Blessing Same Gender Relationships: Where Are We Now?

The Very Rev. Andrew B. Jones

June 30, 2012

Three years ago, the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church passed resolution C056:

“Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 76th General Convention acknowledge the changing circumstances in the United States and in other nations, as legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian persons is passed in various civil jurisdictions that call forth a renewed pastoral response from this Church, and for an open process for the consideration of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships; and be it further

Resolved, That the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, in consultation with the House of Bishops, collect and develop theological and liturgical resources, and report to the 77th General Convention;”

As part of the process of “collecting and developing” resources the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music held a Church wide Consultation in Atlanta GA in March of 2011.   Each diocese was asked to send one lay and one clergy deputy to participate in a process designed:

“to inform the deputies about the work of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music in response to Resolution 2009-C056;

to engage the deputies in theological reflection in response to the Commission’s work, and to solicit feedback that would inform the Commission and its task groups as they continued their work;

 to equip the deputies to report to the rest of their deputations and engage them in ongoing theological reflection about the blessing of same-gender relationships.”

I attended this gathering as the clergy deputy from the Diocese of Milwaukee.

As we were introduced to the process and the materials that we would be using at the consultation It was made very clear to us that we were gathered to engage the work with which the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music had been charged, specifically, the collection and development of theological and liturgical resources to be considered by General Convention 2015 for blessing, not for marrying, same gender couples.

This was a very important distinction. When the church gathered at General Convention in 2009 the church was not in a place to talk about a marriage rite. It was important, if this work was to move forward, that we be clear that the materials being collected and developed were for blessing and not designed to be a marriage rite.

We are now in a very different place.  Resolution 2009-C056 acknowledged that circumstances in the United States and in other nations had changed with regard to same gender couples and in they have continued to change in the three years since.  Public opinion poles for the first time show that a majority of Americans favor or approve of same gender marriage.  The president of the United Sates endorsed same gender marriage in a nationally televised interview.  Many states here in the US and much of Europe have now legalized same gender marriage.  Great Britain is wrestling with legislation that will make it legal for people of the same gender to marry.  And within our own church people are moving, hearts are changing, and the topic of discussion has begun to shift.

I have heard from many people that the theological foundation for the blessing rites that will come before our General Convention in July is inadequate.  I would argue that it is adequate if we are talking about blessing.  I would agree that it is inadequate if we are talking about marriage.   It seems, from much of what I have read, that we are now, in fact, talking about marriage.  I believe that we are finally having the right conversation!

I am always pleased when a couple chooses, for the wedding the passage from the Gospel of Mark that says two people become one flesh.  This reading gives me the opportunity to point out that no one present in the church that day has the power to effect such a marvelous thing.  None of us gathered in the congregation has the ability to make two people one flesh.  Only God can do that.  And so what we are doing is gathering to witness and celebrate something that God has done, is doing, and promises to do forever in the life of the two people who stand before us.

Our Book of Common Prayer says “We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony” (BCP p. 423).  We are not “joining” them.  God has/is/will do the joining.  We are there to “witness and bless.”

The Book of Common Prayer also says that “The union of husband wife is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord” (BCP p. 423).

I believe that the conversation has shifted from blessing to marriage because of our experience of same gender couples whose common life serves and manifest the ends and purposes of marriage.  Many, if not most of us, have experienced same gender couples whose life long commitment can be seen to signify “to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church…” (BCP p. 423).  These relationships are characterized by the mutual joy that the partners find in their relationship and in the help and comfort that they give to one another in prosperity and adversity.   Many of the couples that we are considering here have raised or are raising children and the generativity of their union is manifest in the love and spirit we observe in their children.

I am not saying that the lives of all same gender couples reflect and serve the ends and purposes of marriage but I neither would I make that claim for all marriages between people of different gender.   When we agree to witness and bless the union of two people we do so because we see the ends and purposes of marriage being served in their relationship and union and because we see the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, manifest in their common life.  Often we only see the seeds, or the beginnings, the early growth of these fruits and we witness and bless their union in the faith and hope that those seeds, that early growth will blossom into a new creation in Christ.

