In a pastoral letter and accompanying documents, the Bishop of Pittsburgh has granted his permission for clergy to use the Episcopal Church’s provisional rite for blessing same-sex couples.
While granting his permission, effective January 6, the Rt. Rev. Dorsey W.M. McConnell offered a detailed critique of the rite. The bishop grounded his decision in a “Mission, Vision & Values” covenant adopted by the diocese in 2008.
That covenant “speaks of our commitment to each other, despite differences and disagreement, being united in greater measure by our faith expressed in the Creeds; by the authority of Scripture, tradition and reason in our common life; and by a commitment both to the order of the Episcopal Church and the fellowship of the Anglican Communion,” the bishop wrote in a pastoral letter dated November 25.
While that covenant does not explicitly name the issues concerning human sexuality, it has been understood that these matters are part of the diversity in the diocese, expressed in the character of local communities of faith, some congregations in the aggregate being more conservative on issues of sexuality, others more progressive, and a few quite mixed.
Since this local character exists in variety of conviction, I find it reasonable that this variety should be allowed to express itself in local practice, by allowing the decision of whether or not to use this rite to be made by each pastor, in his or her own parish. This “local option” will allow each rector or priest-in-charge to minister pastorally according to his or her commitments and conscience, while putting none under constraint or duress.
In introducing his critique of the rite, Bishop McConnell wrote that it “appears to follow the pattern of the celebration of matrimony as set forth in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: an opening announcement, readings, an exchange of vows and rings, prayers and a final blessing over the couple.”
He then turned to the details of the rite’s theology:
Beyond this general form, however, the similarities disappear. The rite does not give a coherent statement of the nature and purpose of the covenant being celebrated. It does not base its authority in Scriptural warrant. There is no reference to bodily union. Its understanding of the role of procreativity, while helpful in one regard, is ultimately compromised. And the “theology of blessing” that pervades the liturgy is inadequate to establish the sacramental character of the rite. I will briefly expand on these points in order, through a comparison of the 1979 rite of matrimony and the provisional rite of blessing.
The rite of matrimony is clear in establishing the purpose of the covenant: lifelong union of man and woman “in heart, body and mind” for mutual joy, help, comfort, and procreation of children. The authority of the rite is located in four specific Biblical warrants (Genesis, John, Ephesians and Hebrews) incorporated into the text of the opening instruction, and by several readings that refer specifically to marriage. The bodily nature of the union is referred to at least twice (in the opening instruction and in the prayer for the couple “made one flesh in holy matrimony”), as is the procreation of children and the role of the parents as primary teachers of the Gospel. Finally, the governing theology of the rite from beginning to end is rooted in the classical narrative of redemption — a good creation, fallen through sin, dead under the Law, redeemed by the Cross of Jesus Christ, and given new life through His Resurrection. The couple signifies the totality of humanity, representing the image of God — once shattered in Eden — now restored in Christ. The sacramental character of marriage, as with all sacramental rites, is shown to be transformative: the couple is changed, embodying the hope that we all may be changed, transformed by grace into a new creation.
The provisional rite is unclear from the outset as to its nature and purpose. The opening instruction mentions certain qualities the parties are supposed to demonstrate — such as strength and bravery — but the “love” that is referred to as the basis for the covenant is not further defined. Is it sexual love? Familial love? Friendship? A diverse set of Scriptures, beginning with the responsory reading from 1 John, are brought in to develop the general theme of “love,” but none sheds any light on the question of the covenant’s nature or purpose, and none rises to the level of a Biblical warrant. Sexual congress is assumed, judging from the extensive prefatory material which includes guidelines for counseling the couple, but never actually mentioned. Procreativity is referenced in the inclusion of existing children in the liturgy — to my mind the rite’s greatest strength — but the couple’s role in raising them is unclear. (For example, the children are to go “from strength to strength” but no mention is made of them being raised to know God, nor are the responsibilities of the adults toward them further defined.)
Further, the “theology of blessing” throughout the provisional rite seems to be a deliberate departure from the classical narrative of redemption. In the provisional rite, the creation remains wholly good, we are made to be a “blessing,” and the couple become (again, in a way unspecified) an affirmation and reminder of that good creation. Some language from the narrative of redemption is sporadically used (e.g. “grace,” “new creation,” and even in one instance, the “saving work of Jesus”). However, since in this “theology of blessing” all is apparently well and good, it is uncertain what that redemptive language means in this new context, what we might need to be saved from or saved to. No transformation is necessary. Since the very nature of sacrament entails transformation by means of grace, I am not sure what place sacraments could have in such a world.
Image: Bishop McConnell with his wife, Betsy, and son, Evan. • Courtesy Diocese of Pittsburgh