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“Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something…”

I sat transfixed by my Twitter feed for the last two days. Trust me: that’s unusual. I was watching two historic votes unfold at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, where I really longed to be, but couldn’t.

Both votes concerned the same resolution: whether to approve the provisional use of a liturgical rite to bless the lifelong covenants of same-sex couples. It passed in both houses of the convention by wide margins and I was glad to see it happening “live” on my computer. (Here’s the report on that vote.)

I was grateful for that Twitter feed for another reason: I could see how those opposed to this resolution were responding. Their responses were not surprising, but they did remind me of the old English Victorian ditty about weddings, “something old, something new…”

The objections seemed to orbit around a deep concern that this resolution represented a “new” theology of marriage (even though the approved materials were not about marriage per se, nor is the approved liturgical rite a “wedding”; the materials were instead concerned with the “blessing of a lifelong covenant”).

One longtime objector to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church, a priest and a theologian, described this historic moment as “unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican, and unseemly.” Needless to say, I believe this moment is instead Biblical, Christian, Anglican, and not only seemly but holy. (Read his brief statement here.)

Testimony offered during General Convention 2012

I feel privileged to belong to a church where these divergent opinions are aired, debated, prayed over, and voted on. No one is compelled to agree with the final decision. All are welcome to stay. Indeed, LGBT people have stayed for many decades, even when their institutional church home appeared committed to excluding them.

A diverse Christian body (as St. Paul noted in at least two of his letters) is a healthy Christian body. And I believe we learn the best from those with whom we disagree. I’m grateful for the objections to Resolution A049 (which approved the same-sex blessing materials) because they have further honed my own theological thinking.

Here I’ll share just a few of many insights those objections have prompted, some of them old, some of them new…. (Full disclosure: I had the great privilege of contributing to those materials approved by the convention, so I write here as someone with a good bit of knowledge about the theological rationale.)

Something Old
One objector was very clear: this resolution will change the Christian theology of marriage. Really? Which theology is that? Choose one from among, oh, a dozen in Christian history so we can know what’s changing. Perhaps it’s St. Paul’s version (who believed that marriage was mostly a distraction from the more important work of ministry); or maybe it was Tertullian’s (who believed that Christian marriage was a counter-cultural critique of Rome’s patriarchal household); or maybe it was St. Augustine’s (who thought sex was a rather distasteful aspect of marriage and much preferred friendship). One might also want to mention the 13th century ecclesial statutes about how priests ought to treat their concubines…

There’s some good stuff and bad stuff in the Christian history of marriage theologies. Which will we choose and why? The materials approved at General Convention tried to present some good stuff for all of us to consider.

Something New
Biblical and historical material about committed, intimate relationships is remarkably varied. Those of us who labored over the materials for General Convention were committed to bringing those varied historical traditions to bear on an ostensibly “new” cultural situation: the loving, fruitful, and committed relationships of lesbian and gay couples.

This commitment is actually both new and old. Just ask African Americans about the history of marriage during slavery, or anti-miscegenation laws (forbidding “mixed-race marriages” which weren’t overturned until a 1967 Supreme Court decision). Or just ask women about the history of being treated legally as property by their husbands (that’s more modern than most people would care to realize).

The genius of Anglican Christianity resides in part in its ability to adjust and adapt to shifting cultural patterns while doing so with deep theological commitments. Asking the English reformers of the 16th century about all this would be wildly illuminating.

“New” is not synonymous with “bad” nor is it a cypher for “better.” We need deep and sustained theological reflection about change, and I believe the materials approved at General Convention provide the tools to do precisely that (and I can’t wait for their published form later this year so that we can start using all of this great stuff!).

Something Borrowed
Those of us who worked over the last 2.5 years to craft the materials for this General Convention were deeply committed to Scripture and Tradition. Like any other matter of concern for Christians, this is a challenge. How do we reflect theologically about new things in relation to old things?

