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:"

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Celebrating 10 Years of Claiming the Blessing!

by CTB Convenor Susan Russell

CLAIMING the BLESSING was officially launched when the newly appointed CTB Executive Director (that would be ME!) set up shop in the southeast cubicle of the multipurpose "temporary" office space in the north driveway of All Saints Church in Pasadena on August 1, 2002.

CTB was convened as an intentional collaborative ministry of leading Episcopal justice organizations (including Integrity, Oasis, Beyond Inclusion and the Episcopal Women's Caucus) in partnership with the Witness magazine and other individual leaders in the Episcopal Church focused on: promoting wholeness in human relationships, abolishing prejudice and oppression, and healing the rift between sexuality and spirituality in the Church. Other posts on this blogsite give a great overview of the work and witness of the last decade ... but here's the Clif Notes version:

Our initial commitment was obtaining approval of a liturgical blessing of the faithful, monogamous relationship between two adults of any gender at General Convention 2003. Toward that end we convened a national conference -- Claiming the Blessing 2002 -- in St. Louis, Missouri. Three days of workshops, worship and the introduction of the draft CTB Theology Statement ... and we were off and running!

Then on June 7, 2003 -- when Canon Gene Robinson was elected by the Diocese of New Hampshire to be their 9th bishop -- our agenda expanded to include securing consents to his election. The results were history making. Between November 2002 and July 2003 the CTB Theology Statement was distributed to every bishop and deputy to the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in preparation for legislation moving forward to authorize the blessing of same-sex relationships when they met in Minneapolis.

We left Minneapolis having met both of those goals: a new bishop for New Hampshire and having taken another step forward on blessings in a resolution “recognizing that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions."

In preparation for the 2006 General Convention, Claiming the Blessing continued to “tell our stories” by commissioning VOICES OF WITNESS as a video gift to the Episcopal Church. From the project summary: We believe that telling these stories, sharing these witnesses, is a gift we have to offer – and we believe that there has never been a more important time for us to commit ourselves to offering that gift in a way it can be the most widely received throughout the church and the communion. We believed that then and we continue to believe it now.

At the 75th General Convention in Columbus we worked with an extraordinary team of allies and succeeded in orchestrating a legislative strategy rejecting a raft of resolutions that would have turned the clock back on equality in response to “The Windsor Report.” What we were not able to do was to fend off the now infamous “B033” – the resolution calling for a defacto moratorium on consents to the election as bishop of anyone "whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion."

Claiming the Blessing was present at the Lambeth Conference 2008 as part of the Inclusive Communion Witness; produced and distributed "Voices of Witness: Africa" giving voice to the too-often invisible LGBT faithful in Africa and in 2009 worked with allies to reverse B033 and adopt Resolution C056 -- calling for the collection and development of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships.

And then in 2012 -- after a decade of commitment -- Claiming the Blessing traveled to Indianapolis to finish the work we started in St. Louis in 2002: obtaining approval of a liturgical blessing of the faithful, monogamous relationship between two adults of any gender. Ten years of work and witness. Tears and tantrums. Theology statements, blog posts, fundraising letters -- and more parish halls, small groups, legislative committee meetings, open hearings and closed-door-meetings than you can shake a stick at. Ten years and "Claiming the Blessing" became "Blessing Claimed!" with the adoption of GC Resolution 2012-A049.

It proved impossible to get everybody in one shot -- given travel schedules and calendar issues ... but between these two photos we just about made it: The Claiming the Blessing Crew ... Ten Years Later!

