Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Blessed Unions

Before I went to seminary, I participated in a one-on-one bible study as part of my preparation. One day, the subject of divorce came up. I can’t remember exactly which passage of scripture we were reading, but I do remember what my mentor said about our church’s approach to divorce: once we gave up on divorce, we lost.

He meant that the Episcopal Church, having accepted the remarriage of divorced individuals, could no longer use scripture as a defense against the “continued moral decline” of mainline churches. In other words, when we started saying that divorce and remarriage is ok, we lost the ability to say, “We can’t [fill in your prohibited behavior] because the bible says so.”

What does the bible say? In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Honestly, I do not enjoy preaching on Mark 10:1-16 (today’s gospel lesson). But that’s not because I find it difficult to say to a divorced person that the bible says you shouldn’t remarry. That’s pretty plain, and I usually don’t have a hard time telling people what the bible says plainly. But what’s hard for me is figuring out why Jesus would say something like this.

I remember the first time I told someone that I thought God’s will for that person was to get divorced. I didn’t say it quite like that, but I remember feeling pretty strange when I—a representative of the church who fairly regularly says to a congregation “what God has joined together let no one put asunder”—said to someone that divorce was the best possible option. But it was clear. The marriage was over. It wasn’t salvageable. The love that God had given them for each other no longer existed. Their relationship was no longer able to point us to God’s selfless love for the world, which meant that their marriage was no longer sacramental. It had failed, and to deny that was to deny the sanctity of marriage itself.

But I also remember squirming in my shoes six months later when I saw that person again with a different woman, whom he called his fiancĂ©e. It’s one thing to say a marriage is over. It’s another thing to leave one spouse and go running to another. And I think that’s what Jesus meant. Marriage is not a throw-away experience. It’s lifelong. Sometimes that doesn’t work, but we must view marriage as something more than a relationship du jour. We can’t trade one spouse in for another when we are ready for an upgrade. That’s when the church truly becomes subject to the continued moral decline of the world, and that’s wrong.

This summer, the Episcopal Church will consider whether to authorize a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions. Although I am still considering the implications of that proposal, I have read through the draft liturgy. It is remarkably conservative—avoids the term “marriage,” strongly emphasizes life-long unions, and seeks to articulate the best traditions of the church afresh without losing their integrity. The only part of the liturgy that is remarkably progressive or liberal is the same-sex aspect of the union.

What should the church do? As it so often is, scripture is pretty plain on this issue. There is no image in the bible of marriage between same-gender partners. There are even passages of the bible that clearly forbid sexual activity between partners of the same sex. But there’s something powerful about declaring that a committed relationship should be life-long—that it’s God’s will that two people remain together for the rest of their lives. Even though it was originally written about men and women, does Mark 10 provide the strongest argument for developing a way for two men or two women to declare before God and the church their desire for a holiness of life that can only come from a life-long commitment?


  1. Well, I have to admit my eye started twitching while I was reading this message. It's a great piece, but you always write great pieces. I have felt for a long time that I'm not qualified to say who should love someone. I don't think I have the right to say to anyone "you shouldn't love him/her; her/her; him/him, because it's not right." What isn't right? How can I say it isn't right? I'm glad there are smarter people than me to make this decision. I just worry about the impact it will make on the church. Lots of prayers!

  2. Evan, I think the right thing to do is vote for A049. In your last paragraph you say, "There are even passages of the Bible that clearly forbid sexual activity between partners of the same sex." I think that is the general issue I have with those who want to vote against A049.

    The 'because the Bible tells me so' argument has been used time and time again - citing the same eight passages, over and over again - against homosexuality as a way for the majority to withhold rights and privileges, but hypocritically looks past the hundreds of passages that refer to how heterosexuals are to act. It seems to reek of hypocrisy. I came to Episcopal Church specifically because it was not so 'wrapped around the axle' on social issues and encouraged openness, reflection and deeper-thinking.

    Sure, there are many positive things that set the Episcopal Church apart from other churches; but there is no other church that better blends the best of traditional and contemporary aspects of religion.

    I also get the sense that many that object to A049 do so because they do not want further rifts in the church; they want to 'stop the bleeding'. To this I say: Those that left, primarily because of Gene Robinson, were small-minded and do not truly represent the modern Episcopal Church. If they are looking for a church that is more right leaning and more Anglican - well, there's the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church.

    There is nothing the Episcopal Church can do to stop them from leaving as their minds were made up (largely) over one gay man's escalation. If that is all it takes for such members of the body to leave, I have to wonder about their true spiritual resolve. In many ways, the 'train has left the station' for the Episcopal Church and the world is watching. Either are probably bad reasons to vote for something, or against something; but I think the Episcopal Church has a great opportunity here to move and grow in a positive direction. I believe the vehicle that will get us there is inclusivity, Christ-like love and tolerance, and a constant dialogue about how we can 'make right' many of the wrongs in Christianity; that we can truly represent Christ in our body through our diversity.

    I think that is the great gift of the Episcopal Church - and the church has opportunity to take that gift and let Christ be known to many who have been shunned, rejected and cast aside, regardless of their sexual orientation. Gay, straight, black, yellow, white, rich, poor - this is Episcopal body that draws so many; many that have given up on other churches.