Wednesday, October 06, 2010

"Pastorally irresponsible and theologically unnecessary"

It was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away -- before Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of New Hampshire or there were any Windsor Reports or Prop 8s or even marriage equality in Massachusetts. It was 2002 and Claiming the Blessing convened a theology committee to think through the question "What does it mean for the church to give its blessing?" The result of their thinking-through became part of our CTB Theology Statement --which I commend to you in full.

But today -- partly in response to the questions Jay Johnson is posing at the forum he's leading this weekend at Good Shepherd in Berkeley ...


... I'm posting this portion of the statement here because even though it was written a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away it's still one of the best foundational statements on blessing I've seen or read ... and I think its conclusion is still very much germane:

The question remains as to whether “marriage” is appropriately defined as the covenant relationship between a man and a woman only, as is the church’s long tradition. The church must continue to wrestle with this issue. To wait until it is solved, however, in order to celebrate the blessing of a faithful same-sex relationship is pastorally irresponsible and theologically unnecessary.

It was true in 2002 and it's true today!

What does it mean for the church to give its blessing?

“BLESSING” is perhaps the most controversial word in the church’s consideration of the treatment of same-sex households in its midst. Because of this fact, we must take great care to be precise about what we mean when we use the word. The following are the building blocks for a theology of blessing: Creation, Covenant, Grace and Sacrament.

Creation itself is the fundamental act of blessing. Creation is a blessing (gift) to humankind from God and humankind blesses (gives thanks to or praises) God in return. The Hebrew word for “blessing,” barak, means at its core the awesome power of life itself. A fundamental claim of the Bible in regard to creation is that there is enough, in fact an abundance, of creation, and therefore of blessing, to go around.

“Blessing” is a covenantal, relational word. It describes the results of the hallowed, right, just relationship between God and humankind. Blessing is what happens when God and humankind live in covenant. It is important to remember here that the relationships between human beings and the relationship between God and human beings cannot be separated. “Blessing” and “justice” are inseparable biblical concepts.

When we ask for God’s blessing, we are asking for God’s presence and favor. In Christian terms this favor is what we call “grace,” God’s disposition toward us that is not dependent upon our merit, but is a sure and certain gift to the believer in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In our tradition, the sacraments are the primary ways the grace/blessing of God is communicated to us (“a sure and certain means,” BCP, p. 857). The two “great” sacraments “given by Christ” (BCP, p. 858) are Baptism and Eucharist. In them we see the two fundamental aspects of blessing: the blessing of life from God and the blessing of God for that life.

Five other rites are traditionally known as sacraments, but they are dependent for their meaning on the two sacraments and are not “necessary for all persons.” A whole host of other actions in the life of the church, and of individual Christians, are “sacramental” in nature, i.e., they mediate the grace/blessing of God and cause us to give thanks and praise/blessing to God.

In our tradition, priests and bishops have the authority to pronounce God’s blessing within the community of faith. They do so not by their own power, but as instruments of the grace (blessing) of God within the church. Their authority to bless, too, finds its meaning in the two great sacraments.

When the church chooses “to bless” something it is declaring that this particular person or persons or thing is a gift/blessing from God and his/her/its/their purpose is to live in (or, in the case of things, to assist in) covenanted relationship with God (and with all creation), i.e., to bless God in return.

To bless the relationship between two men or two women is to do this very thing: to declare that this relationship is a blessing from God and that its purpose is to bless God, both within the context of the community of faith. If the church believes that same-sex relationships show forth God’s blessing when they are lived in fidelity, mutuality and unconditional love, then this blessing must be owned and celebrated and supported in the community of faith.

Clearing up some questions:

Just what are we blessing when we bless a same-sex relationship?
We are blessing the persons in relationship to one another and the world in which they live. We are blessing the ongoing promise of fidelity and mutuality. We are neither blessing orientation or “lifestyle,” nor blessing particular sexual behaviors. “Orientation” and “lifestyle” are theoretical constructs that cannot possibly be descriptive of any couple’s commitment to one another. And every couple works out their own sexual behaviors that sustain and enhance their commitment. We don’t prescribe that behavior, whether the couple is heterosexual or homosexual, except to say that it must be within the context of mutuality and fidelity.