And then there are my personal highlights ... what we used to call "Kodak Moments" before there were digital cameras and instant uploads: the freeze frame moments in my mental photo album of the Claiming the Blessing years:
  • That January 2002 meeting at the College of Preachers where we came up with "Claiming the Blessing" for the name for our embryonic collaborative -- and Ed Bacon said the Executive Director we were looking for was someone who woke up thinking about this work every morning. And I realized that was me.  
  • The reception room in the St. Louis Cathedral as speakers and particpants were gathering for the November 2002 CTB Conference and looking around to see Louie Crew, Carter Heyward, Marge Christie and Ed Browning -- just to name a few -- and thinking "OMG ... we are actually DOING this!"
  • Another St. Louis moment: Michael Hopkins' face when Ed Bacon pulled up his chair into our early morning conference team planning meeting and said, "I feel an altar call coming on." "Say more about what that would look like," said Michael. And what it looked like was a church full of people filling out pledge cards and then bringing them to the altar while we sang "Just As I Am" -- and raised enough to fund a year of our work.
  • The clandestine meeting at the diocesan office with the bishop who agreed to meet with me and allow me to present the CTB case/theology statement -- as long as nobody knew the meeting was taking place. Parking in the alley -- coming up the freight elevator -- checking to see that the "coast was clear" before going into his office with the Canon to the Ordinary. Never let it be said we didn't do what it took. (And no, we didn't get his support.)
  • Sitting in Michael's office at St. George's in Glen Dale, MD in 2003 with the leadership team from the American Anglican Council and hearing David Anderson explain that the reason blessing same-sex relationships were a deal-breaker was that genital activity was so important to God that He put a fence around it and inside that fence was only a man and a woman within the sacrament of marriage.
  • The National Reconciliation Conversation at St. James in L.A. -- intended to bring together leadership from "both sides" of the divide in the Episcopal Church. The Claiming the Blessing leadership team was there. The American Anglican Council was not. Do the math.
  • The Minneapolis roller coaster that was +Gene's consent process -- the low points of the bogus allegations of misconduct and the high points of the celebration once the votes were in.
  • Watching the expression on Susan Candiotti's face while we were live on CNN and Kendall Harmon responded to her question of why homosexuality was the straw that was going to break the camel's back of the Anglican Communion with the immortal words: "Because it's like trying to put milk in a car. It just doesn't work." (Seriously!)
  • The standing-room-only Columbus screening of "Voices of Witness" -- produced by my brilliant partner Louise Brooks -- and the tears and cheers it inspired.
  • In the depth of the betrayal and despair that was the aftermath of B033 having Vermont Bishop Tom Ely come find us in the hotel basement sit with us in the pain ... just BE there.
  • Nottingham and Lambeth and Plano and Anaheim -- Birmingham and Boston; Nashville, Newark and New Orleans -- more metal detectors, parish halls, power points and round table discussions than I can remember.
Many years ago, then All Saints Pasadena rector George Regas challenged justice activists to "set audacious goals and celebrate incremental victories." For Claiming the Blessing the "Blessing, Claimed!" in Indianapolis -- after ten years of work and witness of the Claiming the Blessing collaborative built on the foundation of decades of prophetic ministry by our various organizations and congregations -- is an incremental victory we're celebrating on the road to our original, audacious goal: promoting wholeness in human relationships, abolishing prejudice and oppression, and healing the rift between sexuality and spirituality in the Church.

Happy 10th Birthday, CTB! La lucha continua!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Knowing Our History

A Background Paper on LGBT Inclusion in the Episcopal Church -- by the Reverend Canon Susan Russell

The Episcopal Church has been officially debating the issue of human sexuality, particularly as it applies to gay and lesbian people, since the General Convention of 1976 when resolutions passed by the Bishops and Deputies began to frame the parameters of the debate.

In the intervening years resolutions have been passed and then amended as the church's position has evolved in response to the dialogue. In 1976, the General Convention asserted in a resolution (A069) that "homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care of the Church." But there continues to be a wide divergence of opinion on just how we live out that understanding in the Church.

In 1991, at the General Convention held in Phoenix acknowledged its inability to resolve the complex issues surrounding human sexuality by means of the normal legislative process. The Convention opted instead for a process of continued study and dialogue across the whole church, with a report to be issued from the House of Bishops.

In 1994, That report, “Continuing the Dialogue,” was published and is highly recommended as a resource for more detailed information.

While resolutions from General Convention are important aspects of our polity - the process through which we govern the church - they are generally perceived to be recommendatory and therefore lacking the force of a canon or law. The only canon to deal with the issue of homosexual orientation in any specific way was adopted in 1994:

"All Bishops of Dioceses and other Clergy shall make provisions to identify fit persons for Holy Orders and encourage them to present themselves for Postulancy. No one shall be denied access to the selection process for ordination in this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, sex, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, or age, except as otherwise specified by these Canons." -- Title III, Canon 4, Section 1 of the Constitution and Canons for the Government of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, p. 60
In 1996, the Court of Trial for a Bishop refused to hear charges filed against Bishop Walter Righter for ordaining a gay man living in a relationship. The court said there was no doctrine against such an ordination and that there is no canonical bar to gay and lesbian ordination in the Episcopal Church.

72nd General Convention | 1997 Philadelphia 1997
(C024) APPROVED HEALTH BENEFITS FOR DOMESTIC PARTNERS, to be extended to the partners of clergy and lay employees in dioceses that wish to do so.
(D011) It also voted to APOLOGIZE ON BEHALF OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH to its members who are gay and lesbian and to the lesbians and gay men outside the Church for years of rejection and maltreatment by the Church and affirm that this Church seeks amendment of our life together as we ask God's help in sharing the Good News with all people.

In 1998, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, meeting in July at their every ten-year gathering in Canterbury, passed Lambeth Resolution 1:10 -- which was entitled "Human Sexuality" and included the majority opinion of the bishops gathered at that conference that "homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture" and "cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions."

Much energy has been spent over the intervening years debating whether that language was descriptive of the bishops gathered at Lambeth '98 or proscriptive for the wider communion.

