Sexual Ethics in the Life of the Church


The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner, Professor of Christian Ethics

The General Theological Seminary

Philip Turner has been teaching Christian Ethics for 23 years, first at Makerere University at Kampala in Uganda, where he began his ordained ministry; then at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, and currently at General Theological Seminary in New York, where he has been since 1980. He is the author and/or editor of several books, and articles, including Sex, Money and Power and Men and Women: Sexual Ethics in a Tumultuous Time. A 1961 graduate of Virginia Seminary, Dr. Turner received the Bachelor of Arts from Washington & Lee University, the Diploma in Social Anthropology from Oxford University, and the Doctor of Philosophy from Princeton University. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the Society for Christian Ethics, the Natural Law Forum, and was a Fellow of the Episcopal Church Foundation from 1971 until 1974. Dr. Turner was appointed to the Anglican Roman Catholic Consultation (USA) in 1986 and continues to serve in that organization.

The Zabriskie Lecture series was established by the family and friends of the Very Reverend Alexander C. Zabriskie, dean of Virginia Seminary from 1940 to 1950, and professor here for 30 years.  Since its establishment in 1957, this lectureship has brought to the Seminary campus many distinguished scholars and lecturers, and it is a privilege and pleasure to present this series by Dr. Turner.


Marriage and Divorce

A little over a year ago, I received a letter which I opened eagerly and then read with disbelieving eyes. The letter  contained an invitation to deliver these lectures. I have rarely had a happier moment, and certainly no greater honor. But as I read further my heart sank. There before me, buried in the second paragraph, were two words that filled me with dread-"Sexual Ethics." I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, opened my eyes, hoping that I had misread the letter. I hadn't. The words were still there, and as a result I found myself, in the midst of my joy, becoming enormously anxious. 

In reporting this reaction, I in no way imply that the suggestion, about a topic for these lectures, is not in fact a good one. Indeed, I knew immediately that it was only a suggestion and that it was reasonable, responsible, timely, and right. Nevertheless, I could not suppress a thought familiar to us all.  "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" We all know that anyone who puts his or her toes into these waters is apt to have them bitten off.  No matter what they say, they will certainly fail to please one or another group of people. Like abortion, sexual ethics is for us more a cause for war than a subject for debate, and most of what people say is designed to get others marching behind their particular banner.

I cannot and do not wish to pretend that I have no views on these matters.  Nevertheless, my primary purpose is not to issue a call to war. It is rather to call for a debate within the life of the church-a debate that I still pray might be carried on by speaking the truth in love rather than by rhetorical bombardment and political maneuver. With this end in sight, during the course of this first lecture I hope to do two things. One is to expose what I shall call "our most basic division," and the other is to show how this division finds expression in what we now think and say about marriage and divorce. In the second lecture, I shall try to show how "our most basic division" pops up again in present attempts to redefine the family, motherhood and fatherhood. In the third, I will attempt to show how our basic division affects what is now being said in the dispute about sexual relations between people who are not married one to another.



The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner, VTS '61.


I have given this series of lectures the title "Undertakings and Promises" both because these two notions are so central to the ethics of sex, and because they serve so well to expose what from now on I shall call "our basic division." This division does not result from a difference of opinion over the particular promises and undertakings that ought to accompany a sexual relation. Rather, it stems from a more fundamental disagreement about the relation between promises and undertakings themselves. Even though its implications touch every significant area of our private, civic, and ecclesial life, our basic division can be stated rather simply.  For those of a more "traditional" frame of mind undertakings precede promises, and for those of a more "liberal" bent the reverse is the case. For those who favor the first point of view, the content of the promises we may rightly make is limited by the nature of the undertakings that are morally permitted us. For those who favor the second, our promises are limited by what will do harm to or limit the freedom of others. Within these boundaries, the promises we make are thought rightfully to issue in the specific undertakings we have chosen for our lives. My basic point here is to say that the battle we are having over sexual relations is the same as the battle we are having over political ones.


