November 3rd 2009
This week, I attended two of the California Faith for Equality statewide demonstrations for equal rights in California. Orange County’s service had about 80 people present and San Diego had about 50 people for a lunchtime “60 Minutes for Equality” service. North San Diego County had over 100 people meeting on Monday evening, one of the largest gatherings in the region. I commend California Faith for Equality and her partners for this demonstration of clergy and lay opposition to the current status quo. Like it or not, clergy continue to be the gatekeepers of marriage in California, Maine and every other state in the union. The LGBT community and those who advocate for equal rights, if they have not realized this fact by now, may see the defeat of equal rights in Maine as a wake up call to engage more deeply with the religious dimensions to marriage. Until recently, the religious dimension has been strategically avoided by the equality camp. Maine has changed that.
One of the marks of a healthy marriage is tenacity and good communication. This past year has been difficult for us in California where a slim majority of the electorate stripped the constitutional rights of LGBT citizens and to limited future state sanctioned marriages between a man and a woman. In spite of this blow, the LGBT community and our allies have shown remarkable tenacity in continuing to engage voters who disagree with us. Tenacity and good communication! Equality California, one of the leading statewide movements for LGBT rights has for example continued to have over 600,0000 conversations this year and hired twenty full time field managers. They in turn train thousands of volunteers to go door by door to “Yes on 8” voters to present another story and to show the disparity in rights. This process is to be commended, as it is about engaging in deeper conversations where we are discovering meaning and community in this new engagement with one another. Much of the experience we gained in California last year was utilized in Maine and Washington, where the rights of fellow Americans are being stripped away yet again by the Roman Catholic Church’s leadership and funding. Not only are the constitutional rights of fellow Americans under threat, but the freedom of religious leaders to respond pastorally and liturgically to same gender couples continues to be compromised. 6,000 clergy in California are, (from our interpretation of scripture, from a pastoral and justice perspective), unable to function fully as pastors to all members of our congregations, even when the vast majority of our membership are willing to celebrate sacramental marriages with same gender couples. Some of us feel torn between our official role as agents of the state in officiating at weddings and being pastors to all our people, including the LGBT community. To discriminate, as enforced by the Department of Public Health’s current policy not to grant marriage licenses to same gender couples, runs contrary to many of our religious convictions of serving an inclusive faith community where all God’s children are welcomed and where the sacraments are open, (as in my Episcopal tradition), to all the baptized.
Some of us are now refusing to sign any state marriage licenses until we can sign licenses for all whom we discern to be called by God into a sacramental marriage. Others are continuing to bless and celebrate marriages of couples who come to us. Where the California electorate is almost evenly divided on this issue, the religious community cannot be forced to follow the edicts of a state department that is advocating the theological and political views of the slim majority. Either civil marriage is open to all couples, (as is the case in some states, in most European countries, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa) or there needs to be a religious exemption clause that will allow the 6,000 clergy here in California to respond to the call of God and define marriage as our faith communities allow. Historically, the church defined and controlled marriage until the civil role of registering marriages was taken over by the state. Throughout this state control, the Roman Catholic Church for centuries has delineated civil and sacramental marriage. When the state dissolves a marriage in divorce, there is a portion of that contract that the Roman Catholic Church claims the state has no jurisdiction over. Hence there is a need for a process of annulment to dissolve the marriage. The Roman Catholic Church has set a precedent, and 6,000 clergy representing mainstream churches, the Jewish community and other faith traditions should learn from this tradition and apply it to our current dilemma. Historically, there is a part of the sacrament of marriage that the state does not control, that is claimed by the authority of the faith community and God alone.
Roman Catholics tenaciously hold the right to use this privilege for their own interpretation of marriage, but will they allow clergy and congregations who might share some of the similar views of what makes a sacramental marriage to do the same? In other words, can we continue to bless and sanctify same gender marriages within our faith traditions even thought they are not recognized by the Department of Heath? Can a state employee who has not professional theological or religious credential tell 6,000 clergy in California their marriages are not “sacramentally” valid?