73rd General Convention | Denver 2000

(A009) The IDENTIFICATION OF “SAFE SPACES,” establishing a formal process for congregations to identify themselves as safe spaces for GLBT people;
(C031) recommending that congregations engage in dialogue with the BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA REGARDING THEIR POLICY ON HOMOSEXUALS
(D039) Arguably the most influential resolution adopted in Denver was:
Passed overwhelmingly by a voice vote in the House of Deputies and by a 119-19 margin in the House of Bishops. An “8th Resolve” which called for the preparation of rites for inclusion in the Book of Occasional Services failed to pass by a narrow margin in both houses. However, this important resolution broke new ground by moving the Episcopal Church into conversations about relationship that transcend sexual orientation ... and set the stage for the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis.
74th General Convention | Minneapolis 2003
In addition to consenting to the election of V. Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire, the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis passed a landmark resolution moving the church forward on the blessing of same-sex unions:

(C051) Blessing of Committed Same-Gender Relationships

Key resolves included:

4. That we reaffirm Resolution D039 of the 73rd General Convention (2000), that "We expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God," and that such relationships exist throughout the church.

5. That we recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.
.These two important steps -- consent to the election of an openly gay, partnered bishop and the recognition that the blessing of unions falls "within the bounds of our common life" -- became a flash point for those insisting that the differences that challenge us cannot be bridged, but must become divisions that separate us.

75th General Convention | Columbus 2006
Following the gains made in Minneapolis in 2003, pressure was put on the wider Anglican Communion to censure the American Episcopal Church. In 2004 "The Windsor Report" was published. In 2005 the Episcopal Church presented its response to the Windsor Report -- "To Set Our Hope on Christ" -- at the Nottingham meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council.

The 2006 General Convention was consumed by responding the Windsor Report and whether or not American bishops would be invited to the 2008 Lambeth Conference -- the every 10 year gathering of Anglican bishops.

After nine day of legislation, a series of "response to Windsor" resolutions were passed:

(A159) Affirm Commitment to the Anglican Communion
(A160) Express Regret for Straining the Bonds of the Church
(A165) Commend the Windsor Report and Commit to the "Windsor Process"
(A166) Support Development of an Anglican Covenant

In addition, General Convention voted to:

(A167) Reaffirm Church Membership of Gay and Lesbian Persons
(A095) Reaffirm Support of Gay and Lesbian Persons
(D005) Oppose Criminalization of Homosexuality

Resolutions submitted insisting on "compliance" with aspects of the Windsor Report that recommended moratorium on the blessing of unions or discrimination against partnered gay or lesbian candidates for bishop were rejected.

On the 10th and last legislative day, an unprecedented joint session of the Houses of Bishops & Deputies was presented with Resolution B033 by then Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. The resolution that passed both houses was entitled "Exercise Restraint in Consecrating Candidates" and read:

Resolved, That the 75th General Convention receive and embrace The Windsor Report's invitation to engage in a process of healing and reconciliation; and be it further

Resolved, That this Convention therefore call upon Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.
In 2008 the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops was held in Canterbury. The Bishop of New Hampshire was not invited to attend.

76th General Convention | Anaheim 2009
Two primary goals were set out for this General Convention by LGBT activists: moving beyond B033 and forward on the blessing of same sex unions. Both were accomplished.

(C056) Liturgies for Blessings:

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 76th General Convention acknowledge the changing circumstances in the United States and in other nations, as legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian persons is passed in various civil jurisdictions that call forth a renewed pastoral response from this Church, and for an open process for the consideration of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships; and be it further

Resolved, That the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, in consultation with the House of Bishops, collect and develop theological and liturgical resources, and report to the 77th General Convention; and be it further

Resolved, That the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, in consultation with the House of Bishops, devise an open process for the conduct of its work inviting participation from provinces, dioceses, congregations, and individuals who are engaged in such theological work, and inviting theological reflection from throughout the Anglican Communion; and be it further

Resolved, That bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church; and be it further

Resolved, That this Convention honor the theological diversity of this Church in regard to matters of human sexuality; and be it further

Resolved, That the members of this Church be encouraged to engage in this effort.


(D025) Commitment and Witness to Anglican Communion
Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 76th General Convention reaffirm the continued participation of The Episcopal Church as a constituent member of the Anglican Communion; give thanks for the work of the bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 2008; reaffirm the abiding commitment of The Episcopal Church to the fellowship of churches that constitute the Anglican Communion and seek to live into the highest degree of communion possible; and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention encourage dioceses, congregations, and members of The Episcopal Church to participate to the fullest extent possible in the many instruments, networks and relationships of the Anglican Communion; and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention reaffirm its financial commitment to the Anglican Communion and pledge to participate fully in the Inter-Anglican Budget; and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention affirm the value of "listening to the experience of homosexual persons," as called for by the Lambeth Conferences of 1978, 1988, and 1998, and acknowledge that through our own listening the General Convention has come to recognize that the baptized membership of The Episcopal Church includes same-sex couples living in lifelong committed relationships "characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God" (2000-D039); and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention recognize that gay and lesbian persons who are part of such relationships have responded to God's call and have exercised various ministries in and on behalf of God's One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and are currently doing so in our midst; and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention affirm that God has called and may call such individuals, to any ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church, and that God's call to the ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church is a mystery which the Church attempts to discern for all people through our discernment processes acting in accordance with the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church; and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention acknowledge that members of The Episcopal Church as of the Anglican Communion, based on careful study of the Holy Scriptures, and in light of tradition and reason, are not of one mind, and Christians of good conscience disagree about some of these matters.