To begin with, let us look more closely at the traditional view.  Its defenders hold that life is framed by certain undertakings the terms of which are not determined by human choice but by divine "ordination" or "providence." Because they are set for us by divine will, undertakings precede promises. They define the sorts of promises that can rightly be made within the various sorts of relationship that, by the workings of providence, make up the fabric of social life. Promises are not, therefore, the preconditions for our undertakings. They are rather the means by which moral agents take upon themselves the various sorts of undertaking that give life its structure and define its basic good.  Supporters of this view hold that it is within these undertakings that humankind can best find fulfillment, and, because this is so, the common good is said to enjoy a certain priority over individual good. This means that individuals are called upon to make sacrifices for the good of the whole that the whole is not required to make for the good of individuals. 


There is no better example of this first perspective than the marriage rite found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The 1979 book begins with an exhortation the purpose of which is to explain the nature of marriage as an undertaking that is "ordained by God" for certain "ends," "goods," or "causes." According to the rite of 1979 these goods are three in number. The first is the "union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind." This union is for their joy and for the help and comfort they can offer one to another.  The second is, "when it is God's will, for the procreation of children and for their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord." The third is the capacity of the marital bond to signify "the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church."


Now this, our most recent account of the goods of marriage, is closer to the classical Christian tradition than the account of marriage contained in the 1928 book. Its more detailed account of the goods of marriage can leave little doubt that in shaping its most recent rite, the Episcopal Church returned to a more ancient tradition than that found in 1928 and in so doing insisted that marriage is an undertaking the terms of which are ordained by God rather than by human intent, choice, or promise. In respect to marriage at any rate, the Book of Common Prayer requires assent to the view that promises are dependent, in a moral sense, upon undertakings. It is not the other way around. To be sure, moral agents enter upon the undertakings of life by means of intentions, choices, and promises. They do not, however, have the moral right to set for themselves the terms of the promises they make. These are, as it were, preset by the nature of the undertaking to which their intentions, choices and promises provide access. It is precisely to establish the moral priority of undertakings over promises, at least in respect to marriage, that the Episcopal Church explicitly states in its Canon Law that no couple is to be married according to the rites of the church unless they espouse the view of marriage contained therein. No one can claim the blessing of the church and at the same time give the undertaking of marriage a meaning of their own choosing.


Though the Book of Common Prayer does not say so explicitly, we may safely assume that what can be said of marital relations can be said also of sexual ones. The presumption of the text (and the long liturgical and moral tradition that stands behind it) is that sexual relations are properly an aspect of the marital union (only) and that, as in the case of marriage, the "ends," "goods," or "causes" for which they exist are also ordained by God rather than human choice. The particular sexual goods implied by the rite of 1979 are in fact virtually identical to those so nicely described in the 17th Century by Jeremy Taylor. 

In their (husbands and wives) permissions and licence (for sexual intercourse), they must be sure to observe the order of nature, and the ends of God. He is an ill husband, that uses his wife as a man treats a harlot, having no other end but pleasure. Concerning which our best rule is, that although in this, as in eating and drinking, there is an appetite to be satisfied, which cannot be done without pleasing that desire, yet since that desire and satisfaction was intended by nature for other ends, they should never be separate from those ends, but always be joined with all or one of those ends, with a desire of children, or to avoid fornication, or to lighten and ease the cares and sadnesses of household affairs, or to endear each other; but never with a purpose, either in act or desire, to separate the sensuality from these ends which hallow it.

In the light of this description, the reverse and more contemporary position is easily anticipated. Its advocates hold that the terms of our undertakings are determined by our promises, and that our promises in turn result from what individual pro misers believe, all things considered, to be in their best interests. In this case, undertakings result from the promises we make and are of human rather than divine ordination. They spring from our estimations of what makes for fullness of life, and are limited not by the undertakings they support but by any harm they may portend for the promisers involved or by any undue limitation they impose upon their liberty.  On this view, as our political life so clearly confirms, the notion of a common good is changed to that of a common interest, and the pursuit of individual interest assumes a greater and greater degree of importance in relation to the purposes of common life.


