Sunday, November 23, 2008

Prop. 8, Gay Marriage, And God's Blessing

As an example of how I'll persistently fail to take a definitive stand on any issue, an item I posted at The New Nixon a couple of weeks ago. If you like, go to TNN and read the critique that a self-described papist posted in response:

On Saturday, over 20,000 demonstrated against California’s Prop. 8. Melissa Etheridge says she’s keeping her $500,000 a year in state taxes now that her second-class citizenship has been affirmed.

Protesters may be hoping to influence the courts that will rule on lawsuits claiming that Prop. 8, which amends the constitution to ban gay marriage, is invalid. President Nixon used to say that judges read the papers and feel the political heat just like ordinary people, so we shall see. (He also predicted we’d have gay marriage by 2000.)

Opponents of gay marriage, including the President-elect, often say that they support civil union and domestic partnership laws instead. This primer shows how these expedients aim for but don’t match the sturdiness of the marriage contract. One can understand the frustration of those who object to society making that contract not impossible for them to get — just considerably more complicated and expensive. What is the point of giving a couple 60%, or 75%, or whatever percentage of a thing but then withholding the last bit on the basis of some immutable principle, especially when we’ve already ceded the principle by establishing civil unions in some states, including California?

The explanation for a paradox is usually in the heart, wrapped in people’s ideals and fears as well their foundational experiences. The mom-dad paradigm, dominant since the beginning of time, is at the root of most people’s definition of family. Pin me to the wall, and I’ll say it’s best for a child to have a mom and dad. The irony is that my father was almost never around, and my mother had to go back to work when I was three weeks old. I might have done better with two attentive moms or two dads. As it was, I went searching for replacement dads, not extra moms (though some men do that when they choose their wives). I needed a father in my life — because of my conception of the godhead, because I was male, or for some other reason.

Everyone else has their own set of experiences, beliefs, and sometimes pathologies. On Nov. 4, it added up to 52% of Californians being against same-gender marriage. You can blame it on funding from the Mormons if you like, but my guess is that relatively few voters needed help making up their minds. These were votes that came from the gut.

As for mine, I tried to think about being deprived of the right to marry the person I loved because I’d been born gay. Besides, as ex-Nixon speechwriter William Safire wrote several years ago, the gays are bound to do better with marriage than the straights. We may yet get back to the ideal of the traditional family, but in the meantime — and it will be a long time — men and women who beget children, both mindfully and not, will need significant help from nontraditional families to raise them.

In the end, I voted against Prop. 8, especially for the sake of the gay and lesbian people I care about, including mentors and partners in Christian ministry. I did so without being eager for the ban to fail. “Marriage” is a culturally defined term, and the best way a free people has to define their terms is at the ballot box. If the Holy Spirit was moving across the surface of the deep on this issue, I didn’t want my vote to be the one standing in her way. But as I voted, my heart and head were still tugging at one another.

Now that the measure has passed, gay and lesbian people are heartbroken and angry. Comparing their cause to civil rights for African-Americans and Hispanics, they criticize blacks for voting in favor of Prop. 8. It’s a harsh political reality that people’s visceral feelings about homosexuality run deeper than culturally and economically conditioned biases against ethnic groups. Instead of blaming those who voted yes, marriage equity advocates might look for new political and social partners. Those who oppose abortion also feel marginalized and unheard, not only by the majority of voters but the MSM, which at least is giving the anti-Prop. 8 demonstrators a fair hearing. Gay people and the unborn and their advocates — the last second-class citizens — may have the makings of an effective coalition.

As for how marriage is ultimately defined by secular society, my guess is that gay and lesbian people will soon be granted that last 40% or 25% of a durable legal contract. At that point, the debate will shift back to where the really difficult work is being done — the church and other faith communities.

Reformation scholars will tell you that the early Protestants didn’t think the church had any business solemnizing legal contracts between men and women or anyone else. The deed was done on the church steps, after which the couple came inside for the main event — the church’s mediation of God’s blessing, which God had envisioned for the couple at the beginning of all things. The church understands that the two people were meant for each other in the mind of God. In the marriage rites contained in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, the emphasis is not on the marriage itself, which the priest or bishop does as an agent of the state, but on God’s preexisting blessing.

That’s why the divisive debate in the Episcopal Church is over whether same-sex unions should be blessed. That debate won’t be any easier for churches, dioceses, or provinces just because polities decide to give all people access to the same durable legal contract.

For unchurched Californians, overturning Prop. 8, should that happen, will be the end of the drama. For the faithful, more scenes have yet to be played out, and on their stage, legislation, demonstrations, and court cases aren’t as helpful. The church won’t be of one mind on the subject until the preponderance of those in the pews have the epiphany experience of looking across the aisle at Fred and Ed or Alice and Grace (or perhaps across the table at the family Thanksgiving feast) and saying to themselves, “You know, I’m not wild about this whole gay marriage thing, but those two were meant to be together.” For the faithful, meant-to-be is in the mind of God, the source of all blessing.


Anonymous said...

I am ever so grateful for your vote :) And I sincerely wish that proponents & supporters of Prop 8 would read your blog. Being a strong believer in both the church's right to not marry homosexuals, as well as the right for homosexuals to marry legally under the state--it seems to me that Prop 8 should've never happened. The judges did a beautiful job in May making sure that through the legalization of gay marriage, both homosexuals & churches were protected. I sincerely hope they will rule this proposition unnecessary and let their previous ruling in May continue to stand.

As far as the church debate, I don't believe it is up to us decide. From a Christian perspective, it is only our duty to follow the two major commandments by Jesus (Love your God, Love your neighbor), and to continue to progress forward in love so that, as the Catholic catechism says, "the Kingdom of God may come". I feel that we don't live up to our selves as Christians if we don't initiate every action lovingly, and I don't feel Prop 8 is a loving action. (However, neither is bashing opposing beliefs & congregations.)

My belief on the sanctity of marriage is that it isn't set in stone as a "man and a woman". A sacrament is defined in the Concise Dictionary of Religion as "any Rite where God is uniquely active". The sacrament of matrimony reflects that, and I think we can leave it up to the individuals involved--and God--to decide whether he is uniquely active in their love. :)

I will end with the thought that the Episcopal Church in a convention held in the 1970s stated that homosexuals were children of God, and were entitled to equal rights under the law. They reaffirmed this belief in a convention held in 2006. I was also joyous when I heard that the Southern Californian Episcopal Bishops had decided to oppose Prop 8. Being a steadfast Episcopalian, I fully support their statements and am glad to belong to such a welcoming & loving church with a priest who reaffirms the beliefs that matter to me.

Great blog, Father John. :)

-Kate Fernelius

Fr. John said...

Katie, my friend: Thank you for your moving and thoughtful comment. You are a treasure! Fr. John