77th General Convention | Indianapolis 2012 (July 5 - 12: Stay Tuned!).

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Big House of Classical Anglicanism -- by William Countryman

Condensed from his keynote address at the Claiming the Blessing Conference in St. Louis, MO, in November 2002 Bill Countryman argues that "this blessing of unions is not finally, for lesbians and gay men, about social convenience, or status, or even justice. It is about our access to God."

We are here to claim the blessing — that is, to celebrate the gospel at work in the lives of people. Particularly gay and lesbian people, but that’s a way of celebrating the gospel at work in the lives of everyone. It’s a way of saying that God plays no favorites, that even you, whoever you are, are really and truly welcome here.

I’ve noticed that people who object to what we are working toward here often speak of it as the work of a 'gay/lesbian lobby,' the functional equivalent of the 'outside agitators' of the not so distant past. They like to say that this is the world’s agenda intruding on the life of the church. It’s such a silly misconception, really. The church ought to be delighted, of course, if it found people outside the church beating down its doors, clamoring for its blessing. But I don’t see that happening. Some people outside the church could hardly care less; others are actively suspicious. No one is beating down the doors.

As we all know, this movement has come from within, welling up from the Spirit, from the hearts and minds and lives of faithful church folk. The issue of blessing our unions has arisen for us as a result of our growth in faith, hope, and love; and it summons us to further growth. The last few decades have seen extraordinary outpourings of grace among us. What strikes me when I visit parishes that have joined in this undertaking is that the tone of life in them is not partisan or polemical. What I encounter again and again is a sense of deep gratitude for God's ability and willingness to surprise us with new gifts of insight, with new faith and new hope, even in the difficult times in which we live. And we celebrate these gifts by sharing them with others.

God's gifts are not just for us, and we haven't kept them just to ourselves. Over and over again, we see lesbians and gay men, people who would have been hiding in the shadows of our
church a generation ago, now coming forward to contribute their gifts, their strength and loyalty and wisdom, freely and openly to the whole community of faith. And heterosexual people who have seen this happening have also been freed to give more generously of themselves.

The move to have a form of blessing for same-sex unions is, in an important sense, an appeal for justice. But it is even more a renewal of grace, an opportunity for the whole church to renew its trust in God for the future. And it is a celebration of one of God's greatest gifts — our human love for one another.

I want to return to this theme toward the end of this address. But first I want to say a little about what it means that we are Anglicans dealing with issues of sexuality here as Anglicans. Our position is rather ironic, in fact. What we're living out here together is classic Anglicanism. What do I mean by 'classic Anglicanism'? I mean the broad mainstream of Anglicanism as it was shaped in the Reformation. It was formed, in the 16th and 17th centuries, in contradistinction to two other types of Christianity, both of which thought they knew the mind of God pretty well: Roman Catholicism and the Geneva tradition, whose chief English representatives were the Puritans. We worked to distinguish ourselves from both — and especially from their assumption that they knew the mind of God so well.

This isn't just a modern way of interpreting those remote times. It was their own way of seeing the issues, too. It was particularly the Puritan challenge that caused Richard Hooker to write Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker put the theological challenge that confronted classic Anglicanism very succinctly in a marginal note he wrote in a religious tract: 'Two things there are which greatly trouble these later times: one that the Church of Rome cannot, another that Geneva will not erre.'

Classic Anglicanism, by contrast, focused not on having a detailed and certain knowledge of the mind of God, but on maintaining life and conversation in the faithful community. We believe that no one will ever know it all, but that the Sprit will work with us in the unity (not uniformity) of the church to bring us toward truth. Hooker was broadly sympathetic to the theology of Calvin and the Puritans. What he objected to was their utter certainty of knowing the mind of God — their unwillingness to err. Classic Anglicanism values the ongoing life and conversation of the faithful community, however awkward and irritating it may become, far above such doctrinal assurance, attractive though it may seem. We are pretty sure the assurance is mistaken. We are also pretty sure that God's help will not fail us if we continue to work and pray together.

This Anglican focus on maintaining the unity of the church has created a big house, one with room for all sorts of people. What's held us together is that classic Anglican concern for the life and conversation of the faithful community. I have yet to hear any advocate of blessing gay and lesbian unions threaten to leave over the issue. The threats of schism come from elsewhere.

