Sunday, March 18, 2012

Spring House of Bishops, Day 2

Same morning routine as yesterday. The retreat-style meditation (in name only, it was actually a sermon) was by Michael Curry, Bishop of North Carolina. His topic was the vow that bishop's take to "proclaim the gospel." Put bluntly, the man can preach. It made me wonder why I even attempt to do so, except that I know it to be my calling. But ... wow. As with yesterday, we had about 75 minutes on our own for prayer and reflection, then gathered at our tables to continue to process the subject. I am actually finding this pattern to be quite welcome, especially in the wake of the extremely content-heavy agendas of the last two meetings.

Lunch was with the group of Communion Partner bishops. Ten were in the room--diocesans, retired, and suffragans--with three more who would have been there but for other commitments. We now form the "right wing" of the HoB, though, in times past, most would have been labeled "moderate conservatives." The center of gravity has shifted. We did some organizing and broad stroke strategizing in anticipation of this summer's General Convention. There is no path to "victory" of any sort, so it's all about the most faithful and effective way to simply bear witness. This is actually kind of liberating. And we are aware of a need to exercise more visible pastoral leadership as a group on behalf of those who will find the actions of that convention cause for consternation.

The agenda for the afternoon was a report from five bishops who have been involved in the development of a rite for the blessing of same-sex relationships, with accompanying supporting materials. There was actually a read-through of the liturgy, with two bishops taking the lines of those committing themselves to one another. After a few "clarifying questions" in plenary (some of which did not actually meet that description), we had a period of discussion at our tables, and then were sent to breakout rooms where larger groups (about three tables worth) engaged in Indaba-style dialogue.

No one should be surprised that I am among those opposed to the entire project, on principle. I will vote against it, whatever form the rite takes in the end. For that reason, I'm not in a position to offer feedback on its details, fine-tuning language, etc. So I have the luxury of observing, as it were, from a distance. And what I see is a developing struggle between hard-core ideological liberals for whom anything but "full marriage equality" will still be a denial of justice, and institutional liberals who would like there to be some authorized rite for same-sex blessings but are not really interested in it looking anything like marriage. The rite that is being proposed is, in my estimation, marriage by another name, despite the protestations of its authors that it's simply a "blessing" liturgy. It's doesn't use the word "marriage," but it borrows heavily from the vocabulary and structure of the marriage liturgy. And can anyone question what the headline will be in the secular media the day after we pass the authorizing resolution?

The silver lining in all this is that the proposal is for this rite to be new resource entitled Liturgical Resources One--that is, not appended to any currently extant liturgical book, thus placing it under the authority of the Bishop Diocesan as to whether it may be used.

In the evening, eleven of the twelve bishops (one being "under the weather") of the Class of 2011 (those elected during 2010) journeyed up to College Station for dinner at a Tex-Mex restaurant. Very, very nice.


Anonymous said...

I am so relieved that they are starting this as "permissive". As Yogi Berra said, "deja vu all over again."

Sarah Dylan Breuer said...

When my the covenant between Karen (my partner) and me was blessed, we had the service in our home parish and then flew to Toronto for our "honeymoon" to get married (that was in a United Church of Canada building and with a presider from that denomination; we would have got married at city hall, except that the only time we coud travel there was around Canadian Thanksgiving). That was the clearest way we could think of to satisfy our bishop's direction that it be very clear that the service in our parish was NOT the performance of a marriage or blessing of a marriage contract.

But it's quite difficult, if same-sex couples may be blessed at all, to figure out what, if anything, ought to be radically different in the liturgy. One priest friend objected that the vows we used were too close to those of marriage. When I asked her what we should promise to do differently -- eliminate a commitment to fidelity? say we can call the whole thing off if the "richer/poorer" or "sickness/health" thing makes it difficult? -- she couldn't think of what to change. So what we did:

a) We used the Form of Commitment to Christian Service, with readings and language in the liturgy selected around a theology that our forming a household together was, in effect, intended as a kind of very small monastic order in which our life together is a pattern of prayer and discipleship to enable us to live out more fully our Christian vocation.

b) We made the vows more demanding than those in the marriage service by including the element of supporting one another in our Christian vocation and discipleship; and

c) We never suggested that what we were doing was blessed because Jesus went to a wedding once. We did refer to Genesis' teaching that "it is not good for the human being to be alone," but didn't talk about leaving parents to merge with one another (which doesn't seem all that relevant for most couples these days, and also to me seems to contradict Jesus' habit of calling women and men to leave their parents and villages and follow him without marriage having anything to do with it.

That's a sloppy and rambling version of my recollections.

But really, I know you oppose the whole project, but if you could dictate the vows, for example, that a same-sex couple were to take, on what substantial points would they differ from what is required of heterosexual couples in marriage, (other than that you'd want the same-sex couple to commit to celibacy, I'm guessing)? I'm thinking about points such as that, for example, if there ARE children in the household, it seems better to me to have the adult heads of household vow to be good parents to them, even if you think children would be better off in a household headed by a heterosexual couple.

Do you see what I mean?

It was this sort of thinking that got Lew Smedes to say that blessing same-sex couples seeking to like faithfully as a couple is better than any alternatives he could think of.

I don't intend any of this to argue with you, but to hear your thoughts as to whether, perhaps in a truly private set of prayers (say, just the couple, any children in the household, and their pastor), there's anything they could promise to do in their life together that you would feel good about asking God to bless -- and, if so, what those things would be.

Bishop Daniel Martins said...

Dylan, you ask serious questions that deserve serious answers, and I'm not sure I have them to give. I have a myriad of conflicting thoughts. At one level, I find the argument put forward by some--both the "hard left" and even a few on the "soft left"--that full-on marriage for same-sex partners is a whole lot more coherent theologically than any sort of "blessing" that is explicitly NOT marriage. I am definitely not in the "it must not look like marriage" crowd.

But having said that, I'm still light years away from being persuaded that two persons of the same sex are appropriate ministers of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. To deem them so would not be to extend the "right" of a sacrament/social institution to those who are presently denied it; it would be to redefine the sacrament/societal institution, to change its inherent character. It may be arguable that we need to do that, but the conversation is not happening in that paradigm.

Which leads back to your question about the pastoral care of real people in real relationships--people like Dylan and Karen. My instinct is to want to bend over backward to be as generous as I can possibly be without crossing any lines that I do not believe myself to have leave to cross--whether as a bishop, or just a baptized Christian. Invoking God's *blessing* on a relationship that purports to mirror or imitate marriage would be crossing that line, whether such blessing was in public or in private.

Please note, in this context, that I hold a notion of "sin" that is--I think, if I am not being too self-congratulatory--somewhat nuanced. Hamartia denotes not evil as such, with all the implications of "nastiness" and "provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation", but "falling short", not hitting the target. The "target" for the ordering of human sexual desire is, I believe, marriage with an opposite-sex partner. For various reasons, most of which I will not pretend to even know, let alone understand, most of us are not able to meet that target, and for some people because their sexual desires are oriented generically toward persons of the same sex. If it did not sound condescending, I would say that I feel compassion toward such persons, and have no desire to be either "preachy" or judgmental.

So... what I believe I *could* do, in private, would be to "commend" the two partners to God's providential love in prayer, and ask that God would lead them ever deeper into the mystery of His love, and give them the grace to follow Jesus as faithful disciples in every aspect of their lives--in the world, as part of the church, and at home together. It gives me no joy that people whom I respect and care about would find this inadequate, or even insulting. But there is perhaps no greater sin than violating one's conscience, and thus is my conscience formed.