Saturday, October 21, 2006
Episcopal diocese: Get married by someone else.
A profoundly misguided resolution is on the agenda for the convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, to be held in Boston October 27-28. Here it is in its entirety:
1. Resolution Regarding the Ministry of Blessing Marriages, submitted by The Rev. Barbara Edgar, The Rev. Mally Lloyd, The Rev. Steve Smith, The Rev. Pam Werntz and the Rev. Skip Windsor.
Resolved, that it is the sentiment of the 221st Convention of the Diocese of Massachusetts that beginning January 2008, Episcopal marriages be presided over by an agent of the state; and be it further,
Resolved, that it is the sentiment of the 221st Convention of the Diocese of Massachusetts that marriages in the Diocese of Massachusetts be limited to the blessing of the union as a holy act and that clergy not act as an agent of the state for any form of civil marriage.
What this seems to mean — ignoring any conflicting definitions of marriage in the resolution's two halves, not to mention the front-page Boston Globe article about the "sexual justice" issue motivating the sponsors — is that the diocese would instruct priests not to sign wedding licenses for any couple under any circumstances and to instruct all couples seeking to be married in an Episcopal service to arrange for a civil officiant who would marry them and sign the license before the couple's "union" could be blessed by a priest.
Oh, the questions this raises! Living in Cambridge, Mrs Philocrites and I know several seminarians and priests who support this proposal — dear friends among them — but it sure strikes me as a bad idea on multiple levels.
But before I get to my objections (which I offer, of course, in the spirit of ecumenical good will and the deep personal interest that comes from having been married in the Episcopal Church to one of its future priests), let's look at the arguments I've heard in its favor.
Agents of the state.
The phrase "agent of the state" seems to have intense emotional significance for the supporters we've talked to. There's something illicit, some theological offense involved in being recognized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the officiant at a wedding. Here, for example, is the complete one-paragraph defense of the resolution sent to delegates in the official convention packet:
It is time to question whether clergy ought to act as agents of the state in Massachusetts. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States enunciates the importance of the separation of Church and State to protect the religious liberties of all Americans. The Church and its clergy are in the ministry of blessing, and not in the vocation of conducting, marriage ceremonies. In many other parts of the world the role clergy play is strictly that of blessing civil marriages or unions.
Let's assume that the goal of the First Amendment really is to make sure that church and state have nothing to do with each other. (I tend to think it's really a guarantee that the state won't interfere with your right to practice your religion and won't try to make you practice an "official" religion.) How does the current practice in Massachusetts work? Does it really violate the free exercise of religion? Does it create an establishment of religion? And how onerous is being an "agent of the state" when it comes to officiating at a wedding?
The Commonwealth has chosen to recognize each and every designated religious leader of each and every religious community in the state as equally authorized to conduct weddings. The state doesn't discriminate. Catholic priests, Mormon bishops, Orthodox rabbis, clerks of Quaker meetings — the state doesn't examine religious leaders to ascertain their worthiness. It doesn't charge them a fee. It doesn't deputize them, give them a badge, or pay them a penny. It asks nothing of them, extracts no fee from them, and gives them no powers or authority beyond recognizing one thing: that their signatures represent an official acknowledgement that a wedding has taken place.
A priest is, in other words, the least powerful "agent" the state has. Not only that, Massachusetts allows any citizen of the state to apply for a "one-time designation" as just such an "agent of the state." I've dirtied my hands in this very way three times now in Massachusetts (and once more in Vermont). Let me tell you, that's some awesome power the state gave me, allowing my signature to let the town clerk know that the marriage two people said would take place on such and such a day did, in fact, take place.
The state defers to the free exercise of religion by recognizing that people, in practicing their diverse faiths, prefer to be married in their own houses of worship or at least according to the customs of their religious communities. The state doesn't care which one. It doesn't care if it's a granite church presided over by an ordained priest with an M.Div. wearing a stole and swinging a thurible; it doesn't care if it's a wooden chapel with a rock band led by a minister with a certificate from a Bible college; it doesn't care, in fact, if it's your backyard and the "minister" got her "ordination" over the Internet from the Universal Life Church. If it's a religion and you're one of its duly authorized leaders, Massachusetts recognizes your signature as legitimate. That's what it means for an Episcopal priest to be an "agent of the state."
If my Episcopalian friends are really worried about ways that the state might be giving special privileges to priests, perhaps they should instead consider giving up their clergy housing tax exemptions. (And if they feel the state has already silenced their prophetic witness and bought them off with tax exemptions, they should unstop their mouths rather than gingerly avoiding the IRS's restrictions on political activity by 501c3 nonprofits.) Separate yourselves from the state, by all means, but if you're going to withdraw from the world, don't place the burden of your righteousness on couples who want to marry.
Equity for sexual minorities.
But could this resolution really be about something as purely principled as a desire to keep priestly signatures off of government documents? Of course it isn't. Although none of the supporting materials distributed to delegates of the convention makes this explicit, the resolution is apparently intended as a "justice" gesture toward gay and lesbian people. A front-page story in the Boston Globe made this clear:
"I feel this is a way to equalize an inequity in what Episcopal clergy can do for gay folks and straight folks," said the Rev. Margaret (Mally) E. Lloyd, rector of Christ Church in Plymouth. Lloyd is one of five Episcopal priests sponsoring the resolution.
