Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Clergy as Agents of the State? A Question for Discernment

In preparation for the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the Task Force on the Study of Marriage issued a lengthy Blue Book Report — which included (on page 565) this essay on the issue of whether or not clergy should continue to act as agents of the state in solemnizing civil marriages. We’re reprinting it here to facilitate dialogue and discussion this aspect of the how the Episcopal Church continues to evolve on the multi-faceted issue of marriage.

Over the last decade, as Episcopalians have discussed our theology of marriage and the place of marriage in the life of the Church, the role of clergy as agents of the state in solemnizing civil marriages has come under consideration. Increasingly, the question has emerged, “Should we be in the marriage business?” Usually when this question is raised, the question is not whether we should perform Christian marriages in our churches.

Rather, the question is whether in these celebrations clergy should also legally solemnize civil marriages as agents of the state. That is, should clergy sign marriage licenses and return them to the town clerk? In the United States this is the action that renders a couple legally married in the eyes of the state, regardless of the vows they make in church.

1. Invisible/Visible

In the life of many congregations, this interface with civil marriage may be nearly invisible. The signing of the marriage license may take place off to the side, perhaps in a sacristy. Many people may not realize that clergy routinely perform double duty when they officiate at marriages, acting as agents of both church and state. In contrast, in states with marriage equality and in which congregations have permission to officiate at same-sex weddings, the signing of the marriage license may well take a place of honor. And indeed, due to this new attention to the role of clergy in signing marriage licenses, some may be newly aware of this double duty.

2. Strategic Disengagement
Some congregations have sought to pause or eliminate this double duty, however. In dioceses where same-sex and different-sex couples might experience legal or ecclesial discrepancies in access to marriage, some congregations have taken up a new policy. They require the marriages of all couples to be solemnized by a civil official before being blessed in the course of the church liturgy. Here the concern is to treat all couples equally, regardless of sexual orientation. Such congregations are emulating, in their own way, some

European countries (for example, France), where couples have historically married first at a courthouse or mayor’s office and then later joined their communities at their places of worship.

Some have further argued from a position of support for same-sex couples that even where marriage equality is legal and there are no discrepancies of access between civil and ecclesial marriage, clergy in The Episcopal Church still should no longer legally solemnize any marriages. At the same time, others are beginning to urge a similar practice of strategic disengagement to critique the expansion of marriage to include same-sex couples. Here the concern is to stand apart from understandings of marriage that are not strictly heterosexual. Both of these perspectives express concern about how serving as agents of the state may compromise their ability to bear authentic witness to their understandings of Christian marriage, and perhaps even of the gospel itself.

3. Pastoral Concerns

Not surprisingly, Episcopalians have varieties of responses to these practices of strategic disengagement.

While many proponents of marriage equality prefer having a civil official sign the marriage license, other proponents have wondered why the Church might question its role as an agent of the state in marriage at a time when more dioceses may be prepared to extend that practice to same-sex couples. People of various perspectives have further wondered about the pastoral impact that might be felt by couples and families across the Church if we were to require all couples to engage a civil official as well as a clergyperson as part of “how we do marriage.” It may well be that in France, such duality of practice is widespread, this line of reasoning explains, but in the United States a shift to this model could simply feel alienating in our congregations.

4. Whether and/or How

On this question, therefore, it seems clear that we have some discernment in which to engage as a church.

Having approached Christian marriage through a vocational lens in the paper “Christian Marriage as Vocation,” the question arises as to whether and/or how the Church may be called to serve as an agent of the state in this arena. In God Believes in Love, Bishop V. Gene Robinson describes a fictional scenario in which a church has discerned a call not to have its priest serve as an agent of the state.

Yet how exactly did this congregation embody this distinction? In Robinson’s example, the congregation’s senior warden serves as an agent of the state for all marriages at the parish. The warden signs the marriage license of all couples in the doorway at the back of the Church, embodying quite literally the border of the civil and ecclesial spheres.

While wardens are not clergy, they are members of their parishes. Therefore, although the distinction between church and state is indeed much clearer here than it is when a clergyperson signs the marriage license, the parish as a community is still making a conscious decision to interface with civil marriage in a particular (in this case, spatial) manner. The community might have asked all couples to have their marriage licenses signed someplace outside the Church altogether, for instance. A congregation might choose a path of greater church-state linkage or separation, and it might do so in a number of different ways. Thus the discernment is not only whether a parish might or might not decide to participate in civil marriage, but potentially how.

5. Implications for Discernment: Unjust Structures

Our discernment process should also consider the ways in which our participation in civil marriage may contribute to the status of privilege accorded to marriage in the civil as well as ecclesial spheres. The paper, “Christian Marriage as Vocation” points out that marriage is both a profound vocation in its own right as well as a manner of life to which some (but not all) are called. Our canons further specify that equal access to a “place in the life, worship and governance of this Church” cannot be denied on the basis of marital status (Canon 1.17.5).

