A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
A Community of Faith in the Episcopal Tradition
15 Newbury Street, Boston MA 02116
As you know, the Emmanuel community has blessed committed same-sex unions since 1981. As May 17th of this year approached, we looked forward with anticipation and joy to the implementation of the Supreme Judicial Court's Goodridge decision legalizing civil marriage for same-sex couples in Massachusetts.
The Goodridge decision accomplished, in Archbishop Desmond Tutu's words, ``a matter of ordinary justice'' that we in this Commonwealth owed to our fellow parishioners, family members, friends and neighbors who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. We were proud to have our parish delegates join with a strong majority of other parishes in a vote in support of the Goodridge decision at the diocesan convention on March 13. We pledge ourselves to continue working to defeat our Legislature's mean-spirited attempt to enshrine discrimination in our Commonwealth's Constitution by denying the status of marriage to same-sex unions. We rejoice that the Goodridge decision has again confirmed Martin Luther King, Jr.'s faith that, however fitfully, ``the arc of history is bent toward justice.''
We know that the Goodridge decision poses a challenge to the cultural and, sadly, the religious traditions of many. And yet, as a spiritual community, it is impossible for us to miss the signs of heaven's liberating Spirit at work here. We have experienced in our own faith lives that the arc of the Gospel is bent unmistakably toward inclusiveness. Since the church's mission is to be the place where hurt is noticed and the weak are honored, we have no doubt that full and equal inclusion of our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sisters and brothers is central to any authentic spiritual life today. Consider but three testimonies:
``In the years following my seventh birthday I had lost some of my enthusiasm for my own existence, as most queer kids growing up in a hostile world will do. I'd certainly begun to realize how unenthusiastic others, even my parents, would be if they knew I was gay .... I grew up hating being gay, hating not only myself but those like me, so much so that in college I evinced such a deep disdain for homosexuality that I repulsed the boy with whom I first fell in love. I feel only part of the way out of that miasma, and I am at times awestruck by the staying power and persuasiveness of shame .... I am convinced that as necessary as it is, therapy alone cannot heal the soul. Only community can.'' (Playwright Tony Kushner)
``The message the Church has given to gay Christians is the message Luther came to see as inherently abusive: God does not love you as you are - you need to be completely and fundamentally - and perhaps even impossibly - different before He will love you. Luther's theological breakthrough was to describe a wholly non-abusive God, a God who loves His children gratuitously and not on the basis of merit. God's love is experienced as grace, freely given: not as a demand that in order to be loved human beings must first become something impossibly different to what they already are. The issue is not about the nature of what it is to be gay or black or a woman: the issue is what it is to be God.'' (The Reverend Dr. Giles Fraser)
``Many of us have already had the experience of having our eyes opened, sometimes in more than one way. The awakening ... may have taken the form of falling in love with someone of another religion or another race, or social class, or ethnic group. It may have taken the form of realizing that one's sexual orientation or preference is different from that of the mainstream. It may have been a calling to an art or craft or service poorly remunerated, or seemingly below the social station one currently enjoys. It may have been a summons to depart from any firmly held tradition or value of our family or social milieu .... I think that part of the awakening must be the recognition that What has awakened us will also protect us.'' (Emmanuelite Gene Schwaab)
The Emmanuel community has long affirmed that God blesses and loves both homosexual and heterosexual persons equally, and that all persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, mutuality, commitment, and pleasure. We affirm a wholly non-abusive God.
As May 17th approached, we were deeply discouraged to learn that our national and diocesan leadership have determined that Episcopal Church clergy may not conduct sacramental same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, despite the civil validity of such marriages here. The explanation given for this ban is that church canons and the Book of Common Prayer, while nowhere directly forbidding same-sex marriages, repeatedly refer to sacramental marriage as a covenant between ``a man and a woman.''
In origin, marriage is not a church ritual, of course, but a natural entitlement of all God's children. In 1549 the first Book of Common Prayer touchingly described it as ``an honorable estate instituted of God in paradise, in the time of mannes innocencie.''
But our religious tradition regards a marriage within the community of faith as also sacramental - that is, as one of those special human experiences in which God's generativity is so invested that they are a ``sure and certain means'' (Book of Common Prayer, p. 857) for us to experience God's own faithful intimacy with humankind. In the profound mutuality that characterizes marriage, believers are even invited to touch the essence of God's own internal life - Creator, Christ and Spirit each making way for the others, each giving free scope and room for movement, creating space for the others to be.
