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MARRIAGE EXTENSION

The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops has voted to extend marriage to same-sex couples. It is certain that the House of Deputies will follow suit. Part of this decision involves a resolution that in the Prayer Book Marriage service the language will be refer to “couples” rather than male and female. The Constitution of the Episcopal Church defines a process for Prayer Book revision requiring that such revisions be voted on at two General Conventions before the change becomes effective. The action of the House of Bishops in circumventing this requirement now sets a precedent. The Book of Common Prayer may now be revised in any particular as a Majority in General Convention wills. It seems logical that any article of the Constitution may undergo hasty revision if a majority so wills. There’s no Court of Appeal to test such a process. Another set of Trial Rites has been approved, to be used at the discretion of the Ordinary. In cases where the Ordinary refuses to permit use of the Trial Rites, he or she must make provision for the couple to be married elsewhere or by some other means.

The visibility and remarkable empowerment of the Gay community, both within the church and in society presents the church with a pastoral and evangelical problem. There are many ordained LGBT people in the churches and our church; many serve on vestries, sing in choirs, teach Sunday School, help in outreach. That this is true is nothing new. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a parish or pastored one where this has not been true. Even in the most traditional parishes this is true. By no means all wish to have relationships blessed, or marriages effected, nor do all, by any means believe this to be appropriate. That being said, many seek to be affirmed in relationships and to enjoy the same status and recognition as male-female marriages.

Let me be clear. The church has a clear pastoral duty to minister equally to all its parishioners and to reach out to all people. Nor can we expect parishioners to suddenly develop into perfect people. The late beloved Michael Ramsey said that if we start throwing out those who do not conform to purity, in the end those remaining will have to be ejected because they commit the deadly sin of Pride.

However there is another form of that sin. “For the sin of heresy is not the holding or teaching of false doctrine, but the belief that one’s own opinion, because it is one’s own opinion, is more likely to be right than the teaching of the Church – or of the best and wisest Christians in all ages and all places.” CB Moss, The Christian Faith. This is true individually and collectively.

I do not doubt that the secular state has the right to define marriage in anyway it thinks fit. The Church, and churches that claim apostolicity, are much more constrained. To “extend doctrine” beyond that which has been commonly held from the beginning, at the very least without some impressive trans-Anglican and ecumenical consensus, so that it may be said “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” must be viewed suspiciously. False teaching is often caring, contextually local and extremely popular. Arianism was in Egypt.

To oppose the extension of marriage to same-sex couples may be, in some, perhaps many cases, inspired from a visceral revulsion or inherited or assumed bigotry. Yet any moral position the Church affirms may be used by the pharisee in our midst as they shout, “I thank you Lord that I am not as others.”

The traditional doctrine of Marriage is deeply rooted in the Genesis accounts of Creation. To affirm this doesn’t require one to take the Genesis stories “literally”, unless one knows that “literally” means, in a book. But Genesis underlines God’s purpose in all creation and undergirds all other biblical teaching on Matrimony. The fact that men had multiple wives in Old Testament times does point to variations in marriage, ones cleared up by New Testament times, but not to variations in the gender of partners. Procreation is an inseparable part of the purpose of marriage. Of course couples who cannot have children, or believe, after prayer and counsel that they should not have children, are truly married. But exceptions don’t prove or disprove rules. One of the aspects of marriage sorely neglected is that it not only provides for the care and nurture of children, but that for Christians, it is a primary act of evangelism, as children are brought to baptism and raised in “the faith and fear of the Lord.” “Be fruitful and multiply.”

What may one say?  I do not doubt that the bishops acted out of sincere pastoral care. I do believe that acted beyond their competence, as successors of the Apostles and as upholders of the law of our church.

THE CHARLESTON TRAGEDY

I really can’t understand how some of my friends can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the grim reality of racism and who seek to advance the theory that symbols of racism are somehow neutral, because they fear that to admit this horror would somehow weaken their other political ideals. My great-great grandfather, Antoine Clavier de Cas Navire was black, of mixed race, a graduate of the Sorbonne, who was expelled from Martinique for championing the rights of slaves. My grandfather, a doctor, was colored. When he came to England from Guyana after the war, when I was seven, I met him and gasped, “Mummy my Grandpa is a black man.” He roared with laughter and loved me. I was taught from the earliest age that color, like beauty is skin deep, and that it’s who we are, not what we are that counts. It sounds simple but it is hard to break out of safer habits.
However I’m very much afraid that when the dust settles, we will swiftly forget the Charleston massacre, the media will move to another subject, and, until this sort of tragedy recurs, we will bury our heads in the sand because we dare not admit that there runs through contemporary society a deep vein of intolerance towards any caste that isn’t like our own. Jesus wept.

A PRE-CONVENTION REFLECTION

Next week bishops and clerical and lay deputies from all over the Episcopal Church will descend on Salt Lake City, Utah, for the triennial meeting of its primary legislative body. Each day during nearly two weeks of meetings, Convention will meet as one body to worship God and offer the Eucharist. Each day those assembled will state collectively that they believe the Church to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. Such a profession is at once descriptive and aspirational. It is descriptive because we believe at root, the Church of God is all those things. It is aspirational because the Church in this day and age is divided, sinful, and introverted. I don’t speak only here of the tiny portion of the Church of God we term The Episcopal Church, but of the Church we see and to which we now belong here on earth.