John Giles Milhaven recently gave eloquent expression to this more contemporary point of view.  

Love is no longer basically a trusting submission that searches out God's universal laws for human behavior and institutions. . .  Rather, the new trend sees God leaving it completely (emphasis added) up to (man) as to how things turn out. Christian "love," therefore, comes to mean that a (man) takes from God into (his) own hands all (emphasis added) responsibility for what happens. It is up to (him), not God, to figure out what will be good for those concerned and how this good can be realized, just as it is up to (him), not God, to act and make the good a reality. 1

Milhaven's view is not the most dominant one in American society. As yet it has received only ad hoc liturgical expression, but it has the powerful support of an unofficial theological magisterium. Victor Preller has coined the phrase "the new reformers" to refer to this variegated and increasingly sizable group, and for the remainder of these lectures I shall borrow this rather helpful phrase to refer to these advocates of a revisionist sexual ethic. 2


The views of the new reformers are far from uniform, but there is one text in particular that has played a major role in placing their arguments before the "mainline churches." I am speaking of the book Embodiment by James Nelson. 3 Nelson's position on the nature of marriage provides a perfect example of the view of the new reformers not only about the particular promises and undertakings that ought to accompany a sexual relation but also about the proper relation between promises and undertakings themselves. 4


Marriage, says Nelson, is the usual but not the only means for the expression of "embodied love." Now, the purpose of embodied love's expression in marriage (and in certain other forms of relation) is to establish and maintain "communion" between lovers. The primacy accorded by Nelson to "communion" as the good of both sex and marriage, on first reading, makes his position seem close to the traditional one. The appearance is false, however. As one reads on, they discover that the sexual union and communion of lovers serves a more basic purpose and that is the "fulfillment" and "wholeness" of the individuals involved. The communion of love turns out on investigation to be a means by which individuals may obtain for themselves life's basic satisfactions.  It is a means to personal wholeness and fulfillment and is subordinate within sexual relations to these more individual purposes. 


Nelson never tells the reader what constitutes "wholeness" and "fulfillment" for lovers. The Prayer Book rite suggests that the fulfillment of mutual joy comes to the couple in the process of building a mutual society that can provide support in life's endeavors, welcome the gift of children and, through the strength of its bond, signify the unity of Christ and the church. The primary aim of lovers, however, is not mutual joy but the constitution and strengthening of this bond. Happiness, wholeness and fulfillment are things that may, indeed are likely, to come in the process but they do not define the good of marriage itself.  


It is different with the expression of embodied love and communion which Nelson holds to be central for marriage and other forms of licit sexual relation. It is Nelson's view that within the communion of marriage individuals seek to have met their "authentic needs." These needs vary from person to person and from case to case. For this reason, the promises and undertakings of marriage and other forms of sexual relation, by implication, need not be the same in each case. The presence of different needs will lead the undertaking of marriage to assume different shapes and serve different purposes. What must be the same in all cases is not the particular good or goods sought in marriage. It is rather a pledge by the parties involved of "commitment," "openness," and "care" in respect to their partner(s).


Once again, one is never told the goods, ends or causes served by these promises, but it is not difficult to see that their purpose does not flow from the nature of the undertaking of marriage itself. Their purpose is rather to ensure that those involved in this relation neither do harm one to another nor infringe in an illicit manner upon the liberty of the other as they pursue the "authentic needs" their relationship is supposed to serve.  The promises of "commitment," "openness," and "care" do not flow from the predetermined character of a particular sort of undertaking. Rather they are designed to ensure that the lovers in question may pursue unharmed and uncompelled the undertakings of their choice.


