A great deal of umbrage has been bandied about in recent days in the blogosphere over a recent pastoral letter. It was sent by Bishop Marc Andrus to the clergy and people of the Episcopal Diocese of California outlining pastoral guidelines for how we are to treat the new reality of same-sex marriage unleashed by the California State Supreme Court a few weeks ago. A similar, more succinct pastoral letter was sent by +Mary Gray-Reeves, the new bishop of El Camino Real, one of our three sibling Episcopal dioceses in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Not all of the umbrage has come from the usual suspects. This piece posted by Lisa Fox is one example among many that worry what has happened here has opened the door to further lawlessness in the church. Somehow now, we dare not claim any righteous indignation at our brothers and sisters who have flouted canons by writing The Episcopal Church out of their diocesan constitutions and are making a mad dash for the guilded red doors. . . and trying to take them, too, on the way out.
Perhaps we can no longer condemn that as vociferously as some of us have. Then again, that doesn't worry me too much. Righteous indignation is highly overrated.
Bishop Marc, it seems to me, has chosen along with his Diocese a very careful, tenuous path of grace in a conflicted Church. Following his recommendation, I informed my vestry yesterday evening that I would no longer preside over a marriage of any kind until The Episcopal Church has settled on a way forward that honors the covenants of all couples with equality. Rather, I will treat all couples who approach me for marriage equally by offering counseling and blessing, and referring them to the civil authorities to publicly declare their vows as legally binding. By equality, I don't mean political equality (although that naturally follows), but equality in terms of the recognition of God's grace.
A parishioner asked me yesterday if I was therefore withholding the sacrament of marriage. After reflection, I decided I wasn't because I can't. It is the couple who engage in the sacrament of marriage. At best, as a priest, I can only name it and declare it publicly. The sacrament of marriage between couples of all sorts will continue with or without my help in that particular way. In a curious sense, that's liberating Good News, as I fast from this part of ordained priesthood.
I believe in my bones that I must do my utmost to follow the discipline of the Church to which I have pledged a good deal of my life. Clearly the Book of Common Prayer and the canons as they are presently structured define Christian marriage as being between a man and a woman. I cannot, in good conscience, use the marriage liturgy of the greater Church to solemnize anything other. Bishop Marc appears to feel much the same way. Indeed, his authority is limited in that he cannot unilaterally change these definitions. I applaud him for that admission.
But nor can I ignore the fruits of the Spirit I see in my brothers and sisters who have heard God's call into a covenant that the Church does not yet, as a whole, recognize. So, where gender is the only measure of difference, to solemnize one coupling over another creates a hierarchy of goodness and grace that I no longer believe in. I'm not sure Jesus, given his proclivity to reach out to the very least among us, would believe in it either.
I am ever more convinced that we have mistakenly, for many centuries, hung a theology of marriage on two all-too-fragile constructs that have changed radically over time, cultures, and places: gender and the regulation of sex. As a married man for over eight years, I have learned that marriage is anything but about these two things. Gender is a highly malleable confluence of biology, sociology, and behavior. Sure, sexual intercourse is a fun gift, but outside the realm of addiction, it is an unpredictable occurrence that has very little air time in the overall scheme of a marriage. Moreover, reducing the validity of marriage to anatomy is the height of absurdity, given the beautiful fruits we see in marriages where sexual anatomy and intercourse have been compromised or even eliminated by infirmity, age, or mere genetics.
No, this is about covenant rooted in those pesky vows that all married people are tempted to shirk from time to time. Strangely enough, the vows say nothing about sex. Only the state, which tends to build laws around the measurable, physical, and quantifiable, will occasionally dabble in sex when it tries to determine the legitimacy of a marriage. It talks about consummation, which has that awful root found in "consume." But even then, it relies largely on the word of one or both parties. And all of us know that sex devoid of the often painfully hard work of love never saved a marriage. Indeed, most states have learned to get out of the business of regulating sex, treating it as a private matter between consenting adults, married or not. Only violence remains forbidden in most places with decent jurisprudence, and marriage is no excuse.