There’s a certain irony about TEC’s meeting in Salt Lake City. For that place is the mother and home of one of those American bodies that emerged in the 19th. Century as America expanded westward and lived into its destiny. Should not an exceptional nation have an exceptional religion, home grown and beholden to no one and nothing but itself? Exceptionalism continues to run deep in the American political, national and religious DNA. Even when expressed in tandem with a conviction that we should appreciate where we came from and embrace the wider world, still there remains an almost visceral awareness that we are not as others are. And so the Creeds, daily recited, sound an uncomfortable and even jarring note, a reminder of something deeper than nostalgia – something much deeper than the way many Americans seem to love the British Royals while swiftly agreeing that the American Way is other. Well that may be well and good as it refers to the form a nation state takes, but it is topsy turvy when applied to what we term ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. One would wish that General Convention would project onto a large screen in both its Houses the words, “We believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”

In what manner should General Convention aspire to live into the Credal doctrine?

1. One. Jesus prayed that the Church would be one. While the modern ecumenical movement, for over a century, has striven to recapture that unity, with few exceptions TEC has opted for the easy way out.  While we’ve entered into agreements of intercommunion with Lutherans, Moravians, Old Catholics and may do so with Methodists, we’ve retained our independence and in most communities few signs exist that our agreements have made much difference. Not even the present Pope speaks of unity in terms of uniformity, but unity means walking together, pushing aside stumbling blocks as we walk together, and the realization that the journey forward is together and not as friendly but distinct tribes. The puzzle remains. While we have made significant strides, we’ve also created a number of new and formidable stumbling blocks, yes, in the name of truth and justice, but also with considerable hubris and vocal disdain for those not so guided by our visions. Division ecumenically, within our Communion and internally continues to present to the watching world something other than a pattern for reconciliation, as applicable to the world as to the Church. The Anglican habit of tentative advocacy, admitting that one may be wrong, has been replaced by abrasive certainty, whatever the consequence in lost and disillusioned people

2. Holy.  The root of the word ‘Holy’ is separate, apart, different. As applied to God it means that even in God’s approaching us, he remains distinct, often in a manner which draws us to kneel in awe and to express our unworthiness, as Isaiah did when he was given a vision of Yahweh (Isaiah 6). When applied to the Church, the term Holy refers to its calling, its being set apart as a kingdom of priests unto God. The fact that only the baptized may offer the Eucharist is all about that distinct vocation and nothing at all to do with God’s love for all men and women. The baptized are called into a  priesthood. The function of a priest is to stand for the world to God and to offer God to the world. The central and distinct calling of the Church is expressed in worship.

We’ve become so seduced by therapeutic religion that we can’t embrace our vocation. Submerged in our neediness, a desperate yearning to be fixed and to fix,  we concentrate on what God does for us, and because we are insatiable we assume that the non Christian world is as needy as we are. We urge them to come join us in church. We just can’t understand why there’s little response and our congregations wither.

Holiness means that we embrace our calling and endeavor in thought, word and deed, to mirror the life, deeds and mighty acts of our great High Priest, Jesus. Unless General Convention envisions both the calling of the People of God, and the Christ-like life of the People of God, it won’t be able to see structure as sacramental and evangelism as the living out of Priesthood in God’s world. Jesus’s life is not so much a pattern of morality in its narrow sense as that of self-forgetting outpouring and life-giving.

3. Catholic.  Catholic means something much more profound than worldwide. Yes, TEC has some rather minuscule foreign dependents but that hardly adds up to Catholicity. We are part of the Anglican Communion, but even, at our best, when we acknowledge that in the New Testament the word communion means the deepest form of union, we remain far less than Catholic. Catholicity is much more than ‘valid Orders’, or ‘valid sacraments’, or structural connection. At root it refers to the life giving presence of the Holy Spirit made visible and tangible in ministry, sacraments, teaching and connection. We can’t begin to talk about Catholicity until we learn to gaze at all the components of what we term Church as Spirit-filled gifts of God to us. While we merely gaze at these gifts in terms of what the world terms utility, structure, forms and methods which belong to us, which we may tinker with, alter, amend, even discard at will, instead of approaching them with reverence and awe, we touch the Ark to our own peril and create a parody of the Church in its essential nature and being.

4. Apostolic.  The disciples were titled Apostles because they were charged, at the Ascension, by Jesus, with a few deceptively simple commandments. “Go into all the world.”  “Go baptize”. “Do this in remembrance of me.” “Love one another”. The disciples had no budget, no structure, no power. When that sinks in, we either pine for simple days, or dismiss their impoverishment as something which has no application in a complex modern world. “Apostolic’ means sent out, it means movement out, it means trusting in the Trinity, it means believing that as we so go, God adds to the Church those whom he calls. Yet we continue to see apostolicity as inviting in, staying put, a sort of Pelagian trust in our own smartness to  dream up schemes and plans to turn things around. We don’t seem to believe that the modern world, the city outside church buildings, is a safe place for us. We don’t believe that God is going to do the evangelism if we dare step out of our Upper Rooms. Marks of apostolicity, the Historic Faith, the Ministry, the Sacraments, and the call to loving service to mankind, are just neatly labelled museum pieces if we remain the Episcopal Church in the Upper Room. They easily become nicely framed proposed motions in a virtual Blue Book.

The great call General Convention should hear is a call to be the Church, to aspire to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic as a kingdom of priests for God and for the world. Nothing less honors our calling.