Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Marriage Equality in Pennsylvania. What's not to "Like"?

I first got the news from Facebook.  One of my parishioners who is a partnered lesbian had posted that she was going to miss the State Supreme Court announcement scheduled for 2 pm due to a work meeting.  I did a little digging and to my amazement found that it was true.  Then NPR broke into the broadcast to share the news that the Judge had ruled that PA's "Defense of Marriage" Act was indeed UN-constitutional.

After letting the news sink in I shared my joy on my personal Facebook page.  It was amazing to watch the reaction, both to my post and to the ruling, spread rapidly across my feed.  Here and there another clergy person would react praising the decision.  But then I saw the post from my friends at Congregation Rodeph Shalom.  They did more than express their joy, they called on their congregants to join them at a celebratory rally at City Hall.

I was not surprised (they are a very progressive and activist congregation) but was still impressed.  They didn't just announce it, they embraced it.  This left me pondering, should I take this news and make it a parish issue?

I knew most would "like" it.  Yet not all would welcome it.  My parish of St Timothy's is a very welcoming place.  We have several same gender couples and a few other LGBTQ individuals.  For a smaller parish (an average of 80 people on a Sunday) this is not a bad representation. Although not all parishioners are supportive, they do not make a public issue of it.  Instead, despite the diversity of opinions, we manage to create a genuinely caring community built upon the bonds of faith and fellowship.

So what would happen if I posted something stating that the parish rejoiced in the decision and looked forward to an increase in weddings?

Possibly it would go largely unnoticed by those who disagree.  But then again it might not.  My fear was that by publically drawing attention to a potentially divisive issue I might take embers of division and fan them into flames.  More importantly, a Facebook post would not change the more important reality that St. Tim's is a place where people of diverse race, education, wealth, theology and sexuality all come together to sit together in worship, share coffee and fellowship and kneel at the same rail as sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ.   Was I willing to jeopardize that community just so I could follow my heart?

I realize some of you may be tempted to remind me of Dr. King's, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, in which he proclaims, "Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with G-D, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."

There is no doubt that as clergy we are called to be prophetic...  to push forward and proclaim liberty and justice regardless of resistance or cost.  Yet it is also our duty to be pastoral and to care for every member of our flock.  This can be a tenuous balance.  At times it seems downright impossible.  How does one manage to keep everyone at the table when the divisions are so profound as to deal with the "rightness" of who a person loves and is at the core of their very being?

I don't know the answer.  What is right for one congregation is not always right for another.  There is a diversity of perspective and practice.  Just as parishes range from spiky high to snake belly low in their worship style, it is the same when it comes to social action.  Some choose to make that commitment to justice and action the center of their common identity.  Others never get involved in politics yet still manage to live out their Baptismal Covenant to "seek and serve Christ in all persons" and to "respect the dignity of every human being" just as fully as the most progressive parish.

So what does this really mean for Episcopalians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania?  Like the rest of the TEC my Diocese of Pennsylvania is no stranger to the kind of bitter division that can arise as we try to come to grips with what it means to hold unity and diversity in tension particularly over matters of sexuality.  In recent decades some parishes withdrew from our common life or left the TEC altogether.  But over time most have gradually re-engaged and to date only one is now left on the fringes.

Of course that does not mean that everyone in our diocese will agree.  Indeed, I believe this court ruling will have a far greater impact on our parishes than the results of our 2012 General Convention decision to allow for same gender blessing ceremonies.  As parishes across PA start to celebrate the weddings  of same gender couples it will inevitably reopen some old divisions.  St.Tim's will be no exception.

When the first wedding between two women or two men takes place here many will rejoice, not just because they feel it reflects the inclusive values of the Kingdom, but because the people getting married are their friends.  But despite our close ties some will not be able be so happy. The bottom line is that we will not wait until everyone is on board, but at the same time we will not abandon those who disagree just because they are not.  And if we can manage to do that, then perhaps we will manage to keep more people at the table, even as we move forward.

The Rev. Kirk Berlenbach is the Rector of Saint Timothy's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.  He is very active in diocesan governance and is a deputy to General Convention.  He is also active in Interfaith and Emerging Church movements.  His blog, So this Priest Walks into a Bar... is about craft beer, rock and roll and finding God out in the world.

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