To talk about sex coldly and clinically for a moment: it is largely driven by seasons, moons, hormones, and the still mysterious science of attraction. Devoid of greater context, it can both give rise to life and death. Much of the time, of course, it does neither. Yet again, devoid of context, this strange gift woven by our Creator through evolution into the fabric of humanity seems to have very little moral character in and of itself. So here I agree with even the most adamant of the self-proclaimed orthodox: when sex happens and between whom is what really matters. That is what makes sexual congress moral or not. But even so, holy sexual intimacy is a humorous, capricious, and odd but familiar guest along for the ride in marriage, not the marriage itself. Sexual intimacy is just one manifestation among many of the mysterious joys that come through the growing knowledge of another human being imbued with the grace of Christ Jesus.
Sexual orientation appears to be given for some, malleable for others, but deeply shrouded in the mystery of life like the ephemeral nature of attraction itself. Why one sort should be favored over another appears increasingly strange to me, arbitrary and unreasonable, the creation of a hierarchy for hiearchy's sake. Specious claims of the species dying for lack of offspring still bounce around the web like spitwads in an undisciplined classroom. Every study of substance I have seen says that if we let everyone couple or not according their orientation and inclination tomorrow, there will still be a huge number of naturally conceived children to grow up and assume their place in the future.
And marriage is not ultimately about children, either. We all know couples who are happily married without children or the possibility of them. I have yet to tire of paraphrasing Ed Friedman in A Failure of Nerve when he reminds us that all good parents must learn that their salvation does not depend on their children. Children are only some of the strangers who benefit from a healthy household -- strangers in our midst who need love, care, and concern from a varitable host of folk -- not simply two parents with the right combination of sexual anatomy or social exhibition of gender. The nuclear family myth is dying in our culture. Let it, I say. Afterwards, there will still be plenty of mother-father families around nurturing happy families. So, too, will there be single-parent households and adoptive families, extended families, and blended families. All of them raising children will share one thing in common: they will need a great deal of help from the outside to be successful. Let us restore what the ancients knew without thinking: children need a whole community of households and mentors and a God to help them become generous, loving adults -- not merely life in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Rumor has it that the Roman Catholic Church is presently questing to theologically demonstrate that men and women must complement each other in marriage in order to be whole. I found a manifestation of this in a children's book on the Creation I pulled off a shelf in a California mission bookstore near my home a few months ago. It said that God created man and woman, and that they must marry each other in order to be fully human. Truly, this is a strange teaching, even if we set aside the terrible examples all around us of lives broken in unhappy marriages. For any cursory read of scripture and the Christian tradition leads to the conclusion that Jesus most probably wasn't married. Was he therefore less than fully human? To argue so would undermine a core doctrine of orthodoxy by virtually every Christian's standard. Moreover, where does this leave the celibate living in Holy Orders? Or the millions of single people of the world who have found fulfillment in their life with God and community?
No, the notion of gender complementarity has not the least bit convinced me that same-sex covenants are somehow unworthy of the Church's notice. Even less that they are unworthy of God's.
Marriage at its root is about covenant: upholding, nurturing, and honoring in a mutual, faithful, forgiving relationship. The pledge to build up trust over many years through thick and thin. To lead one another through the ups and downs of this life and to form and sustain a household together -- that little building block of the greater community that provides stability and hospitality. When marriages fail, the state talks coolly about breaking up households into smaller economic units. The Church in its sorrow talks about this, if at all, almost in terms of spiritual surgery. When Jesus talked about divorce, however necessary it might sometimes be, he appears to me to say that it is only a reflection of that which threatens to shatter all human relationships: the brokenness found in the human heart.
