Monday, July 11, 2011

Wide Pastoral Latitude

There's been some discussion over at the Lead about the decision by Virginia Bishop Shannon Johnston to open the door to same sex blessings, with a number of hoops between here and there. I think Bp Johnston should be thanked, but other commenters felt the hoops are too restrictive.

So I thought it was worth reviewing what is the current status quo. At the last General Convention, the ground breaking resolution C056 stated the following.
Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, that the 76th General Convention acknowledge the changing circumstances in the United States and in other nations, as legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian persons is passed in various civil jurisdictions that call for a renewed pastoral response from this Church and for an open procession for the consideration of theological resources and liturgies for the blessing of same gender relationships
So, two issues are defined in the current point of time. One, a "pastoral response", and the second, "consideration of theological resources and liturgies".

Let's take the liturgy question first, shall we? Just what liturgy should apply? There are three relevant liturgies in the BCP: the celebration and blessing of a marriage, the blessing of a civil marriage, and an order for marriage. Probably the least complicated is a civilly married gay couple putting themselves forward for a blessing of a civil marriage. (And as an aside, there seemed to be some sense at the Lead that a "blessing" was less than... but as the blessing of a civil marriage shows, that 's an entirely appropriate response to a civil marriage and NOT an insult).

The only problem there is the language as written, which is full of exhortations about "joining of a man and woman/husband and wife". So the first problem is that at least some of the words need to change if they are to be applied to LGBT couples. Although the blessing of a civil marriage is pretty short, and should be to the point, it has not been explicitly approved for use by GC in the case of same sex couples.

More complicated is the language of the marriage rites, where the language is more prominently heterosexual. So as written, these don't really fit, without substantial tweaking.

The second issue is that, depending on geography, the couple in question may not be eligible for marriage. Remember, same sex marriage is currently legal in only 6 jurisdictions. Our culture currently conflates civil marriage with holy matrimony; therefore, you can't apply a marriage rite to a couple that cannot marry.

The third issue is civil unions/domestic partnerships. Do you require that the couple get one, if eligible in your state? What if they aren't eligible for legal recognition? Should they still be eligible for some form of recognition and affirmation?

As I've argued before, the only way to resolve some of these issues is to advocate forcefully for marriage equality nationwide. Individual bishops have been outspoken on this subject, but I'd like to hear the official church "evolve" on this issue, wouldn't you?

Meanwhile, to address some of the following issues, let's turn back to C056:
and be it further Resolved, That the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, in consultation with the House of Bishops, collect and develop theological resources and design liturgies, and report to the 77th General Convention for further action;

and be it further Resolved, That the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, in consultation with the House of Bishops, devise an open process for the conduct of its work inviting participation from provinces, dioceses, congregations, and individuals who are engaged in such theological work, and inviting theological reflection from throughout the Anglican Communion;
Susan Russell has told us quite a bit about the SCLM work which has been open and transparent. I have commented at length that the best possible outcome in my opinion would be gender-neutral marriage rite, which could be used by gay or straight couples, and a rite for partnerships; the worst outcome would be a same-sex specific rite that is used interchangeably for all gay relationships. This would be a horrible example of separate and unequal and would, I think, be a setback. On the other hand, do you really want to wait half a generation for a revised BCP to address this issue? So it seems likely there will be an interim liturgy of some sort.

BUT, that said, the church isn't there yet. It's here, now, without an approved liturgy, in a country with a myriad of different views and laws governing same sex couples. So then, this bit:
and be it further Resolved that bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church, and be it further

Resolved that this convention continue to honor the theological diversity of this Church in regard to matters of human sexuality and be it further

Resolved that member of this church be encouraged to engage in this effort.
Generous pastoral response-- there's a wide-open term. Theological diversity-- that means, you're still a big tent. And encouraged to engage--that means, keep talking!

In Virginia, Bp Johnston has said the following:
Until the General Convention specifically provides otherwise, there will be no officially authorized liturgy for general use. Liturgies would be locally produced and approved on a case-by-case basis. Also, I set three criteria to be met to my satisfaction before I would give permission for this local option: (1) A statement of where the congregation is with this issue. What preparation has been done? What program of teaching was followed? (2) Has this been discussed with the vestry or vestry committee? What is their position? (3) A substantial exposition of the theology of recognizing same-sex relationships. This must include exegesis of the relevant passages from Scripture, not neglecting those which are cited as speaking negatively about same-sex couples.

This prompted some outcry amongst some of the commenters that this seems restrictive and unfair. But what Bishop Johnston wants is not that far off what is done in other jurisdictions. He's not forcing any parish into the same response, and he's requiring that each parish do its homework--and the same from the couple, whom it is worth noting, are not eligible for marriage OR domestic partnerships in Virginia. ( In fact, secular Virginia is so very anti-gay that we gay folk call it "the State of hate" for its bad-natured treatment of LGBT citizens.) So, I take this as a very good step. This is not a final destination, it's a step in the journey. And when a process is in transition, as this is, we must be willing to take the extra steps to meet it.

Yes, in Massachusetts, Bishop Shaw has approved full-on marriage.
Bishop M. Thomas Shaw III granted permission to area clergy to sign the paperwork that accompanies the religious ceremony and makes the marriage legal in a civil sense. The decision came more than five years into the history of marriage equality in the United States, which first became legal in Massachusetts in 2004.

In New Hampshire, on the other hand, although same sex marriage is legal, Bishop Robinson prohibits the clergy from officiating civilly (and there is special paperwork). Instead, they can perform a blessing of a civil marriage. He wrote in 2008, "It is my hope that we will be able to provide for the private, pastoral needs of the faithful people entrusted to our care, while causing a minimum of further furor in the Church." 

