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Shifting when (much of) the rest of the world shifts

Shifting when (much of) the rest of the world shifts

In the Dallas Morning News‘ blog on religion, theologians from all over Texas consider the question of marriage equality and of how and whether the church should shift when the culture does – or if it’s the other way around – or both – or something else entirely.

Fort Worth’s Katie Sherrod takes a reasoned swing at the question.

In The Episcopal Church, change happens as a result of the church exploring scripture through the lenses of tradition and reason as we seek to understand what scripture is saying to us in our day. That, and the impetus of the Holy Spirit.

For instance, deputies to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in Indianapolis this summer will vote on a resolution “authorizing liturgical resources for blessing same-gender relationships . . .for trial use . . . beginning the First Sunday of Advent 2012, under the direction of a bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority.”

If passed, it means that “bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal,may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church, including adaptation of the liturgy and declaration of intention” contained in the liturgical resources.

A second resolution requests General Convention create a Task Force on the Study of Marriage “to identify and explore biblical, theological,historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage” and to “consider issues raised by changing societal and cultural norms and legal structures, including legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships between two people of the same sex, in the U.S. and other countries where The Episcopal Church is located,” and that they “develop tools for theological reflection and norms for theological discussion at a local level” and report back to the 2015 General Convention.

How did The Episcopal Church arrive at this astonishing point in its history? Well, it took more than thirty years of patient work by faithful lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Episcopalians and their allies. These individuals collaborated with each other and with other justice groups in the church such as the Episcopal Women’s Caucus (which led the effort to get the church to authorize ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate), and the Union of Black Episcopalians (the leader in ongoing efforts to eradicate racism in the church) to educate the church about the realities and astonishing diversity of human sexuality; to explore and develop theological and scriptural foundations for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life and worship of the church, and — perhaps most important of all — to put a human face on what had been a theoretical issue for most Episcopalians.

This patient witness and the hard work of education on this subject were perhaps slightly easier in The Episcopal Church than in other denominations because of our Anglican tradition.

Anglicanism, of which The Episcopal Church is the expression in the United States and in Honduras, Taiwan, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, the British Virgin Islands and parts of Europe, famously relies on the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason to make the connections between our God-given reason and the scripture given to us by God. This connection, used in the context of the tradition of the church, enables us to apply our ability to reason to make sense of what scripture is saying to us in our day.

Churches other than The Episcopal Church do this as well, of course. How else would so many Christian churches come to accept divorce, against which Jesus spoke with great clarity in scripture? Even so, along with many other denominations in the mid 1970’s, the Episcopal Church changed its canon law about divorce. Our forebears in Christian churches did the same in coming to terms with the evils of slavery, which scripture clearly condones.

Jesus had nothing, not one word, to say about homosexuality. The famous story of Sodom in Hebrew Scripture is not about homosexuality, but about abuse of hospitality. Levitical passages refer to temple prostitution, not committed lifelong relationships among gay people. Indeed, the word “homosexual” did not exist until the mid-1800s. Patient and thorough work by numerous theologians and biblical scholars has undergirded the evolution of thought on this issue in The Episcopal Church.

In the end, I think it all comes down to a theology of baptism. What does it mean to mark someone as Christ’s own forever? That is work The Episcopal Church has been doing for the last century, as it works to understand and live out our baptismal covenant to seek and serve Christ is all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.


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In reflection, I think the Episcopal Church has a rather mixed record on the issue. On the one hand, back in the 70’s and early 80’s when it was still very unpopular, GC was passing resolutions in support of equal protection under the law for gay people, and for our civil rights. On the other hand, it was still kicking the can down the road by calling for studies of this or that aspect of the issue, opposing the ordination of gay folk, and not recognizing our relationships. It wasn’t until 1994 that GC asked the various levels of government to extend marriage benefits to gay people – while, incidentally, defeating a proposal for the Church Pension Fund to extend equal benefits to gay families as late as 1997! So on the one hand it was calling for society to change, while refusing to change itself, and avoiding engagement by the tactic of studying the issue to death.

But to the extent that our polity is democratic and our demography a reflection of that of the US as a whole, I’m not sure that change can realistically be expected to take place at a greater pace than it is happening in the broader society. To be honest, in the case of same-sex blessings (as opposed to the broader issue of gay rights) I’m not terribly invested in the Church changing right now – I’m much more interested in the secular world’s recognition of gay families than I am in Church weddings for GLBs; I think the fight for SSBs is something of a distraction. In any case, while my partner and I might get married, it won’t be in church.

But Nicole, let’s face it – whether or not the Church leads or follows isn’t really the issue with you, is it? You want the Church to hold the traditional line on sexual morality no matter what society thinks, isn’t that right?

Ann, I think that as far as religious bodies go, ECUSA is leading the way. Society itself is still slightly ahead of the Church on this issue, it seems to me. But as far as showing that the othering and denigration of gay people are not inseparably linked to the Gospel, we’re certainly leading.

Bill Dilworth

Ann Fontaine

The secular world is hardly embracing full inclusion and rights for gays and lesbians. Note: gay bashing is on the rise, oppressive laws in many states, many repressive churches, etc. I would say Nicole that the Episcopal church is leading the way in compassion and change – not society – this time. Even though the polls show most agree with the Episcopal Church – the politics continue.

Gary Paul Gilbert

The spirit blows where it will. Sometimes it is not in the churches perhaps because traditionalism cannot renew itself.

For the law, equal protection before the law is a working principle, whereas churches have only begun to understand that “equal” can only mean equal.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Nicole Porter

Bill, don’t you think the Church should lead the way on what is right though? Isn’t taking cues from the secular world take legitimacy out, giving the impression that we would bow to anything and stand for nothing?

Bill Dilworth

Nicole, the Church taking its cues from society is simply business as usual. For example, the Episcopal Church didn’t stick out our collective neck on the slavery issue until after the Civil War. Our institutional record on things like evolution and women’s rights are equally as lame. We often seem to avoid reassessing our morals and belief system until we’re forced to by popular opinion. When it’s obvious that only scoundrels cling to a given position, it’s then that the Episcopal Church springs into action and bravely disassociates itself from it. Individual Episcopalians often are in the forefront of witnessing to society – the Church, less so.

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