Who defines marriage for Christians?

o charles weddingWhat do liberal Episcopal bishops do when a local culture careens past their church in the debate about gay marriage? As the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe and The Washington Times have reported recently, some bishops choose a more cautious path than one would expect from their previous announcements and votes at their church’s triennial General Convention.

So, for instance, Bishop William Swing of the Diocese of California — a longtime advocate of blessing gay couples — revoked the license of his assisting bishop, Otis Charles, after Charles married his partner, Felipe Sanchez Paris, in late April.

And so Bishop Thomas Shaw of the Diocese of Massachusetts, joined by his two suffragan bishops, has forbidden clergy from functioning as agents of the state by participating in marriage ceremonies for gay couples. (The clergy remain free to bless gay couples in rites that do not make explicit connections to marriage.)

In varying degrees, all these reports note the tensions between the bishops’ advocacy and their recent actions. Is there any way to make sense of these tensions? Here are a few possibilities:

Church law prevails. Both the Massachusetts bishops’ public announcement and Bishop Shaw’s more detailed letter to clergy acknowledge the untimely reality that the Episcopal Church’s canons and The Book of Common Prayer continue to define marriage as involving a man and a woman. In a similar spirit, the Rev. Canon Michael K. Hansen, executive officer of the Diocese of California, told the Chronicle: “We will do a blessing of gay people, but it’s not to look like a marriage. We’re not in the (same-sex) marriage business.”

How can bishops who draw the line at gay marriage also give approval for clergy to provide nonmarital blessings for gay couples? Simple: Episcopal canons do not prohibit such blessings, and successive General Conventions have moved those blessings ever closer to official approval.

Sending signals of moderation. Louie Crew, perhaps the best known gay man in the Episcopal Church expresses it this way on his website:

Why not say just that, 25 times at the blackboard if you like:

We like you but we will not solemnize your marriage.

. . .We will bless you, your dog, your cat, and your canary.

. . . and perhaps in small script, reveal why…..

We hope Archbishop Akinola is listening….
We hope Archbishop Akinola is listening….
We hope Archbishop Akinola is listening….

. . . We hope the Archbishop of Canterbury is listening….
We hope the Archbishop of Canterbury is listening….
We hope the Archbishop of Canterbury is listening….

But if American bishops think that the Archbishop of Nigeria will be impressed by such liturgical hair-splitting, they still do not understand him very well.

Leaving it to the state. As I’ve noted before in this space, a significant number of Episcopal clergy want to stop “functioning as agents of the state” by signing marriage certificates or reciting the familiar line of “By the authority vested in me.” Some of these clergy propose that couples go first to the state to have their marriage made legal (and thus official) and then come to church for a pastoral blessing.

How well will this model work, however, among Christians who understand marriage as coming into existence at the very moment when a couple makes promises of lifelong commitment, before God and loved ones, in their place of worship? How many Christians, given a choice in the matter, would prefer that one of the most sacred rituals in their lives be performed by a justice of the peace?

The Rev. Carter Heyward already has promised the bishops of Massachusetts that she will disregard their order and preside at two lesbian weddings. Michael Paulson of the Globe captured the conflict perfectly in this quote:

“I have heard so many gays and lesbians tell me how profoundly disappointed they are in the Diocese of Massachusetts, and the bishops’ responses, and they feel betrayed and really, really upset about it — they are saying it seems to be OK for the church to bless our unions as long as nothing is at stake,” Heyward said. “I was persuaded by those lamentations . . . so I would say my position is constructive disobedience.”

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  • Ken

    Louis Crew is not far off the mark, perhaps, but the target audience for these signs of moderation may not be foreign. The backlash against the making of Gene Robinson a bishop and the de facto approval of same-sex relationships has been significant. Parishes, dioceses and the national church are all losing income while non-profit income is generally rising. Membership, already suffering a net loss of about 1.5% annually, will certainly take a hit this year: if ECUSA is not booted out of the Anglican Communion, a large group of people may well leave and if they are, another group could quit. This may be a very good time to look moderate (although it seems a little late for +Swing to try that tack, what with the URI and all). The backlash could very well render moot gains the homosexualists made at General Convention last summer.

