Clergy of the Diocese of Los Angeles met May 3-5 to discuss the evolving nature of marriage, in anticipation of the 78th General Convention, which is poised to address marriage equality.

Keynote speaker Rosemary Radford Ruether, a feminist theologian, professor and author, reminded both clergy and General Convention deputies at the annual conference that current developments are part of the historically complex and continually evolving relationship between the Christian church and marriage.

“For most of church history, there was no specific ritual to consecrate a marriage, and vows did not have to be exchanged in a church or before a priest” until the 16th century, she said. Marriage was considered inferior to celibacy and Protestant Reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther considered it as belonging to the state, not the church — which eventually opened up the possibility of divorce, Ruether told the gathering.

Video: Rosemary Radford Ruether —

Video: Marriage Matters Panel —

The Netherlands became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001; some 19 others have followed suit. “But some 78 countries make same-sex relations, or even public culture about same-sex relations, illegal” with imprisonment or death as penalties. Gay marriage is legal in 37 states in the U.S., while 13 others still have “anti-sodomy” laws.

“Thus the struggle for legalization of same-sex relations still has a long way to go,” Ruether concluded. “Conversion” therapies purporting to reverse gay orientation, as well as the belief that homosexual attraction is natural are still controversial, but both present pastoral implications and opportunities for the church.

“The legal development of same-sex marriages today raises a challenge to the role of the religious community as a context of the religious celebration of marriage,” she said. “Churches need to accept this, and also accept the challenge of thinking creatively about what that means,” including teaching about healthy and holy relationships, Ruether said.

The Very Rev. Sylvia Sweeney, dean of the Episcopal Theological School at Claremont, said the conference design was intended to engage the report issued by the Episcopal Church Task Force on the Study of Marriage, recommending that we “keep moving forward with this conversation.

“The church has to deal with the many, many ways in which the definitions of family and love and intimacy and relationship and marriage have been radically changed by society in the last ten years,” said Sweeney, a task force member. “We have to address that because otherwise all the gifts we have to give to the world have not been given.”

A series of essays by diocesan clergy, ranging from histories of Christian marriage and the marriage canon to clergy as agents of the state, were recommended pre-conference reading. Additionally, a panel of clergy discussed marriage as vocation, as social justice, as prophetic witness, and as an opportunity for evangelism.

The Rev. Canon Susan Russell, a task force member and conference planner, said that marriage equality is a much larger conversation than same-sex marriage. It is also a question of “what marriage means for all of us … especially as Christians, as pastors, as priests, as deacons, as members of the Episcopal Church.”
“The real question is, what is marriage, why is it a sacrament and what are the implications for our lives as Christians and how we live out the Gospel in the world?” she said.

Responding to the Task Force;  anticipating General Convention 2015

The 77th General Convention, meeting in Indianapolis June 25 – July 3, approved resolution A050, which authorized the Task Force on Marriage (TFM), in consultation with other churches, people in and out of committed relationships, and the Standing Commissions on Constitution and Canons and on Liturgy and Music, to identify and explore pastoral, “biblical, theological, historical, liturgical and canonical dimensions of marriage” and report back to the wider church.

The TFM has since recommended  that General Convention 2015 allow clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages and has released a study guide and other resources, including “Liturgical Resources I: I will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing” for provisional use.

Bishops and deputies also will be asked to consider several commission- and diocesan-sponsored resolutions seeking to clarify marriage for same-sex couples, resolutions which have been assigned to a special legislative committee on marriage.

General Convention is set to meet in Salt Lake City as the nation awaits a Supreme Court decision about whether or not same-sex couples have a constitutional right to be married; a ruling that is likely to be released while the convention is meeting.
Russell said she is very optimistic that, whatever the court’s ruling, “we’ll turn a corner and take another step forward in ending what is really de facto sacramental apartheid.

“We have a percentage of the baptized still excluded from a percentage of the sacrament and that sacrament is marriage and I hope we can take steps toward ending that in Salt Lake City,” she said.

Panelists’ collective wisdom:
marriage as holy learning, prophecy, social justice

Bishop Suffragan Mary Glasspool said the conference conversations and collective pastoral wisdom were “transformative.” “It’s the kind of process that needs to happen throughout the church in different locales, in preparation for the every-three-years church-wide meeting of Episcopalians,” she said. “We need to have our own conversations and draw on our own wisdom and engage different cultures and hopefully, we bring it all together at General Convention.”

Russell told the gathering that both the Diocese of Los Angeles and the Episcopal Church have an opportunity to leverage marriage equality “in a way that brings good news to people and not just married people, not just unmarried people, but all people and the good news is that we’re a place that is there for you, wherever you find yourself … a safe place.”

