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Toward Convention II: marriage

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(This is the second in a series of four posts on major issues facing the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.)

In 2009, the 76th General Convention passed Resolution C056, which, among other things, directed the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to provide “liturgical resources” for the blessing of unions between persons of the same sex. The fruit of that work, a rite entitled “I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing” is proposed for trial use during the next triennium via Resolution A049.

It will come as no shock to anyone who knows me that I will vote No on this resolution., and in the likely event that some version of it indeed does pass, its use will nonetheless be forbidden in the Diocese of Springfield during my episcopate. Here is what I wrote on the subject on my personal blog back on March 25, 2007 (speaking collectively for those who share my position and about/to GLBT Christians):

While we cannot condone the blessing of committed relationships other than heterosexual marriage, because anything else falls short of God’s design, neither will we harass, condemn, or judge them. We will let you live in peace, and be available to you with informal pastoral support. And we will remain in an Episcopal Church in which many (most?) believe that God is calling us to something more overt, as a faithful minority, even as we disagree about God’s call.

So I am opposed to the whole project on principle, regardless of the shape or words of the proposed rite. As a consequence, my more more conservative confreres and I have the luxury of watching events play out with some degree of resigned dispassion. If the discussion is about whether this rite or some other rite is the best way forward toward “full inclusion,” then we don’t have a dog in this hunt. And from our position on the sidelines, we are watching a bit of a battle shape up between those who are in principle to some degree agreeable to the church providing ritual pastoral care to same-sex couples. There is indeed a hunt, and there are lots of dogs in it.

In one corner are those who advocate for what is known (by those who advocate for it) in both church and secular circles as “marriage equality.” In their view, there should not be “gay marriage,” but just marriage, fully open in every way to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples, without discrimination. The issue is, for its partisans, one of gospel justice. To back off from the imperative in any way is to desert the moral demands of a just God. Anything less than “marriage equality” is ultimately a sellout, once again relegating our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to the back of the bus. Those in this camp will not rest until the Prayer Book marriage rite, and church canons, are changed so as to be completely gender-neutral. By its very status as a separate rite, the liturgy proposed in A049 does not do this. Still, they will, I think vote for it, seeing its passage as a strategic interim victory en route to the full prize.

In the other corner are those who favor a “generous pastoral provision” (the language of C056) for lesbian and gay couples, but who don’t want such provision to look at all like marriage. For some, this is because they are genuinely invested in preserving the status of marriage as an institution defined as a lifelong public commitment between a man and a woman, even while making compassionate provision–on the side, as it were–for those who are not wired in such a way as to be successfully married to a person of the opposite sex. Others, particularly among some of my colleagues in the House of Bishops, are uncomfortably aware of their own political vulnerability among stakeholders who hold much more conservative views on the subject. In either case, however, the problem with “I Will Bless You…” for this group is that, in shape and in language, it looks for all the world like a marriage service. Some of these will swallow hard and vote Yes anyway. Others, I know, will not. How those percentages will eventually break out I can’t say at the moment. There’s too much that can yet happen.

In any case, here’s what I would invite my friends in both corners to consider: When some form of a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions is passed–and let’s assume that it will be substantially the same as what the SCLM has proposed–what will be the “crawler” headline at the bottom of the screen on CNN and MSNBC and Fox News within minutes? It will be something like “Episcopal Church endorses gay marriage.” Now, I am among the last who would suggest we take our cue from the secular media, because they’re only interested in sensationalism and they invariably get it wrong. Nonetheless, this is indicative of how it will be perceived among the dwindling company of Episcopalians across our nine provinces. Whatever pains we might take in “perfecting” this legislation in committee (which, for my sins, I am a member of) and floor debate, whatever sort of moat we dig or fence we erect around “marriage” to distinguish it from A049, that barrier will be invisible. It will be effectively meaningless. The advocates of “marriage equality” can take heart from this reality. Those in the other corner should be appropriately sobered by it. And those of us on the sidelines can continue to watch with interested disinterest.

A final observation: The next resolution in the sequence from the SCLM, A050, proposes the creation of a group tasked with undertaking a thorough study of the Church’s theology of marriage. Two questions emerge from this. First, is it not rather absurd to be doing this after we approve a liturgy that preempts the discussion by charging right ahead into same-sex marriage? What’s the point of studying the subject while we’re in the middle of making major changes in the institution/sacrament that we’re studying? It seems a little disingenuous. Which leads to the second question: Is not A050 a strategic ploy on the part of “marriage equality” advocates to initiate a process that will eventually result in Prayer Book revision and the neutering of the marriage rite? In the abstract, I would be supportive of a resolution that we study the theology of marriage. But this one smells fishy.

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