Blessing Same Sex Relationships: Doing the Theology

The issue of blessing same sex relationships is once again front and center in the the life of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee.  Bishop Miller has decided not to authorize the use of the Blessing Rite that General Convention approved for trial use in 2012.  His concerns are with the language and structure of the rite itself and with the possibility that offering the sacrament of Marriage to heterosexual couples and a blessing to homosexual couples creates a second class status for some.

The Bishop is also concerned that we have not yet done the theology necessary to the establishment of a new practice, the blessing or marriage of same sex couples, in the church.

The church has been wrestling with this issue for a long time and page upon page has been written in support to, and in opposition to, the acceptance of homosexuality as compatible with the Christian life and whether we should recognize, honor and bless committed, monogamous, covenantal relationships between same sex couples.

As the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee works to develop a “generous pastoral response” to our LGBT brothers and sisters I will be working to highlight and lift up the theological and pastoral work that has already been done.  It is my hope that this will assist us all as we work to discern a way forward together.

As a beginning I am re-posting this sermon from May 13, 2012, just about two months prior to last year’s General Convention and a blog post that I wrote on June 30, just a week prior to convention.

These two posts begin describe the scriptural and theological basis for my assertion that we should be offering the sacrament of marriage to all of God’s children and I hope that they serve as an introduction to the important conversation that we will be engaging in the months to come as the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee.

The Very Rev. Andrew B. Jones

May 13th, 2012

Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Madison, Wisconsin

This sermon is based on the readings for the 6th Sunday of Easter in year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.  You can find those readings here.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning is only a few short lines.  So as we read through it we may be tempted to rush ahead to our Gospel text of the day.  Baptizing Gentiles doesn’t seem like such a big deal to us in this day and age so let’s just jump straight to what Jesus has to say about love!  But if we take another look at the reading from Acts and read it in its context, read it thinking about the themes of the book of Acts, we begin to recognize that this is a passage fraught with conflict: fraught with potential and hope.  It is a passage that demands our attention today.

It says in this passage that the Holy Spirit descended upon a group of people and Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)  Apparently, someone has been saying that the Gentiles should not be baptized.  We get another clues as to what has been happening when we go back a few more lines and read that “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…” (Acts 10:45) people who they thought were on the “outside.”  The leaders of “The Way, this new faith, this new idea about how to be in relationship with God were in conflict with one another.  Should converts to the faith be required to be circumcised according to the Jewish tradition and Mosaic Law in order to participate in this community?

There was a lot at stake here for Peter and the leaders of the early church.  They are members of a new and growing movement trying to understand how to live out their new faith and their new understanding and to integrate that with their Jewish identity.  At the same time this new movement is under the scrutiny and suspicion of Rome who is very concerned about this movement’s ability to claim people’s allegiance and to subvert their fealty to the Emperor.  This new way of being is also being regarded with great suspicion and hostility by the temple authorities, the Scribes and the Pharisees who, even as we approach the day of the destruction of the Temple and the end of Temple Judaism, are concerned and angered by claims that Jesus is the Messiah.  They are anxious about the competing claims of this new group in their midst.  They are also angry about the ministry and preaching of that radical, liberal malcontent who is claiming that God’s love and grace is open to everyone… even to the Gentiles.  You know… that radical, liberal malcontent Paul!

Paul, whose ministry and teaching is in conflict with the Temple authorities, is also in conflict with Peter and the leaders of the early church.  Paul is saying that people who are converted to the faith from outside of Judaism should not be required to undergo circumcision in order to become members, and Peter and the leaders of the church have been fighting him.  But here, in this moment, Peter meets a group of Gentiles and he learns that he must in fact offer them the sacrament that forms us as the church, and that he must offer that sacrament without asking them to become circumcised.

What evidence do Peter and his group of “circumcised believers” find that causes them to change their minds?  After all, in the seventeenth chapter of Genesis God makes a covenant with Abraham and in that covenant makes a lot of promises to Abraham and to the people of Israel through him:

I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:6-8).

These promises are so deeply imbedded within the people of Israel that even as they come to this new faith they are clinging to them, to the reality and to the understanding that this is not something new, this is not something drastically different.  This is a fulfillment of the faith and the promises that were established in their forefathers, the faith that they have understood and held all of their lives.

In that seventeenth chapter of Genesis God goes on and tells Abraham that his part in this covenant is to circumcise every male among his people.

You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11).

And a few short lines later God says:

“Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (17:14).

So as Peter and the leaders of the church, in this new and evolving culture and context, with hostility from the synagogue and from Rome confronting them on every side, trying to understand how to be faithful and to live out the teachings of Jesus, are confronted by people who have not been circumcised and yet want to be baptized… they are deeply troubled.

What could make them change their minds?  All along they have been saying “no” to requests like this one.  Something must have shifted their position!   What, short of the very teachings of Jesus himself, could have led them to affect this radical shift in their understanding?

But if you go back and read through the Gospels, through Jesus’ teachings, Jesus doesn’t say anything about circumcision!  We know that he himself was circumcised.  We have that story in our sacred texts.  And we know that Jesus says through his words and actions, over and over again, that the Kingdom of God is for all people.  But Jesus himself does not address the specific issue of circumcision.  He doesn’t ever say whether or not circumcision is a requirement for being a member of his Body, the Church.  So by what evidence do Peter and his colleagues abandon this requirement that is as old as the book of Genesis?