One such is the Rev. Francisco Garcia, social justice minister at All Saints Church in Pasadena, who told the gathering his own experiences of barrier-breaking have enabled him to see marriage equality as a prophetic act to the world.

A former Roman Catholic married for 14 years to his high school sweetheart, a former Sothern Baptist, he said they have navigated ethnic and religious differences, individually and collectively. He invoked the spirit of Catholic priest and activist Philip Berrigan, who married former nun Elizabeth McAllister. The two founded the Vietnam War resistance community Jonah House in Baltimore and “lived their marriage as a prophetic act.

“When two people come together across differences, across all kinds of challenges, there is both struggle and there’s also a path to liberation,” he said.

Similarly, as pastors, “to be present to all people who have struggled and who have not had access and to be able to proclaim all relationships as revelations of God’s love … that’s a beautiful thing for us to say yes, we affirm that and we call you into this life.”

Other panelists, like the Rev. Canon John Taylor, vicar of St. John’s Chrysostom Church in Rancho Santa Margarita, also drew upon personal experiences of grace as the impetus for extending grace to others.

Identifying himself as being “married twice, once successfully,” Taylor said he approaches marriage equality “with great humility, because I am an abject failure half the time, (and) with thanksgiving as well as empathy for those who’ve been waiting far longer and under far more adverse conditions. It’s hard to imagine, therefore, compelling rationale in denying those opportunities for learning and peace and joy to anyone.”

If churches teach in a holy way about marriage, they will invite people to think in those terms, he added.

He cited a conversation with a former parishioner who objected to same-sex marriage on the basis “that the secular culture is co-opting the church with secular humanist values.

“I said, ‘Well, my friend, imagine a hypothetical couple at our beautiful church, standing in front of a man or woman in funny clothes and the cross and pledging to stay with each other in mutual sacrifice and seeking to be blessed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Who is co-opting whom?’”

The Rev. Nancy Frausto, priest-in-charge at Trinity, Los angeles, and associate at St. Mary’s, Maraposa,  churches in Los Angeles, called for a liturgy in support of the pastoral care of divorced and single persons “who may feel like failures because their marriage has failed, or for those who choose not to marry but are made to feel like they’re not a whole person” because of it.

“In my context, I encounter a lot of women who have made me feel as if I am not worthy or woman enough because, Good Lord, I am 31 years old and not married,” Frausto said. “How do we have that conversation while still respecting the fact that this is an important movement for all those who’ve been denied this rite?”

Similarly, the Rev. Katie Derose, a vocational deacon at St. Augustine by-the-Sea Church in Santa Monica, and a health and policy researcher for the RAND Corporation, said the church needs to include in the conversation marginalized populations  who are often denied marriage access.

“The astronomical incarceration rates among African Americans in California and in the nation means that the benefits of marriage are not necessarily realized for all,” Derose told the gathering.

“The fact that undocumented immigrants in our state don’t have access to marriage is another issue,” she said. “As a church, I’d love to reflect with all of you concretely about how to bring those policy issues forward.”

‘A profound opportunity for evangelism’

Marriage equality involves a larger conversation than same-sex marriage, and it also “offers a profound opportunity for evangelism,” Russell said.

“The reality is that we have people coming to us wounded by marriage, not only wounded by the exclusion of it, but also by the experience of it, the expectation of it,” she said.

“We’re a place of healing and wholeness for that. We have interfaith couples who are treading that challenge of how do you build a marriage within the interfaith challenge, intercultural challenge.

“This movement is about so much more than canonical and liturgical changes,” she added. “It is about fully including a percentage of God’s already blessed people into the sacramental and canonical and liturgical life of the church and about unleashing that capacity for blessing that transcends our relationships and takes our work back out into the world.”

But the Rev. Anna Olson, rector of St. Mary’s (Mariposa), Los Angeles, said that marriage seems increasingly irrelevant in the lives of many young people. She cautioned that the church might be “a generation behind in the questions that we’re asking.”

Russell, who is the legislative team leader for Claiming the Blessing at General Convention, said she will be working with other groups to monitor and advocate for moving forward marriage equality and full inclusion resolutions.

“We sometimes hear that expanding marriage to include same-sex couples redefines marriage … but we all know that what makes up a marriage is so much bigger and more complex than just the gender of the couple,” she said.

“Even in exploring some of the evolving science around what makes people gay or lesbian or transgender, is an indication about how little we know about why people are gay or lesbian.

“The more important question for the church is not how are people gay but how do we treat people who are gay and what does God want for those people? My answer would be that God wants the same thing for all his beloved children.”