Monday, October 23, 2006

Connecticut Bishop OKs Same-Sex Blessings

The New York Times reports that Bishop Andrew Smith has authorized the blessing of same-sex unions in his diocese. However, clergy there still are forbidden to preside at civil union ceremonies. In other words, there is a clear separation of Church and State being invoked in the case of same-sex couples: the legal contract is the business of the State, while the blessing of the relationship is the appropriate role for the Church. No such distinction is being enforced in the Diocese of Connecticut with respect to heterosexual marriage.

This has been my own stance as a priest: I will bless monogamous, life-long relationships of fidelity and mutuality but I will not sign a marriage license. This isn't a particularly courageous stance on my part, as I serve a largely gay and lesbian congregation whose members do not enjoy access to the civil institution of marriage. Unlike some congregations, we are not a "wedding factory" dependent upon the revenue provided by renting out our priest and sanctuary to qualified customers. So, this has been an easy step for me to take.

I'd be curious to hear how others feel about this issue. What are the respective roles of Church and State with respect to marriage? Are civil and sacramental marriage the same thing? Does it make a difference whether the couple is gay or straight?


R said...


Are civil and sacramental marriage the same thing?

That's a tough one, and maybe it's a question that points to one of the inscrutable mysteries of relationships.

I am convinced that the sacrament in marriage/union is fulfilled ultimately by the couple and God. All we can do in the Church is recognize and bless it -- and name it as sacrament: that is, a witness and sign of God's grace in our midst.

Too often, our language distorts this understanding. I don't believe priests "perform" marriages. The real action resides in the couple. We can only celebrate that and ask the community to support and uphold the new thing God has done.

Can a civil marriage be sacramental? I would argue yes, by God's grace. The only thing about a civil ceremony is that it will not likely articulate the sacramentality of the union in a public way or intentionally bless it. In this way, practically speaking, the state has a much more narrow, legal view of the union than the Church might or should.

Put another way: it might be possible for couples who have undertaken a civil marriage/union to still have a sacramental union without the church's involvement. I have to assume God is present with or without the church's hand in all of this.

But it would also be possible for that couple simply to enter a legal arrangement for the sake of benefits, and never engage in the richness of a sacramental union. . .I guess we used to call that a "marriage of convenience."

Of course, this happens sometimes even when the church blesses a marriage. Like any sacrament, we can presuppose God's grace, but whether or not it will be embraced by those to whom it is offered is quite another question. . .which leads to a good reason why any union/marriage is a matter of discernment for the couple in consultation with others.

In short, the State's role is much clearer, cut and dried in making a legal contract. The Church's is messier, involves community blessing and support, as well as a process of discernment to help the couple identify the grace they have received and God's involvement.

All-in-all, I like your approach and (as we've talked about before) the ethic of parity, which I hope will ultimately come for both same-sex and heterosexual unions. It seems the situation in Connecticut is still two-tier, as it remains to some degree here in California.

To my mind, when blessing unions, we are talking about celebrating two adult Christians who see Christ in each other, and their unique sacramental commitment and emotional/spiritual/physical bond is a sacramental sign of the greater bond between Christ and the Church, God and humanity, Spirit and Creation. It strikes me that gender matters little in that theological context.

Not too pedantic, I hope. . .

janinsanfran said...

John, as you know this parishioner approves your stance.

The whole question of marriage is weighted with baggage that the visible presence of gay couples blows into public view. Maybe we come out partly to help our society disengage from some pretty nasty customs.

In a general way, as a feminist, I'm not much of a fan of the civil "institution of marriage" -- the historic mechanism by which women were passed from the governance of their fathers to the governance of their husbands in order to produce children of known lineage. All, in the wealthier classes, to facilitate the orderly transfer of property between the generations.

Obviously we aren't there anymore, but we were as recently as the early days of my parents' (happy, long) marriage so I can't quite shake my distaste for the whole thing. And as a hangover from that definition of marriage, we have a lot of civil definitions hung around marriage -- tax privileges, sometimes health benefits, even membership discounts. None of those things should depend on whether a couple can form a durable pair bond, for goodness sake!

As a New Jersey court said today: "the unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated ..." Good for them.

I can't see the slightest reason why priests should have a role in the civil institution of marriage. It is a rat's nest requiring profound redefinition. Part of that redefinition will be getting the Church out of it.

Now,as to marriage before God -- since gay folks haven't had access to rites, we've made our own markings of commitment and mutual blessing within couples. I have to believe She was there with us -- we were in Her -- or whatever. Public ceremonies are a very new possibility and very healthy, it seems to me, as opportunities for couples to ask their communities' blessing on their unions. We live the knowledge of God in community, whether we like it or not. It is good for us to have a chance to like it.

So it will be nice when blessing ceremonies for queers become commonplace -- but I don't think we've been going without them so much as of necessity finding other forms of marking whatever is real, of God, in "marriage."