and most commonly) hagios. Greek, then, had several terms, with overlapping meanings, but used in particular ways. Hieros always referred to something or someone divine, or consecrated to the divine: Typically, the word referred to priests, cultic objects, and the like, as well as to the Lord God himself, but it is not a word used often in the Old or New Testaments. Hosios had more to do with the ethical dimension of "holiness," and referred to a duty to worship what is holy, to the quality of reverence or piety in the worshipper. However, the word hagios has the broadest range, and is used to cover the various other meanings, from "holiness" connected directly with worship and cult, to the absolute "holiness" of the Almighty God, to the "holiness" of his people.

The Old Testament, of course, with its emphasis on the tabernacle and the Temple (constructed in concentric circles of increasing holiness), considered "holiness" as referring to those things that are set apart, or utterly different from, the profane. One of the revolutions effected by the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, is that the earth, visited by God, is no longer "profane" by its very nature. "This is our Fatherís world." Concentration upon the Temple as the locus of Godís holiness now gives way to the focus upon the "holy One" whose very body was and remains the Temple of God. The visitation of the Son to our world means that nothing is, by the mere fact of being "created," simply "profane"óall things created can be irradiated with the glory of God, and the breach between the holy and the profane can be healed.

But this does not happen automatically, especially where the will of human beings is concerned. Just as God placed Adam and Eve in a care-taking position in the pristine world of Eden, so now the redeemed humanity, in Christ, is called to respond to Godís work in us, so that time and space are redeemed for the sake of holiness. This begins with, but does not end with, our own lives and our own relationships. We tread carefully here to avoid the impression that this relies upon us, for all of it comes from the initiative of God. Yet we are called, in a certain sense, to "co-operate" (and I use the word advisedly). Just as the God of the Hebrews said to his own people, "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (and assumed that this required a response), so the rhythm of the Pauline letters says, "God is like this and God has done this in Christ" "therefore present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holyÖ (Romans 12:1)."

Jesus said to his listeners, "Be therefore perfect (teleioi, i.e., complete, with integrity, fulfilled) just as your heavenly Father is perfect." Yet it was not Christianity, but the Gnostic movement, that assumed its converts, the spirit-ones to be already perfect. The Incarnation, and Godís reclaiming of the cosmos and of humanity, does not mean that we can claim an inner, inalienable "holiness." This is something held for us in trust as we are in Christ, and beginning an ongoing life of transformation in which we are called to participate. The advent of God the Son changed the whole of the fallen created order, so that, in a sense, the distinction between the holy and profane is abolished. This means that nothing is to be, by its inner nature, whether material, emotional, psychic, or spiritual, left outside of Godís ruleóbut things, people and relationships are not automatically rendered "holy" just because they has some claim to existence. Some 20th century poets have thought this, but it is not a Christian idea. For Christians have an operative word that is matched to the idea of "sanctity"óit is the verb "sanctification."



Things and people need to be "set aside" (hazomai, hagiomai) for God. This work of sanctification began, of course, in Jesus, but it continues. This verb, we must remember, originally meant "to stand in awe of the gods (or oneís parents). We are here in the domain of the burning bush, in the atmosphere of Isaiahís trisagion ("Thrice-holy") vision, verging on the realm of angels, into which we are called fully because of what Jesus has done and because of who he isótruly God and truly human. Sanctitas, in its fullest meaning, covers all the following: sacredness, inviolability, sanctity, moral purity, holiness, virtue, piety, integrity, honor, purity, chastity. How bizarre that the word should now be used to describe activities that are linked with impurity, lack of honour and lack of chastity in the whole of the Bible! Christians, after all, are called "holy" because they are in Christ, incorporated into "the Holy One of God" (Luke 1:35, Acts 4:27).