The promises of "commitment," "openness," and "care" advocated by Nelson and others are in fact open to a number of different undertakings.  That this is so may be seen if one looks carefully at the idiosyncratic treatment given the more traditional promise of "fidelity." "Committed" lovers ought also to be "faithful" lovers, but, on Nelson's account, fidelity within a marriage (and presumably other forms of sexual relation as well) may involve adultery. Nelson argues that in a marriage, though one ought to remain "committed" to a "primary relationship," they nonetheless may involve themselves in other relations, some of which may be of a "genital sexual nature." Such relations may be necessary for the growth of one or another of the partners and may even strengthen the marriage (or relationship). Thus, though these relations may be "adulterous," they need imply no "infidelity" as long as they bring about no "rupture of the bonds of faithfulness, honesty, trust, and commitment between spouses." 5


There seems little doubt that this curious notion of fidelity issues from the fact that the communion of marriage is in fact an undertaking subsidiary to the "wholeness," "growth," and "fulfillment" of the individual lovers involved. The needs of personal growth in the end turn out to be the trump cards in the new reformer's deck. When push comes to shove, it seems to be Nelson's position that, though marriage is supposed to express love, serve communion, and in so doing promote personal growth, it can hinder rather than help in respect to the promotion of growth.  For this reason, marriage may need to be supplemented by other love expressing social arrangements that can more adequately meet the needs of those lovers not well served by its demands.


My hope is that this comparison of the understanding of undertakings and promises/promises and undertakings implied respectively by the examples I have cited has made clear what I have called "our fundamental division."  It is this division which runs "all the way down" in our current debates both about sexual and political ethics, and it has presented those who wish to defend some version of the moral tradition of the churches with what Prof. William Werpehowski of Villanova University has called "the pathos of Christian ethics today."


In the course of a remarkably sensitive discussion of abortion, Werpehowski says this about our moral circumstances:

Yet the pathos of Christian ethics today is the difficulty of preserving an account of (the) goods of human relationship against their collapse into the desires or interests of autonomous individuals.  Because there is so little consensus in liberal American society on the goods that fulfill persons apart from that of self-determining choice, there tends to be little sympathy with or understanding of the notion that persons flourish in and through patterns of relationship that are themselves taken to be normative.

It is the assumption of the marriage rite found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that "persons flourish in and through patterns of relationship that are themselves taken to be normative."  It is the assumption of contemporary American society and of an increasing number of Christians within that society that persons flourish as, in pursuit of the authentic needs of the self, they become liberated from these very patterns. It is this moral division that has served to expose a great fissure in the relationship between the churches in America and their environing society.  For the first time in history, the moral tradition of the churches is "out of sync" with the views of society as a whole. The resulting pain and confusion serve well to point out the aptness of Werpehowski's nice phrase.


One way to address the pain and dispel the confusion is to adapt Christian teaching to the changing scene and in so doing claim that one is not departing from the classical tradition of Christian ethics. Certainly Nelson and most other revisionists would want their proposals to be seen as a development of the Christian tradition rather than a departure from it.  In their recent discussion of the history of casuistry, Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin make this claim for continuity with bemusing clarity.

The discriminations and distinctions embodied in the current sexual morality of Western Europe and North America do not represent any radical break with earlier moral considerations and attitudes.  Rather, they reflect changes in the "qualifications," "exceptions," and "rebuttals" to which older rules are regarded as now subject. Nothing at the heart of the so-called sexual revolution, for instance, weakens traditional moral objections to sexual relationships that are unloving and exploitive, or to promiscuity that is divorced from true human affection. Indeed, in its constructive aspects the rethinking of sexual morality and family life over the last thirty or forty years has no more broken with earlier traditions of moral reflection than the debate about nuclear weapons has cut us off from all the experience embodied in the traditional analysis of the preconditions for a just war.  Rather, it refines a traditional analysis of sexuality and family life further, in the light of new developments in society, technology, and psychology. 7

Claims to continuity like this one seem plausible. They are, however, demonstrably false The truth of the matter is that the views of the new reformers both about the relation between promises and undertakings and about the specific promises and undertakings appropriate for people involved in a sexual relation represent a moral tradition quite different from the one that lies behind the Book of Common Prayer. The contemporary view of these matters stems not from the reforming ecclesial culture of reformation England that we associate with Richard Hooker and Jeremy Taylor but from the culture of Enlightenment we associate with the contractarian moral philosophy of Hobbes and Locke.


