Marriage Equality, The Supreme Court, and The General Convention

Sometimes the middle ground is the wrong place to stand. As an Episcopalian, that statement, while true, works against my very bones. We like to consider ourselves a people of the via media. When the Church of England split with Rome, we sought to be a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism. We tend to find a spiritual gift in balancing supposed opposites, but sometimes the middle way is not the way of Jesus. In the case of marriage equality, seeking some middle way at this General Convention would be a mistake.

In today’s Supreme Court ruling we are seeing a testament to movement. As I wrote in an earlier post, the millenial generation has already moved, already embraced marriage equality. But the movement is not simply about public opinion. As a Church we must ask ourselves, do we not see the movement of the Holy Spirit? In the posts from same-sex couples and their heterosexual allies online, in the celebration outside the court, in the joy in the halls of the Salt Palace, do we not discern God’s own Spirit moving us as a people?

Today the Justices handed down a ruling from a divided court to a still divided nation. Some had hoped the Court would rule more narrowly. In the decision, Justice Kennedy writes about this sense of legal “process” for marriage equality:

There may be an initial inclination to await further legislation, litigation, and debate, but…While the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, individuals who are harmed need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right.

Justice Kennedy’s words are profound, and should be heard by those Bishops and Deputies charged with deciding The Episcopal Church’s canons. Sometimes when we hold the middle ground, we cause harm. Dr. Martin Luther King said it another way: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” The Supreme Court justices have set a bar. Will The Episcopal Church reach for full marriage equality? Or will we settle for some middle ground?

As the legislation about liturgical marriage equality wends its way through committees toward the Houses of Bishops and Deputies, as a church we have to think about what our actions will say to the wider world. Jesus’ command in Matthew is clear: “Go forth into all the world and preach the Gospel.” We are a people of proclamation. Whether we embrace that identity or not, our legislation will be understood as proclamation. What will we proclaim? Will our General Convention proclaim that we see God moving in the marriages of same-sex couples?

I first served as a priest at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square. I started there as a seminarian just a few months after the District of Columbia approved marriage equality. St. John’s started offering marriages for same-sex couples the day they were legal. Some were surprised because the rector, the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon hadn’t allowed blessings of “civil-unions” at the church. In explaining his position, Luis said to me, “I don’t know what a ‘civil union’ is theologically. I know what marriage is, and I see signs that God has already called same-sex couples into marriage.” My rector didn’t stand in the middle ground. He worked for full equality.

Many bishops have already stated their opposition to changing the canons on marriage for the sake of procedure. I honestly don’t know where we will end up at the end of this process. My hope is that we do not end up divided between the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. I was gladdened by the post Bishop Shannon Johnston of Virginia wrote after he received strong pushback for his opposition to a canonical change: “I remain absolutely committed to full marriage equality in the ministry, life, and witness of our Church.” What encourages me more than his statement of openness is his surprise at the reaction to his initial denunciation of the canonical change. I do not think many in The House of Bishops understood the strong desire we have, as a church, for a move to marriage equality. I hope the bishops have simply been bogged down in process, and are waking up to the call of their Church: We are hungry to proclaim some good news on marriage equality.

If we are able to act for marriage equality this Convention, if we are able to make a substantial change to our Canons, if we are able to move toward allowing Prayer Book weddings for same-sex couples, we should proclaim that move boldly. We should proclaim this change isn’t simply about public opinion, marriage equality is about Good News. We will celebrate same-sex marriages in The Episcopal Church because we celebrate where God is leading us as a people. We can’t stand in a middle ground on this one, because God calls us somewhere higher.

The General Convention, Millennials, and Marriage Equality

As The Episcopal Church continues to read with some anxiety about the decline in church attendance and religious affiliation among millennials, we are preparing for a decisive General Convention. None of the proposals dealing with our structure, our governance, or the location of our headquarters will have a significant impact on the relationship between our church and the millennial generation. One set of proposals could have a huge impact. Those proposals concern changing the Canon on Marriage to allow same-sex and opposite-sex couples equal access and recognition. These decisions matter to many people of all generations, but these are resolutions in which millennials have a particularly big stake.

Unsurprisingly for Episcopalians at Convention, the number of the proposals and their sources make the nature of the decision complex. Different proposals come from the Task Force on the Study of Marriage (called for by the last Convention), the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (the official group that works between Conventions on liturgical changes for the Church), and several local dioceses. The volume of possibilities is a bit dangerous for Episcopalians because we think of ourselves as a people of the via media, the middle way. It could be tempting for the Convention to try to find a “happy medium” in all that is proposed about marriage.  A compromise “middle way” would be a mistake in the case of marriage equality.

