Thoughts on Christian marriage, II

This is the second part of a two-part essay on Christian understandings of marriage.

By George Clifford

The next step in that unfolding narrative of grace is to expand the concept of marriage to include a gay man marrying a gay man or a lesbian marrying a lesbian. This timely, grace filled step rightly extends the Christian concept of marriage to people whom the Church for too long has marginalized or demonized, the very categories of people with whom Jesus spent his ministry. The Church wrongly has attempted to foist a life and love denying form of sexuality – heterosexuality – upon people whom God created with a different gender orientation. Consequently, their gender preference has too often caused gays and lesbians to deny their very identity or to express their sexuality in promiscuous, exploitative, or other destructive ways. Same-sex monogamous marriage inherently promotes healthy lifestyles, models the union of Christ and the Church, and can powerfully mediate grace to all whom they encounter.

Conversely, contending that such marriages pose a threat to heterosexual marriage is as silly an evangelical shibboleth as pretending that Christian teachings about marriage have remained constant. Any married heterosexual who fancies him or herself threatened by gay or lesbian marriages has a delusional concept of her or his own attractiveness as a partner, perceives his or her marriage is in trouble, or fears his or her own severely repressed homosexuality.

The time for silence ended years ago; now is the time for action. At General Convention this summer, the Episcopal Church should initiate appropriate legislation to:

(1) Disentangle the Episcopal Church from the state with respect to marriage by canonically prohibiting Episcopal clergy from acting on behalf of the state in performing marriages (regardless of what civil law may allow), deleting all canonical provisions governing such acts, and deleting the existing rite for the “Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” from the Book of Common Prayer;

(2) Create one rite for blessing all monogamous relationships, regardless of the gender of the two parties (a revised, gender neutral, and enriched version of the current Book of Common Prayer rite for “The Blessing of a Civil Marriage” could serve as the basis for this new rite for blessing marriages);

(3) Prophetically encourage all government entities (states, territories, etc.) with jurisdiction to define marriage as the legal union of two consenting adults regardless of gender.

The legal benefits of marriage are real and substantial. Two people who choose to live as one understandably want to share fully obligations to care for one another, responsibility for any children, property ownership, etc. Laws governing health care, child guardianship, inheritance, and a host of other issues stipulate preferential treatment of and protections for a spouse. Item #3 above is critical because those laws should apply to all marriages, regardless of the gender of the persons involved. By prophetically advocating equal rights for all, regardless of gender orientation, the Church walks faithfully in the footsteps of the Biblical prophets, echoing their call for justice.

The lingering entanglement of religion and state with respect to marriage is an unfortunate legacy of various United States denominations having emerged from (or continuing to be part of) established European Churches. God’s grace cannot and does not wait for governments to act. By ending the misguided entanglement of the Episcopal Church and state in which clergy act as agents of the state when officiating at marriages (Item #1 above), the Church moves in time with God’s grace, treating all monogamous relationships equally, using the same liturgical rite to pronounce God’s blessing (Item #2).

For political rather than theological reasons, reasons that I, an ardent supporter of democracy, nonetheless find compelling, France over a century ago took away the authority of religious leaders to officiate at the legal ceremony in which the government approves of a marriage contract. After that civil ceremony, those for whom the religious ceremony holds meaning seek God’s blessing in a manner appropriate to their faith tradition.

Separation of the civil from the legal is also good theology. Most clergy have officiated at marriages in which tradition, architectural beauty, location, humoring parents, or other extraneous factors motivated the couple to have a “Church wedding.” Any belief or even hope by bride or groom that God could or would bless their union was absent. Some beguilingly naïve couples, at least in unguarded moments, unsuspectingly divulge their real motives even while trying to pay lip service to their non-existent faith. Performing a wedding of this genre is rarely effective outreach. Instead, such weddings commercialize the Church (i.e., provide helpful income to some parishes), demean Christian believers, cause non-believers verbally to prostitute themselves, and distract from the real work of ministry. Those who too easily dismiss these objections would do well to reflect on the uniquely American phenomena of “mail order” clergy performing weddings, Vegas wedding chapels, contemporary wedding trends, and wedding extravaganzas that display conspicuous consumption. People will hear the Church’s proclamation of the gospel against that cacophonous background only if the proclamation is clear and unambiguous.

Admittedly, General Convention implementing the three recommendations above will have some unintended ramifications. Dissidents who have exited the Episcopal Church will feel their departures justified. On a positive note, given the experience of other American ecclesial bodies in taking similar steps, notably the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church can expect that few additional dissidents will depart.

Other provinces will bewail the Episcopal Church acting unilaterally, without first developing a consensus among members of the Anglican Communion. Completing the liturgical changes will require at least one additional triennial meeting of General Convention. Thus, any action General Convention takes implicitly, and even better explicitly, invites the rest of the Anglican Communion to enter into dialogue on subject of marriage. This topic, for very diverse reasons raises important questions not only in the United States, but also in Canada (same sex relationships), the United Kingdom (remarriage after divorce and same sex relationships), and Africa (polygamy). Provinces that have already separated themselves, de facto, from the Communion will predictably refuse to participate; recent moves by and messages from those provinces express their opinion that the Episcopal Church has already abandoned the faith. Confirming those provinces in their negative opinion will not cause any additional harm. The rest of the Communion, holding firmly to Anglican inclusivity and diversity, can profit from timely conversations about marriage from cultural, legal, and theological perspectives.

General Convention’s approval of the three initiatives will set the Episcopal Church firmly on a course of incarnating God’s love for all in a radically inclusive manner that emulates the one whom it calls Lord. These initiatives are the faithful and logical next step in the unfolding narrative of God’s grace. No alternative course will achieve the same result. This is the intended outcome, the one to which God has called us: to stand with God, in God’s name, for all of God’s people.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

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