Go back to our passage from the book of Acts and we will see that it was the presence of the Holy Spirit in those who sought the sacrament of Baptism that convinced Peter that he must in fact offer them this blessing.  The people there began to speak in tongues and to extoll God.  Peter and his friends saw this as evidence of the Holy Spirit in these people.  God was already there.  God was already present in these people.  How could they possibly refuse to baptize them?

Now that may seem like a radical thing to do: to overturn all those years of tradition and that sense of scripture based on what seems to be their subjective observation of an event in their lives there in that moment.  But there is scriptural warrant for this kind of interpretation and this kind of change.

In the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus says:

 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-31).

Two chapters later in the Gospel 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).

Jesus himself says that revelation will be on going, that the holy Spirit will come and will guide us into change, that the Holy Spirit will move us forward, and that God is not done speaking yet.

So when Peter and his colleagues encounter these Gentiles who begin to speak in tongues and to extoll God, and they perceive this to be a manifestation of the fruits of the spirit, they baptize them.

We are reading this morning from the 10th chapter of Acts and really, this is the beginning of the end of this conflict.  The conflict between Paul, with his radical liberal views, and Peter and the circumcised believers has been building for the first ten chapters of the book of Acts, in chapter 15 it comes to a head.  In chapter 15 Paul and Barnabas are talking to other church leaders in Antioch and we read:

“And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church…” (Acts 15:2-3).

No small dissension and debate!  They were sent on their way to meet with Peter and the elders of the church.  Seems to me they were going to General Convention.  In the end Paul and Barnabas prevailed.  After a long and serious conversation Peter stood up and said to the rest of the church:

My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (Acts 15:7-9).

So just to make sure we understand what we are talking about here… We have the early church struggling to find its way forward, struggling to define its mission and vocation to the rest of the world.  It is doing that in a context that is shifting dramatically and there is opposition from the culture around them, and from those in authority over the nation of Israel.  There is dissension within the church itself.  And then they are confronted with something that seems to go against the scriptures that they hold sacred and which challenges the very core of their beliefs.  These uncircumcised Gentiles have come seeking the sacrament of baptism, the sacrament that binds us one to another and makes us the church.  And in the face of that challenge, the church changes and offers that sacrament because of its faith and trust in the manifestation of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Just to make sure that we understand what we are talking about… we are talking about the sacrament of baptism.  But all week long, as I wrestled with these passages, I was confronted by the reality that we could just as well be talking about the sacrament of marriage.

On Tuesday night this week we gathered with a group of people here in Madison at Saint Luke’s, to talk about the materials that have been presented to General Convention by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.  We looked at the thirty-eight year history of legislation in General Convention around the blessing of same gender unions.  We read through the theological points being offered for consideration by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.  We looked at the materials they have developed to prepare people in same gender unions to have their union blessed.  We looked at the extensive study guide that they have prepared to help congregations and dioceses discern whether or not they are called to participate in the three-year trial use of the liturgy that they have developed.  And we sat together in that space and we read through the liturgy.

Before we began that reading there were people in the room who were uncomfortable with what we were doing.  They were uncomfortable with the idea that we were considering this at all.  There were other people who felt that this is not enough.  “It’s a blessing not a marriage and why can’t we have the same sacrament that everyone else has?”  By the time we finished reading that liturgy everyone in the room was in a very different place…

A very powerful experience, a liturgy that recognizes the covenantal nature of relationships and makes room for the church to offer it’s blessing on two people who have made life long monogamous commitments to one another in the kind of love and joy that is manifested by God’s relationship to us and by God’s relationship to the church.

It was particularly difficult to come home from that meeting on Tuesday night and to learn that the state of North Carolina had passed an amendment to its constitution banning same gender unions, and civil unions, and partnerships: stripping away hospital visitation rights and all sorts of things that married people take for granted.  It was a difficult and strange juxtaposition.

It was even stranger then the next night when I came home from an all day retreat with the Diocesan Executive Council and the Diocesan Strategic Planning Task Force, and heard my son exclaim from his room down the hall that he had just read on Face Book that President Obama had affirmed same sex marriages in a televised interview with a reporter from ABC.  It has been a difficult and tumultuous week.

This issue is not going away.  Our nation is grappling with it.  Our government is grappling with it.  And my brothers and sisters, denominations all across this country are wrestling with this issue right now.

We, and I say that because I believe this is true for most if not all of us,…  I can say without doubt that I know and love many people who love people of the same gender.  And I have perceived holiness of life and the movement of the Holy Spirit in many of those people.  I know many people who are in monogamous, lifelong committed partnerships with people of the same gender and I have seen the fruits of the Spirit and the ends and purposes of marriage served and made manifest in those relationships.  And I believe that we are confronted and convicted by that truth and that the manifestation of the Holy Spirit leading us and teaching us to a new thing.

This summer I am serving as a deputy to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis.  Last April I went to a workshop in Atlanta sponsored by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music as it developed the materials and resources that are now available to all of us in “The Blue Book” so that we can prepare for this conversation at General Convention. I am proud to have been a part of that work.  And I will be voting to allow the three year trial use of this liturgy when we gather at General Convention this summer.

In the time between now and then, and while we are there, I will also be praying.  I will be praying that we in this church and that we in this diocese will be allowed to recognize, and to honor, and to bless the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we experience in the same gender couples who are members of this parish, who are members of this community, who are members of the Body of Christ, and who are beloved children of God.  I will be praying because I believe, that faced with the evidence of the Spirit’s work among us, we must, must, bless what God is doing in our midst.


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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