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,

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.

Claiming the Blessing: An Occasional Newsletter – Vol. 1, No. 1

January 2003

Grace to you and peace, and best wishes for a most joyful Season of Epiphany!

We write to you today, on the Feast of the Epiphany, to bring you up-to-date on the work of Claiming the Blessing, as we continue the good work begun at our Conference 2002 in St. Louis. Much has been begun, but there are miles left to go … and with the holidays behind us and the calendar turned to “2003” the march toward Minneapolis is indeed gathering momentum … and we have our work cut out for us.

We will gather this week with 20 members of our Steering Committee to continue the work begun in St. Louis and to create a schedule for the months ahead. Our work includes finalizing the Theology Statement introduced in November, creating a curriculum companion for distribution at the parish and diocesan level, and scheduling Regional CTB Gatherings to continue to spread our vision of a way forward in the spirit of Anglican comprehensiveness.

We truly believe that the work of Claiming the Blessing … gaining General Convention approval for the inclusion of liturgies for the blessing of unions other than marriage in the Book of Occasional Services … is a vision whose time has come, is a goal that will move the church forward in mission and ministry and is an opportunity for evangelism which will breathe new life into our work and our witness for the Gospel. Indicative of how near we are to achieving that vision are the tactics already being employed by those in opposition.

Claiming the Blessing has answered the questions and concerns that have been raised through the years in our comprehensive Theology Statement.
  • In response to “We don’t even know what it is you are asking for” we have provided a Theology of Blessing.
  • In response to the timeworn biblical arguments, Walter Brueggemann has offered a brilliant and incisive apologetic for inclusion.
  • In response to the “Frequently Asked Questions” from the church at large, we have provided answers set firmly in the context of our Anglican heritage.
Having offered this prophetic vision of a church ready to embrace all of the baptized fully into the Body of Christ, our opposition has turned its attention from the issues in front of us to the very authority of General Convention … and presuming to speak from the “traditionalist” perspective has concluded that “decisions about same-sex partnerships ... affects the very foundations of the common life of the Episcopal Church and its claim to status as a church in the catholic tradition.” (“The Authority of General Convention” as found online at

We write today to reiterate the claims we made together in St. Louis ... that we who advocate for the approval of rites for blessings are speaking from the traditional perspective of those whose Christian faith has the DNA of the English Mother Church of the Elizabethan Settlement coursing in our veins, who claim the clarity of Cranmer, the sageness of Seabury and the heroism of Hines as our heritage and who dare to vision a community of faith where unity and unison are not confused.

We advocate with the history of ECUSA under our belts, with our homework done and our argument ready to sway the "Moveable Middle" ... who know as well as we do that those who cry schism do not speak for the historic Anglican faith ... who yearn for a way to move beyond a "chicken little" approach to diversity and who may very well be looking to us in the weeks and months ahead as the center of traditional Anglican comprehensiveness ... the bearers of the tradition that brought them to or kept them in the church as we have known and been embraced by it.

We are more and more convinced that the Blessing We Claim has less to do with liturgical rites for a tiny of percentage of God's already blessed community of faith than it does with the blessing of an Anglican heritage which is in serious danger of being hijacked by a fundamentalist, misogynist, heterosexist agenda which has nothing at all to do with the Gospel as the Spirit is continuing to reveal to us ... but everything to do with power, control and oppressive authority.

Trust with us that the heritage we inherit is stronger than that. Join with us in praying for strength and wisdom and perseverance as we move forward to Minneapolis.And work with us to offer to those in this church we love who are "tossed and turned" by the divisive rhetoric and sky-is-falling theology being offered by these our "opposition" an alternative vision of a non-anxious presence, a heavenly banquet set for all who come seeking to live in mutuality with God and each other and a sense of the possibilities we, as American Anglicans, can offer a world desperately seeking a way to live together in peace and find unity in our diversity.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Claiming the Blessing 2002: Michael Hopkins Explains It All

Our first national Claiming the Blessing gathering was in St. Louis in the fall of 2002. At that inaugural conference, CTB founding member Michael Hopkins presented the following overview of the mission and ministry of the Claiming the Blessing movement -- remarks that were summarized as the introduction to our 2003 Theology Statement.

A decade later the context has shifted significantly, with civil marriage equality a reality in many states and dioceses and the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) presenting resolutions calling for an authorized liturgy for blessings and for a study of the theology marriage. Nevertheless, Michael's words from 2002 not only set the context for the work of Claiming the Blessing over the last ten years, they also continue to inform and inspire.

What is Claiming the Blessing?