    The interesting question is how Carter Heywood’s rebellion will play out in the papers? She was one of the women illicitly ordained 30 years ago; standing up to the Systems of Oppression and Injustice worked for her once and may well make her a hero again. Or does she threaten the greater goal of accepting homosexuality as equal to heterosexual life? Hero or loose cannon?

  • http:titusonenine.classicalanglican.net Kendall Harmon

    Bishop Swing has to this point given no satisfactory explanation of WHY he took this action. His attempt (http://www.diocal.org/article.php?sid=248&mode=thread&order=0) created more questions than answers, and it is disputed by Bishop Charles (http://titusonenine.classicalanglican.net/index.php?s=california). According to the Church of England Newspaper: Bishop Charles told us Bishop Swing’s sanction was motivated by fear. `Had there been no article in the SF Chronicle, I believe there would have been no breach in my relationship with the Bishop Swing.`

    Without more data, this hardly appears “moderate.”

  • Lee

    I wonder if Swing is also playing to his URI audience. In his letter on the +Charles issue, Swing puts his URI ministry on a par with his ministry to the Diocese of California. More than half of the URI chapters are in the Third World, and the URI is – despite its radicalism in many other areas – not taking any position on the gay issue.

    (The last time that the gay agenda came up publicly with the URI was in 1998, when Christian de la Huerta addressed the matter as he had done in 1997. He got a chilly reception from the Third World delegates to the summit meeting, and stopped his involvement with the movement.)

    So … maybe Swing is telling his own Third World audience that he is not a California radical.


  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks, Ken, Kendall and Lee, for the comments.

    Ken: I think only history will determine whether Carter Heyward is a hero or a loose cannon, but she’s certainly behaving with greater consistency than those bishops who favor blessing gay couples but shrink away from using any language about marriage. She’s willing to accept consequences for her disobedience, and I find that admirable.

    Kendall: I’m not arguing that the bishops’ actions are those of true moderation, but that they are liberal bishops’ idea of what moderation must look like (thus, “sending signals” of moderation). As my remark about Archbishop Akinola suggests, I don’t believe most bishops from the Global South will find these actions persuasive.

    Lee: I hadn’t thought about whether Bishop Swing was playing to his URI audience, but in the document that Kendall cites, this is Bishop Swing’s second paragraph:

    {Each morning I say the same prayer: `O God in whom we live and move and have our being . . . .` The `we` in my daily petition is (1) my family, (2) the Diocese of California, and (3) peacemakers of the United Religions Initiative scattered throughout the world. In my heart there is a oneness, a unity in each of these three. I have been consecrated by God to serve the unity in all three areas. For instance, all of our congregations, schools, and social agencies are, in my mind, related to each other. At one! The Church holds together. I pray and labor diligently that the cohesion implicit in the Body of Christ will be manifest in the life of the Diocese of California each day of my life.}

    I find it perfetly bizarre that people attracted to URI’s syncretism — whether they’re from the Global South or elsewhere — do not sympathize with a liberal stance on homosexuality.

  • Ken

    Mr. Lablanc,

    You are welcome (and note the weekend posting). I was actually thinking more short term re: Heyward+. Specifically, how the media would portray her when she does the deed(s).

    Lee’s comments are appreciated, since, like you, I never would have thought URI participants would reject the homosexualist platform. I wonder if a review of his public statements would find a differiential in his approach to the question among Anglicans and among URI folk.

  • http://www.wildfaith.com Darrell Grizzle

    Louie Crew makes an interesting point when he says, “We [the Episcopal church] like you but we will not solemnize your marriage. . .We will bless you, your dog, your cat, and your canary.” As a gay Episcopalian (among other things) this raises some interesting questions. I’m pretty sure my cat is Gnostic, or maybe Hindu (given his eerie nocturnal chanting). Would the Episcopal church still bless him?