This non-hierarchical divine community is a metaphor, of course - what else can God-talk be? But what a lovely paradigm it holds out for our relationships and the whole of our lives: that duality can indeed be transcended through mutual freedom and gift. It affirms that in our all-too-imperfect marriages, through all the ``oddities and uncontrollabilities, tragedies and farces, of bodily existence, ... flesh itself carries the meaning of God's Word.'' (Archbishop Rowan Williams)
``When two people come together in an intimate relationship to make a vowed commitment to a life-long union and to seek the blessing of God and the church on this relationship, we affirm that this relationship is revelatory of God. The couple reveals something of the holiness of God, ... and it becomes possible to see various aspects of the divine working in them through the ordering of their common life. The tradition of the church has over the centuries emphasized aspects of what of God is revealed in marriage: creativity, mutual love, constancy, fidelity, forgiveness, joy, unity, hospitality, and companionship.'' (Task Force on the Blessing of Holy Unions, Diocese of Massachusetts)
``The gospel is about a man who made his entire life a sign that speaks of God and who left to his followers the promise that they too could be signs of God and make signs of God because of him .... Now, if my life can communicate the `meanings' of God, this must mean that my sexuality too can be sacramental: it can speak of mercy, faithfulness, transfiguration, and hope .... Sexual love becomes sacramental when it involves a lasting (not just momentary) resignation of control, a yielding to the other, a putting your own body at the disposal of another for that other's life or joy .... The New Testament texts ... assume, as has most of the Christian tradition, that this mutual surrender normally takes place in marriage. Why? .... The grace that is to be discovered in nakedness, in yielding, is released to be itself when we give up the self-protecting strategies of non-commitment, experiment, and gratification, and decide instead for the danger of promising to be there for another without a saving clause that would license us to abandon the enterprise as soon as ... the other's otherness gives us difficulty. In such a perspective, we have time for each other. A commitment without limits being set in advance says that we have (potentially) a lifetime to `create' each other together .... Our main question about how we lead our sexual lives should be neither `Am I keeping the rules' nor `Am I being sincere and non-hurtful?' but `How much am I prepared for this to signify?''' (Archbishop Rowan Williams)
We are not naive about church marriages. We know that not all of them display heaven's passionate self-giving. We know that any marriage can descend into a framework for subjugation and destructiveness. We also recognize that marriage is not the only form of sexual intimacy that can reflect genuine sharing and vulnerability - and that some same-sex couples may have a special calling to reveal the new ways in which God is showing that we belong to each other.
Yet we celebrate sacramental marriage because it is as close as human beings get to sharing heaven's own tension between the perfect and the real. It is our own religious tradition which suggests that a blessing ceremony is not a substitute for this unique level of covenantal commitment between two people within the community of faith who are ready to undertake it.
We believe that it would be deeply wrong to withhold this profound portion of the church's sacramental life from same-sex couples who are fully part of our community and who feel themselves called and ready to undertake it. ``Have you only one blessing, Father? Bless me, me also, Father'' (Gen 27:38).
How can we close our eyes that much of the exclusion of homosexual people is specifically a religious exclusion, much of the hatred directed against them is specifically religious hatred, and much of their suffering over self-worth is specifically religious suffering? We will not add to that religious burden. We affirm a wholly non-abusive God.
One of the joys of the Episcopal tradition is that we find our unity not in authority structures, but in an interwoven web of concord, cooperation, and caring. That puts a special burden on us when we are not of one mind, no matter how passionately we feel, normally to carry the matter forward uncompleted until heaven makes its will clear. None of us, standing alone or with only the like-minded, would dare presume to the astonishing claim that ``it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us ....'' (Acts 15:28).
And yet our unity begins and ends in God. In the end we must each answer to God's summons and aspire to God's justice, even at risk of disagreement with others also acting in good faith, even at risk of having misapprehended the signs of the times and the Gospel's call. ``One of the deepest paradoxes of Christian faith is that our continuity with the Christian past lies not in repeating what earlier generations said, but in bringing ourselves before the same point of judgment and asking, with them, for conversion - which may mean that we do and say things they did not'' (Archbishop Rowan Williams). ``One thing is certain,'' Emerson warned us bluntly, ``the religions are obsolete when the reforms do not proceed from them.''
In Bach's cantata Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben (BWV 77), the tenor sings our prayer for:
ein Samariterherz, a Samaritan heart, Dañ ich zugleich den NÄchsten liebe so that I might also love my neighbor, Und mich bei seinem Schmerz and at his suffering Auch Øber ihn betrØbe, be myself also troubled, Damit ich nich bei ihm vorØbergeh so that I will never pass by him Und ihn in seiner Not nicht lasse. and leave him in his need.Our rector Bill Blaine-Wallace has committed himself to performing sacramental marriage ceremonies for committed same-sex couples who are part of the Emmanuel community. Like Bill, we are deeply troubled that this requires us to depart from the pastoral counsel of our deeply loving and deeply loved bishop, Tom Shaw. We do not lightly conclude that faithful people are called to divergent responses to the Spirit. But we feel that we cannot but affirm that this ministry is of God. We commit ourselves to supporting this ministry and Bill's ``Samaritan heart'' in any way we can.
``Must grace fall so unevenly on the earth?'' the playwright Tony Kushner has asked. We fellow children of Eve have no easy answer to that hard question. But we know that we have been given our voices to affirm that all are called, all are chosen. And we rest our uncertain hearts in Kushner's small prayer, ``I almost know you are there. I think you are our home.''
We invite all Emmanuelites to join us in praying for Tom and for Bill, and for all those hurt by the church, and for a bit of wisdom for the church itself at this moment of self-examination and decision.
The Vestry of Emmanuel Church
Andrew P. Bengtson
H. Franklin Bunn
George Hallberg, Treasurer
John I-Sheng Hsia
Leonard Matczynski, ex officio
Michael J. Shea, Senior Warden
Ruth W. Tucker, Junior Warden
William F. White
David M. York, Clerk
July 20, 2004
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