Marriage Equality in the Episcopal Church

July 12, 2015

Well – today’s gospel reading ends with John’s head on a platter. And in light of the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage that coincided with the Episcopal Church’s decision at the General Convention to move forward with gay marriage, I’d like to speak to that topic this morning … and I hope my head doesn’t end up on a platter as well.

Where should I start?

I think it’s probably best if I share with you some of my journey on this topic over the years. And hear me: this is simply my experience with what has been a defining issue for our generation in the church. I don’t speak for the GLBTQ community or for many of you. But at this juncture in the history of the church and in our country, it is reasonable for you to hear the rector’s thoughts on gay marriage.

I was raised in an evangelical church where the issue of homosexuality simply wasn’t addressed. It was a non-issue. No one in my church world was even asking the question whether or not homosexuality or gay marriage should be welcomed in the church because the Bible’s teaching was manifestly clear that homosexuality was an abomination.

Once I was in college I began to make adult decisions about my faith. I wanted my relationship with God to be central to everything– how I was living, how I was spending my money, what my priorities were… And I remember one summer, shortly before the school year resumed, praying to God, asking the question, “Who is it difficult for me to love?” and the answer (for various reasons) was clear: the gay community. And so I prayed, “God, help me to love gay people as you do.”

It sounds patronizing to my ears today, but twenty-five years ago it was a start. I didn’t know what that meant or where it would take me, but my prayer was earnest and I believed that God loved without boundary. And what a year it proved to be. Everywhere I went, it seemed, I was making friends with gay men: in the dorm, at work, in class. It was uncanny.

I remember sitting with Chris at an outdoor restaurant on campus which was popular with him and his friends. Now, you have to understand that Chris was flamboyantly gay. He used to greet me at work, “Ooh, Eric, you are looking so fine today.” He wrote for the campus paper under the pen name, “The Diva.” So there I was sitting with Chris and he introduced me to one of his friends, who looked at me and said, “You look familiar. Were at the chat group on Tuesday?” And in a flash of horror I realized, “He thinks I’m gay.” And I looked around at all the people streaming by and thought, “They think I’m gay.” But immediately that thought was replaced by another: You’re living like Jesus. Don’t worry what others think of you. If they think you're gay because you associate with gays, so be it.

But if you read between the lines, it's not hard to see that from my perspective homosexuality was still unquestionably a sin. Given the opportunity I would have encouraged them to seek healing from their homosexuality. I certainly advocated a strictly celibate lifestyle. But it was a turning point. It was no longer, “those gay people.” It was Chris. And Ray. And Reggie and many more. They were my friends who I truly loved, whose stories broke my heart. I knew that none of them had chosen this life for themselves. None of them woke up one day and said, “Hmm. What can I do to make me repulsive to my family and community? I know. I’ll be gay.”  They had reached this point in their lives through much soul-searching and turmoil. Their choice to “come out” was both brave and terrifying, but it was the only viable way to face their future with any integrity and hope, even though the culture around them was still largely antagonistic – especially in the church.

Several years later I was living in Vancouver. I’d recently been confirmed in the Anglican Church – the equivalent of the Episcopal Church in Canada. It was there that I first encountered Christians in bulk who thought that homosexuality was something the church should bless. Now, this was a new teaching for me and for many, and the diocese was rupturing over it. Here was my problem: although I knew that homosexuality wasn’t chosen, I was still concerned that it was a consequence of some brokenness in the formative years of their lives, likely beyond their memory, and likely never to change. But, if it was the product of some brokenness - some sin of which they were the victims - then it seemed irresponsible and misguided for the church to celebrate and bless it.

And here’s what muddied the issue even more: everyone in the debate was so profoundly ugly about the whole matter. The evangelicals with whom I identified were arrogant and self-righteous, and I didn’t want to be labeled as one of them. But the “liberals” (as they were unfortunately called) were no better. I remember being at an event designed to facilitate dialogue between parishes. I listened as a woman from the cathedral made some dismissive remark about the apostle Paul, which solidified in my mind this notion that people supporting gay marriage in the church had no regard for scripture – that they were agenda driven and would undermine the church and its faith just so they could have their way.