The very wording of Jonsen and Toulmin's account of the development of the tradition displays this discontinuity.  'Traditional objections" to the sorts of illicit sexual relations of which they speak are not, as they suggest, that such relations are "unloving," "exploitive," and "divorced from true human affection." The traditional objection is that illicit sexual relations are ones divorced from the ends God has ordained for them.


These last remarks suggest that, in the battle over sexual ethics, we are dealing not simply with different views about the moral obligations that may obtain if one enters a sexual relationship but, more profoundly, with two very different views of the moral life itself. The only way to deal with a division of this magnitude is to bring the two positions into proximity and let their defenders have at it. That can be done in the first instance by looking even more closely than we have at what the two sides have to say about marriage and divorce.


Marriage is the best place to begin because both parties believe that the shift in the meaning of marriage that has been in progress since the middle ages is a good thing. Since that time, marriage has become less and less a means for families to enhance their economic and political strength and more and more a means for individuals to find personal satisfaction and support during the course of daily life. 8   As this trend has developed, marriage has become more closely linked both with sexual desire and passionate attachment. 9 Stanley Cavell has called the social institution that has emerged from this history "romantic marriage.10  Within it, sexual desire, passionate love, and marriage are so closely linked that it is difficult to separate them one from another.  


The churches have, in recent years, espoused these developments with enthusiasm and now univocally support marriage based upon sexual attraction and romantic love. Nevertheless, moral assessments of the link between sexual desire, love, and marriage are not all positive. Lawrence Stone, the Princeton historian, says that "Behind all this there lies a frenetic individualism, a restless search for the sexual and emotional ideal in human relationships, and a demand for instant ego gratification." 11  The philosopher Stanley Cavell has a more sympathetic view but one, nonetheless, that implies certain reservations. 12  Cavell's analysis of the American film leads him to believe that a new good for romantic marriage is beginning to emerge-one that has to do with the discovery of "some new dimension of the personal in relations between the sexes..." Along with this has come "a new discovery of privacy"-a privacy within which "men and women require of one another that they bear the brunt of one another's subjectivity, in relative insulation from the larger world of politics and religion, which has rejected this subjectivity, or let it loose."


Subjectivity was "let loose," says Cavell, when, during the 16th Century, people began to feel alone in the universe and were, as people without God, thrown back upon their own resources. Romantic marriage was a cultural reaction the purpose of which was and remains to offer men and women "a way of walking away from exactly that doubt of cosmic isolation." 13


Cavell's intellectualist and rather theological explanation of romantic marriage is too simplistic. It nevertheless points both to a strength and weakness in what parties to the particular debate we have been tracking are now saying. Both champion romantic marriage as an antidote to isolation, and this championing of what Milton called "a meet and happy conversation" has served to display in a new and deeper light something that, though largely buried, has been present in the Christian tradition from the beginning. The union of "one flesh" between a man and a woman which God is said to intend in marriage is occasioned by the fact that it is not good for either of them to be alone. The notion of romantic marriage gives a psychic and emotional depth to the unitive good of marriage that has not in previous centuries been given its proper weight.


In this respect, romantic marriage represents a moral gain. Nevertheless, the moral gain carries with it a snare and delusion to which those on both sides of our basic division have fallen victim. To seek in marriage first the satisfaction of need, rather than to undertake the common work of becoming "one flesh" inevitably means that marriage becomes an idol.  One's partner is seen as one who can do what God alone can do-provide connectedness, meaning, rest, and bliss.


Both parties to our debate have fallen victim to this temptation, but each has their own particular difficulty as well. The basic weakness of the moral tradition that stands behind the Prayer Book rite is that, in affirming the precedence of undertakings over promises, individual people are so often simply eclipsed and buried by their duties. The strength of the position of the new reformers is that they have addressed this issue straight on and, in so doing, tried to give individuals space to pursue their "authentic needs." Recognizing their failure, traditionalists have also attempted to forge a link between love, marriage, and personal satisfaction. In doing so, however, what they say often becomes indistinguishable from what the new reformers are saying, and they unwittingly fall victim to the weakness of the opponents' position.