Doing less than amending our canons to allow same-sex couples to marry would communicate that we think that same-sex marriage is “less than” equal. In the words of the Diocese of California:

To require that same-sex couples being married in the Episcopal Church, in civil jurisdictions where that marriage is legal, use a liturgy other than the one long in use in The Episcopal Church – and currently reserved exclusively to opposite-sex couples – dishonors these couples who seek the church’s blessing on their marriages, declaring that such marriages are not Holy Matrimony. Diocese of California’s Explanation for Resolution 3 “Liturgical Marriage Equality.”

Marriage equality matters to Episcopalians of all generations, but it particularly matters to millennials inside and outside the church. Alongside the much-discussed report that detailed the declining religious affiliation of millennials, the Pew Forum also recently released a study on changing attitudes toward same-sex marriage. They found that more than any other generation millennials overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage. Young adults don’t need more time for discernment. They’ve seen the blessing of married life for same-sex couples. They’re already on board.

I have had the privilege of working with young adults in leadership across The Episcopal Church. From that experience, I can say that many of our best young leaders are LGBT identified. Young adults leaders who identify as heterosexual also tend to strongly identify as allies of the LGBT community. Many of these leaders left their family tradition to join The Episcopal Church because of our stance. I have been amazed at how frequently The Episcopal Church’s stance on LGBT equality has been given as a reason why millennials have joined our denomination or stayed active in church. If we want to reach more millennials, we should iron out the complications in our current theology and practice to be even more clear about our support for the LGBT community.

In ministry with young adults, I have been at pains to explain the current position of our denomination on marriage equality. While the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church in the USA have approved marriage equality, we’re not there yet canonically. I find myself saying something like: “Yes, we support civil marriage equality broadly as a denomination, but because we are liturgically conservative tradition, and it takes a long time to amend our Prayer Book, we have a separate provisional rite for blessing unions.” That’s a mouthful, and our stance is an obfuscation. Our current liturgical position says, “we’re really not sure whether same-sex love is equal.”

In seminary I heard The Rev. David Norgard, then president of Integrity (the largest LGBT organization in The Episcopal Church), detail the history of the equality movement in the church. He recalled a time when the House of Bishops put off acting on LGBT equality by deciding to “study” sexual orientation for a number of years. He found the bishops’ decision to study homosexuality for such a long time odd. He joked, “I learned it in a summer.” The room filled with knowing laughter.

Our road toward equality has been marked by half measures and deferments in The Episcopal Church. We should not defer again. To put off the decision for marriage equality may help relationships with the few remaining conservative parishes and dioceses, but such a decision could also harm our relationships with younger generations. Do we care about young adults enough to be bold for marriage equality?

You want to change the Church’s relationship to millennials? You won’t make a big splash by changing our structures. The Episcopal Church should send a clear signal that we stand with young adults in their hopes for equality. Say it clearly. Say it directly. Don’t go halfway there. The US Supreme Court this summer will likely decide that marriage equality is the law of the land. If our Church decides for less than marriage equality, at best we will send mixed signals. I earnestly hope that our bishops and deputies vote this summer to say, “We stand with young adults for marriage equality.”

Marriage Equality and the ongoing work of justice- a sermon for the 12:10p Holy Eucharist

“There is no longer Jew or Greek.  There is no longer slave nor free.  There is no longer male and female” today we can add to St. Paul’s list: today there is no longer “same-sex marriage” and “opposite sex marriage,” at least in the eyes of the Federal Government.  Today is indeed a historic day for our nation, and today we need to pause, to celebrate, and to give thanks.

I was living in San Diego in 2008, when a California Court first ruled that the State should not discriminate against same-sex couples in the issuing of marriage licenses. I heard the news as I was on my way to the pool at the University of California, San Diego, where I was working at the time.  Halfway through my third lap I started crying, and I had to sit up on the side of the pool for awhile and weep.  The tears surprised me.  I don’t cry easily.  But that afternoon, for the first time in my life, I was living in a jurisdiction where my love was treated equally under the law, and I was surprisingly overwhelmed.

In the year and a few months that followed, friends got married, and today, again their marriages are held as valid, not only in the eyes of the State, but in the eyes of the Federal Government, and that is something to celebrate.  Good friends of mine, a married couple about to deploy with the military to live in Japan, will get to live ON base, rather than off base.  My friend  Captain Matthew Phelps will be able to share his house on base, his medical coverage, and his visa with his husband Ben.  Today we give thanks, to God, who made us all, loves us all, and who dreams for a day when all of creation  is free from oppression.

But today we read the Gospel for this upcoming Sunday as well, and we hear that Jesus “set his face on  Jerusalem.”  His pursuit is relentless.  “Don’t look back.”  “Go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.”  Today we will pause to celebrate.  Today we will ring our church bells and give thanks that we are steps closer, but we won’t look back.  We will set our faces forward.  We follow a savior who won’t stop until we’re in Jerusalem, the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city where people are not denied their right to love, or their right to vote.  Today we give thanks, but we know that we still have a lot of work to do.Image