I fear very much that there will be a compromise position: “okay you can develop a liturgy for gay couples, as long as it’s not marriage." And that way the requirements and expectations will be different, and that is not only separate, but not at all equal. That seems to be an undertone in the comments from the 2010 Bishop’s meeting, separating marriage as a sacramental union from a blessing, which is somehow lesser.
Let me be clear. If you don’t call it marriage, it’s not going to be treated as a marriage. (And I don't mean by the couple, for whom it IS marriage, but by others.) Our word for a faithful, monogamous, lifelong commitment is marriage. To call it something else is to say it is less than, not equal to, and therefore, not as important to the community. Do you really want the message to be that the church blesses dogs and boats and, oh, gay couples, but only straight couples are worthy of marriage?
I certainly understand that if you call same sex marriages as, well, marriages, that you open up a whole can of worms because of the patchwork of civil laws affecting LGBT couples. Same sex couples can get legally married in 6 jurisdictions, with various levels of domestic partnerships in 12 more. 29 states forbid same sex marriages in their constitution; 19 states outlaw recognition of civil unions. Just in California, 18,000 couples were married pre-Prop8, while others can have domestic partnerships. The mess is even more apparent for transgendered couples, where the transgendered person’s legal gender can change simply by crossing a state line! (To me this points out the lunacy of any of the arguments against SSM).
How do you evaluate a relationship where the legality is so entangled? One way is to do what my employer does. They provide domestic partner benefits and with few exceptions, you are expected to be a registered DP (RDP in California; or married) to get benefits. So, if the couple CAN get recognition in their jurisdiction, they should. But because of the legal limbo, I know this has negative consequences. Our accountant probably can pay his kid’s tuition sorting out the mess that is our married same sex couple’s taxes, thanks to discontinuities between state law and DOMA. So that's one problem: what sort of civil, legal relationship must be required?
Here's another. How can you face a couple that is legally married, as BP and I are? How can you tell us that our legal civil marriage is not worthy of recognition as a marriage?
And what is the role of the church in the civil, legal relationship? I think this makes a case to eliminate the church from functioning as an agent of the state. As Elizabeth Kaeton wrote this week,
The church must begin to challenge herself about this 'unholy' alliance between church and state. We don't allow the state to dictate to us on any other sacrament or sacramental rite of the church. Why do that with marriage?Exactly. Let the state be the state, and the church be the church.
As I told you a few weeks ago, our legal civil marriage (2008), was recognized by a church blessing a few weeks ago. I think this separation worked very well, making the religious component very intentional, and thus central, without the Big Party and all that entailed. On the other hand, another couple who received a blessing had just DP’d one another, and for them, the blessing was their wedding. That worked for them. In neither case was the church acting as a state agent, but in a separate capacity. There are already liturgies for both of these: the Blessing of a Civil Marriage, and the Marriage. If you explicitly separate church marriage from civil marriage, as in many parts of Europe, those would be the same thing. (Although both were off-limits, at least in their complete form,for us.)
And they should be treated the same in the process. We faced generally the same requirements of any married couple seeking a blessing, including obligatory pre-blessing counseling (in my opinion, you can just change a few words in any standard couple's counseling program and it will work fine). In the eagerness of some to bless gay couples, I worry that the process hasn’t got all the ponderous weight that it needs. The survey at the conference suggests that many congregations don’t put same sex couples through the same counseling as straight couples, and perhaps some don’t do any counseling at all. I strongly believe that every requirement made of a straight couple should be made of a same sex couple in the request for the church’s blessing.
Of course, we are fortunate that the community of which we are a part, recognizes and celebrates us as a married couple. For example on our wedding anniversary last fall, we donated the Sunday flowers and were asked to be the oblation bearers, all duly noted in the bulletin. There was no asterisk denoting us as somehow LESS than any other couple celebrating their wedding anniversary. We certainly have never felt anything but fully respected, which is a big part of why we’re there.
We're fortunate, as many couples in other places don't experience that affirmation. For them, blessings, even if separate-and-unequal, are a step forward.
Obviously the church in a transitional period right now. But I am concerned that the movement is towards something distinct. I fear the message that is sent to LGBT couples if there is a SEPARATE liturgy, or different requirements, is one that their relationship is “not quite real”.
And that's not the case.