The sad fact is that, in one way or another, traditionalists and reformers alike seem to have turned marriage into a promise one makes for the purpose of satisfying personal needs. The weakness of a position like this is not that it gives attention to personal satisfaction.  It is rather that the importance assigned to personal satisfaction turns the social institution of marriage into an instrument of the satisfaction of individual purposes alone. In the end, both parties to the debate tend to make marriage subservient to individual wants.


Because the goods of marriage are thought to be matters of private choice, it is also easy to understand why the common good that once was said to be the purpose of marriage has been steadily eviscerated by the individual needs of the ego. As a result, something has happened to marriage that is painfully similar to what we see happening in political life. Both marriage and politics are becoming screens behind which people relentlessly pursue their private interests. Marriage, like politics, therefore, becomes a matter of common interest rather than common good.


Willard Gaylin, President of The Hastings Center and Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, has noted how pervasive this tendency is.  America's passion for the pursuit of happiness he believes suggests a disturbing regression to infancy on the part of society as a whole. The desire to have personal needs met through both romantic and political relations has pressed individualism so far that we are, he says, "beginning to pay a terrible price." 14


To cope with a problem like this, one is forced to ask if consideration must not be given once more to the notion that undertakings enjoy moral precedence over promises, that common good enjoys precedence over particular good, and that this precedence applies both when one speaks of sexual relations and political ones.  If we are to address adequately both our sexual and political problems, nothing less than a shift in the emphasis of our social thought seems called for. The problem is how a shift in social thought away from "possessive individualism" and toward a renewed emphasis upon common good can be brought about without alienating individuals from participation in that very good.


My belief is that there are resources in the Christian tradition about marriage (and also in the doctrines of God, Christ and the church) to make this shift, and, for this reason, I believe that it is the job of the church, at this juncture in history, to swim against rather than with the stream of culture. The Episcopal Church has made its identity to date by swimming with rather than against this stream, and being contrary will not come easily.  Indeed, a contrarian nature lies beyond the earthly powers of the church, but, in prayer, it might prove possible to swim against the stream if we were to follow and act upon a chain of thought like the one that ensues.


As family interest and social compatibility were once thought the ideal base for marriage, so now desire, love and, what for lack of a better word, I will call "relational fit" are the bases upon which a couple may rightly consider that undertaking. This new and different occasion for marriage may be understood as good, as serving, in this period of history, the abiding purpose of marriage which is a true and Godly union, open in principle to the blessing of children and able to signify the relation between Christ and the church. The occasion and cultural purposes of marriage may indeed vary, but, in all instances, the form culture provides ought to be judged on the basis of how well it serves and supports the union of "One Flesh" God intends for wife and husband.


On this basis, marriage may, in the present era, have a different occasion and social function from those that have shaped it in the past. It may, nonetheless, be understood in all its forms from a theological perspective that is constant. That is, marriage may rightly be understood as an undertaking intended by God. The "cause" for which this institution was "ordained" is neither the social nor economic strength of families nor the private satisfaction of lovers. Its cause is rather a true and Godly union, open in principle to children, able to signify the relation between Christ and the church, and good in itself.


The common work given a couple who marry is to undertake a life that is shared in all its dimensions, and that is open in principle to the blessing of children. Within this common life, each person remains him or herself, however, and, as particular persons, they may, because they have been given a pledge to this effect, expect to find true companionship, help, and comfort in the midst of life's trials.  Further, they may hope, because God has so promised, to find genuine satisfaction, and, from time to time, real joy. On this view, desire and love are the occasion for marriage but not its purpose. Further, the satisfaction of desire and need are legitimate hopes within marriage, but they are not its primary good. They are rather the rewards a couple may reasonably count on if the primary purposes of marriage are honestly undertaken.