I said before that I am pleased when a couple asks me to preach on Mark 10:6-9, 13-16 at their wedding because it allows me to point out that it is God who is effecting their union.  I am pleased because I believe that the implication of this passage of scripture is clear.  If God has/is/will join two people, making them one flesh, if we observe the ends and purposes of marriage being served in their union, and if we see the Fruit of the Spirit manifest in their common life… how can we, the church possibly refuse to bless what God has done?

My experience of same gender couples leads me to believe that we should be having a conversation, not about blessing, but about marriage.  There are many in the church who now share this view.  The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee asks “is the proper matter for marriage simply two human beings?”  Along with a growing number of people in the church, lay and ordained, I would answer with a resounding “yes!”  But this “yes” leads to another question.

Does this mean that God’s truth has changed or has the proper matter for marriage always been “simply two people”?   It seems to me that the only possible answer to this question is to face the reality that our refusal to witness and bless the unions of our LGBT brothers and sisters for all of these years has been wrong.  For years the church did not recognize, would not witness or bless the union of people of different ethnicities.  Can any of us look back on those days and believe that God was sanctioning our refusal to witness and bless the union of two people because one was black and one was white?   We were wrong!  And in our refusal to acknowledge God’s presence those relationships, in our refusal to say publicly that we saw God manifest in their unions we hurt people and participated in a system of oppression in a way that is not worthy of our prophetic heritage.

If the proper matter for marriage is simply two people then the proper matter for marriage has always been simply two people and we have been participating in a great wrong by refusing to acknowledge God’s action and presence in the unions of faithful members of our church.

In the sixteenth chapter of John Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12,13).  As Anglicans and as Episcopalians we believe that revelation is ongoing.   To borrow a phrase from our brothers and sister in the UCC, “God is still speaking.”  Three years ago we were not ready to talk about marriage.  Today, with three more years of revelation, of guidance from the Holy Spirit, we are talking about something that we could not have addressed in the same way three years ago.  We have a long way to go.  Changing our canons and our prayer book to allow for the marriage of same gender couples will require two consecutive votes by General Convention.  We might be able pass a resolution this year that will allow for that second vote in 2015 but frankly, and I am only a first time deputy to General Convention, I don’t think that we are going to be able to move that far this year.  So marriage for same gender couples is at least three and maybe six or nine years away.  This begs the question.  Can we as a church continue to deny the presence and work of God in the lives of two people, can we continue to tell them that we do not see God manifest in their relationship and in their common life, can we continue to inflict injury and hurt on people who sit in our pews and kneel beside us at the altar while we wind our way through the legislative process of General Convention and struggle to get the wording “right”?

I believe that the conversation needs to be about marriage and I am glad that we are moving in that direction.  At the same time I wonder how we can decline to bless the relationships of our LGBT brothers and sisters while we work towards a theology of marriage that will allow us to offer the sacrament of holy matrimony to all of God’s children.   Resolution 2009-C056 declared that the changing circumstances in the United States and in other nations call forth a renewed pastoral response from this church.  Would it be a “renewed pastoral response” if, having come this far, we decline to take a step in the right direction?

The conversation of the last three years has moved us forward in an exciting and prophetic way.  I will travel to our General Convention with the faith and hope that our conversation, our journey together, will be advanced by our coming together in the presence of the Holy Spirit.   And I will travel to General Convention with the full and certain knowledge that I will be changed by what I experience there.  But today, given all that I have heard, read, learned and experienced I would vote for a resolution that called for the amendment of the Book of Common Prayer and the Constitution and Canons to allow for marriage between two persons regardless of gender and I would vote to approve the blessing of same gender relationships so that we can begin to publicly affirm what God is doing in our midst; making two people, regardless of their gender, one flesh “for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord,” thereby, “signifying to us to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church…” (BCP p. 423).

Peace,  Andy+

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