Monday, June 9, 2008

June 8 Sermon Part 2: Gay Marriage

---see Part 1 for Biblical context---

Last Friday some of you might have seen a letter to the editor that appeared in the Press Democrat, written by yours truly. Whenever my name appears in the paper, it’s probably good idea to give it a little context to know where it’s coming from.

A little over three weeks ago, the California Supreme Court found that marriage is a “basic civil right of personal autonomy and liberty” “to which all persons are entitled without regard to their sexual orientation.” About a week later, I received an email from All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, announcing that in the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling, and in the spirit of Jesus, they would be adopting a Marriage Equality Resolution, which, as the title suggests, promises to “treat all persons presenting themselves for the rite of marriage equally.”

As I was pondering this action, I received a letter from our bishop, in which he re-stated his position regarding same-sex blessings, which is that despite the recent Supreme Court ruling, he cannot authorize such marriages until General Convention – which is our national decision-making body – authorizes them.

As some of you may remember, our General Convention, last time it met two years ago, debated this subject rather strenuously, and the outcome was not entirely clear. For lovers of ambiguity, we got a snoot full. While it is true that General Convention did not authorize same-sex unions, it is also clear that it did not expressly forbid them. The truth is that they were split on the issue – but not for reasons that one might think. The debate was not over the merits or demerits of gay marriage, itself – in fact, that was almost immaterial; the debate was over how far we could go down this road before we would be kicked out of the Anglican Communion, and whether or not that was an acceptable price to pay for what a clear majority of the House of Deputies considered to be the just thing to do.

The language that the House of Bishops came up with – language that was rejected by the House of Deputies – was that they would not be authorizing “any public rites of same-sex blessings.” This language passed because it was sufficiently ambiguous – leaving open the option of holding private rites – blessing ceremonies held in homes and in parks -- which have been happening for many years in the Episcopal church in a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. And, indeed, in several other dioceses of our church, including Massachusetts and San Francisco, public rites of same-sex blessing have also been held in churches – just not with “authorized” rites.

So, while our bishop claims to be constrained by General Convention, I do not fully understand or agree with his interpretation of those decisions.

Now, all of this leads us to the letter that I wrote to the Press Democrat, in which I basically stated my position, speaking for myself, that while my bishop prevents me from holding such ceremonies in the church, I am not personally opposed to such ceremonies; and in a later interview with a Press Democrat reporter that you might be reading sometime this week, I indicated my interest in meeting with any couples who wished to explore how we can bring God’s blessing upon their relationship. I do so with the standard criteria we apply to all such relationships: that they be monogamous, that their commitment be life-long, that they be deeply consensual, that both parties feel they are entering into a sacred union, and that they are members of our congregation.

So that’s my position; and this is not a position in defiance of our bishop. I have sent a letter to our bishop telling him of my position, which is somewhat different than his, while also saying that I respect his concern for the unity of the church, and for the need for process.

We are in a difficult time: do the interests of church unity outweigh and veto the interests of civil rights? And it is clear that now, this is, as a matter of law, a civil rights issue. At what point do we follow our conscience, and at what point do we submit in obedience to our church and our bishop? I took a vow of obedience, and I believe in the authority of bishops -- that’s why I’m an Episcopalian. I also believe in the order of the church.

One of my favorite magazines, The Christian Century, recently published a pair of articles about the tensions we are experiencing in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. One of them, written by Jason Byassee, opened with the following:

Last year the Church of the Resurrection in suburban West Chicago closed its doors and put its building up for sale. The Episcopal congregation had suffered membership losses 14 years earlier when some conservative members left to start their own church, also called the Church of the Resurrection, in nearby Glen Ellyn. The new congregation later aligned itself with the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMIA), which is connected to the Anglican Church in Rwanda.

The new Church of the Resurrection later experienced its own split, with some members leaving to launch the Church of the Great Shepherd – also affiliated with AMIA – in Wheaton. The Church of the Great Shepherd eventually closed its doors, but not before a 2004 split led to the formation of the Church of the Savior back in West Chicago. During this time the ranks of St. Mark’s, an Episcopal congregation in Glen Ellyn, had been swelling – until the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay bishop in 2003, whereupon many St. Mark’s members left to form All Souls, still another AMIA church, in Wheaton. Meanwhile, another split at the original Church of the Resurrection in West Chicago, which had experienced renewed growth, led to the creation of the Church of the Resurrection Anglican, a church which is overseen by the archbishop of Uganda. So now there are two Resurrection churches in the area, both formed in exodus from the original – now defunct – Church of the Resurrection, and both affiliated with African Anglican bodies, not with the Episcopal Church in the United States.... (Jason Byassee, “Splitting Up,” The Christian Century, Vol. 125, No. 10 (May 20, 2008), p.22.)

The article goes on to speculate as to why these churches have split so many times, and quotes the Episcopal bishop Chicago, William Persell: “If you’re formed in opposition and negativity, you’re bound to keep on splitting – there’s always the need for more purity, and you don’t live with ambiguity very well, so you end up in a church of one.”

This is a beautiful illustration of what happens when a church decides to defy its bishop and throw to the winds the church order that we’ve inherited over centuries. I don’t recommend that for any church, including our own; while I also reserve the right to disagree with our bishop, which he understands.

So that’s where we stand right now; and in a week or two we will hold a forum in which we will discuss these issues in greater length, especially as they relate to our General Convention. As a Deputy to General Convention, it is my job to be talking about these things, and I look forward to pursuing the conversation further – so that we might continue to shed more light, and less heat, on this issue.

All of this comes, I hope, with your prayers, as we pray continually for our church, and for the great and continuing faith to which we are called; a faith that does not make us comfortable; sometimes a faith that challenges us into disagreement. Through it all, I pray that we will continue to know that we are all called, not to agree with one another, but to love one another. As long as we strive to love one another as Christ loves us, we can bear any disagreement with grace and joy. Pray for grace; pray for forgiveness; pray for love.



Wayne from Jeremiah Films said...

Great post, I am tracking back to it from Gay Marriage - Don't Ask, Don't Tell

David Henson said...

These kinds of posts are what give me hope for the Christian tradition.

These are the kinds of rulings that make me proud to be a Californian (transplanted from Alabama). :)