November 19, 2008

And why we did it

Stuart commented with a question on the post below, concerning the Diocese of NY passing a resolution supporting the state's movement towards marriage equality. He asked

When we were discussing the resolution, some wondered why there wasn't a parallel resolution committing the Diocese to begin the process of creating a public rite for blessing the marriages same-sex couples.

It's a good question, and deserves an answer. I gave an answer in the comments below, but want to expand a bit here. I can best do this by offering what I planned to say in the debate if those of us planning the floor-fight felt it was needed. So here is what I was prepared to say:

I want to note that this resolution concerns civil marriage equality. It is not about Holy Matrimony. As such, it concerns the lives of thousands of New Yorkers, only a few of whom are Episcopalians, and many of whom may have no religious affiliation whatsoever.

So why should we make such a statement? I am reminded of the words of a great Archbishop [Temple]: The church is an institution devoted to the welfare of those not yet its members.

I also draw your attention to the language of the 1976 resolution of the General Convention [A-71], with particular focus on the words equal protection of the laws and provided in actuality. Thirty-two years later, we are being given an opportunity to answer the simple question, "Do you mean it?" And I close with the words of Christ: "Who among you, if your child asks for bread will give him a stone; or if he asks for a fish, give him a snake?"

So a major concern for me in all of this is the recognition that civil marriage equality concerns not just Episcopalians, but all the scattered churchless children of God who are seeking to establish their lives in stable and committed relationships, with all the rights and responsibilities they entail.

But, to get back to Stu's question, Why not matrimony? Here is my rationale:

  • First, this is for me largely a question of sequence, a sequence which echoes the development of marriage in church history. Civil marriage comes first, then the church "adopts" it. As you may know, there was no formal "marriage" in the church until about the fifth-sixth century, and the earliest church involvement was basically a blessing of the couple's civil marriage, with particular prayer for safe childbirth. The earliest liturgies took place in the home, and only gradually moved into the church. So, as with evolution, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" -- or something like that!

  • The second factor is theological: the church has long taught that the ministers of marriage are the couple themselves -- that is, they minister the rite to each other, and the church functions as witness and blesses the marriage -- the church does not "make" it; the couple do.

  • Third is the principle that the church only legally performs marriages when such marriages are civilly valid. There is even a Prayer Book rubric to that effect, in the first paragraph on page 422. So it makes sense to see the civil aspect established prior to the church acting as if it could perform the civil aspect of a marriage.

  • Fourth, at the same time, and pending such developments, nothing in the meantime prevents a bishop from permitting the "blessing" of anything whatsoever within her own diocese. There was an effort to restrict this right at GC 2006, via a legislative moratorium on the authorization of same-sex blessings, but it was defeated in part because I rose to point out that this would require a Constitutional amendment, since Article X gives bishops this right.

  • Fifth, also at the same time, priests are ordained to bless -- it is one of the "faculties" bestowed at ordination to the priesthood, and there is no "except" clause; the bishop need not ask clergy who or what they are blessing any more than the bishop need review every sermon a priest delivers -- preaching also being a "faculty" licensed by ordination. I realize we are getting into a bit of "don't ask / don't tell" here (for bishops who want to at least appear to toe the line drawn out by Lambeth and those Windsor folks; and yes, this is not an ideal situation -- but it presents a real opportunity for couples and congregations, and is in keeping with the 2003 GC resolution that acknowledged that such things were happening, and that those who took part were operating within the legitimate scope of action at their disposal. At least that is how I took the resolution.

  • Sixth, formal liturgical change at the national level does need to be authorized by the church as a whole, even though individual dioceses and parishes can put into effect what I describe above. In fact, I think a bottom-up or grass-roots model for liturgical development is to be preferred to the top-down model for liturgical development. There was no "Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music" in the early church, and each national and local church developed its liturgies over time, with certain forms and prayers rising to the top by a natural process of recognition and popularity. However, in these latter days, liturgies only gain full status as "of the church" when recognized by the church in GC.

So, taking all of this together, I think we are proceeding in the proper sequence: work for the recognition of civil marriage equality first, at which point the church can then actually "perform" marriages (to the extent they perform them); and in the meantime continue to live in the less than perfect world of informal blessings, at the same time working for a full acceptance of such rites. If we time this correctly, the formal rites should be ready by the time civil marriage equality is a reality in most parts of the country. I realize this is a slow process; but it looks like the Northeast and the West will be there within a few years. (I expect a reversal in California.) It may well take a generation in the South. In the meantime, since marriage is governed by states, it will not be long before it is appropriate for General Convention to pass a resolution to the effect of permitting churches to perform same-sex marriages in states where such marriages are permitted under civil law. Such a resolution came to GC in 2006, and it may be back again in 2009. Even though I support the resolution, it is more to make a point than in hopes of its passage.

