Dialogue on Same-Sex Unions: Anglican Diocese of New Westminster (Canada)

Discussion Paper Number 4
Prepared by the Commission on Faith and Doctrine (Anglican Church of Canada)

 

Abstract:

This paper asks the questions "What is meant by the blessing of same-sex unions? How does this differ from marriage?" by way of an analysis of the Proposed Rite for the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions, composed for the New Westminster Diocese. It is seen that the rite is eclectic, borrowing from Roman, Orthodox and Protestant views of marriage, and that it is confused as to its status as sacrament or a simple recognition of homoerotic unions by the ecclesial community. While patterning itself upon the BAS marriage ceremony, the pattern is dropped at certain key points. These characteristics are telling in the differences between the marriage covenant and any proposed "blessing" of a homoerotic relationship. To presume that God blesses such arrangements and to ask the Church to echo such a presumed blessing is perilous to those involved, and to the unity of the Church.

Most gracious God, we give you thanks
for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ
to come among us, to be born of a human mother,
brand to make the way of the cross
to be the way of life.
By the power of your Holy Spirit,
pour out your abundant blessing upon NN and NN.
Defend them from every enemy.
Lead them in all peace.
Let their love for each other
be a seal upon their hearts,
a mantle upon their shoulders,
and a crown upon their foreheads.

Here is the thanksgiving and invocation which is to be found at the high point of the rite proposed for "the blessing of same-sex unions" in the New Westminster Diocese. This is a good place to start when we attempt to answer the questions: What is meant by "the blessing of same-sex unions"? and, How does this differ from marriage?

Lex orandi lex credendi: the law, or pattern of prayer, is the pattern for what is believed. The eucharistic blessing quoted above links the rite intended to solemnise same-sex erotic relations with the story of the holy God of Israel, with the Incarnation of Jesus from the virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, and with the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. In speaking of "seal," "mantle" and "crown," the relationship is put in the context of christly anointing, priestly glory and regal splendour Ė that first experienced by the reigning and mediating couple, Adam and Eve, as they presided over the pristine and unfallen Eden, and also that promised to the Church, the Bride, when with Christ she reigns in the new Jerusalem. The proposed liturgy places this newly "covenanted" relationship in juxtaposition with "the way of the cross": here, it suggests, is a Christian "way of life" in which the newly blessed persons will as a couple be defended from every enemy and be led in all peace. At this point in the proposed ceremony, the benediction of the Triune God is given (in traditional or, optionally, in modalist form), and the assembly moves into the Eucharist to dramatise "the blessing" which has already been declared by reference to seal, mantle and crown.

What would be meant by the blessing of "same-sex unions" which include erotic relations? For the Church to bless these would be for the Church to give thanks to God for them Ė to declare that in themselves these are pictures or icons of Godís love, that they display in a certain mode the salvation story, and that they are glorified or taken up into Godís own actions and being. It would be to declare that they have a significant and fruitful part in creation, and that they are symbols of the in-breaking and coming rule of God, in which the Church now shares and in which we will eventually participate fully. It would be to "speak a good word" (Greek, eulogein, "bless," or literally, "speak well") about this sort of relationship, declaring it to be a condition in which the way of the cross and the way of new life come together. It would thus claim that the relationship is conducive of repentance, healing, growth and glorification for the two men or the two women involved. Precisely here, the Church would be saying, you can see the love of God in human form, and the glory of humanity. Here would be a sacrament, or at least something like the Roman "sacramental" ("sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments . . . [and in which] various occasions in life are rendered holy") Ė an occasion where God meets us.
Experimental Formulary or Sacrament?

To be sure, the "Rationale" supplied for this proposed rite explains that such a "covenant" is different from the marriage ceremony: it is only to be presided over by a priest in good conscience, it may only be conducted in a congregation which has approved it, and it does not supplant the marriage ceremony. So it is actually a formulary or a rite that is proposed, one that recognises but does not enact a covenant. We are told, in short, that it is not to be construed as a sacrament. Yet the sacramental language found throughout the ceremony contradicts these cautions and explanations, given the desired connection with the eucharist, and the culminating appeal to unction, the priestly garb of glory, and the royal crown. Moreover, throughout the liturgy (in the gathering, before the vows, and in the first prayer of the people), the community hears the claim that it is God who calls the couple into "covenant" and who is "blessing" the arrangement:

The union of two persons in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy . . .

Look with favour upon NN and NN,
whom you have brought together in love.

Look with favour upon the world you have made,
and for which your son Jesus gave his life
and especially upon these two persons whose covenant you bless.

Despite the initial disavowal that the rite creates a covenant, the whole congregation is led to affirm words normally spoken in a marriage ceremony by the Presider at the conclusion of the sacrament:

People Gracious God,

may NN and NN, who are joined together
in these holy mysteries,
become one in heart and soul.
May they live in fidelity and peace
and obtain those eternal joys
prepared for all who love you;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The ceremony explicitly presents itself (in the Rationale) as a way to "name the presence of God" in this relationship. The "covenant", we are told, has been or is being created by the couple themselves. In reality, the shape of the service leads those present to respond to it as though it were a sacrament, enacted, spoken and affirmed by all the people, and ratified by God himself. The Rationale and the form of the service give two grounds for this affirmation: Godís declaration in Genesis that the created order is good, and the Churchís union as one body in the Eucharist. That is, the service assumes that this coupleís creaturely "covenant" (which explicitly includes bodily sexual relations) is good and blessed. And it implies that God blesses their distinct relationship within the body of Christ through the Eucharist.
Self-declared faith as the foundation

So the rite seems to imply that the covenant has been ordained, is created and is blessed by God. Yet the rationale says that "a blessing of a relationship . . . does not make that relationship blessed; it acknowledges, through the act of thanksgiving, that which already exists." This may be said to match the situation of those who are currently living together in a same-sex sexual relationship; any "blessing" would for them be "after-the-fact." (For example, we hear of "these rings already worn down," and there is an option to make the vows "again," presumably for the first time in public.) So this rite appears to be honouring something created by the persons involved. The devisers of the rite seem also to be borrowing from the Roman Catholic view that it is not the priest or the community who are the "ordinary ministers" or celebrants of the marriage, but the couple themselves. Similarly, in his fourth paper on same-sex relations, the Rev. Dr. William Crockett says,

The blessing of a marriage, however, needs to be distinguished from the marriage covenant itself. The blessing does not create the marriage union. It is the couple themselves who enter into this union. The act of blessing is the churchís prayer blessing God for the union and asking Godís blessing on the couple in their life.

To debate this point about marriage carefully is beyond the scope of this paper. In the proposed liturgy, however, consider the central role of the coupleís own "intent" and "faith" that this is Godís will for them. Their belief is apparently so important and effective that it is declared twice, surrounding the vows. The two men or two women first declare their intent, "believing that we belong to each other and together we belong to God." Then, after the vows, the Presider explicitly interrogates them:

Presider NN and NN, do you believe God
has called you to live together in love?
Couple We do believe. 

It might be noted that the congregation is not required at the beginning of the rite to declare any legal obstacles to the "union"; the coupleís own statement of belief is supposed to be sufficient. (This may be an accident of the present legal situation in Canada, and lack of canonical precedent, but it gives the impression nonetheless that individual belief is foundational, and that the assent of the Church as a body is peripheral.)

Despite the emphasis on the faith of the two persons as foundation, at other points the rite seems to "lose its nerve," as when the congregation is admonished to give its "support":

Presider Will you, the families, friends and faith community of NN and NN, promise to honour and uphold them in their life together; to recognize them as a household; to guide and pray for them in times of trouble; to celebrate with them in times of joy; to respect the bounds of their covenant; and to seek to discern the continuing presence of Christ in their lives?

Alongside the rest of the celebratory language this has a forced and ideological ring.

In the same way, the service itself is often "reserved", marking the rite as different from the long-established tradition of the wedding ceremony: so there is no declaration that the couple is joined; there is no statement about those whom "God has joined together"; there is no warning not to rend the relationship asunder. The Presiderís initial call to faithfulness, too, is different: there is no reference to what would destroy this relationship: the phrase "forsaking all others" is missing. Is this a concession to human frailty, or does it mark an integral difference between this relationship and the marriage union? In sum, the service vacillates between confident assurances of Godís will and human belief, and telling omissions that betray a proper lack of confidence.

