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Why I Decided to Solemnize Same-Sex Marriages

By Carter Heyward

 

June 6, 2004

 

This was not the decision I expected to make, nor the one I could have imagined making several months ago.

I find myself “marrying folks” because, against the tradition of Christian marriage which is patriarchal to its core, marriage between persons of the same sex has become a momentous justice issue in relation to which Christian churches that profess a love for Jesus as Liberator, Healer, and Reconciler should be leading the way.

I'm among those who believe that the church should get out of the marriage business altogether. However, the current controversy about marriage, in Massachusetts and throughout the U.S., reflects a muddle of confusion between civil rights and patriarchal religion, in which most Christian churches are attempting to put the brakes on the civil movement for gender and sexual justice. In this context, I find myself “marrying folks” because, against the tradition of Christian marriage which is patriarchal to its core, marriage between persons of the same sex has become a momentous justice issue in relation to which Christian churches that profess a love for Jesus as Liberator, Healer, and Reconciler should be leading the way.

In April, during a community meeting at the Episcopal Divinity School that came on the heels of Bishop Tom Shaw telling diocesan clergy that we would not be allowed to solemnize gay marriages, I heard person after person pour out grief and anger about how betrayed they felt by the diocese. “Betrayed” is the word I have heard in this context more than any other. It is as if a whole group of people – Episcopal gay men and lesbians in this instance – experience themselves (I should say “ourselves”) as having been literally “left at the altar” by the church.

Sitting in that community meeting, I knew – as a priest, a lesbian priest moreover – that some one (or more) of us needed to act. The biblical image that came to mind that day, and that has stayed with me, was that of people “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:35-38). That night, I phoned the two couples whose weddings I had declined to solemnize, and I told them that I had changed my mind, and why.

Here were, and are, my reasons:

1. Pastoral responsibility as a priest . Quite simply, it became clear to me that, as a priest, I have a pastoral responsibility to the whole people of God, especially in this context and at this moment to those who are Episcopalians. This includes more than a few LGBT sisters and brothers who have been faithful Episcopal Christians for decades.

2. Strategy for social change . Our situation today is analogous to the Episcopal Church's predicament 30 years ago in relation to women's ordination. Then and now, I believe (as did and do many others) that, for the church to change, the church must act its way into new ways of thinking . The Episcopal Church will not be able to think its way successfully toward an inclusive gay-affirming re-imaging of Christian marriage until there are lots of gay and lesbian Episcopalians who are married. People act – and the canons and liturgies catch up over time. That's how laws get changed inside and outside the church.

3. Canons and prayer book do not forbid marriage between persons of same sex . Nowhere in the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church or its Book of Common Prayer is “gay marriage” rejected or forbidden. It simply was never anticipated. Therefore, to read these documents as expressly excluding marriage between persons of the same sex is an interpretation but by no means the only possible one. To interpret “holy matrimony” as an unambiguously heterosexual institution is to strengthen its unambiguously patriarchal moorings. Please note : Is this what the Diocese of Massachusetts, or the Presiding Bishop, or the Archbishop of Canterbury intend? Why not render a more inclusive interpretation of the canons and the prayer book? Why not do it now – and allow the General Convention in 2006 to considering supporting what Massachusetts has done on behalf of sexual and gender justice rather than standing as a diocese against the church's sacramental involvement in gay marriage, which is, in fact, an invitation to the General Convention to do likewise?

4. Political situation in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts . The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said in its November 2003 ruling that anything other than marriage constitutes discrimination and injustice. The Episcopal Church's official “ban” against its clergy solemnizing gay marriages, along with similar rulings in other churches, will be milked politically on behalf of the amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. The Episcopal Church's pastoral, sacramental, and liturgical leaders need to be standing against this unjust amendment with our bodies, liturgies, and vocations. More than in any other location in the U.S. church, the dioceses in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have a unique opportunity today to help forge a path to new theologies, ethics, and liturgies of marriage, which in turn will help secure civil rights for LGBT people everywhere.

When Episcopalians talk about “unity,” they should be asked: “Unity with whom?” With the Bishops of Nigeria and South Carolina or with the suicidal gay teen in South Carolina and the Nigerian lesbian beaten and raped because someone discovered she's lesbian?

5. Unity of the church . When Episcopalians talk about “unity,” they should be asked: “Unity with whom?” With the Bishops of Nigeria and South Carolina or with the suicidal gay teen in South Carolina and the Nigerian lesbian beaten and raped because someone discovered she's lesbian? The “unity of the church” argument has been used against every justice movement that has ever threatened to change the church. Our unity isn't worth much if it's not rooted and grounded in justice, healing, and reconciliation, which take time – but which do not ever require us to perpetuate injustice. Our unity – as Episcopalians and, globally, as Anglicans – will be woven historically, over time, generations, and continents, as efforts for racial, sexual, gender, class, tribal, religious and other forms of justice move along, interfacing, colliding, reconciling, being stirred and sparked by the Spirit of God.

6 . Different roles to play in the church at this time? Our bishops may believe that their primary role in such a situation is to protect the “unity of the church” and that this necessarily means putting the brakes on a movement for justice that many Episcopalians and Anglicans believe is unbiblical, immoral, sinful, etc. This may be the bishops' role right now in the Diocese of Massachusetts and throughout the House of Bishops. They evidently believe it is. In this same ecclesial context, as a priest, however, I believe my most vocationally responsible role is to be pastorally, sacramentally, and liturgically present to lesbians and gay men who are seeking today in Massachusetts to be married by Episcopal ministers.

 

The Rev. Carter Heyward, Ph.D., is the Howard Chandler Robbins Professor of Theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., where she has taught since 1975. She also serves as liturgical coordinator for the Brevard Episcopal Mission in western North Carolina, and is the author of more than a dozen books. Carter may be reached by email at carterheyward@aol.com .