Isn’t marriage and same-sex blessing the same thing?
That they are similar is obvious, as is taking monastic vows, i.e., blessing a vocation to (among other things) celibacy. Each (marriage, blessing unions, monastic vows) grounds a relationship that includes sexual expression in public covenant which gives them “a reality not dependent on the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved” and “a certain freedom to ‘take time’ to mature and become as profoundly nurturing as they can” (Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” in Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies, Charles Hefling, ed.).

The question remains as to whether “marriage” is appropriately defined as the covenant relationship between a man and a woman only, as is the church’s long tradition. The church must continue to wrestle with this issue. To wait until it is solved, however, in order to celebrate the blessing of a faithful same-sex relationship is pastorally irresponsible and theologically unnecessary.

Is same-sex blessing a sacrament?
We can say it is sacramental. Strictly speaking, in our tradition there are only two sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist). Five other rites are commonly referred to as sacraments because of the church’s long experience of them. But in a sacramental understanding of creation, everything in creation has the potential to be sacramental — to mediate the presence/blessing of God. Priests and bishops “pronounce” blessing on those things the community lifts up as showing forth this blessing. The New Testament word for “blessing” is eulogein, literally “to speak well of.”

Can the church withhold blessing?
Certainly, in its official, liturgical sense. Priests and bishops should only “pronounce” blessing over those things or persons the community of faith lifts up as being mediators of blessing. That means that the authority to pronounce blessing over particular persons or things can change over time within a community and vary from community to community, particularly from culture to culture. Our Anglican Communion has long said that the only truly universal “blessings” are Baptism and Eucharist. (per the Lambeth Quadrilateral).

Prepared (in 2002) by the Claiming the Blessing theology committee: Michael Hopkins, Elizabeth Kaeton, Joseph Lane, Mark Kowalewski, Katie Sherrod, and Sarah Dylan Breuer.

7 comments:

LGMarshall said...

Since you say you are not blessing Orientation or Lifestyle ['theoretical constructs']...What if a same sex couple wants to honor their Faithful Commitment to each other, and receive a blessing of God's presence and favor, but their Commitment chooses not to have a sexual relationship... will the Church consider them for Marriage as well? Why or Why not?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

No wonder it feels like "deja vu all over again". It is.

Thanks, Susan. What we wrote in 2002 is as timely now as it was then.

SUSAN RUSSELL said...

LG ... I guess you missed the

"The question remains as to whether “marriage” is appropriately defined as the covenant relationship between a man and a woman only, as is the church’s long tradition. The church must continue to wrestle with this issue. To wait until it is solved, however, in order to celebrate the blessing of a faithful same-sex relationship is pastorally irresponsible and theologically unnecessary"

part. And I'm beyond weary of the dishonoring of our relationships by defining them in terms of sexual acts. Andrew Sullivan wrote, "We'd never talk about heterosexual marriage primarily in terms of vaginal intercourse or merely sexual needs; it would slight the depth and variety of heterosexual relationships."

Elizabeth is right ... it IS "deja vu all over again."

http://www.oasisca.org/OAsisa%20Transfer%202009/0_Historical/reconciliation.html

IT said...

Thanks for this, Susan. It's a particularly helpful description, for those of us who are embarked on the blessing process.

Re. LGM: It's part of the opposition's game book to reduce us to purely sexual acts, like rutting animals. And part of their mind set that we can be nothing else. As though our relationships are DEFINED by sex.

Would anyone dare ask an elderly couple getting married, whether they plan (or can) consummate the marriage?

Sometimes LGM's comments make me feel dirty, they are so degrading. Which is probably his/her goal.

JCF said...

Well, one thing has changed since 2002.

Then, you could quote Rowan Williams w/o rolling your eyes (or clutching your stomach). }-X

DavidJustinLynch said...

In general, I agree - but as an Anglo-Catholic, I understand marriage, whether opposite or same sex, to be a sacrament - an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace - as unbreakable as the union between Christ and His Church - what God hath joined together, let no one put asunder. "All the sacraments for all the baptized."

SUSAN RUSSELL said...

JCF -- it is more than a little ironic, eh?