In San Diego, same sex marriage is currently not legal, though many Californian couples married in 2008.  Now, there are Domestic Partnerships--and the married folks "grandfathered in". For same sex couples, Bishop Mathes requires congregations to study the issue and the vestry to approve, before they can move forward; the couples must also make a special request to the bishop and undergo all the usual counseling, etc. Not so far off what Bp Johnston has suggested. And, speaking as  a real-live-married-gay-couple, this was something we were willing to do, and gladly accepted the support of our many hard-working friends, and our Bishop, in the process.

Here's an analogy. When we decided to marry in 2008, we knew there was a possibility it would be overturned by Prop8 (it wasn't for months after prop8 that we could be sure that our marriage wouldn't be rescinded retroactively-- that was the sword hanging over our heads, think about that!!!) We knew that we would not have full federal recognition or full rights as a married couple nationwide. Should we have refused the opportunity, and waited (how long?) for full national marriage equality? NO! We knew the journey was not complete, but imperfect, risky, and different as it was, we still seized the opportunity in good faith to move forward.

When it was announced last year that blessings would be permitted in Dio San Diego, there was joy. We didn't complain that the rules were a little different at this early stage. It's not done yet.  The diocese is not uniform in viewpoint; lots of parishes aren't happy about same sex recognition, while others are joyful.  But  in our parish, we had the marvelous welcome of having our marriage blessed, one of the first couples to do so. After all, if we don't seize the opportunity when it's offered, then why would anyone think they should offer it to anyone else?

So, while I would love Bishop Johnston to open the gates all the way in VA, he's opened them enough for committed couples to get through, even if they have to push him.   And their witness, seizing the possibility, will be a great testament to open the doors further--not just in TEC, but also statewide. And who knows? Maybe some hearts too.  It begins with a step. I'd take that step. I have. Won't you?


dr.primrose said...

"This must include exegesis of the relevant passages from Scripture, not neglecting those which are cited as speaking negatively about same-sex couples."

So should required counseling -- either for couples or parishes -- for heterosexual marriage be required to include the negative Scriptural passages from both Jesus and Paul on heterosexual marriage, not to mention the four clobber passages on remarriage after divorce?

IT said...

I think it could be a good exercise! If you are pro, how do you answer the cons? But again, given the transitional position right now, I have no problem with being asked to do my homework, so to speak.

it's margaret said...

Being on of the three priests who has completed the application process, I can say that the exercise is good, has changed my approach with straight couples, and should be required of every priest, regardless of whether they wish to make an application or not.

And, as I posted over at the Lead, please know that at the meeting offered by the Bishop with regards to the process for permission to bless same-sex couples, I did say that while this was a good step forward, we would not rest until there was full marriage equality.

And, while my application was complete, I received a phone call from the Bishop; he discussed with me my application, and stated that my theological presentation was excellent, he wanted more exegesis of the NT text --so a real textual study. I am quite pleased that he respected the application enough to read it seriously, to comment on the theological process, and ask me for more --it made me excited and very respectful of his process. He cares. He really cares. He is interested. And, he knows it is not complete nor entirely satisfactory --but what he has done is HUGE here in the State of Hate, indeed (where people are horrified that the Rainbow flag flew downtown!!!)

Thank you for this thorough presentation, IT.

it's margaret said...

Here's the link to my theological reflection. IT, if this is not cool --nuke it with my blessing!

dr.primrose said...

For what it's worth, blessings of same-sex couples have occurred in Richmond before. My family and I attended one for a relative in an Episcopal Church in Richmond in the late 70s where there was an open invitation to the entire congregation, a number of which attended. I don't know whether the bishop knew; I'm sure the presiding priest didn't give a squat. But it's nice to have these things become "official"!

Wormwood's Doxy said...

IT--it is the WAY he said it that bothers me.

Bishop Mathes may have said essentially the same thing--but he said it in a way that did not offend. Bishop Johnston almost seems to have gone out of his way to state--bluntly and boldly--"You are not getting MARRIED! And don't kid yourselves that you are."

If you are happy with Bishop Johnston's statement, so be it--but I think you are settling for far too little. You call yourself a "pragmatist"--but, quite honestly, I think you are just settling for the crumbs from the table. I don't understand why, but that's your business.

I expect more from a bishop of this church, and I don't apologize for it. I will continue to demand more, until there is no difference in this church between same-sex and different-sex couples--and until every bishop in this church treats EVERY human being in it as a beloved child of God.


IT said...

I'm not suggesting anyone should stop here or settle Doxy. I'm saying take what's given and'not turn it down Margaret sez the goal is full equality and as I said over and over this is a FIRST STEP. not the end . Not crumbs.... An appetizer. Maybe in one of those new restaurants with small portions. Hey I'm in it till dessert!

IT said...

Margaret: that is cool.

it's margaret said...

dr.primrose --and I'm hoping it wasn't under the guise of a house blessings...

and, yes, there have been blessings of same-sex couples before this permission --in church --lotsa people! (smiling)

dr.primrose said...

Maragaret, it was a blow-out ceremony held in the church (which was packed) - organ, hymns, processions down and up the aisle. The whole works. There was some serious concern that the Richmond TV stations would show up or someone would show up to object. But everything went smoothly without incident.

Anonymous said...

A really useful roundup for those of us (me) trying to understand what's going on across the North Atlantic. Thank You :-)

IT said...

mrcatolick, we are delighted and honored that you stopped by.

What I did not state explicitly, is that there are many bishops who offer absolutely NO recognition of same sex unions, notably Bp Love in Albany New York who refuses to recognize same sex marriage.

That's the context in which one must view Bp Johnston's move.