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Friday, March 12, 2004

Tomorrow's prophetic Episcopalians?

Could it be that the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts will really adopt a resolution at their convention tomorrow that says:

Resolved, that this Special Convention of the Diocese of Massachusetts join with its Bishops in affirming its commitment to civil rights by recording its support of the Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court's holding in Goodridge v The Department of Public Health, that to deny same-sex couples the right of civil marriage is unconstitutional in this Commonwealth . . .

Such a resolution — from one of the two largest Protestant denominations in the state — couldn't come at a better time. But I hope the delegates spend a little time refining the resolution. They should especially amend the resolution's explanatory section to be a bit less triumphalistic. [Clarification 3.14.04: I should have noticed that the passages I raise concerns about below are all confined to what is basically a separate document — the explanation offered to the delegates in support of the resolution by its sponsors. The resolution itself is great, and as adopted by the convention doesn't include any of the passages that concerned me. So here's my discussion of what's wrong with the explanation:] It starts out well:

As Christian people, we are mandated to stand for justice in our common civic life, and we vow in our baptismal covenant to "strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being." The status of legal marriage confers on those who freely accept its commitments and responsibilities substantial legal and economic benefits. Therefore, as Christians we are called to extend these rights to our gay and lesbian citizens.

I'd think they'd want to insert at least a comment or two about the public good that results from enabling people to take on the commitments and responsibilities of marriage before they suggest that "as Christians we are called to extend these rights." I agree that the cause of dignity is one good reason to extend the rights of marriage to all couples who want to take on that responsibility, but the church should be advocating for more than the "substantial legal and economic benefits" of marriage and the dignity that flows from legal recognition; the church should also emphasize the civic good that results from strengthening and supporting stable relationships and families. Go ahead: Make the conservative case for same-sex civil marriage.

The resolution goes astray in its next passage:

Scriptural condemnations of homosexual acts emerge from a society ignorant of the realities of sexual orientation. Contemporary scientific findings support our modern understanding that sexual orientation is fixed. To deny gay and lesbian couples full equality under the law on the basis of their genetic destiny does not fulfill the Scriptural mandate to seek justice and to love mercy.

Oh, come on. Setting up a contrast between "ignorant" biblicism vs. "contemporary scientific findings" is the wrong way for a mainline denomination to try to bring some moral clarity to the debate. This is where the resolution gets unnecessarily triumphalistic. It's almost a tautology to say that "contemporary scientific findings support our modern understanding that sexual orientation is fixed." When Christians talk about "genetic destiny" rather than, say, personal discernment or the diversity of the gifts of grace, I think they're turning into bad Unitarians. Seeing the good in gay and lesbian relationships isn't rooted in recognizing that they're genetically predisposed; it's rooted in seeing that certain forms of those relationships demonstrate the grace of love, creativity, and civic virtue. A lot of things may be "genetic destiny" that we happily restrain or even ban.

And rather than over-historicize the biblical texts — those old-fashioned, benighted biblical people with their primitive, completely wrong ideas! — wouldn't it be much better to start with Jesus' example and teaching? Wouldn't it be more effective (and truer to the gospel) to emphasize how the living witness of scripture in the life of the church today enables us to see past our own cultural boundaries? Strangely, there is no mention of Jesus' example or teaching in the explanatory section of the resolution. My friends, the Bible is on the side of justice; go on, let people know that.

Finally, the resolution says:

The Anglican Church has a proud and compassionate tradition of reforming our understanding of sacramental inclusivity. We now commonly welcome infants and children to receive the Eucharist before they are confirmed. We now welcome divorced persons to remarry in the Church. We now ordain women to the priesthood and we have recently consecrated our first openly gay bishop.

Since I'm not an Episcopalian, I'm tempted to keep out of this — but if the church is expressing its support for a ruling by the secular courts regarding a purely civil act, why bring up the question of "sacramental inclusivity" unless you are simultaneously trying to push the church to celebrate same-sex weddings? Don't get me wrong: I think the church needs to be thinking about this prospect, but tomorrow's vote could be more successful if the church could keep its eyes on the task at hand — which is specific to Massachusetts and to the civil-marriage statutes.

Sometimes, pushing the envelope is most effective if you focus on one thing at a time. I hope to be able to report tomorrow evening that the Diocese of Massachusetts has urged the legislature not to amend the Constitution in a poorly conceived effort to bar same-sex couples from civil marriage. That would mark tremendous progress. But trying to do too much at once — and with some misguided theological reasoning along the way — would be a terrible waste of a great opportunity.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 12 March 2004 at 10:25 PM

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March 13, 2004 08:18 AM | Permalink for this comment

I just discovered an ad in last Sunday's Boston Globe City Weekly section from 57 retired United Methodist ministers in support of gay marriage:

We strongly support the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's ruling affirming the constitutionality of gay marriage, and we commend those legislators who struggle to do justice for same sex couples.

We understand gender orientation [sic] — an issue that has become increasingly divisive within our church and our society — to be not a "lifestyle," but a gift from God. We have not come to this position lightly. We have considered the matter rigorously and prayerfully for five years, and we have witnessed firsthand the anguish and pain suffered by gay and lesbian persons.

While we do not presume to speak for our denomination, our many decades of service have taught us that God's love for gay persons entitles them to the same blessings and accountability automatically conferred on heterosexual couples who embrace the marriage covenant.

Very fine! (See "City Weekly," 3.7.04, page 7)


March 13, 2004 09:05 AM | Permalink for this comment

Theological consistency has never been the Anglican communion's strong suit. And "bad Unitarianism" has a long and proud tradition in the Main Line.


March 13, 2004 10:36 AM | Permalink for this comment

Bravo, Chris! A fine post. It is sad that religious liberals so often cede the religious argument to the other side. But in this world of sound bites, I sure do hope the Episcopalians pass that first paragraph!


March 13, 2004 11:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

We Anglicans prize, I think, our theological inconsistency. We only require common belief in four foundational principles to be an Anglican (Baptism and Eucharist, the Creeds, the Scriptures, and the historic episcopate). After that, as the joke goes, if you believe something, there's probably at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.
We may not be theologically consistent, but I think the flexibility has pushed us to recognize that not all beliefs need be impetus for the breaking point, a course of action that Tillich wryly noted was the Protestant Principle. And of course, we've done a decent job of staying together as a church. Maybe we're not as doctrinally "pure" as some churches, but conformity of belief is a peculiar Latin Christian custom anyway....


March 15, 2004 08:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think some of the Anglican fuzziness is intentional. Being in relationship is more important to some of us than "right thinking." Others don't see their faith as a "problem to solve," but rather a mystery to stand before in awe.

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