In contrast, a bride and groom need not ground their marriage upon particular statements that God has called them together, or on their belief that God is blessing them. Such assurances are wonderful, but they are not what makes the marriage. Rather, the bride and groom simply enter into an estate that has been blessed by God and that has been experienced as life-giving for generation upon generation among Godís people and in the created order. This is much simpler and truer than the proposed same-sex ceremony. In the latter, so much depends upon theological perspective and personal faith that the ceremony cannot rest in the place where it seeks to be naturalised Ė the peace and thanksgiving which comes from the life of the Eucharist and the mind of Christ.
Divided and Divisive

So, then, this is a rite that borrows sacramental language and drama, seeming to do something to the two people, and calling upon the divine and ecclesial will to enact or at least ratify the "covenant." It is also a rather individualistic ceremony that is based upon the sense of belief and calling of the two men or the two women. The eclectic and inconsistent nature of the liturgy means that it is hard to assess: why does it borrow so heavily from the East (which does not hold to the Roman view), why does it tie the union and vows so closely to the sacrament, and why do the presider and congregation frequently speak in words that sound like they accomplish something objective, if this is simply a declaration that something already exists and is good? As we read the ceremony, it is indeed difficult to "hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church"!

The experimental nature of the rite also makes it impossible to hear what the Spirit says to the Church, though it seeks dignity by association with the Eucharist. It cannot be endorsed by the whole Anglican Church of Canada, let alone the Anglican communion or the Church catholic. As such, it places within the context of Eucharist, the common thanksgiving of the Church, an alien "thanksgiving" that cannot be recognised by the whole Church. It imports a disputed action (based on conflicting theologies and ecclesiologies) into the Churchís corporate and mystical act, into the Churchís thanksgiving shared through time and space, a thanksgiving which extends back to the Last Supper, and which shares in the worship of heaven. The ceremony joins to the Eucharist what the church has for ages rejected. It names God as the one who blesses an act for which repentance is required. It replaces God with an idol, and rends the Church. What will the Church do when it prays against itself? A house divided cannot stand.

What, then, is the difference between a same-sex erotic union relationship and a marriage covenant? The attempt made by this rite to pattern the first upon the second exposes the differences. But the most obvious difference is that God himself enacted the first covenant, giving Eve to Adam and Adam to Eve, so that Adam can say, "This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh." Again, the Lord blessed the wedding at Cana, both with his presence and the extravagant gift of wine. Through the prophets, God blessed human marriage by adopting it as a lively metaphor, even a microcosm of his relationship with Israel; both St. Paul and the seer John understand the marriage covenant as a mysterious and sacred picture of Christís bond with the Church. Marriage is not simply an end in itself, but has an impulse to move beyond itself. It does so both on the natural level in the procreation of children and on the spiritual level in giving glory to the Triune God. This covenant witnesses in a powerful way to Christís unselfish love for those whom he makes his own. It also points mysteriously to the wonder of the Trinity, our ultimate pattern of "other-but-same-in relationship." By its nature, same-sex erotic activity cannot fulfil these ecstatic ("going out") roles, but witnesses rather to the general brokenness of every human being, for which Christ offers healing. To put contrary words into Godís mouth or to ask members of Christís body to "bless" is not only to "go beyond what is written" (1 Corinthians 4:6). It is to commend to the family of God, and thus to the world, activities frequently attended by serious sequelae, of which the physical are the most obvious. It is to rob some of Godís own children, those struggling with sexual problems, of their birthright Ė to hear Godís word, to repent, to be comforted, to be healed. The prophet Jeremiah knew a day like ours.

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, "Peace, peace,
when there is no peace . . . .

Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, "We will not walk in it."
How can you say, "We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us,"
when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie?
The wise shall be put to shame,
and taken;
since they have rejected the word of the Lord,
what wisdom is there in them?Ö
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, "Peace, peace,"
when there is no peaceÖ
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there? (Jeremiah 6:14-16; 8:8-22)