One way to test the adequacy of this way of integrating desire, love, and marriage and of giving undertakings precedence over promises is to see how it can account for divorce and how this account compares with that now characteristic of our society and the position of the new reformers. If, as is now the case, marriage is understood as a promise the purpose of which is the attainment of private interest, then divorce is a way to end an unfulfilled contract. Divorce is what happens when one or both parties to a marriage decide they want out because the other has not delivered the goods.  


I have put this point rather crudely, but it is just this assumption that lies behind the notion of no fault divorce.  The strength of the new laws is that they allow people a way out of marriages that no longer are marriages.  Their weakness is that they have rendered marriage a purely private matter and in so doing made it a fragile institution that it is unable to stand before the pressures placed upon it by relentless demands for private satisfaction.  


"We live, in fact, in a society that is so subjective and individualistic in character that it finds itself less and less able to tolerate anything like a church."


But are things any better when marriage is viewed as an indissoluble?  Indissolubility was, after all, the position of the Western Church for centuries, and is still the position of its largest representative. To be sure, the Protestant churches have allowed divorce, but in doing so have not, until recently, been inclined to be generous in the moral space they mark out for such an act. Even the Protestants said that the only justifiable reasons for divorce are adultery, desertion, or extreme cruelty. These three causes hardly provide the room necessary to account for the reasons most marriages fail, and the result of their narrow compass is that all too often the institution of marriage simply swallows up individuals and destroys them.


The question is, therefore, whether or not the space the new reformers wish to give to individual need can be retained but at the same time joined with a view of marriage and divorce which, like the more traditional view, does not turn marriage into a personal arrangement for private purposes and divorce into a personal project based upon goals for personal happiness.  The traditional view of marriage can provide just this sort of link, and it can do so in a way that the view of the new reformers cannot. If the cause of marriage is indeed a true and Godly union, then divorce ought to be judged in relation to this good and not in relation to the satisfaction of personal desire or private interest.  Thus, divorce ought to be reckoned morally permissible if the state of the relationship between the couple has deteriorated to the point that the common work of a true and Godly union is no longer possible for them.  In this case, one might say, as do the Eastern Orthodox, that the marriage has undergone a "moral death" that separates a couple in a way analogous to the way in which physical death parts them. In cases of death, either actual or moral, the union which is the good of marriage and its principle undertaking lies beyond the reach of  the couple. This is a justifiable reason for them to regard themselves as "no longer bound."


Now this moral reason for allowing divorce is more difficult to recognize and even easier to cheat on than is the personal disappointment the new reformers hold to be justifiable grounds and the warrants of adultery, desertion, or cruelty proposed by many traditionalists. It is nonetheless a more stringent moral ground than any of the other proposals now in the field. It suggests in a way that dissatisfaction, adultery, desertion, and cruelty do not, that all that can be done to save a relationship has been done. It suggests that in no way have vows been abandoned precipitously. After all,  dissatisfaction, adultery, desertion, and cruelty, all might be present to one degree or another in a marriage that is still salvageable. If, however, the marital relationship is in fact dead, even these deficiencies and offenses are not present, the reconstitution of the relationship in question lies beyond the reach of human will and sympathy. As a form of union, marriage simply no longer exists.  


The view of the new reformers, based as it is upon the personal needs and goals of individuals, can offer neither marriage nor divorce this degree of moral intelligibility. It can only say that just as personal needs may give rise to marriage, so also if these needs are left unfulfilled, there may be good reason for divorce. If marriage is a project the terms of which are set by personal desire and private choice, then divorce becomes a project that flows from the frustrations of these very desires and choices.


We live with the wreckage wrought by this point of view.  A casual glance about us ought to suggest that the traditional view that marriage is an undertaking the terms of which we do not choose contains not only a more adequate understanding of marriage but, also, by implication, a more adequate one of divorce. Indeed a casual glance ought to show us that, in respect to marriage at least, human life indeed flourishes within an undertaking the terms of which are set by God rather than chosen by human will.


By way of conclusion, allow me to focus for a moment upon the subtitle I have given these lectures, "Sexual Ethics in the Life of the Church." Having said all that I have, it is fair to ask what all this has to do with our common life as Christians? There are many things that make these matters of great importance for the life of the church, but there are one or two that stand out, and I will end this first lecture by placing them before us for future consideration.  


