In my “Immodest Proposal” I sketched out the following concerning the blessing of same-sex couples:
4.0. The church teaches that the nuptial ministers are the couple themselves, whose vows are blessed, not constituted, by the church. One of the earliest western marriage liturgies, in the sixth century Gallic tradition, consisted of a blessing of the couple in their home. I therefore suggest that:I would like now to expand on this sketch somewhat. In another post, I noted the apparent confusion over exactly what is being asked of the Episcopal Church. The latest Communiqué from the Primates, in its recommendations, appears to ask for an end to any episcopal authorization (either individually or through General Convention) of any rites for blessing same-sex relationships. However, both our Primate and the Archbishop of Canterbury appear to think that this refers to “authorization of public rites”; and there is some continued discussion concerning the weight of and meaning of authorization. Archbishop Venables thinks otherwise, and no doubt other Primates may weigh in on the hermeneutics of primatial documents, with all of the usual pitfalls of “original intent” weighed against the “literal reading.”
4.1. Until a wider consensus is achieved on the rightness of blessing same-sex relationships in an ecclesiastical setting, The Episcopal Church not proceed with the development of a liturgical rite, or its authorization.
4.2. Recognizing that priests are ordained to pronounce God’s blessing, and that no further authorization is needed for a priest to bless than there is to preach; and that the liturgy “The Celebration of a Home” in The Book of Occasional Services is authorized for use in this church, without further permission from the Bishop being necessary; and that this liturgy provides for the blessing of the residents of the household; that it be recognized that the use of such liturgy is within the ambit of pastoral care.
4.3. The the church include in its studies and discussion the issue of the role of the church in those civil jurisdictions in which same-sex relationships are licensed, and the larger issue of the interaction between civil and ecclesiastical law in this area.
My approach, rather than reacting to the ambiguous (or clear) requests of the Primates, is to adopt a stronger proactive position in response: to say, we in TEC have made certain decisions, and we choose to stand by them. We will neither back down from them, nor will we, in the interest of continued dialogue, and as an indication of our willingness to remain in that dialogue, advance further than we have at this time.
I think it important to acknowledge where that is. No rites for same-sex blessing have been authorized by the General Convention, which has merely acknowledged the existence of such rites — some of them apparently given explicit authorization by individual bishops for use in their own dioceses in keeping with their Constitutional authority, others perhaps “allowed” without explicit authorization; some perhaps taking place without the knowledge of the bishop, and in some places perhaps even contrary to the express wishes of the bishop. Only in the latter case would I dare to suggest a violation of our polity.
How does my recommendation to use the liturgy “A Celebration for a Home” fit into this picture? As the outline form indicated, the answer involves the nature of a “home,” the meaning of public and private in our tradition, the power to authorize and to celebrate liturgies, and the nature of pastoral care.
A house is not a home
Whatever else one may say about marriage, there is more to it than mere cohabitation. Indeed, cohabitation without benefit of marriage is regarded by some as as serious a violation of traditional sexual morality as same-sex couples living together with some form of blessing.
This is in itself paradoxical, and points to a source of tension in the traditional view, according towhich a mixed-sex couple can transform a sinful relationship (cohabitation) into a virtuous one by exchanging vows always to remain in that relationship. A same-sex couple cannot do so under the traditional understanding; rather, to swear to remain faithful in the relationship might be seen as making it all the worse — a willing persistence in sin. Same-sex relationships, according to the tradition, are inherently unblessable, and incapable of “redemption” by any other means than termination.
Even among those who embrace the tradition, however, some (such as the Rev. Fleming Rutledge) have been willing to acknowledge that the matter need not be quite so cut and dried: that there is some moral value, however imperfect and short of the ideal, in encouraging stable relationships for same-sex couples, as a “remedy to fornication” and an alternative to promiscuity for those not gifted with the charism of celibacy.
However that may be, in the long run, it is not mere cohabitation — sharing a domicile — that forms the moral basis of marriage. Just as there is more to marriage than sex, there is more to a home than a house. People remain bound by their marriage vows even when separated for an extended period — and it is the vows that have formed the core of the church’s understanding of marriage (variously balanced by notions of contract and consummation) since the Middle Ages.
Yet at the same time, the concept of the home forms an central part of the marriage tradition in most human cultures, including those that gave us the present Christian understanding of marriage. As I noted in my outline, one of the oldest surviving marriage liturgies consists of the blessing of the couple in their home, rather than in the church. And aside from the practical matter of couples moving in together, we still see survivals of symbolic acts such as bearing the bride over the threshold forming a part of the cultural reality of what it means to create a new home. Moreover, our English word husband lays a certain responsibility on the groom as well — for he is a man who has a household. And it is helpful perhaps to note that the Latin American word for “married” is casado. It is in unauthorized, but very human, form of language, ritual and intention that we see the transformation of a mere house into a home. It could be argued that the home is a more fitting place for this celebration and transformation than the church. After all, Jesus assures us that in the life of the resurrection there is no marriage; so perhaps allowing its symbolic value to flourish in the home might make it possible to emphasize the eucharist as the proper “churchly” symbol of the kingdom of heaven, which is after all a marriage feast rather than a marriage itself.