My point is that I am working towards what I hope will be true, full marriage equality in church and state. This will not be easy; and I think to an extent we cheat ourselves by "making do" with blessings of civil marriages and of couples who desire only that blessing -- much as I support them, they are not the final goal.

Tobias Haller BSG

Update: A listing of all known relevant diocesan convention resolutions since 2007 is available at an Integrity-monitored site "Be It Resolved." I'm happy to see the pressure is building for marriage equality and an end to B033. An account from Lisa of the resolutions passing in Missouri is particularly heartwarming! — Tobias


James said...

This is a excellent post, reverend sir! I'm going to link to it.

Erika Baker said...


I understand why you write as you do. But from a practical point of view, it does concern me, because in the public and in the church debate it will firmly separate civil marriage from matrimony, and it will be very difficult later to make a successful case for the latter.

If I look at the civic sphere, here in England we did not allow gay marriage but have civil partnerships instead. Now this has been achieved, there is no effective movement to demand full marriage and marriage equality, and in light of the almost equal rights already granted to civil partners, such a campaign would have a very very tough ride.

In the religious sphere the muddle over womens ordination spring to mind. Instead of a clear solution we have flying bishops, Forward in Faith, and increasingly entrenched positions that appear to continue into eternity. I can barely imagine what it might take to cut through that gordian knot.

Two-tier approaches have a poor track record, and I fear that by concentrating solely on civil marriage now, you are making your subsequent fight for matrimony much much harder.

Once the conservatives can point to how magnanimously and compassionately they have allowed civil rights for homosexuals, they will find it much easier to carve themselves a niche for continued religious prejudice.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I follow you on the problems with Civil Partnerships vs Civil Marriage -- and I think it a mistake to have a separate and unequal solution, as it delays the movement to full equality.

But I think the same thing happens if we press for liturgical recognition first, rather than civil. This buys into two fallacies: 1) that marriage is primarily a sacred or religious institution; and 2) that its sacred character requires the approbation of the church. The theological truth (at least as far as Christianity and Judaism hold it) is that marriage is made by the couple. The marriage is "made" by consent and consummated by intercourse. The two become one flesh without any necessary action by the synagogue or church. If a blessing is sought, that is where the church or synagogue come in. But many same sex couples even within these traditions have found ways to celebrate their union apart from the larger church, even if in the context of their local circle of friends and supporters.

I don't know about the marriage traditions of Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism. But I also know that once one gets away from the peculiarly English (and by inheritance, American) notion fostered by the establishment, you will find, as for example in the Code Napoleon, a clear distinction between civil and sacred -- in France the priest cannot perform a civil marriage, nor the state impose a blessing. To be "married" in the eyes of the law you have to have a civil marriage.

I could support such a movement if it had a chance of success, but I doubt it will succeed in the US, where marriage has been theologized to the extent that people think of it as a religious function rather than as a social one. (This is not to say I don't think there is a sacred character to marriage -- just that it isn't resident in the church or its blessing, but in the couple -- which is what the church has actually taught).

Speaking practically, I think then that we need to continue with a two-pronged attack, not settling for second-best either in state of church, but working on the state first as it appears to be ahead of the curve at least in some places, and working as we can in the church for that bottom-up development that will actually bear greater fruit in the long run, because it will have a firm foundation based on many lives changed, many unions blessed, and much fruit borne. The hierarchs (and heresiarchs) who oppose it, will be overwhelmed by the upwelling of grace so evident they will no longer be able to deny it.

Erika Baker said...


in Germany we also have a clear separation of state and church and you have to be civilly married before you can have a church wedding.

But the same problem arises - the state permits a civil partnership arrangement, the church is still formally opposed to SSBs, never mind full gay marriage.

But what I observed is that since the argument in society has been won and the civil partnership act became legal in 2001, the conversation in the church has died. The momentum has simply gone.

This may also have something to do with the church being able to get away with much more conservative religious policies if it's no longer so much in the public eye and has to defend it's theology only to those within its own ranks.
With a social development subject that is largely driven by society, this can be a real handicap and delay any change within the church.

That's why I think it's so important to have the two debates at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Hi Father Haller,

Thanks for your thorough, thoughtful, and illuminating response to my question. It was wonderful of you to take the time!!