I recently married a couple who were legally married in California but did not have a religious ceremony. They told me they did not feel “married”. They wanted a ceremony where they could demonstrate their love and commitment in front of friends and family and they wanted a religious leader there to perform the ceremony. We planned a sacramental marriage, and even though it was not a legal service (no state forms to sign), for everyone present. This was an actual marriage and in the eyes of the community present, Aaron and Rusty moved from being a partnered couple to being married.
One of the ways forward and avoid the 50/50 popular vote “standoff” that we will soon find ourselves in may be for the religious and state communities to come to terms with the complexity of this issue and to develop an agreed simple solution. The constitution should allow for all responsible adult citizens to marry the person they love and want to spend the rest of their lives with. The state will remain responsible for the registration of all marriages through the existing licensing process. The religious community should also be allowed to define marriage as they understand it and not be forced to do something which is contrary to that understanding. Even though the larger Christian church has no agreed definition of marriage (or divorce), there is agreement that the state should not use its civil authority to impose the theological and political views of a slim majority upon everyone.
Shannon Minter, the attorney who argued the case for same gender marriages before the Supreme Court would invite us all to appeal to our consciences and to invite those couples who are currently denied their full civil rights to indeed live as if we were married. More and more couples in California and other states, as a common act of conscience and in defiance of a great social injustice, (often portrayed with a religious mask of orthodoxy) will come to us seeking God’s blessing and the blessing of the friends and community. We cannot be totally defined by a department of state, or by the will of the slim majority. Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion is core values in our democracy and the pillars of church and state must always stand apart.
Dr. Margaret Farley, a Roman Catholic ethicist from Yale in her book “Just Love” gives us some insights into what a new and inclusive ethic for marriage might look like. She creates a 21st century model of what it means to live in and to bless a “sacramental marriage” that is built upon her Roman Catholic background and broader Christian experience. Her model applies to heterosexuals principally, but is inclusive of same gender couples.
Principle 1: Self determination –is an affirmation by each partner of what it means to be a person rather than “scooping you into my agenda”. This demands the ethic of mutual respect for persons as ends in themselves and not to harm them “unjustly”) Farley has worked in difficult contexts like Africa where gender inequality is one of the major reasons for the increase of HIV infection in women. Her context is compelling as she notes this principle has been dangerously absent in many heterosexual relationships.
Principle 2: Respect for the autonomy of the other –ensuring the free consent of sexual partners. This should include truth telling and promise keeping.
Principle 3: Equality of Power which ensures the protection of the vulnerability of the other to allow for possibilities of growth.
Principle 4: Commitment –an enduring love in which each person can learn to be faithful and hope-full.
Principle 5: Fruitfulness, which in traditional Roman Catholic teaching was focused solely on reproduction of children. Farley expands this model to talk about both the creation of children and the possibility of being called in a “fruitful” sacramental relationship the care of other people’s children. How do we create institutions that create safety and security for future generations? For Farley, non procreative relationships for heterosexual and same gender couples can be fruitful and therefore sacramental.
Farley is one ethicist who is struggling with traditional church teaching and the possibilities a new ethic for sacramental marriage. Her emerging framework is both challenging to heterosexuals who seek to live out sacramental marriages and to same gender couples who may be called to the same holy lives. Dare the state or the church tell us that we should not affirm and bless them on their journeys? She also challenges us to think more deeply about what makes a marriage successful, like tenacity and good communication as I addressed earlier. Love can help a married coupled but it is often not enough to sustain the challenges faced by two human beings. She challenges us to inject the concept of justice into our ethic of marriage as a more stable and helpful concept. Equality in marriage is not only something we should wish for the LGBT community, but equality may be an essential antidote to breaking the contemporary pattern of one in two American marriages failing. Most clergy see our work to connect all people with one another and to affirm our inclusion in a mysterious creation, that we believe has meaning purpose and we experience that more clearly in deep loving relationships. The struggle for marriage equality for LGBT people is connected to this larger search for meaning and love and to discover helpful ethical frameworks that hold people and families together. To attempt to exclude us or prevent us from fulfilling this vocation with, LGBT couples, our faith communities, families and allies, I believe is to do a great disservice to this higher calling.
Rev. Canon Albert Ogle is Vice President for National Affairs with Integrity and serves on the California Council of Churches Impact Board. He serves as clergy in St. Paul’s Cathedral San Diego and works for Equality California.