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.