Only one caveat to what you said. Referring back to my time studying at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in Crestwood: they taught that, unlike the Western Tradition, in Eastern Orthodoxy the Church makes the Sacrament of Marriage by Crowning one partner to another as martyrs entering into the ascesis of married life. That's why there are no vows in an Orthodox Marriage liturgy, it is the Church (through the Priest) that's doing the binding.

The position of Eastern Orthodoxy is certainly irrelevant when it comes to the struggle for marriage equality in the USA, but it certainly demonstrates that within Christianity there is a significant tradition in which the Church, not the couple, make the marriage.

Now I'm off to do some errands before a vestry meeting tonight, where we certainly won't be considering such exciting resolutions as the marriage resolution at our last meeting. Ah, if only Vestry meetings could always be so interesting!!

Thanks again.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks again, Erika. I didn't mean to imply that both discussions can't be ongoing. What I meant was that in TEC, at least, full "marriage" will only be possible once civil marriage is provided, unless we get out of the "doing civil marriage" business altogether. If I'm not mistaken, the places where the church is not involved in civil marriage still requires the couple to be civilly married; as in Germany.

I'm aware of the Eastern position -- that is the marriage rite I'm referring to as dating to the fifth/sixth century, and I should have clarigied. The West was much much later, beginning with the "blessing of the bride" and so on, and finally only requiring a priestly blessing to validate the marriage at the Council of Trent!

And yes, the East has a different theology of marriage, which affects lots of things like second marriages (which don't get the "crowns" even in the case of widowhood). And the church's blessing is considered an intrinsic part of Christian marriage from very early. I included an appendix on the Eastern view in my paper on same-sex marriage (Lawfully Joined, available in pdf). As you no doubt know, the crowning was also used in the now defunct "Brother-Making" liturgy that looks so very much like same-sex marriage but people keep insisting is nothing of the kind. Yeah. Sure. ;-)

Thanks again for the further input!

G said...


The Old Catholic Church in Germany (our full communion partners) and, I believe, some parts of the Protestant Church in Germany conduct SSBs.

Christopher said...

Being the recipient of legal status in Germany, I can say this, give it a bit of time. The members of my partner's family in small town Germany refer to Lebenspartnerschaft as our being married. Call it by another name, but given time,. The fact that I have legal residence there is a big deal and a stabilizing factor that until this week we did not have here for him.

And any Christian can say a word of blessing, indeed, that is one of our primary tasks, so if a priet or bishop won't do it, find someone who will. Our someone was a Benedictine sister.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

In light of what Christopher notes, let me also emphasize that this is a game of Patience. I know how hard it is, and that "justice deferred is justice denied" --- but I also know well that superficial gains can delay true transformation in a society. I am in part willing to be patient because I know that we will triumph in the end. I know of no one who formerly favored e-sex marriage who has changed his or her mind, but many who have gone from negativity to a positive attitude; and I'm not even speaking of the emerging generations, who are on the whole much more positive. So, as Mother Jones once said, let us Pray for the dead and work like hell for the living! A luta continua.

IT said...

From Andrew Sullivan today, on separating the civil from the religious while keeping the word:

Catholics, for example, accept the word marriage to describe civil marriages that are second marriages, even though their own faith teaches them that those marriages don't actually exist as such. But most Catholics are able to set theological beliefs to one side and accept a theological untruth as a civil fact. After all, a core, undebatable Catholic doctrine is that marriage is for life. Divorce is not the end of that marriage in the eyes of God. And yet Catholics can tolerate fellow citizens who are not Catholic calling their non-marriages marriages - because Catholics have already accepted a civil-religious distinction. They can wear both hats in the public square.

Rod believes that accepting my civil marriage as equal to his somehow erases the meaning of his own union. But it doesn't. He is free as a person of faith to regard my civil marriage as substantively void and his as substantively meaningful; he is simply required as a member of this disenchanted polis to accept my civil marriage as legally valid. That's all. Is that so hard? We can find a way forward to accommodate both our marriages in a public setting.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks IT (and Andrew S!) Well said. I generally don't wander near the "your same-sex marriage diminishes (a) my marriage, or (b) the concept of marriage)" argument as plainly based on the mental attitude of a spoiled child who can't bear to see anyone else with a similar toy. As such, there is no reasoning with it.

June Butler said...

I am in part willing to be patient because I know that we will triumph in the end.

As I am. Of course, I am not personally affected during the wait, and I ache for my friends who are. Nevertheless, I live in great hope.