If there are those within the Episcopal Church who already know the mind of God too well to go on participating in this conversation, to go on maintaining the unity of the church — well, we have to say to them, 'We do not want you to go. We want to have you in the faithful community. But we are maintaining the classic Anglican tradition here. And we will not give that up to keep you here.'

To move toward the blessing of lesbian and gay unions is important because all members of the church ought to be treated equally and with equal respect. But there is even more to it. It is important because it touches on the love that is at the very heart of our faith, of our relationship with God. It's a truism that Christianity is focused on love — and equally a truism that we fail to live up to that. Our attitudes toward those with whom we disagree lapse easily into quite savage hostility. I hope that we who have experienced this kind of hostility from others will learn not to let it infect and consume us, will keep discovering ways to speak with love and respect even when we are not met with the like.

We recognize afresh what Christians have recognized, in their various ways, from the beginning: that human desire, the same desire that informs our human loves, is an integral part of what draws us to God. The Song of Songs enshrines this principle in the heart of our Scriptures. The love of the human beloved is our closest, most decisive analogy to the love of God. Both loves are difficult to express adequately.

What I am saying is that without human love, we would have almost no analogy for our relationship with God. Flawed as all human love is, it is still the best thing in our makeup, the brightest treasure that God placed there. And it is by this that God calls us home. Well-meaning people sometimes say to me, 'Why can't the gay and lesbian community just hold back on this point so that the church can get on to more important things in its mission?'

To that, my answer is, 'Spiritually, there may not be anything more important.' I do not say that to slight the other very real sufferings of the world — the disaster, say, of AIDS in Africa or the unfinished struggle against racism here and throughout the world. I say it rather because our reluctant, body-avoidant Christian psyche needs to understand that this blessing of unions is not finally, for lesbians and gay men, about social convenience, or status, or even justice. It is about our access to God.

We, of course, know that our loves give us access to God. But the church at large needs to understand that, too. And as the church comes to understand it, I believe all Christians will be freed to rediscover the passion of their relatedness to God in new ways. This is not just for lesbians and gay men. It is for everyone. What is our task now? Our task, first and foremost, is to live as people of faith, to live in celebration of God’s generosity, to live as people shaped radically, from the ground up, by our experience of the gospel, to live as people converted to trust in God, to hope in God’s continuing presence with us, to love the way God loves us.

And in our particular place and time, one way we have to do this is to hold up the loves of gay and lesbian people as opportunities for blessing. Through them, God’s blessing can come to us and does come to us. Through them, God’s blessing can and does come to the people around us. For the church to extend its blessing does not make our unions better; it simply acknowledges and gives thanks for the blessings of God already present.

The church’s blessing is important not because God cannot bless without it! God is not constrained by our fears and anxieties, by our hugging of blessings to ourselves and denial of them to our neighbors. God blesses where God wills. But we, the church, need to be a part of that blessing — for our sake, not for God’s. That’s why we continue to move toward this goal — so that grace and blessing will continue to abound ever more and more, in this world as in the age to come.

L. William Countryman is Sherman E. Johnson Professor in Biblical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, and the author of many popular books including Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today (Fortress Press, 1988), Good News of Jesus: Reintroducing the Gospel (Trinity Press International and Cowley Publications, 1993), The Mystical Way According to John: Crossing Over into God, rev. ed. (Trinity Press International, 1995), Forgiven and Forgiving (Morehouse Publishing, 1998), Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All (Morehouse Publishing, 1999), The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition (Orbis, 2000), and (with M. R. Ritley) Gifted by Otherness: Gay and Lesbian Christians in the Church (Morehouse, 2001).

Biblical theology and the debate about rites of blessing: An interview with Walter Brueggemann

In November 2002, JULIE A. WORTMAN, editor/publisher of The Witness magazine, interviewed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann to get his perspective on whether churches should approve rites of blessing for the lifelong, committed relationships of same-sex couples. 

Julie Wortman: The Episcopal Church’s 2003 General Convention will be considering a proposal that rites of blessing be developed to support “relationships of mutuality and fidelity other than marriage which mediate the Grace of God.” When I asked if you’d be willing to offer your perspective on whether such rites of blessing should be approved, you said that you were just an “exegete” and that maybe we’d want to talk to someone with a “larger horizon” on the issue. What did you mean by that?
Walter Brueggemann: I just think that after you do the Bible stuff, there are people who know the whole ethical tradition of the church better than do I. The arguments can’t just be made out of the biblical text as such, but they have to be made in the context of how the church has handled the Bible in many other ethical questions.