So even the best love in the world needs covenant: covenant that models loyalty, friendship, compassion, spiritual, emotional, and economic support, and all the other life-giving ways of relating that hold this little planet of ours together and mirror God's grace for us. Covenant rooted in stories that transcend gender and sex are easily found in our holiest writ: God, Abraham, and Sarah; Ruth and Naomi; Jonathan and David; Christ and the Church; Paul and those annoyingly fickle Christian communities he helped found. Marriage is meant to model covenants of all kinds. On the other hand, it is but one of many forms of covenant rooted in the water-is-thicker-than-blood theology of baptism. This is the same baptism that prompted Paul to write that our unity in Christ breaks down all distinctions, including this one: "In Christ there is no longer male and female. . ."
But we are where we are. The State of California has gone (perhaps temporarily, though I pray not) where we as a Church have not yet dared to tread. But many of us feel called by God to go there, too, while a few portions of the Anglican Communion and an even smaller portion of The Episcopal Church have decided that they will make this as difficult and painful a choice as possible, hanging all other mission if necessary. . .that so cosmic is gender and sex in marriage that even our common life in Christ must apparently be eclipsed and, indeed shattered.
Not so long ago Bishop Marc taught me that diabolos carries in its Greek parts dia (by means of) and bolos (boulder) the implication of shattering something beautiful, like throwing a stone through a stained glass window. It could be said therefore that we in this Diocese, like many across the Anglican Communion, are still confronted with a choice that smacks of the diabolical:
Of working to honor the faithful covenants of those most closely entrusted to our care -- those whom we know as real, fallible human beings made in the image of God -- and our unique witness to the spiritual fruits of their most hallowed relationships. . .
And therefore annoying those who know little to nothing of these couples, their everyday lives, where they come from, how they met, how they love one another, except perhaps in the cold imaginings of the most clinical variety. Of risking that this annoyance will provoke another stone to be cast at the fragile panes of something we hold with strangers and intimates alike around the world: communion with God in Christ.
As painful as this reality is, it strikes me as far preferable to continuing to abandon or ignore those we are called to love and nurture in every way, of turning our face away from the face of Christ in a good many of our sisters and brothers. . .only to please or appease those who know them least, whether bishop, archbishop, or priest. Or should we prefer perpetuating injustice to our own and the violation of a prayerful conscience so that we may, for a time, take an unholy peace by mollifying a frequently disinterested ecclesiastical power -- disinterested until threats suit its ends?
While our violation of canons by what we are doing in this case is quite arguable (I believe we have pushed their limits, but not transgressed them), amid the half-veiled or fully naked calls that we are anarchists and rejecters of the rule of law, I am reminded of the legacy of civil disobedience. Is there such a thing in an ecclesiastical setting? It was St. Augustine who argued that an unjust law is no law at all. Perhaps we are starting to point towards this ancient truth in our actions at this time.
We are called to minister to people, not powers. If truth be told, we are called to attend to Christ in each other first, not the limits of canons and carefully worded structures. This is a hard truth, for we rely on our canons and constitution to hold for us some sense of unity and community in a fractious world. But, in truth, the canons and constitutions are imperfect reflections of our faith in a perfect God. We must be forever cautious, at least this side of God's promised Reign, not to confuse one for the other. That surely is one reason Christ quoted the ancient Jewish teaching that the law is only properly understood and anchored upon love of God and love of neighbor.
But we have endeavored to honor the canons as best we can, while knowing that law and our ability to abide by them has limits that are mysteriously and constantly tested by a capricious Spirit -- a Spirit who sometimes might even rattle around state supreme courts and be found in controversial judicial decisions. We have endeavored to honor the canons in an effort to show we honor Communion.
We should expect heat just the same. . .umbrage, curses, annoyance. That is our cross to bear.
In my most doubting moments, I remember the counsel of Gamaliel. In my brightest, most jubilant moments, I remember Christ victorious on the cross. We walk with some humility in either case, or at least we should.
After all, loving our neighbors as ourselves is a risky business, even in a country as free as ours.