Thursday, March 19, 2009

Of Claiming the Blessing and "Doing the Theology"

You can bet the house on it. The closer we get to a General Convention, the more likely it is that I will open my email and find "... but you haven't done the theology" as one of the arguments against the church moving forward with fully including all the baptized in all the sacraments.

The answer, of course, is to smile gently and say, "Ah, but we have! You must have missed it. And here it is ..." And then give them a the link to the PDF of the 2002 Claiming the Blessing Theology Statement -- which also includes great pieces by Walter Brueggemann and William Countryman.

But ... just for the record ... here's the theology we've "done."


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 regards 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, 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 couples’ 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,” p. 63). 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 (see the Lambeth Quadtilateral).


Eric B. Beresford, answer to “What would it mean for the Church to Bless Same-sex Unions?” (portions), Commission on Faith and Doctrine, Dialogue on Same-sex Unions, Anglican Diocese of New Westminster, pp. 13-190.

Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity,” in Deep Memory Exuberant Hope: Contersted Truth in a Post-Christian World, (Fortress, 2000), pp. 69-75.

Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress Press, 1997), passim, especially pp. 341-342, 528f.

William L. Crockett, answer to “What would it mean for the Church to Bless Same-sex Unions?” (portions), Commission on Faith and Doctrine, Dialogue on Same-sex Unions, Anglican Diocese of New Westminster, pp. 20-21.

Leonel Mitchell, “”Baruk Attah, Adonai Blessing,” in “Theological Aspects of Committed Relationships of Same-sex Couples: Report of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music . . . for Discussion at the 73rd General Convention Meeting in Denver in 2000,” The Blue Book (Church Publishing, 2000), pp. 225-227.

Catherine M. Wallace, For Fidelity: How Intimacy and Commitment Enrich Our Lives (Vintage Books, 1999), especially chapter four.

Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” in Ourselves, Our Souls and Bodies: Sexuality and the Household of God, ed. Charles Hefling (Boston: Cowley, 1996), pp. 58-68.


Rev. David Justin Lynch said...

I agree with most of what you say, but for me there will always be SEVEN sacraments. The number of sacraments was in dispute before the Undivided Church settled on seven in the Sentences of Peter Lombard. The idea of "two" sacraments is a creature of the
16th century "reformation" and was taught by Calvin, Zwingli and other undesirables whose ideas and activities are best consigned to the dustbin of theology---this is but one more example of the built-in contrarian nature of protestantism. Luther thought there were three sacraments, as he included confession. I do agree with you that so many other things we do are sacramental in a general sense. But so much of the Church's tradition revolves around the seven sacraments. I can't see what we gain by recognizing but two. I'm with you when you say All the Sacraments for All the People. Rather than pay homage to the "two-sacrament" crowd, let's consider how SEVEN sacraments can be used for the inclusive evangelism so desperately needed in sectors of the Christian Church other than ours.

MarkBrunson said...

Personally, I consider theology to be something predominantly useless - intellectual pocket pool. It's lawyering for churches.

That said, the claim that you "haven't done the theology" is ridiculous. What they mean when they say that - Reasserters and "centrists" both - is that you have done the theology and you haven't gotten the answers they wanted.

Fr Craig said...

Thanks for this - best summary of 'blessing' I've seen.

Milton said...

There is an abyss of misunderstanding between what the Conservatives consider "doing the theology" and what we as the more Liberal end of the Episcopal church consider "doing the theology". Conservatives in general do not trust theology and theologians, they see theology as a tool to slip liberal or unChristian ideas into the church. You will never satisfy them quoting Countryman and Brueggemannat them..

What they really want is a Scripture-based justification for that blessing same sex unions and a Scripture-based justification for our views on the Bibical passages that seem to condemn homosexuality. We have to learn to use the Bible as they do, to use it as a database to be mined for passages supporting our positions. Nothing else, especially the ruminations of theologians such a Countryman and Brueggemann, who are already deeply suspect in their eyes, will satisfy them. At the very least, if we are to quote theologians, we need to quote more conservative theologians,

I doubt that even a bible-based justification will work for them, but it is worth a try. We have to make our case in Bibical passages, for that is the only real authority they recognize.


JimB said...

See, you did not do the right theology or you would agree with the homophobes. That is what they really mean.


I fear there is nothing for it but to go ahead, win the votes in GC and let the haters fall where they may.