The General Convention of the U.S. Episcopal Church resolved in 1976 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.” Since that time great strides toward realizing that “full and equal” claim have been taken. There are a growing number of places in the church where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (lgbt) persons are welcomed, affirmed in their ministries and blessed in their committed relationships. There are, however, many more places where they are still not fully included in the life of the church.

A coalition of leading justice organizations in the Episcopal Church — Integrity, Beyond Inclusion and diocesan Oasis ministries — along with numerous individual leaders, are determined to see the 1976 resolution become a reality. To that end, this partnership, called “Claiming the Blessing” (, has committed itself to obtaining approval at the 2003 General Convention of a liturgical rite of blessing, celebrating the holy love in faithful relationships between couples for whom marriage is not available, enabling couples in these relationships to see in each other the image of God.

What is this movement about?

It is about being clear. It is about being transparent. It is about witnessing. It is about how the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit compels us. It is about our love for the Church.
This is my message to the Church at large and, in particular, certain portions of it who wonder if this movement is such a good idea. My purpose is to be crystal clear and utterly transparent.

We are absolutely committed to this Church and we are absolutely committed to the continuance of as broad a diversity—including theological—as is possible for us to maintain together. This commitment is, in part, a commitment to continued messiness and frustration … We understand this to be true even if the General Convention passes the resolution that we are advocating, to formulate a Book of Occasional Services rite for the blessing of faithful, monogamous unions other than heterosexual marriage. We know and accept that such a rite will not be used or even allowed to be used universally.

We are quite deliberately advocating for a rite whose use would be optional for the sake of the unity of the Church we love. We believe in our heart of hearts that our relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships, whether or not the term “marriage” is appropriate for them, and them should be equal. But that is not what we are asking for.

Liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, must learn to live together in this Church or there will be no Church in which for us to live. But learning to live together must mean “mutual deference” not moratoriums or some insistence that we all convert to being “moderates.”

My second message to the church at large is that we are not going anywhere. Gay and lesbian Christians make up a significant portion of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. We will continue to do so after General Convention 2003 no matter what happens. We will not attempt to get our way by threatening to leave. I ask those on all sides of this debate to make this commitment as well.

Now three comments especially for our conservative brothers and sisters. First, we do not desire for you to go away. Yes, some sympathizers with our movement have said from time to time that it would be just as well if you did. Of course, some of yours have said the same about us. Let us together commit ourselves to finding every way possible to move forward with our debate without threatening either schism or purge. It is simply not necessary for us to do so.

Second, we do not desire to force same-sex blessings on you or anyone. We do desire to enable them in those places where the church is ready to receive them as a blessing but is not able to because of an understandable desire for some level of national recognition. Of course we will continue to work towards local communities desiring to bless same-sex unions. Of course you will work to keep them from doing so. We ought to be able to live with each other’s efforts on that level. Third, we do challenge you to stop scapegoating lesbian and gay Christians for every contemporary ill in the Church, particularly for our current state of disunity or the potential for the unraveling of the Anglican Communion.

This movement is not about getting our way or else. This movement is a means to further the healthy debate within the Church, to deepen it on a theological level, to begin to articulate how we see the blessing of same-sex unions as a part of the Church’s moving forward in mission rather than hindering mission. We believe that it is time for the church to claim the blessing found in the lives of its faithful lesbian and gay members and to further empower them for the mission of the Church. We are trying to find a way forward in this endeavor that holds as much of this church we love together as possible. We ask all our fellow-Episcopalians to join us even if they disagree with us.

Celebrating a Decade of Claiming the Blessing

CLAIMING the BLESSING was convened in 2002 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.
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.

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 another step forward on blessings in a resolution (C051) “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.
At the 75th General Convention we succeeded in orchestrating a legislative strategy rejecting a raft of resolutions that would have turned the clock back on equality in response to something called “The Windsor Report.”

We were not able 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 we 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 in 2012 we are working to finally cross “liturgies for the blessing of same-sex unions” off the list of achievable goals we set in 2002 while adding “amend the canons to secure marriage equality” to our “to do” list and producing the third in the Voices of Witness series "Out of the Box:" putting the T in LGBT by giving voice to transgender members of the Episcopal Church.
2002 - 2012. It's been a decade full of work and witness, of challenge and opportunity. And we're not done yet. "Promoting wholeness in human relationships, abolishing prejudice and oppression, and healing the rift between sexuality and spirituality in the Church" is a tall order -- but we're on it. And will continue to be on it until the full inclusion of all the baptized in all the sacraments is a reality and not just a resolution.
This blog will be an archive of that work and witness. Welcome!