In the early 2000′s we started working hard to be able to bless same-sex relationships. We wanted all of the sacraments of the church to be available to all of the members of the church. At the time, marriage was not a legal option anywhere in the U.S., so instead we wanted authorization to have blessing services. For me personally, living in the DOMA state of Idaho, legal same-sex marriage was inconceivable. literally. I could only concieve of same-sex blessings.
In 2009 we reached a milestone when we passed a resolution giving bishops wide latitude in allowing blessings to take place and asking our liturgical commission to craft a blessing liturgy that we could consider in 2012 (which we just approved!) This was a very big deal. The goal of same-sex blessings was in sight.
AND THEN . . .
A funny thing happened on the way to blessings. Same-sex marriage became legal. In 2009, the same year our General Convention met in Anaheim and we were only inches away from meeting our goal of blessings, the goalposts were moved. Once we saw same-sex couples being married, it became clear that blessings were a poor, non-equal substitute. What we were really talking about was marriage.
Now marriage is more complicated. With blessings we are doing something new. With marriage we are changing something old. Not that we hadn’t changed it in the past, most recently allowing remarriage after divorce and, as a culture, interracial marriage. But still, changing something as foundational and as old as marriage is a big deal. And technically complicated. Because our church constitution and canons were written in a time when opposite-sex marriage was normative, they contain “man and woman” language. The same is true for the marriage service in our Prayer Book. The Constitution and Prayer Book take 2 consecutive conventions (each three years apart) to change.
As we began to consider changing our marriage rite, and other documents, to allow for same-sex marriage, we realized that we needed a deeper study of marriage. Marriage has changed dramatically in our culture. Does the state mean the same thing by the word “marriage” as the church? For us, it is a sacrament. For the state it is a contract. Marriage in our divorce-prone culture seems to have become a form of serial monogamy. Do we, as the church, want to continue to be an agent of the state, solemnizing this contract? Or do we want to have our own rite we can offer apart from the civil contract given by the state? What can we do for older couples who want to be “married” by the church but can’t, for financial reasons, be married by the state.
The question of same-sex marriage has really forced us to do what we needed to do anyway, which is to take a deeper look at marriage, both in our culture and as a sacrament. It is my expectation that the end result will include a rite for same-sex marriage, but it will also create many other possibilities as well – perhaps a rite for holy matrimony that is available to all couples and that is separate from the state’s contract of marriage.
In the meantime, the blessing rite we approved in Indianapolis can be edited by bishops so it can be used as a marriage rite. Bishops do have the latitude in the blessing resolution we passed to allow their clergy to officiate at marriages.
As for the marriage conversation, here’s what we approved at the General Convention:
Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 77th General Conventionrespectfully request that the Presiding Bishop and President of the House ofDeputies jointly appoint a task force of not more than twelve (12) persons,consisting of theologians, pastors, and educators, to identify and explore keytheological and historical dimensions of marriage; and be it furtherResolved, That the task force work with Episcopal Church staff, and other expertsas consultants and coordinators; and be it furtherResolved, That the Task Force engage with the issues raised by changing socialnorms and legal structures in American and other societies; and be it furtherResolved, That it consult with married couples, lesbian and gay couples living incommitment or, where laws permit, in civil marriage – and single adults; and be itfurtherResolved, That in these discussions it consider perspectives from a variety ofcultures; and be it furtherResolved, That it consult with our partners both in and beyond the AnglicanCommunion; and be it furtherResolved, That it deeply engage with the rich resources of moral theology in ourAnglican tradition; and be it furtherResolved, That it develop and design tools for theological reflection and normsfor theological discussion at a local level; and be it furtherResolved, that the Task Force report back to the 78th General Convention withannual reports to the Executive Council; and be it furtherResolved, That the General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee onProgram, Budget and Finance to consider a budget allocation of $30,000.00 forthe implementation of this resolution.