If it is true as I have argued that marriage and sexual relations are to be understood morally as undertakings the terms of which are "ordained" by God, and if these ordinances are, as the marriage rite says, "ordained by God in creation" and commended by Holy Scripture "to be honored by all people," then what the church says about marriage and what its members do about it concern more than their own personal wants and their own communal relations. In circumstances like our own, where law and social practice manifest a view of marriage quite different from that set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, the teaching of the church and the practice of Christian people become a witness to God's intentions for these relations in the midst of a culture that, in this respect, no longer honors God.


The simple fact is that what the Book of Common Prayer says about marriage and sexual relations places anyone who subscribes to the teaching and way of life set forth in that book at odds with their cultural environment.  It places before them, if you will, a prophetic task that requires them to call, not just members of the church, but all the members of their society to honor God by honoring his will for marriage and sexual relations. The first implication of what has been said for the church is that it places the "mainline churches" in a new position within their environing culture--one that locates them over against the dominant moral and political notions of their time and one that prohibits them from blessing current social arrangements as has been their custom.  The new social place of the churches requires instead that they evidence a form of understanding and a way of life quite different from that which shapes the present social order.


Belief that marriage is an undertaking ordained by God in creation and open to signify the mystery of the Gospel itself suggests what it is about our dispute over the nature of marriage that is of fundamental significance for the life of the church. For those called to it, marriage is the primary location where, to their joy, they live out their lives as disciples. It is one of ways in which God calls some, though not all people, to serve him and manifest his glory to the world. In short, in the life of the church, marriage and divorce are of Evangelical significance and not of pastoral significance alone. They concern more than the likes and dislikes, the happiness and unhappiness of married, divorced or divorcing people. They require more of the church than a kindly and pastoral attitude to those who wish to marry or to those whose marriages have fallen into difficulties. They require, as a part of the attempt to form a common life worthy of the upward call of God, that people be instructed about and held accountable for this particular providential order or undertaking. For ECUSA such a call amounts to quite an undertaking itself-an undertaking that cuts to the bone and tests the faithfulness of the church in a painfully obvious way.





1. John Giles Milhaven, 'The Behavioral Sciences and Christian Ethics" in Sharing an American Theology of the Future, edited by Thomas O'Meara and Donald Weisser (New York: Doubleday, 1970), pp. 137-138.


2. See Victor Preller, "Sex and the Single Life" in Philip Turner (ed.) Men and Women: Sexual Ethics in Turbulent Times (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1989), p.122.


3. See esp. 'The Meanings of Marriage and Fidelity" in James Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978), pp. 130-151. The summary of Nelson's position is I believe a faithful summary of the contents of this chapter.


4. The following is a summary of the position Nelson sets out in 'The Meanings of Marriage and Fidelity" in Embodiment, pp. 130-151.


5. Ibid., p. 143.


6. William Werpehowski, 'The Pathos and Promise of Christian Ethics: A Study of the Abortion Debate," Horiz.ons12/2 (1985): 286-287.


7. Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1955), p. 300.


8 See e.g., Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1989).


9. See e.g., Lawrence Stone, "Passionate Attachments in the West in Historical Perspective" in Willard Gaylin and Ethel Person (eds.) Passionate Attachments: Thinking About Love (New York: The Free Press, 1988), pp. 15-26.


10. See Stanley Cavell, 'Two Cheers for Romance" in Willard Gaylin and Ethel Person (eds.), Passionate Attachments: Thinking

About Love (New York: The Free Press, 1988), pp.88-93.


11. Ibid., p. 26.


12. See Stanley Cavell, 'Two Cheers for Romance" in Gaylin and Person, Passionate Attachments, pp. 90-93.


13. Ibid., p.91.


14. Willard Gaylin, "Love and the Limits of Individualism" in Gaylin and Persons (eds.), Passionate Attachments, pp.57-58.




Dr. Turner meets with members of his audience during a break between lectures.