"Right now, we can only offer blessings for gay folks who are married, and it's not fair," she said. "The church moves slowly to make changes in canon law, so what can we do in the meantime? This is something good for the diocese to wrestle with."
The idea, apparently, is that it's unjust for the church to allow priests to officiate at the marriage of a straight couple in Massachusetts when it does not allow them to officiate at the (civilly authorized) marriage of a same-sex couple. As anyone who follows religion news these days knows, the Episcopal Church is in no hurry to make the canonical change that would allow priests to marry same-sex couples. So some Massachusetts Episcopalians have instead hit on the idea that the church should not allow a priest to officiate at gay or straight weddings ever again.
But Lloyd's "in the meantime" is a phrase that suggests that supporters see the resolution as a temporary measure. Wait a minute: Right now we're up in arms over the separation of church and state, a crucial constitutional principle that leads us to seek the end of clergy involvement in declaring two people married — but down the road when we get around to changing church law to allow wedding liturgies for same-sex couples, we'll forget all about the separation of church and state and gladly sign the same-sex couple's license? A self-consciously temporary "principle" is no principle at all.
This couldn't be what they mean. Or could it? In the Unitarian Universalist Association, my home turf, a tiny fraction of UU ministers say they won't sign marriage licenses until same-sex marriage is legal in their state. (Religious ceremonies for same-sex couples are already widespread in the UUA.) It's immoral for ministers to participate in a discriminatory state practice, they say — although it appears not to be immoral for a justice of the peace to sign the license, or for a straight couple to sign up for immoral matrimony, or for a minister to celebrate a union that partakes of the state's immoral preferential treatment. In the UU case, however, the ministers are holding out for the day when the state will recognize their signatures on licenses for same-sex couples as well as straight ones. It's a boycott (however ineffective) with an end: these ministers want to be agents of the state, I suppose, for every couple that seeks to be married. The diocesan proposal, however, is much more radical than any proposal that has come before a Unitarian Universalist body, and that's really saying something.
So how would the diocesan proposal help same-sex couples? There's the short-term spin value that would allow progressive Episcopalians to claim that the diocese had "done something" for gay rights, but I don't see the step forward. The equity it brings comes by extending an inconvenience to straight couples that the church currently places only on same-sex couples. The diocese's current requirement — that a same-sex couple must first be legally married by someone other than a priest before being blessed by the priest — would be applied to all couples. The only real beneficiaries here are purity-minded priests who have an unusual ideological aversion to signing wedding licenses.
Curiously, although Lloyd explicitly links the resolution to gay rights in the church, another sponsoring priest denies any such connection. Michael Paulson writes in the Globe that the Rev. Skip Windsor "said the resolution really has nothing to do with the same-sex marriage issue, but is about concerns over the separation of church and state."
The inhospitable church.
So now let's consider the real-world consequences of this change. The very last paragraph of the Globe story shows the supporters making a peculiar assumption about their proposal:
Windsor and Lloyd both said that, under the current system, many couples seek to have church weddings because they like the setting. They said they hoped that if the church stopped officiating at marriages, couples that sought a religious ceremony in addition to the civil procedure would be doing so as a reflection of faith.
The headline I put on this post — Get married by someone else — boils this proposal down to its essence. The theological and ecclesiological assumption is that the church's blessing is a reward for the faithful, the really and truly faithful, the insiders whose faith is reflected in their decision to have two ceremonies rather than one. If you're just a couple wanting to get married, the Episcopal Church doesn't welcome you. What a short-sighted vision of the Episcopal Church's charism.
Why are people drawn to an Episcopal church for one of the most important transitions in their lives? As you've no doubt noticed, many Episcopal churches are incredibly beautiful. (The "setting," as the Globe puts it.) And then there's the Episcopal wedding liturgy, which has been influential for centuries out of all proportion to the number of Episcopalians. Its phrases are part of our shared cultural heritage and have helped shape popular ideas about the meaning of marriage. And even when people haven't been attending church in years, even when their religious beliefs seem rudimentary at best, they are demonstrating some degree of receptiveness when they want the church to celebrate their marriage.
When people come to a church to ask about getting married there, the church is being offered an opportunity to share the gospel and to plant the seeds of faith. The beauty that is part of the Episcopal Church's distinctive heritage is one way it draws people to a life of faith. My dear Episcopalian friends, let your heritage draw people to you. Especially let it draw younger people to you, people making one of the most significant decisions of their lives. They may not pledge right away; they may not become regular attenders. But your hospitality to them plants a seed that may flourish elsewhere. Do not put up hurdles that they cannot understand, especially hurdles that are focused on your own purity and that treat the church's blessing as a reward for the true believers.
There are other reasons one could oppose this resolution, of course. It will further divide the church, not only by exacerbating divisions between "progressives" and "conservatives" but by introducing a new principle to fight over. It may impose a restriction on priests that runs contrary to the canons of the church, which allow priests to perform weddings. (What if a priest in the diocese wishes to continue signing wedding licenses?) And it may limit the modest income some priests and churches earn for conducting weddings.
But what are the compelling arguments for it? Am I missing something that would make this proposal make more sense?
("Episcopal diocese may quit marriages," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 10.8.06, reg req'd)
Update 10.29.06: At the annual convention, the diocese tabled the resolution and adopted a substitute resolution calling for a year of conversation about the church's involvement in civil marriage. Good call!
Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 21 October 2006 at 2:08 PM