Blogging “Blue”: Same-sex blessings

This is a twelfth in a series of posts on the “Blue” Book for General Convention 2012. Previously, I blogged about Music (SCLM). Next up is Holy Women, Holy Men (SCLM). Please see my index of General Convention 2012 resolutions, with a summary of the 7WD position on them.

ringsI begin with brief comments about the resolutions, followed by more extensive comments about some concerns I have with the liturgy for same-sex blessings. While I am grateful for the SCLM and the work they do, I fear they have been pulled in too many directions this triennium, so they have not been able to do their best work.

A049: Authorize Liturgical Resources for Blessing Same-Gender Relationships. Likely vote: YES, but with reservations about the quality of the rite.
This resolution would authorize a rite for same-sex (incorrectly called same-gender in the resolution) blessings, along with other material. As with all trial use liturgies, their authorization for use within particular dioceses will depend on the approval of the diocesan bishop. Because I do not want my lesbian and gay friends to have to wait longer for the church’s blessing, I will vote for this. But I hope the trial use liturgy will be scrapped and another, better version presented for use at the next General Convention in 2015.

A050: Create Task Force on the Study of Marriage. Likely vote: YES.
We certainly need a study of our theology of marriage, for both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. In fact, I think we might well need some revision to the liturgy that is offered in our prayer book, and I’d like to ensure that this study group is authorized, should they deem it appropriate, to bring these revisions to the next General Convention.

The simple fact is that marriage, as a sacrament, has been under constant evolution for the few thousand years. There simply is no single, monolithic, timeless pattern for Christian marriage, as some would claim. To say this is to ignore history. In the last few decades, as society has shifted, so has the practice of marriage, and not just in the pressure to allow same-sex marriages. Our current liturgy asserts that the most important aspect of marriage “is intended by God for their mutual joy.” The “generative” aspect of marriage is tertiary, and even then is conditional.

This study need not take decades. In my view, a study group could come to the next General Convention in 2015 with a revised marriage liturgy, provided that sufficient teaching and work had been done in the triennium.

Concerns about the proposed same-sex blessing liturgy

I am grateful to be part of a church that recognizes God’s call to ordained ministry in the lives of people without regard to sexual orientation, and I am proud to be in a church that is on the verge of authorizing trial-use liturgies for blessing same-sex relationships. If the blessing liturgy in the “Blue” Book comes up for a vote as is, I will certainly vote for it. However, I am disappointed by much of what I will vote to support. My qualms are not with the intention of the text, but with the text itself.

To begin with, this rite closely resembles the marriage service from the prayer book in many ways. If the goal were to effect same-sex marriages, this would make sense. But it seems to be that the better model for this service would have been the blessing of a civil marriage service from the prayer book. Many people who attend this service will believe they have witnessed a marriage, not a blessing. I do not think it is right to confuse people needlessly in our liturgies.

To be clear, I believe that the church should eventually offer the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. However, I think that we need to first clarify our theology of marriage — for all people — before we proceed with this (A050 will help get us there). Our current marriage liturgy would need revision to be used for same-sex couples, and I think it may need revision for use for all people.

I say all this as a preface to my belief that what we are able to do now as a church is bless same-sex relationships (including state-performed marriages). And in the spirit of clarity, I think we need to be clear that the church is blessing an existing relationship (marriage, civil partnership, or neither), rather than effect a marriage or a new covenant. My sacramental theology is dusty, but I think the language of covenant as it is used in this liturgy and in these materials is confusing.

Same-sex couples should not need to wait while the church gets its act together, nor should they be punished by the failure of a standing commission to do the thing it was asked to do. So for that reason, I will vote for these trial-use liturgies. But we have work to do! This work will benefit all couples, same-sex or opposite-sex and, indeed, the whole church.

Rather than write a book here, I will simply provide some quick points with what I consider to be some of the deficiencies beyond my sense that the function of this liturgy is unclear at best. This is not an exhaustive list. Some samples:

First off, we should be looking at a choice of rites. The SCLM was asked to produced liturgical resources (plural), not a liturgy (singular). Or at least that’s how I read their brief.

I object to the use of the term same-gender. Gender is the social construction of sexual difference. It’s been a few years since I read much gender theory, but my understanding is that most gender theorists would say that two women will have different expressions of gender, while their sex will be the same. In other words, there is almost never going to be a couple in which both persons are of the same gender. However, two women or two men are same-sex couples. (And then there are people born with sex other than “male” or “female” but we will leave that to another blog post)

When I asked about this in our provincial orientation, the SCLM person told us that people are squeamish about the word “sex” and so they thought they should use “gender” because the resolution would seem less scary “in some parts of the country.” I am only slightly paraphrasing what he said. So, right there, we are letting our life be dominated by fear again. Why are we letting some perceived cultural taboo about the word “sex” cause us to not call these blessings what they are?

There is also the argument that “General Convention told us to work on ‘same-gender’ relationships, so we have to use that language.” Really? If General Convention told you to jump off a cliff, would you? Could the commission not have said, “You told us to call these x, but we think they should be called y”? Why continue error, when we know how to fix it?

At a time when we desperately need honesty and clarity around issues of sexuality, I think the words we use matter a lot. That’s why I will call these rites what they are: same-sex blessings.

The language is not beautiful. One of the stated goals of this liturgy was to have language with durability and beauty. Alas, we have not met that goal. At the role-play liturgy I witnessed, the participants could not read the lines; the prose does not flow smoothly when read aloud. I cannot claim to be able to write good liturgy, so I know it is difficult. I also suspect that great prose is rarely produced in committee. You can almost see the committee at work throughout the liturgy. “Let’s get that point in here. OK, but then let’s make this point.” And so on. Let’s find a genius of beautiful prose, who is steeped in the scriptures and in our liturgical tradition, and turn that person loose on the next draft. We do not want a “separate but equal” situation where opposite-sex couples are being married with lovely prose and same-sex couples are getting married/blessed with clunky prose.

Let’s respect our current prayer book. The liturgy purports to replace the Ministry of the Word in Rite II or in EOW. However, the quoted example from Rite II includes this response to the Opening Acclamation: “And blessed be God’s kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.” That is not what our prayer books says. While I would probably vote to amend our prayer book to change the male pronoun “his” to the neutral “God’s”, we have not done this. Also, why are the penitential acclamations not given as examples?

The structure of the (confusing) liturgy is confusing. The consent questions are mixed in with the vows. Why? Then there is “Commitment” with rings. The whole thing is not easy to sort out, at least for this priest.

Here’s another example. In the prayer book marriage service, the congregation is asked, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” It is a great moment, and I often mention it in my sermon at weddings. Here is the parallel question in the same-sex blessing liturgy, “Will all of you here gathered uphold and honor this couple and respect the covenant they make?” That’s a far cry from “all in your power.” Because of that, there is a second question, “Will you pray for them in times of trouble and celebrate with them in times of joy?” It is inelegant and seems redundant to have two questions. Why not follow the pattern in marriages, ordinations, baptisms, and other occasions and ask one, powerful, beautiful question?

The declaration of intention is problematic. In the mention of children, it says, “if it may be.” Why not, “if it is God’s will”? Fatalism is a grave problem in our culture (“it is is meant to be, it is meant to be”) so we should instead use the language of our liturgical heritage and of the scriptures. Talking about “God’s will” leaves plenty of maneuvering room. In a Christian liturgy, surely we need not avoid mentioning God’s sovereign power?

There are too many resources to be approved in this resolution. This resolution includes a paper about the covenantal basis for this liturgy, along with pastoral preparation to be used by the officiating clergy. General Convention should not approve marriage or covenant or blessing preparation materials. I’m grateful the SCLM created an excellent resources, but they should simply be published by Church Publishing or another publisher. Liturgies must be authorized by General Convention. Why “authorize” papers or pastoral resources? If the point is that General Convention is being asked to endorse the concept or the theology of same-sex blessings, we can surely do that without inscribing lengthy papers and thorough pastoral resources into legislative action.

Beyond exceeding the necessary mandate of General Convention, we simply don’t have time to do a thorough or accurate job here. We have enough trouble getting, say, the lectionary right. Let’s not take on an extra 50 pages of prose that, if included in this resolution’s scope, would now be beyond correction, improvement, or editing. I’d like us to be able to improve the pastoral resources without recourse to General Convention. Surely the goal here could be met by General Convention endorsing the use of resources for same-sex blessing preparation without including the resources in our authorized material.

If it is desirable to bundle these materials together, then surely they could be published in one volume with a note explaining which portions are authorized by General Convention, and which parts have been created to facilitate the use of the authorized trial use liturgy.

One more time, lest I be accused of resisting same-sex blessings. I am 100% on board with the Episcopal Church authorizing trial use same-sex blessings and, in due course, with the Episcopal Church authorizing same-sex blessings and marriages in the main corpus of our liturgical life. My concerns as expressed here are with what I perceive to be inadequate liturgical resources. What we are doing is too holy and important to offer anything less than our very best.

Finally, on a parenthetical note, these resources should be freely available to the church. After General Convention, if you want to buy a paper copy of these materials, that will cost money. Printing, warehousing, and shipping are not free. However, these resources should be available for free download from the SCLM website, for the entire duration they are authorized for trial use. No publisher should profit from resources that have been wholly funded by General Convention. The members of the Episcopal Church have already paid for these resources in our churchwide budget.

10 Comments so far

  1. Grace Matthews on June 7th, 2012

    Your comments are well thought out and I agree with all that you have written. Does anyone “higher up” in the church read your in depth comments?

  2. John L Myers on June 7th, 2012

    Agreed, particularly on the order of the ceremony of the rings. This is acutely confusing to the congregation who is used to a rubric of A, then B, then C. I see massive confusion with a liturgy then of A, then D, and sometimes Y and W. Why have such a glaring difference if – as you point out – the congregation is witness to a Marriage?

    My question (to the Communion and to the wall of my office) is: why must this liturgy be so strangely different that it (possibly) leaves the participants with a feeling of “still, even today, not quite Good Enough” through all these semantic convolutions and re-routing?

    “Will you here present do all within your power to support and protect….” etc.

    Should we not also ask (and expect) the same from the general convention? I would rather the centerpiece of my life *not* be celebrated with something that sounds even too stumbling and difficult for archiving in the back of the Book of Occasional Services.

    The spirit of the resolution to continue down this path is correct and well intended. If “first to market” is our church’s goal with this liturgy, let us not become overwhelmed with (pardon) special rites which (may) serve as a public reminder to all present of the differentness of “my” marriage vs. “yours.”

    Keep the faith!

  3. Melody on June 7th, 2012

    I have many of the same concerns as you do Scott, about the inelegant language, the confusing nature of the liturgy, and the question of whether this is, in fact, a marriage, or is more akin to the blessing of a civil union. None of that seems clear, in spite of the many pages dedicated to this work and the commentary on it.

    But I think that it all boils down to two things.

    1. We need to be having conversations on what we believe before designing liturgy, and the conversation about marriage and our understanding and theology of marriage (same sex and different sex) needed to happen FIRST. It would, rightly, need to inform and influence any liturgy of our church, be it for a new same-sex marriage/blessing/union or our existing different-sex marriage/blessing/union.

    2. Separate but equal is always separate, but rarely equal. If we are serious about blessing same-sex unions just as we bless different sex-unions (and I hope we are), then let’s do that. Let’s take the beautiful, traditional liturgies already existing in our church (Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage and Blessing of a Civil Union in our Book of Common Prayer) and let’s carefully, thoughtfully and WITH RESTRAINT edit them to a) fit our understanding and theology of marriage and b) be usable for opposite sex OR same sex couples, so that we can offer to everyone a truly equal rite.

  4. Don Collins Reed on June 8th, 2012

    Two things:

    1. Do you have a bullet point summary (like a check-list) of the amendments you’d suggest (including removing the resources other than the trial liturgy from the resolution)? (I assume you’re thinking that, though the SCLM was charged to prepare resources, it can fulfill its charge without asking for formal adoption of all resources by legislative action.)

    2. Does the current BCP liturgy have two separate (performative) acts, one of civil marriage by a member of the clergy licensed by the state to perform the [legal] marriage (BCP 427-430) and another of ecclesial blessing of the relationship (BCP 430-431) — the latter being the sacrament — placed within the context of a larger liturgy? Is the function of the trial liturgy is to provide an appropriate larger liturgy including the latter act for all dioceses where it might be approved and the former act for possible approval in dioceses where civil union or marriage is possible?)

  5. Martha Berger on June 9th, 2012

    The World Health Organization has a clear, succinct description of sex v gender at http://www.who.int/gender/whatisgender/en/.

    Perhaps it’s all about the eyes of the beholder, but the blessing rite, as role played at the Province V gathering, was quite elegant, in my opinion. Yes, very much akin to the marriage rite or blessing of a civil union, but so much more beautiful than what has been available to this point.

    I think that if it leaves the feeling of “still not good enough” it is because it “still is not marriage.”

  6. Ginny Rodriguez on June 9th, 2012

    Dear Fr. Scott, Would you please give examples of the evolution of Christian marriage that you speak of?
    It seems there is a sort of drift in thinking about marriage toward an attitude of whatever anyone thinks is OK is really OK.
    Not every living arrangement defines marriage.
    It would be kinder not to promote or not to bless a living arrangement that is not marriage.
    The Bible depicts a variety of forms of marriage. Homosexual marriage is not one of those forms. So, the GC committee is trying to develop language to establish a new definition, though hardly a new form of co-habitation. Why is that do you think?

  7. Fr Everett on June 10th, 2012

    I appreciate your blog and I appreciate your critique about the language lacking beauty. I find that SCLM has failed to produce “new liturgies” that have the beauty found in the Prayer Book. I find most of what we produce to be functional and written for seminarians rather than worship in a community. There are some aspects of EOW that I like but they are few and far between.

  8. Ruth Meyers on June 12th, 2012

    Resolution A049 asks convention to do two different things with the proposed resource – “commend” the entire resource for study and use, and “authorize” the liturgy for trial use. The distinction between “commend” and “authorize” is deliberate.

    The resolution also calls for an open process for review, with a report to the 2015 convention. If the resolution is approved, I expect that the commission will design a process that enables it to gather feedback and revise the resource.

  9. Scott Gunn on June 19th, 2012

    Ruth, thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the difference. However, if they are published together in one volume, all the materials will look “authorized” to most people.

    I’d like to see the liturgy itself published as a liturgy, and the other resources published separately. That would, among other things, make it clearer to everyone that one can use the liturgy (if approved by one’s bishop) without using the pastoral resources prepared by SCLM. Some clergy might have other resources for preparing couples that they would prefer to use.

    So far I have not seen much change to liturgical resources based on feedback from us regular folks. It would be helpful to know that, for realz, things will change based on feedback. My experience — which may completely not reflect reality of any kind — is that these liturgies are created by “experts” who politely listen to whatever is said and then continue to advocate the original thing. I would love to be corrected about this, as a distorted impression.

    Finally, I wonder if we’ll find out why the blessing liturgy so closely resembles the marriage liturgy rather than the blessing of a civil marriage. ???

    Thanks for reading. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I”m grateful for this conversation. Wish we were having it in person — I guess that’s coming soon!

  10. Ruth Meyers on June 20th, 2012

    Thanks for your question about feedback. The commission completed a first draft of the liturgy in June 2011. We circulated it to about 130 consultants, and the committee revised the liturgy substantially based on the feedback from those consultants. If something like resolution A049 is adopted, authorizing the liturgy and calling for a review and report, I expect there will be some revisions.