Yet a further question to consider is how the Church’s participation in civil marriage may contribute to marriage in the civil sphere more broadly. In what ways might that participation interface with our call to help transform unjust structures in that sphere?42 Our discernment process might consider, for instance, how health insurance and tax benefits are linked to civil marriage, how unevenly civil marriages are recognized by the states at present, and how profoundly that lack of recognition can impact the daily lives and basic needs of those who remain unrecognized. It is one thing for the Church to embrace the widespread discernment of vocations to Christian marriage, but how we interface with its civil recognition is a distinct matter.

6. Implications for Discernment: Ecclesiology and Mission
How we discern our call to interface with civil marriage down the road clearly emerges in important ways from our theology of marriage. Yet further theological considerations should also prompt our reflection.

While our canons currently prohibit the solemnization of marriages that are not considered legal according to the laws of the state (Canon I.18.2), the two Task Force papers on biblical and theological dimensions of marriage suggest that our theology of Christian marriage does not emerge from marriage’s civil status.

Discernment related to this question — of whether and/or how to serve as agents of the state — should arguably flow more fundamentally from our ecclesiology and understanding of mission. How might our theological understanding of the Church, and particularly of its vocation at its interfaces with the civil sphere, inform this discernment? This solemnization question challenges us to clarify how we are called to be agents of the Good News at the borders of the ecclesial and civil. Does our service as agents of the state enable us to be better agents of reconciliation and transformation in the world than we otherwise would be? Does it make us complicit in the furthering of injustices in that world? What if our participation catches us up in both? If that is the case, how might we discern not simply the lesser of two evils but instead the expansion of the greater good?

Whatever we ultimately discern, the clear mandate from our baptism to respect the dignity of every human being (1979 BCP, 305) calls us both now and in the long run to be consistent in our practice, regardless of the sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression of the prospective spouses, just as we already should be with respect to their race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, disability, or age (Canon I.17.5).

Should the General Convention decide in the future, for example, to limit the scope of the Church’s engagement in marriage to its theological, liturgical, and pastoral facets and to canonically decouple Christian marriage from its legal, civil counterpart, we should engage this process with consistency across the demographic particularities of our communities. All of this calls for careful conversation, reflection, and prayer.

Works Cited

Martin, Dale. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville: Westminster, John Knox, 2006.

“Mission – The Five Marks of Mission”at

Radnor, Ephraim, and Christopher Seitz. “The Marriage Pledge.” at

Robinson, V. Gene. God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage. New York: Vintage, 2013.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Case for Marriage

Claiming the Blessing (CTB) was convened in 2002 as "an intentional collaborative of organizations and individuals within the Episcopal Church advocating for full inclusion of all the baptized in all sacraments of the church."

In 2002 a CTB Theology Statement was distributed to all bishops and deputies prior to General Convention in 2003 making the case for the blessing of same-sex relationships. That resource remains available online here

As we head toward #GC78 CTB has created "Claiming the Blessing 2015: The Case for Marriage" - which is available online here  and will be available in print onsite at General Convention in Salt Lake City.

The content includes:
*  Introduction to the Marriage Task Force Blue Book Report
*  Q&A re: the Marriage Task Force Report
*  Summary of SCLM liturgical proposals
*  Legislative history timeline
*  Michael Hopkins' essay "Recognized Holiness" making the case for marriage.

And what a deep delight it has been to receive the outpouring of response to our request for photos from weddings of same-sex couples around the church. The avalanche of joyful pictures representing just the tip of the iceberg of the couples in this church in in this country longing to make that profound commitment to love, honor and cherish the love of their life  as long as they both shall live was a reminder of the tremendous impact our work together in Salt Lake City will have on the lives of those we will never know.

Will we be a church that continues to travel forward on that arc of history that bends toward inclusion? Or will we reduce these precious lives, loves and relationships to "an issue" we continue to study and argue about?

With tremendous gratitude for all who have brought us thus far on the way -- and with thanks for the privilege of continuing the work -- it is time to let our "yes be yes." (Matthew 5:37) It is time to Reimagine the Episcopal Church with Marriage Equality.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Comment on Baby Jack, Baptism and the Bishop of Central Florida

If you missed the memo, there's a very sad situation down in the Diocese of Central Florida wherein Baby Jack was denied the sacrament of baptism because Baby Jack happened to have two dads. Their story is here ... and we were deeply moved by the way Jack's dad Rich began his account of their story: "My hope in sharing our story is to raise awareness to our community, and to offer perspective to a reticent institution."

He has accomplished both.

The Faithful America online petition that had a goal of 15,000 signatures is up to nearly 24,000 as I write. Clearly awareness has been raised in the community that no matter how optimistic we are about the Supreme Court and the movement toward marriage equality, the battle against homophobia is far from won.

And he has also gotten the attention of "a reticent institution."Barraged by emails, Facebook comments and secular media attention, On May 7th Central Florida Bishop Greg Brewer met with the family because, according to the Orlando Sentinel: “Whether they are active in the church and Christians in the community is far more important than whether they are gay or straight.”