We do so by borrowing from the spiritual inspiration of our ancestors. In this case, we did that by turning to the rich symbols and spiritually textured images of “covenant” in the biblical witness and historical traditions. The covenant God made with Noah, the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant God made with the people of Israel, the covenant God made in Christ.

God calls of us to reflect that grace of these covenantal moments in the relationships we form and nurture. Marriage can do that, so can a monastic vow, so can ordination, so can deep friendships, and so can the lifelong committed relationships of same-sex couples.

Yes, I realize that I have used a wedding ditty to organize my reflections here. While General Convention did not approve a “wedding” liturgy for provisional use, its approval of a blessing liturgy signals a vitally important conversation Christians in all denominations need to engage: Why do we Christians want to bless relationships in church? Why does this matter?

So here I’ll return to that ditty and note this: the task groups who created these materials rooted their work above all in the gracious covenant God made with humanity in Jesus Christ. That covenant is made visible in the sacrament of baptism, which evokes the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, the very source of our common life as Christians.

Hey! There it is! We can find the last bit of that Victorian wedding ditty in the waters of baptism…

“….something blue.”

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Divine Dignity for All — Married or Not

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (a federal court) just issued a theological statement on February 7. Christians might want to take note. This is what they said: “Proposition 8 [which stripped same-sex couples of their right to marry] serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.”

The phrase, “to lessen…human dignity” is the theological statement I have in mind. To be clear, I don’t mean that this is only a theological statement; it can easily be a completely secular, non-religious statement, too. But it is also a deeply theological one. Jews, Muslims, and Christians (among others, I imagine) readily claim that every human being is created in the “image and likeness” of God. Well, how much more dignity does anyone need than that? (My friend and colleague Susan Russell has a great post on her blog about human dignity, both religious and constitutional.)

Human dignity, in all its many forms and applications, seems in rather short supply these days. Do we really believe that people living on our streets without homes or food are treated with “human dignity”? Do we really believe that immigrants forced to clean our toilets and pick our fruit but are vulnerable to deportation at any minute are viewed with “human dignity”? Oh, the list goes on and on.

Here’s one more item on the dignity list: There are many people who (to use Christian language) exhibit the “fruits of the Spirit” in their lives but who do not feel called to marriage. In countless ways, these “unmarried” ones contribute to the mission and ministry of the Church and to the common good (remember that?) of our society. So, yes to the dignity of marriage for all; and yes to the dignity of those whose relationships just don’t fit that model but are precious gifts to the Church and to the wider society nonetheless.

It really is possible to keep insisting on the dignity of every human person and supporting the dignity of marriage at the same time. Let’s call it spiritual multi-tasking. To suppose we can only talk about one thing at a time is to relegate all those supposedly “secondary” concerns to, well, secondary status.

I recently floated more deliberately an idea that I hatched a year ago to put some of these observations into practice. I call it “Dalantine’s Day.” It’s my modest attempt to affirm that there are many different kinds of relationship from which we all benefit in countless ways and which don’t rely on romantic pair-bonding. The deep intimacy of close friendships, for example, or the affection among colleagues, or the activism of neighborhood groups, or single parents raising children, or children caring for elderly parents, or those particular moments of extending hospitality to a stranger, or relationships of care with non-human animals of all kinds.

All of those various relational configurations are actually lauded by biblical writers, but few would realize it by listening to the religious rhetoric on both the “right” and the “left” today. Both sides perpetuate the idea that the most dignified form of human relationship is marriage. How many churches, I wonder, celebrate any other kind of relationship in their liturgical lives and ritual practices?

We can do better. The peculiar faith of a peculiar gospel people can do much better. In my view, achieving same-sex marriage is a worthy, laudable, and completely Christian cause for celebration, because it’s about justice, fairness, equality, and of course, love. But if we don’t say something more, then we religious folks are falling far short of the standard that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set for us all yet again on February 7: human dignity.