Julie Wortman: But I’m told your views are views that the “movable middle” takes seriously. Maybe a big reason is that you’re a scholar who writes accessibly, which many scholars don’t, but it seems likely that it is also because you’re a biblical scholar whose social and political views are grounded in Scripture and ancient tradition. Is it your experience that Scripture is the chief authority for moderate Christians, and is it the chief authority for you?
Walter Brueggemann: The answer to both of those questions is, “Yes.” It is the chief authority for moderates and it’s the chief authority to me as long as one can qualify that to say that it is the chief authority when imaginatively construed in a certain interpretive trajectory. I incline to think that most people, including the movable moderates, probably make up their minds on other grounds than the Bible, but then they are uneasy if it collides with the Bible or at least they have an eagerness to be shown how it is that the Bible coheres. I don’t think, on most of these contested questions, that anybody — liberal or conservative — really reads right out of the Bible. I think we basically bring hunches to the Bible that arrive in all sorts of ways and then we seek confirmation. And I think that I’m articulate in helping people make those connections with the hunches they already have.

Julie Wortman: Do you think lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (lgbt) folks are sinners?
Walter Brueggemann: Yes, like we all are. So I think that our sexual interpersonal relationships are enormously hazardous and they are the place where we work out our fears and our anxieties and we do that in many exploitative ways. So I don’t think that gays and lesbians and so on are exempt from the kind of temptations that all of us live with.

Julie Wortman: Is their struggle for full inclusion in the life of the church a justice struggle?
Walter Brueggemann: Yes. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said that the arc of history is bent toward justice. And the parallel statement that I want to make is that the arc of the Gospel is bent toward inclusiveness. And I think that’s a kind of elemental conviction through which I then read the text. I suspect a lot of people who share this approach simply sort out the parts of the text that are in the service of inclusion and kind of put aside the parts of the text that move in the other direction.

Julie Wortman: And what do you do with those other parts?
Walter Brueggemann: Well, I think you have to take them seriously. I think that it is clear that much or all of the Bible is time-bound and much of the Bible is filtered through a rather heavy-duty patriarchal ideology. What all of us have to try to do is to sort out what in that has an evangelical future and what in that really is organized against the Gospel. For me, the conviction from Martin Luther that you have to make a distinction between the Gospel and the Bible is a terribly important one. Of course, what Luther meant by the Gospel is whatever Luther meant. And that’s what we all do, so there’s a highly subjective dimension to that. But it’s very scary now in the church that the Gospel is equated with the Bible, so you get a kind of a biblicism that is not noticeably informed by the Gospel. And that means that the relationship between the Bible and the Gospel is always going to be contested and I suppose that’s what all our churches are doing — they’re contesting.

Julie Wortman: You’ve done a lot of work on the Hebrew prophets. What do you think we can learn from the prophets about justice in this particular issue of lgbt people and their quest for justice?
Walter Brueggemann: As you know the prophets are largely focused on economic questions, but I suppose that the way I would transpose that is to say that the prophets are concerned with the way in which the powerful take advantage of the vulnerable. When you transpose that into these questions, then obviously gays and lesbians are the vulnerable and the very loud heterosexual community is as exploitative as any of the people that the prophets critiqued. Plus, on sexuality questions you have this tremendous claim of virtue and morality on the heterosexual side, which of course makes heterosexual ideology much more heavy-handed.

Julie Wortman: Yeah. This makes me think of an interview you did with former Witness editor Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann about four years ago in which you said, “The church has made a centerpiece of our worship how bad we are.” It sort of connects with the virtue thing. Can you say something about that again?
Walter Brueggemann: That’s a judgment I make of my Calvinist liturgics tradition. I never have that feeling in Episcopalianism — even though there’s a regular confession of sin, it doesn’t seem as weighty as a Calvinist confession of sin. But I incline to think that the weight of God’s graciousness readily overrides our guilt and what we ought to talk about is God’s grace.

The other conviction I have is that, on the whole, I don’t think people are troubled by guilt in our culture. I think they are troubled by chaos. And therefore most of our talk about confession and forgiveness is beside the point. The reason that’s important to me is that I have the deep conviction that the adrenaline that gathers around the sexuality issues is not really about sexuality. It is about the unarticulated sense people have that the world is falling apart.

The anxiety about chaos is acute among us. Obviously, 9/11 makes that more so, but it was there before that. The world the way we have known it is passing away from us and I believe that people have taken the sexuality issue as the place to draw a line and take a stand, but it’s not a line or a stand about sexuality. It’s about the emotional sense that the world is a very dangerous place. Sexuality is, I think, one way to talk about that.

Julie Wortman: That opens up for me something that I heard Peter Gomes say recently about young people at Harvard who are hungry for a life of sacrifice and service. Does that connect with what you’re talking about?
Walter Brueggemann: I would have some wonderment about whether it’s that clean and simple. But people are becoming aware that the recent practices of material consumption are simply destructive for us and they do not contribute to our humanness. And the more people that know that, the more encouraging it is.