So our expectation would be that from now on Bishop Brewer will be meeting personally with each and every baptismal family in the Diocese of Central Florida to discern whether or not the parents are active in the church and Christians in the community. Otherwise he will be guilty in 2015 of singling out LGBT parents seeking the sacrament of baptism for their children for the same kind of heightened scrutiny African American voters were subjected to when seeking the constitutional right to vote before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That kind of systemic bigotry had no place in our nation fifty years ago and it has no place in our church today.

And so the only thing that Bishop Brewer should say to Jack's parents is how profoundly sorry he is for the fact that he failed as the chief pastor and shepherd of the flock in his diocese to protect his LGBT sheep from the assault of systemic homophobia that raised its ugly head and disrupted their plans to baptize their child into the Body of Christ.

We remain ever hopeful that this sad episode can be used by the Holy Spirit for the good of breaking down any barriers between the full inclusion of LGBT people in the work and witness of the Diocese of Central Florida. It certainly has the potential to be a Syrophoenician Woman Moment -- reminiscent of the story from Matthew's gospel where Jesus himself changed his mind about healing the daughter of the woman his tradition and his disciples told him was unworthy.

WWJD? He'd baptize Jack, of course. Let's fix this, people. And not just for Jack -- but for all the babies coming after him. We not only can do better than this -- we have to.

Friday, March 20, 2015

CTB Shout Out to the SCLM

The SCLM (Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music) has released its Report the to the 78th General Convention. You can read the 32 page report here ... but these specific proposals deserve a CTB a "shout out" for offering liturgical resources that would end the defacto sacramental apartheid of "separate but unequal" liturgies for same-sex couples/marriages in the Episcopal Church.
The Commission is therefore proposing four liturgies for authorization by General Convention 2015:

1) a revision of “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” taking into account specific feedback received from those who have used the text;

2) “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Marriage,” an adaptation of the revised rite for use by any couple who can be married according to civil law;

3) a gender-neutral adaptation of “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer; and

4) “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony,” a gender-neutral adaptation of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, providing same-sex couples with an option similar to that available to different-sex couples who use the 1928 BCP marriage rite by following “An Order for Marriage” (BCP 1979, pp. 435-36).
An email from the General Convention Office added:"The liturgy documents mentioned as appendices, however, are still being translated. Those will be published in a supplementary file later this Spring. We are planning to have all reports, including this supplemental file, posted by the first week of May, 2015."

In 1976 the 65th General Convention resolved that its LGBT member deserved "full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care of the Church. Claiming the Blessing looks forward to working with our allies in the House of Bishops and Deputies at the 78th General Convention as we continue the work of making that resolution a reality with equal protection and equal blessing for all couples called into the vocation of marriage in the Episcopal Church.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Claiming the Blessing comment on Integrity workforce reduction

We received with sadness the news that the Integrity Board is reducing its workforce as it works to align and manage limited resources in the ongoing work of advocacy and inclusion. The 2015 financial climate makes downsizing a sad reality for nonprofits in general -- and for faith organizations in particular. And there is deep grief at having to make hard decisions that directly impact the livelihood of those we’ve worked with and care about as colleagues and friends. We hold Vivian Taylor and Sam Peterson particularly in our prayers as they look for new positions to use their gifts and talents in meaningful and productive ways.

Like the Episcopal Church at large, Integrity is in the process of reimagining itself for the next scope of its work – and as difficult as that process is, we support the Integrity leadership in that challenge. We speak as an organization that went through our own restructuring back in 2004 when Claiming the Blessing transitioned from having a full time Executive Director to being an all-volunteer collaborative network of groups and individuals.

That transition -- from an institutional model with full time, program staff to a movement model of volunteers -- has continued to serve our work and witness for inclusion, as a leadership voice in the work for the full inclusion of all the baptized in all the sacraments in the Episcopal Church AND as an advocate for LGBTQ equality in the civic arena.

Claiming the Blessing will be working at General Convention this summer in collaboration with our Integrity allies and hand in hand with TransEpiscopal to advance a robust legislative agenda that includes marriage equality as an important -- but not exclusive -- focus.

We are committed to continue the work we began in 2002: promoting wholeness in human relationships, abolishing prejudice and oppression, and healing the rift between sexuality and spirituality in the Church. We look forward to working with Integrity – one of our founding organizational members – as we continue that work together in Salt Lake City and beyond. We join with all who give thanks for over 40 years of prophetic witness Integrity has offered to the church and to the world -- and we hold their leadership in our prayers as they embrace the challenge of reimagining that work into God's future.

Because the arc of the moral universe is long. And it does bend toward justice. And it's not there yet.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Blessing Claimed! Now What?"

"We have seen the case for inclusion we were making from the fringes of the Church become a commitment to inclusion coming from the center of the Church."

A sermon celebrating 10 years of incremental victories by "Claiming the Blessing" and calling for a new set of audacious new goals for the future preached by Susan Russell on August 5, 2012 at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Decade of Claiming the Blessing: 100+ Pictures Worth 1000+ Words!

Marking a decade of work and witness, the Claiming the Blessing community has been going through photo archives and pulling out pictures of the milestones of the last ten years. With more to come -- both work and pictures! -- here's a look at what it takes to "claim the blessing:"