Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church" now posted with introduction by Willis Jenkins to the House of Bishops discussion

The document "Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church" is now posted here. As the preface notes, "this project was commissioned in the spring of 2008 by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, to be overseen by the Theology Committee." The postscript to the document written by the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops expresses gratitude for the work of the report, noting however that "their work is for study and reflection and does not constitute a position paper of the Theology Committee" (p.86).

The document contains statements by two parties or affinity groups offering two different interpretations of creedal faithfulness as the editor's foreward notes (iv): the traditionalists write on Same-Sex Marriage and Anglican Theology while the liberals write on a Theology of Marriage Including Same-Sex Couples. Each affinity group then responds to the work of the other group and the editor offers an epilogue.

I rejoice that our work is now available for all to read.

When the document was presented to the House of Bishops on March 20, 2010, Willis Jenkins gave this introduction (posted here with his permission). Grant LeMarquand also gave an introduction. Willis Jenkins' introduction helps to counter two blogosphere misperceptions to our work so far: nothing new and no points of agreement.

It should seem odd to you to have the argument for blessing same-sex marriage represented by a man married to a woman, here in a house of mostly the same. The four of us who wrote the expansionist argument, two women and two men, are all married, two in other-sex marriages and two in same-sex marriages. However, not all were comfortable coming before this house with the meaning of their marriage on the line. I acknowledge that in order to remind you of the frame of our argument. We do not plead for inclusion in marriage on the basis of rights, nor do we claim liberty for marriage on the basis of justice. Instead we show how all our marriages make sense within the church’s prayers and its proclamation of the gospel. Reading scripture in recognition of gifts of the Spirit evident in same- and other-sex couples, we present ourselves within the frame of an analogous debate: that of the earliest church wrestling with the question of Gentile inclusion. By offering this frame of argument, those in same-sex marriages allow themselves and their relationships to become vulnerable to “our” interpretation.  Our response, I contend, should be similar to how Peter, James, and Paul responded: by giving witness to gifts of the Spirit among these couples and making a way forward that respects tradition.
            The basic argument for expanding marriage is laid out in the preface to our document: marriage is a discipline and a means of grace. Same-sex couples need that discipline and grace no less than other-sex couples. They, like other-sex couples, should not be discouraged from committing their lives to each other nor from giving their commitments to the church. The church is free to bless those couples who present themselves as fit for Christian marriage by their readiness to enter a covenant of self-offering and of witness to Christ’s love for the world.
            That argument would be simple and the liturgical amendments minor – a matter of altering a few pronouns – were it not for the deep suspicion that it meets across the church, especially beyond our province. Listening to criticism that the Episcopal Church has not answered that suspicion with a coherent theology of marriage, we have elaborated how same-sex marriage fits within a faithful pattern of Christian life, how it harmonizes with orthodox theology, and how it makes sense within scripture. Our way of illustrating that fit does not require theological defeat of traditionalists, does not impose cultural change, does not rely on American power. To answer worries that we would demean other-sex marriage, we make painstaking clear how our proposal reclaims and affirms the deepest meaning of marriage. We reaffirm procreation as a purpose of marriage, and the welcoming of children as a gift proper to it. We reaffirm the unitive purpose of marriage, and chastity as a gift proper to it.
            Moreover, we present marriage not only as a relation for welcoming children and a way for sexual holiness, but as a daily practice used by the Spirit to bring us into union with Christ. We write: “Opposite-sex as well as same-sex couples who engage in this covenant undertake extraordinary promises in the face of great odds and with God’s help make a vivid witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the church established in his name.” We reclaim the patristic explanation of marriage as “a discipline for sinners,” and as such an ascetic practice in which self-donation is daily learned. So far from undermining marriage is our argument that what may be most controversial is that it takes marriage so seriously. The question before the church is whether same-sex couples have any obstacles, beyond those made by cultural prejudice, in undertaking these extraordinary promises, in vowing themselves to this discipline.
            The traditionalist and expansionist arguments agree that Christian marriage confronts a corrupt culture of freedom with virtues of self-denial and mutual joy. We disagree that those virtues divide by sexual category: self-denial as natural gift for homosexual persons, mutual joy as natural gift for heterosexual persons.
            The two arguments agree that marriage realizes an order in creation. We disagree that experience of male/female sexual relation best interprets that order; we think order is best known within the sanctifying relation of Christ and the church. Which is to say that we think the diversity of creation is realized and perfected in the community of Christ.
            The two arguments agree that marriage offers healing of sin and sacramental witness. We disagree that only other-sex couples experience that grace, that same-sex couples stand less in need of healing. The church should not turn away faithful same-sex couples who seek to give their marriages to the church’s meaning; we should celebrate that they too have come to the wedding feast.
            Six years ago I came to this house and argued, from my experience as a missionary with the Church of Uganda, that the significance of our ecclesial debates could be better understood in missiological perspective. So it is gratifying to return here with Grant, who has long mission experience, to interpret debate over this question.  The expansionist argument supposes that we face a debate over the mission of God in our context. We argue that while the Episcopal Church has equivocated about its mission of welcome for sexual minorities, causing angry confusion among our companions and within our membership, the Spirit has already been expanding our church. For as we have been compelled to attend with pastoral care to the testimony of same-sex couples, the church has discovered among them evident gifts of the Spirit: faithfulness, self-giving, commitment, patience, long-suffering – which they seek to offer to the church’s witness to Christ. While we started in debates about conditions of welcome, we have become witnesses to the Spirit enlarging the church beyond our expectations.
            We argue that marrying same-sex couples, if done forthrightly as a matter of witness and proclamation, can help our church better explain itself to the whole Communion. It is “part of the Episcopal church’s mission,” we write, “to marry same-sex couples; that is, to discipline them and turn them to the service of the church, that by them redemption may reach further and the marriages of all may be strengthened.”
            For the sake of mutual understanding and accountability with our companions in mission around the Communion, our argument elaborates how this mission makes sense within shared scriptures, shared liturgies and shared practices of moral formation. For we want our companions in mission to be able to understand us when we say that blessing same-sex marriages should not jeopardize the marriages or mission of churches that practice traditionalist marriage. We think just the contrary: that same-sex marriage strengthens the meaning of all marriages and illustrates anew the mission of the church. “The question of same-sex marriage,” we write, “comes to the church not as an issue of extended rights and privileges, but as a pastoral occasion to proclaim the significance of the gospel for all who marry.”
            Amidst similar dissension and debate in our church, we read our situation in light of the church council in Acts, and propose a similar compromise for a way forward: Traditionalist communities need not relinquish their traditions, but they must not break table fellowship. Inclusivist communities are not bound by those particular traditions, but they must avoid sexual immorality, which means that all couples, including same-sex couples, should marry.


