The following, published last year in the Pacific Church News, is by way of response to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's terrible decision to veto the gay marriage bill in California yesterday.
A gentleman once asked Mark Twain, “Tell me, do you believe in infant baptism?” To which Twain replied, “Believe it? Why, I’ve seen it!” When asked if I believe in gay marriage, my response is the same. I’ve been married to another man for more than ten years, and I know scores of other same-sex couples who also have made a commitment to life-long fidelity and mutual care. Many of them, like us, are also raising children.
The question isn’t whether or not there is such a thing as gay marriage. The issue is whether the State will license such marriages and whether the Church will bless them. These are two separate questions that must be decided on the basis of different criteria. There is an important distinction to be made between civil and sacramental marriage.
Marriage in our society is a love relationship marked by personal choice and commitment. This love relationship creates a profound union between the spouses, an intense sharing in the whole of life. Marriage, as an intimate partnership, is formed by a covenant of mutual personal consent. A marriage is initiated when two people give themselves to each other in a free commitment to life-long love.
While marriage begins as a private, interpersonal act of self-giving, its consequences are public in nature. Married couples unite distinct family (and, frequently, cultural) systems, realign economic resources, and often choose to raise children. The community therefore has an interest in deciding whether and how to support married couples. Whose marriages should be legitimated by the wider community and why?
The State has largely limited regulation of marriage to concerns about insuring mutual consent and protecting public health. In 1967, when the United States Supreme Court voided anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia, the Court said: “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness. . . .” The Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that discrimination against same-sex couples’ access to civil marriage violates constitutional principles of individual liberty and equality.
Same-sex couples’ equal access to the obligations and benefits afforded by civil marriage is a simple matter of justice, consistent with the resolution of the Episcopal Church’s 65th General Convention affirming “. . . its conviction that homosexual persons be entitled to equal protection of the laws with all other citizens and [calling] upon our society to see that such protection is provided in actuality.” It is also consistent with our baptismal covenant to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
Justice and respect for human rights are the relevant criteria in determining whether or not the State should license same-sex couples’ marriages. The Church’s blessing of our marriages, however, raises additional questions. In blessing a marriage, the Church gives praise and thanks to God for the couple and invokes God’s favor upon their life together. In doing so, it recognizes in the couple’s self-giving love a sign of the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of God’s self-giving love for all creation revealed in Christ Jesus and made present by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christian marriage, therefore, is a further specification of one’s baptismal covenant to accept and imitate God’s self-giving love. Marriage isn’t a narrowing of love, a justification for not loving others. Rather, the particular love of one concrete individual provides an understanding of the sacrificial nature of love more generally. As the lover comes to love the beloved precisely for him or herself, and not as a projection or an illusion, the capacity to love others in this way deepens.
Christian marriage is a sacrament, a sign of God’s love and a means of grace whereby our own capacity for love is strengthened. Can the total sharing in life and love of same-sex couples open them to the depths of the Paschal Mystery, making their marriages sacramental signs of God’s self-giving love? This is the relevant criterion for determining whether the Church should bless their marriages. Do I believe that same-sex couples can meet this criterion? I’ve seen it.