Julie Wortman: What I was thinking is that the sexuality debate seems so beside the point, given the church’s call in these times.
Walter Brueggemann: Yeah. Well, in my own [Presbyterian] context, I have the sense that continuing to argue about sexuality is almost a deliberate smoke screen to keep from having to talk about anything that gets at the real issues in our own lives. I think the issues are economic and, you know, many of the great liberals in my church don’t want to talk about economics. The reason for that is many of us liberals are also into consumption in a big way. So this is something else you can talk about without threatening them.

Julie Wortman: What’s the nature of blessing in the Old Testament? How is it used there?
Walter Brueggemann: It’s used in a lot of ways, but I believe that the primary meaning is that it is the life force of creation that makes abundance possible. If you look at the recital of blessings, for example, in Deuteronomy 28, it’s about very mundane material matters. May your livestock prosper. May your bread rise. May your corn grow. So I think it has to do with abundance,  productivity, the extravagances of the material world. And a curse then, as in Deuteronomy 28, is that the life force of vitality is withdrawn from us and our future just kind of shrivels up.

Julie Wortman: Is that different from the way Jesus would use it in the New Testament? Especially thinking about the Beatitudes?
Walter Brueggemann: No, I think the Beatitudes are exactly that way when it says, you know, blessed are the peacemakers. I think this means the life force of God’s creative spirit is with people who live that way. And that they are destined for abundant well-being. So when you talk about a ritual of blessing, it is the church’s sacramental act of asserting that this relationship will be a place in which God’s generativity is invested.

Julie Wortman: So why do you think folks balk at the idea of rites of blessing for same-sex relationships that are free of promiscuity, exploitation and abusiveness and that are marked by “fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection, respect, careful honest communication and the holy love that enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God,” as they did at the Episcopal Church’s 2000 General Convention?
Walter Brueggemann: I think it’s very complex and it’s about anxiety and all of that, but in the light of what I was saying, I think it’s a moralistic judgment that people like this are not entitled to well-being. And therefore for the church to sacramentally guarantee well-being for these  people is an unearned gift that falls outside the moral calculus. Now in Presbyterianism the question that’s sometimes put to theological articulation is “too many people are being saved!”
You don’t want all these people saved. That’s called universalism. I think it’s the same calculus that is articulated by Job’s friends, that only the obedient are entitled to well-being. If these relationships are understood to be an act of disobedience, then the church ought not to be asserting well-being for them.

Julie Wortman: So there’s a logic to the balking?
Walter Brueggemann: I think it is a logic. I think it’s a logic that’s rooted in fear and it’s rooted in resentment. It is parallel to welfare reform in which the undeserving poor ought not to get food stamps. Now, morality does matter and living obediently and responsibly is important. But that is always in tension with the other claim we make that the very fact that we exist as God’s creatures gives us some entitlements.

Julie Wortman: As a person who bases what he thinks on Scripture, what would you say the biblical standards are for relationships?
Walter Brueggemann: Well, I think fidelity. It takes a lot of interpretation, but it’s basically to love God and love neighbor. And the first neighbor I suppose we love is the one to whom we make these holy vows. So that has to do with relationships that are honorable and just and faithful and reliable and all that neat stuff. Then you can argue out what all that means. This is relational thinking. But the sort of thinking that you can establish out of the Book of Leviticus, where so much of this anti-same-sex blessing stance comes from, involves a substantive material sense of contamination that has nothing to do with relationships. To this way of thinking there is a palpable poison that is turned loose in the community that must be resisted. People who think this way cannot take into account the relational dynamics that we’re trying to talk about. That way of talking about physical contamination is deeply rooted in the Bible, though, which is a problem.

Julie Wortman: There are people who say the situation of lgbt people is analogous to that of the canary in a coal mine.
Walter Brueggemann: I’ve said that in the city homeless people are the canaries, but I think that’s right about lgbt people. A general principle is that whoever is the most vulnerable is the canary. That is, it is always the test case about whether we are following Jesus. And then if you extrapolate to say that gays and lesbians are the most vulnerable in this issue, then they are indeed the canary.

Walter Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. He has been interested in the interpretive issues that lie behind efforts at Old Testament theology. This includes the relation of the Old Testament to the Christian canon, the Christian history of doctrine, Jewish-Christian interaction and the cultural reality of pluralism. He is the widely read author of many books and articles, including Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress Press, 1997) and Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World, Patrick D. Miller, ed. (Fortress Press, 2000).

(This interview first appeared in the November 2002 issue of TheWitness magazine, http://www.thewitness.org/.)

What does it mean for the church to give its blessing?

A core component of Claiming the Blessing's 2002 Theology Statement was this essay offering a theology of blessing. Drafted by the CTB theology committee, vetted by an advisory team of theologians and scholars and presented at the 2002 CTB conference in St. Louis, it was distributed to every bishop and deputy prior to General Convention 2003 in Minneapolis.

What does it mean for the church to give its blessing?