There is, of course, a rational explanation for why the term would have been applied, on June 4, 2004 to a "committed adult same-sex union." It is because the framers have, in the background, the arguments of the likes of Eugene Rogers, who has neutralized the Biblical proscriptions regarding homoerotic behaviour by leashing the meaning of the words used to describe this activity, and by appealing to "experience" as the arbiter of our decision. Rogers, after a skewed interpretation of the various Biblical texts that touch on same-sex activity, clinches his argument by asserting that same-sex couples "find" in their union "a means of grace," so it must be holy. This appeal to experience that contradicts the condemnation of Scripture is the most common revisionist position today. It says that we know better than St. Paul, because he just doesnít recognize the grace that characterizes the loving union of two men or two women.. Wasnít Jesus always welcoming outcasts from Israel among his followers? Now God is doing something similar, but new for the church. In that light, the church needs to recognize what is holy, and arrange for membership, ordination to office, the "blessing of unions" or outright "marriage" in order to celebrate the experience of those people who say they already find sanctity in the love they have for one another? The argument sounds like a new "sheet" let down before 21st century doubting Peters: but has God called this novel arrangement "clean"?

Douglas Farrow, in his article "Different Gods," explains that such reasoning "is to affirm the integrity and sanctity, the wholeness and holiness, of what he or she already is and has as a sexual being in a sexual relationship. Indeed, the amendment to Resolution A-134 implied that "Synod was being asked to affirm the presence of God that already inheres in every committed (homo)sexual relationship between Christians." In passing it, the ACC followed the tendency in our day to assume "that what we are in ourselves is already (potentially if not actually) whole and holy." Thus, "as sexual beings" (and perhaps not in any other part of our person) we do not "require any special justification, sanctification and transformation in Jesus Christ."

Jesusí death tells us otherwise, as do those who know how to follow in his pattern. John 7: 17, 19 and 10:33, 36, declare that the Holy One died a death separated unto God so that we can, in turn, be sanctified. 1 Corinthians 7 speaks of the marriage relationship, and how the sanctity of a believing partner hallows the whole marriage so that the unbelieving spouse may also come into Godís holiness. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 tells us that it is God who sanctifies spirit, soul and body Ė not our own assertions, our own experience, or our own imaginations. We are called to such holiness by Jesus, who is faithful and, and who has promised to complete what he has begun in us, corporately and personally, through the Holy Spirit. But this he will not do against our wills, and certainly not if we assume that the work need not be done! ("But now that you say, Ďwe see,í your sin remains," John 9:41). As Hebrews 12:10 reminds us, there is a godly discipline laid down for us, so that we can indeed share in the holiness of the Son.



God himself enacted the first marriage covenant, bringing Eve to Adam, her partner. A marriage, like the relation of Christ to the church, is not finally a thing made with human hands. In contrast, homoerotic relations, whether "blessed" or not, point to our human willfulness and brokenness (Romans 1:21-24). By its nature, homoerotic activity cannot bear fruit or fulfill the ecstatic ("going out") role, the picture of Trinitarian life, that marriage is meant to dramatize.

What would a same-sex "blessing" or "marriage" supposedly show us? For one, the church would be giving thanks to God for the sexual union of two men, or two women Ė and declaring that in themselves they are pictures or icons of Godís love, that they display in a certain mode the salvation story, and that they are glorified or taken up into Godís own actions and being. It would declare that they have a significant and fruitful part in creation, and that they are symbols of the in-breaking and coming rule of God, in the holiness of Christ, in which the church now shares and in which we will eventually participate fully. It would be to "speak a good word" about this sort of relationship, explicitly declaring it to be a condition in which the way of the cross and the way of new life come together. It would thus claim that the relationship is conducive to repentance, healing, growth and glorification for the two men or the two women involved. Precisely here, the church would be saying, you can see the wholeness, the holiness, the love of God in human form, and the glory of humanity. Here would be a sacrament, an occasion where the holy God meets us.

A church doing this in reality is replacing God with an idol, and this before the whole world. It is claiming that God blesses an act for which repentance is required. It is commending to the family of God, and thus to the world, activities that lead to spiritual death. It is praying against its true nature, indeed, it is denying its true nature. Finally, the particular body (congregation or communion) is rending itself from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of the creed. As Karl Barth has observed, heresy raises the troubling question of the boundaries of the church. While the church may learn from its conflict with heresy, there is no "middle way" between faithfulness here and the revisionist position on homoerotic relations. It makes little difference whether we create rites to sanctify, or declare these parodic unions already sanctified. "Little children, keep yourselves from idols!" (1 John 5:21)