“The aroma of Christ” was nowhere to be sensed in this dialogue. But I did love the Anglican way of worship, and – looking back – I can see that I was already grateful to be amongst a people who were willing to engage this legitimate issue that our culture was asking. I once heard a missiologist speak. He said that every culture is asking serious questions of the faith. And if your religion is to have any relevance, it has got to be able to engage their questions meaningfully. And with the Anglicans – ugly though they were in the conversation – they were in the conversation.

And so I entered into the Anglican tradition with my eyes wide open, knowing that if I were to pursue ordination in the Episcopal Church, that I was aligning myself with a church that was increasingly open to gay marriage. As many people described it at the time, "that train had already left the station."

But I also felt the permission from God to take my journey slowly – that there was no urgency for me to articulate a hard and fast theology of homosexuality. The Kingdom of God is revealed slowly, and I was welcome to match its pace. I also determined that I would reach no conclusions without being in relationship with gay brothers and sisters who loved Jesus and were pursuing the life of faith as well – for the nature of the Kingdom of God is lived and discovered in community.

There’s so much that I can say on this topic, so many nuances of thought and explorations of faith I’ve pursued since those days in Vancouver. But here are a few significant conclusions that I’ve reached at this point in the journey, a journey I will continue.

First: there is no gay agenda to undermine the Episcopal Church. Our gay brothers and sisters are in church because they want to worship the God who loves them. And thanks be to God – despite all the messiness our church has gone through in the past several years – the Episcopal Church developed a reputation as a safe place to worship. If it weren’t for the hope of finding God here, there would be no reason to risk coming or to endure the discomfort they have known over the years. Experience has now shown us that homosexuality has simply not been the threat that was feared by so many. The mission of the church has remained the same: to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbor. We’re simply loving more neighbors than we used to, and we’re allowing them to love us in return and to join us as one people living out the love of God in this world.

And I can add that, since being ordained in the Episcopal Church, my gay and lesbian colleagues are the ones with whom I often experience the deepest solidarity in faith. I suspect that for many, having known themselves as “outsider” they have now experienced and embraced the deeper richness of being made “insider” by the love of Christ, and it resonates in their ministry and personhood.

Second: the Bible is not being thrown under the bus. Yes, it is true that the handful of scriptures that address homosexuality are uniformly condemnatory. However, as much as we believe the scriptures to be the uniquely inspired word of God, we also know them to be a product of culture. And they were written in cultures that were vastly different than our own. The homosexuality that existed then was never one that encouraged or permitted a monogamous, committed union such as our culture allows today.  So therefore, we are left with two substantially different understandings of the same word. You can be very faithful, and deeply committed to the authority of scripture – to its study and application – and say with integrity “There are timeless principles of the Kingdom of God that transcend all cultures, and it is these that we are faithfully seeking to apply to marriage equality.” That is not the same as simply ignoring the parts of scripture that are distasteful to you.

Third: Regarding the issue of whether someone was “born gay” or was “made gay” by some early formative experience: frankly, I am increasingly inclined to say, “What does it matter?” Through a vast and complex web of DNA and experience we have been formed as we are. And, of the many things we have power to change about ourselves, sexual orientation does not appear to be one of them. So now our church is inviting our gay brothers and sisters to participate in the mystery of marriage: to live out its unique and challenging sacramental call, to pursue a lifelong union where love and patience and grace and sacrifice are fostered in the most profound of ways.

Might we be wrong? Certainly. But if being absolutely right about everything is necessary for entrance to the Kingdom of God, then all of us are doomed. The church will error along the way, but I would rather error in the pursuit of loving my neighbor than despising him; of seeking oneness rather than division; of pursuing a God who is far more gracious than we have often believed him to be.

It is my prayer that this church – both St. John’s and the larger Episcopal Church – would move towards marriage equality with humility. It is a significant change in the tradition of the church and of our culture. What causes one to celebrate makes another uneasy. Let us be gracious unto one another. If you disagree with someone, bake them a casserole, pray for their good, and kneel beside them at the communion rail, receiving together the love and grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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