“BLESSING” is perhaps the most controversial word in the church’s consideration of the treatment of same-sex households in its midst. Because of this fact, we must take great care to be precise about what we mean when we use the word. The following are the building blocks for a theology of blessing: Creation, Covenant, Grace and Sacrament.

Creation itself is the fundamental act of blessing. Creation is a blessing (gift) to humankind from God and humankind blesses (gives thanks to or praises) God in return. The Hebrew word for “blessing,” barak, means at its core the awesome power of life itself. A fundamental claim of the Bible in regard to creation is that there is enough, in fact an abundance, of creation, and therefore of blessing, to go around.

“Blessing” is a covenantal, relational word. It describes the results of the hallowed, right, just relationship between God and humankind. Blessing is what happens when God and humankind live in covenant. It is important to remember here that the relationships between human beings and the relationship between God and human beings cannot be separated. “Blessing” and “justice” are inseparable biblical concepts.

When we ask for God’s blessing, we are asking for God’s presence and favor. In Christian terms this favor is what we call “grace,” God’s disposition toward us that is not dependent upon our merit, but is a sure and certain gift to the believer in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In our tradition, the sacraments are the primary ways the grace/blessing of God is communicated to us (“a sure and certain means,” BCP, p. 857). The two “great” sacraments “given by Christ” (BCP, p. 858) are Baptism and Eucharist. In them we see the two fundamental aspects of blessing: the blessing of life from God and the blessing of God for that life. Five other rites are traditionally known as sacraments, but they are dependent for their meaning on the two sacraments and are not “necessary for all persons.”

A whole host of other actions in the life of the church, and of individual Christians, are “sacramental” in nature, i.e., they mediate the grace/blessing of God and cause us to give thanks and praise/blessing to God. In our tradition, priests and bishops have the authority to pronounce God’s blessing within the community of faith. They do so not by their own power, but as instruments of the grace (blessing) of God within the church. Their authority to bless, too, finds its meaning in the two great sacraments.

When the church chooses “to bless” something it is declaring that this particular person or persons or thing is a gift/blessing from God and his/her/its/their purpose is to live in (or, in the case of things, to assist in) covenanted relationship with God (and with all creation), i.e., to bless God in return.

To bless the relationship between two men or two women is to do this very thing: to declare that this relationship is a blessing from God and that its purpose is to bless God, both within the context of the community of faith. If the church believes that same-sex relationships show forth God’s blessing when they are lived in fidelity, mutuality and unconditional love, then this blessing must be owned and celebrated and supported in the community of faith.

Clearing up some questions:
Just what are we blessing when we bless a same-sex relationship? We are blessing the persons in relationship to one another and the world in which they live. We are blessing the ongoing promise of fidelity and mutuality. We are neither blessing orientation or “lifestyle,” nor blessing particular sexual behaviors. “Orientation” and “lifestyle” are theoretical constructs that cannot possibly be descriptive of any couple’s commitment to one another. And every couple works out their own sexual behaviors that sustain and enhance their commitment. We don’t prescribe that behavior, whether the couple is heterosexual or homosexual, except to say that it must be within the context of mutuality and fidelity.

Isn’t marriage and same-sex blessing the same thing? That they are similar is obvious, as is taking monastic vows, i.e., blessing a vocation to (among other things) celibacy. Each (marriage, blessing unions, monastic vows) grounds a relationship that includes sexual expression in public covenant which gives them “a reality not dependent on the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved” and “a certain freedom to ‘take time’ to mature and become as profoundly nurturing as they can” (Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” in Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies, Charles Hefling, ed.). The question remains as to whether “marriage” is appropriately defined as the covenant relationship between a man and a woman only, as is the church’s long tradition. The church must continue to wrestle with this issue. To wait until it is solved, however, in order to celebrate the blessing of a faithful same-sex relationship is pastorally irresponsible and theologically unnecessary.

Is same-sex blessing a sacrament? We can say it is sacramental. Strictly speaking, in our tradition there are only two sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist). Five other rites are commonly referred to as sacraments because of the church’s long experience of them. But in a sacramental understanding of creation, everything in creation has the potential to be sacramental — to mediate the presence/blessing of God. Priests and bishops “pronounce” blessing on those things the community lifts up as showing forth this blessing. The New Testament word for “blessing” is eulogein, literally “to speak well of.”

Can the church withhold blessing? Certainly, in its official, liturgical sense. Priests and bishops should only “pronounce” blessing over those things or persons the community of faith lifts up as being mediators of blessing. That means that the authority to pronounce blessing over particular persons or things can change over time within a community and vary from community to community, particularly from culture to culture. Our Anglican Communion has long said that the only truly universal “blessings” are Baptism and Eucharist (see the Lambeth Quadrilateral).

Prepared by the Claiming the Blessing theology committee: Michael Hopkins, Elizabeth Kaeton, Joseph Lane, Mark Kowalewski, Katie Sherrod, and Sarah Dylan Breuer.