Sam Candler said...

Thanks for posting these very helpful introductory remarks. I love it when happily married people endorse the possibility that other people can be happily married too. -Sam Candler

Eric Reitan said...

Jenkins' introductory remarks remind me of an important difference between the case for same-sex civil marriage and the case for same-sex marriage in the church. Civil marriage, conferring on couples a distinctive legal and social standing, and defined in terms of a battery of federal and state rights, cannot be approached without focal attention on issues of social justice. Is the state illegitimately excluding a marginalized group from access to social goods made available to others?

But for the church, marriage is, first, a discipline that couples are called to undertake, the support of which becomes a responsibility of the broader church community; and second, a means whereby divine grace may come to express itself more fully in the microcosm of the intimate partnership.

With respect to the latter, it is my own conviction (which I hope to eventually develop more fully than the brief treatment I had the space to give it in my book), that divine revelation occurs most immediately and vividly in the experience of loving and being loved--but only when the "love" at issue is self-giving agape, which is authentic only to the extent that its agent has made of him- or herself an instrument of divine agape.

If marriage, for the church, is above all a forum for supporting and cultivating such agapic love and thereby creating an import avenue of access to divine self-disclosure, then expanding access to marriage is far more than a matter of social justice. It becomes a feature of the church's evangelical mission.

Deirdre said...

Sam, glad you found Willis' introduction helpful.
Eric, what you are saying is very much along the lines of what we argued on pneumatological grounds e.g. p.42 (defining the Episcopal Church as Domestic and Foreign Mission):

As a "Foreign" Missionary Society, the Episcopal Church must also give account of its domestic mission to its companions in mission around the Communion and to the universal church. Zeal for mission may divide the church, but while the Spirit may move wildly and diversely, it always moves within the missio Dei. Much as Acts 15 describes a council in Jerusalem to discuss how Gentiles should be welcomed into the church's universal mission, so does the church today hold theological council. And in a similar pneumatological pattern, it seems the Spirit has preceded us, transforming the church and its mission. In the self-donation of same-sex couples to one another and to the church, some leaders of the church see surprising gifts of the Spirit. Even when same-sex couples were in the wilderness, God "gave his good Spirit to instruct them, and did not withhold manna from their mouth, and gave them water for their thirst" (Neh. 9:20, para. Acts 10:47). Can anyone withhold the rite for blessing these couples “who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47).

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