I acknowledge that neither the Episcopal Church nor the Anglican Communion — nor the vast bulk of the world’s civil society — is at the point of accepting a liturgy — or a civil ceremony — for “same-sex marriage.” So I suggest that even though modern communication has speeded the rate at which such things might develop, we could well follow the cautious course of the early church in its slow (six to ten century-long!) accommodation of mixed-sex marriage as its own, and follow the early stages of that course in acknowledging that same-sex couples have the right to live not only in a house, but in a home — and more than that, to recognize that they do so, and that the signs of grace and charity this manner of life reveal show it not only to be capable of receiving, but of being a blessing.
Public and private
Some of the debate concerning such blessings has revolved around the words public and private. It is important to acknowledge several things. First, private does notmean“clandestine.” Second, public does not necessarily mean “celebrated at the 11 am liturgy on Sunday morning.” To a certain extent, all marriages not held as part of a regular church worship service — and I imagine that includes the overwhelming majority except in places that serve as wedding chapels — are by definition “private” — that is how they are listed in the Register of Parish Services. Lest I rely solely on such a tome as a source for argument, let me turn to one recently given prominence in the Draft Covenant for the Anglican Communion: the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
In that book, two forms for Baptism are provided, with an acknowledged preference for “Publick Baptism of Infants” to be performed before the congregation, but with the recognition that for pastoral reasons, including emergencies, “Private Baptism of Children in Houses” is available. The point is that “private” does not indicate “clandestine” — indeed, the liturgy provides an extended addendum for the public proclamation of the private act.
Which raises an interesting point concerning publicity in general, and the church’s role in it. One of the primary reasons for moving marriage from home to church through the Middle Ages was publicity, a desire to stamp out “hidden” marriages, and ensure that folk knew who was married and who wasn’t. This had little or nothing to do with any theology of marriage other than the avoidance of bigamy. Rather, the church came, through that era, to play an increasing role as the public recorder of events. In a time without mass communication, and even limited literacy, it was important that all such matters be “published” in some open and recognizable form. Hence the evolution of such appurtenances as the reading of banns — all designed not to make the marriage, but to make the marriage known.
There is, however, another important function to the public celebration of essentially private (or personal) acts — that is, liturgies which involve a ministration not to the whole congregation, but only to certain members of it. This function is true of baptism as well as of marriage: and it is the exemplary role played by the newly baptized or the newly married — whose vows serve to enkindle a recollection of the vows the other members of the congregation have made; that all the baptized take renewed strength from witnessing baptism, and all married couples renew their awareness of the vows they have themselves made when they witness a marriage.
There are congregations ready, willing and able to embrace the public celebration of same-sex relationships. Many others would be willing to celebrate with a couple “after the fact.” Some few may find themselves unwilling to acknowledge the blessing of couples in their midst, or in their presence. Rather than forcing the matter further than it has gone at present, I counsel a willing engagement with the status quo, rather than a step back to the status quo ante that the Primates seem to envision. Let the process of reception have an opportunity to work, as it must, through the patient engagement of local communities with what is, after all, the most personal, private, and local of all liturgical rites, involving at a minimum only the two who give themselves to each other.
By what authority do you do such things
It is within the competence of Bishops of this church to authorize special forms of liturgical worship not found in the Book of Common Prayer. They cannot demand the use of such liturgies, as I read this Constitutional permission. However, the liturgy for “The Celebration of a Home” has already been approved for use in this church by the General Convention. I do not think a Bishop can forbid the use of the liturgies contained in the Book of Occasional Services; there is certainly no need further to approve them. While the rite in question contains only a minimal blessing of the couple, it is at a climactic point in the liturgy. There is nothing to prevent a couple exchanging vows at some point in the ceremonial blessing of the home — as the vows are made to each other and to God — and it is the vows that make the marriage. No earthly authority is needed to swear to another person that you will love them, support them, rejoice with them and suffer with them for as long as you live. Love, as Saint Paul said, fufills the law; and I can think of no other liturgy that so fulfills the commandment, “Do unto others as you would be done by” than such an exchange of vows — perfectly balanced, and perfectly complementary regardless of the gender of the couple.
But dare a priest bless such an engagement to remain lovingly faithful and faithfully loving? Priests are ordained to bless, to pronounce God’s blessing; it is part of the charism; it is part of what we do, like preaching and teaching. There is no requirement that we report to our bishops every blessing of a home that we perform, any more than we send our bishops copies of our sermons for approval. Certainly priests have the right to withhold a blessing — the canons explicitly give priests the right to decline to marry any couple; so no one is forced to injure their conscience in this matter; rather those who wish to bless may bless, and those who choose not to can refrain.
Now, as I alluded to above, I am not so foolish as to think that we have reached the point at which same-sex relationships are on a parity with marriage in this church or this nation. I believe the wind has shifted over the last decades, and the day will dawn when both church and state will come to this recognition — that it is the human qualities of fidelity and love, rather than the merely animal reality of sex, that constitutes the proper locus of the marriage vow. In the meantime, the Episcopal Church has come thus far, and I see no reason to step back or to stand down. What we have done is really rather modest and should not seem so threatening. Some in this church, or some in the rest of the communion may not be able to abide the pastoral provision we have made for some of our members. It is they who will have to decide if they can abide in the same church, or the same communion, with those who can and do.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG