On Marriage Equality

Thursday in All Saintstide
November 5, 2015

Dear Members and Friends of the Cathedral Community,

I will begin this letter by asking you to find a quiet and peaceful place for the reading of it. I am bold enough to ask for your undistracted attention for a few minutes because what I am sharing with you is important. (If you do not care to read what follows, you can skip to page four for the conclusion.)

Many of you know, but some will not, that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church made several decisions about individuals and their place in the sacramental life of this Church.  Far from hasty or popular-trend actions, these decisions are the result of careful and prayerful conversations that at least date to General Convention 1973.

So what decisions did General Convention make, you ask? Specifically, the Episcopal Church revised its Canons and marriage rites to include gay and lesbian couples in those jurisdictions of our Church where this is legal.  Please remember that The Episcopal Church includes some sixteen sovereign nations, not just the United States.

What does that mean in the Diocese of Michigan and for the Cathedral? Many, if not all, of you know that our bishop, the Right Reverend Wendell N. Gibbs, Jr., has been a leading proponent of marriage equality. Our bishop, in his wisdom recognizes that the people of this diocese will be of different minds on this matter, so upon his return he outlined to his clergy the policies and practices to be followed. I will not list them all here, but they include:

  • The expectation that all the Canons of the Church will be followed
  • No member of the clergy is required to preside at any marriage – this is not new in canon law
  • No deviation from the approved liturgies is allowed
  • If previously married in a civil ceremony, provision is made for the marriage to be blessed
  • In accordance with the actions of General Convention, these things become effective the First Sunday of Advent 2015
  • He took great care to state that the dishonoring of opposing viewpoints from either side of the conversation, including any form of harassment, would not be acceptable and should this happen he is to be informed

In his wisdom, our bishop also required the following: “For a priest to make use of these liturgies, the priest must be in conversation with their Vestry [in our case] and obtain their support for their use in the congregation.”

When I came to the Cathedral as your dean, I expected that I would be approached early on about the possibility of having a same-sex relationship blessed.  I already knew the Cathedral to be a rich and diverse place. Our leadership over the years has reflected that rich tapestry of diversity: women and men, dynamic and diverse in ethnic, sociological, and economic backgrounds and experiences, and in sexual orientation. Such a request would require the same conversation with the Vestry as well as their support.

Over my eight years as your dean, I have had lots of opportunities to discuss the topic with very faithful people – some profoundly hopeful that the Church would reach this day, and others profoundly concerned that it might reach this day.  In all of these conversations, there was never the request for such a blessing.

Now you can ask, rightly, why I chose not to pursue the conversation with the Vestry in advance of any such request? The matter at hand is one of sacramental equality, and speaks to our baptismal vow to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.  It has been my experience that community discussions and decisions on matters of equality, equality of all kinds, take place best when they are not in the abstract.

I have come to that place through reflection on my own journey, and through my experience in another matter of sacramental equality: the ordination of women.  One was almost instantly clear to me, a sort of “of course” matter when I thought of it; the other a longer journey.  The “of course” for me was the ordination of women. An experience I was blessed to be part of, the leading and journeying with a congregation that did not embrace that ordination to a place of profound embrace for women in Holy Orders, has shaped me profoundly. It all became much more authentic when there was a person in their midst, whom they experienced as a part of their daily shared journey, who was honoring the call to ordained ministry.

The journey, for me, of coming to a place of embracing the idea and the practice of same-sex marriage in the Church took longer, but in parts. It never made sense to me that government would, itself, maintain discriminatory practices on how people domiciled, or passed assets from one partner to another and so on. If the goal of government is to enhance the common good and foster stability in community, then that discrimination did not help. From a governmental practice standpoint, the system was broken. It discriminated against individuals in ways both unfair and burdensome.

My coming to a place of seeing this fit in the Church was longer coming. Holy Matrimony has, for more than two thousand years, been understood as a blessed union between a man and a woman. In my deeply Anglican theological heart, how can I reconcile this with scripture, tradition, and reason?

What follows is all wrapped in reason, as were my thoughts on government. I will explore some issues with tradition, in what follows.  For almost all of the Judeo-Christian timeframe, marriage was seen as a property matter. It still is in some parts of the world. The bulk of the Ten Commandments are about property. In the Roman Empire, they gave not one wit about religious rites. Marriage contracts were just that, contracts that contained an exchange of property with compensation and consideration, and the property was the woman.  Even the word matrimony bespeaks that, for it really means “mother making.” Women are not property. Period. I get that. You get that.

Tradition, sacred as well as secular, has long structured itself to foster relationships between men and women. It was integral with survival because procreation was integral to survival.  But only in the past hundred and fifty to two hundred years has there been an understanding that women were a different sex than men.  To that point, women were considered biologically underdeveloped men.  That “recent” change on the continuum of history we accept as the way it has always been, but this “new” understanding was not instantly embraced, yet it represents a landmark in movement away from women as property.  We see this echoed in the even more recent understanding that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice.  God wonderfully allows us to continue to bask in the blessings of deeper and deeper understanding, but none of us should be surprised by the changes and challenges they present, after all, none of us makes something out of nothing and people out of dust.

Because none of you signed on to read a tome, I will move on to finding my peace with Scripture. Our tradition has long considered Scripture far too important to take literally. God’s revelation, whether through the prophets directly to a people in a specific time and setting, or through the longer life of Holy Writ, requires thought and reflection, and thus interpretation.  Jesus, on plenty of occasions asked reflexively, “what does this mean?” It is a question addressed every generation.

Slavery was normative throughout the course of both Old and New Testaments.  For us, today, that practice is about as un-Godly a thing as we can possibly imagine.  In my lifetime, we have reconciled that relationship grace can return to our lives even after human brokenness eroded a prior marriage, and that God’s hand is in it.  In the places in Scripture that it seems to speak harshly of same-sex encounters, I have been challenged to closer examination, asking how did the original audience hear this?  Always, ancient property codes come into play, as do other norms of their day that would make no sense to us today (e.g. the previous observations on two different sexes).  Turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile are other such examples.

Romans 1 is often used as a sword against any expanded understanding of human relationships. In a close reading, how can Paul, a learned rabbi, possibly mean what is often imputed to him? Further, how could he possibly mean that; then go on to write what he has written in Romans 13:8-10.

Now, I have built this conversation in, what I hope has been a reasoned and structured approach.  I hope it has been useful to some of you. Some will not have needed it. Others will find it completely unhelpful or useless. My door is open to all.

Remember I said that conversations on such matters are best not abstract?  All of this is my pastoral attempt to share with each of you some of what I shared with our vestry in its meetings of September and October, because…. Just after General Convention closed, my phone rang.  William and Robert had just gotten their Michigan Marriage license and wanted to be married. They have been together for over thirty-five years. Bill, in particular, had a long history of the Cathedral as his church home. He was also in poor health, as he has been for a decade or more. In short, I knew I could not do anything until at least Advent I, but they were honored to be the couple at the heart of this conversation.  Bill’s health was getting worse, in July when he came to mass, few would have known he had a feeding tube under his shirt and tie.

I counseled Bill and Rob to consider getting married civilly so legal structures were in place. We would begin to move forward in order that we could bless the marriage soon after Advent I, and I held my breath due to Bill’s health.  I was glad they took my counsel to heart. They were together faithfully for thirty-five years. They were married by a judge on August 7. Bill died August 22.

At the October 2015 meeting of the Cathedral Vestry, they offered their overwhelming, but not unanimous, support to the clergy of the Cathedral to use the liturgies put forth by General Convention.  The conversations over the course of two meetings were a witness to God’s grace, and reflected honestly the Cathedral community. We were not all of one mind, but the room was overflowing with profound respect on all sides.

As we move forward, here is my final thought for you. Nothing that has taken place, at General Convention or at the Cathedral has done anything to detract from the honor Scripture affords a man and a woman in a blessing. It does echo the words of the prophet Isaiah, that the kingdom of God is big enough for anyone who loves the name of the Lord.

Thank you for your time and prayerful listening.

Your Dean and your brother,