Friday, February 13, 2015

Alabama and Absalom

Monday was to be a joyous day in Alabama. A federal judge had found their ban on lesbians and gays getting married was unconstitutional. The Eleventh Circuit refused to step in and halt the forward progress for marriage equality. The U.S. Supreme Court also turned away the state's appeal with only Justices Scalia and Thomas saying they would have entertained hearing the case. It was a scenario very similar to Florida, only minus the antics of an attorney general and private law firm that couldn't grasp the meaning of the word, "Unconstitutional."

But Alabama has a chief justice of the state Supreme Court. And Roy Moore, no stranger to controversy and thumbing his nose at the federal courts, ordered probate judges in the state of Alabama not to issue marriage licenses and defy the federal mandate. And sure enough, many of them did as Moore said. Marriage license offices in 53 of the state's 67 counties on Monday refused to open and probate judges declared themselves out of the marriage business. I'm surprised Moore didn't stand in the doors of the courthouse to proudly proclaim: "Discrimination now, discrimination tomorrow, discrimination forever!"

Now there is a report that the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi plans to join with those in Alabama protesting marriage equality. The KKK won't be parading in their bed sheets, but they will provide behind the scenes assistance and ensure that no "infiltrators" get in to disrupt their message branding of hatred and intolerance.

This chaos has caused enormous pain, and not just for the lesbians and gay men living in the counties which are openly defying the federal government. I spent a long time on the phone with a straight friend who sounded demoralized by the whole thing. Add to that the frustration with the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. Yes, they will allow for the blessing of same-sex couples...if a vestry, which is the lay governing body in a church, votes to approve making their church a welcoming congregation for such activity. If the vestry votes "No," then not only is the church not available, the priest or priests associated with said church are not allowed to bless any same-sex couple anywhere, even outside of the diocese. Suddenly, it seems priests are now slaves to the vestry instead of slaves to Christ.

Since all the upheaval, the same federal judge has ordered probate judges in Alabama to comply with her ruling and begin issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples. Almost all of the counties in Alabama are complying. I guess the ones who are not just want to be sued. Or perhaps they're waiting until after next Monday's federal holiday.

It was quite fitting to have had this wrangling and resisting occurring as a backdrop for today at the 12:10 Eucharist where we were remembering one of the towering figures of black history within the Episcopal Church: Absalom Jones. Jones and Richard Allen were regular attendees of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in the late 1700s in Philadelphia. Blacks and whites worshiped together amicably for years. Then one Sunday, the white members decided that they wanted the blacks to move to the balcony. This was done in secret, so that the black members didn't learn of this decision until an usher tapped Jones on the shoulder during the opening prayer and signaled for him and the others to get upstairs. Instead, Jones and Allen walked the blacks of the congregation out the door and formed a new church with the blessing of Episcopal Bishop William White. Jones was made a lay leader, and eventually ordained to the diaconate and then priesthood. Allen, on the other hand, had wanted to remain a Methodist and he left to start the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).

The Gospel lesson assigned for today was from John 15:

"‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."

I could feel myself wanting to cry as I listened to this, the great commandment, and what it must have meant for Jones and Allen, and what it means for me. There is no more complete expression of the love of God for all of us than for us to love one another as Love has done for us. And how far did those white Methodists fall from that grace by telling their black brothers and sisters to get upstairs. What a betrayal of Love! 

The same can be said of all the shenanigans in Alabama this week over marriage equality. People who are maintaining that they are Christians and doing "the Lord's" work by denying their gay brothers and lesbian sisters their civil right to get married have somehow missed the main message of Jesus. Letting vestries decide the fate of their church...and their priests...on the question of blessing a same-sex couple is the same terrible scenario that led to the laws that a federal court has struck down. Allowing people to vote to nix the whole thing means, in a place like Alabama where the Klan can get away with publicly supporting a bigoted chief justice, guarantees that only a very few churches and only in large urban areas might bless couples. If the bishop had wanted to give the naysayers on the vestries a sense of power, he could have limited the "No" to just covering the use of the church and its grounds. But for it to extend to the priest, too? Not only does that give the vestries too much control; it will be the kind of intoxicating power that could make the bullies on vestries who don't like all this "progressive stuff" find other areas of the priest's actions they'd like to control. Should the vestry decide they don't like unwashed homeless people, perhaps they could vote to tell the priest not to visit the homeless shelter or make any overtures to people on the street. Maybe they think the schools can handle all that literacy stuff the diocese has been promoting. They could vote to pull out of that, too.  

Perhaps we should think about the collect that goes with Absalom Jones Day:

Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear: that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servants Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  

Perhaps that's what Alabama's secular and religious leaders need: a little dose of courage. The courage to love one another as the Divine has loved them. And in feeling that love, take the bold step to share it rather than keep it as if it's a finite resource. 

Or perhaps they just need to have Neil Young sing about them one more time.


Phoebe said...

I woke a couple of hours ago.. wondering about the wording of the 'absolution' and 'blessing' that we use regularly. Who is it that does the blessing? We ask God to do the blessing. It is not the church that blesses.
I seem to remember a Biblical story where a group were blessed by God before the apostle actually baptised them! Surprise!
Who are the bishops to tell God what God can do?

SCG said...

They have fallen victim to the same thinking that they preach against: namely, confusing God for the Church. They are of a divided mind: they want to seem welcoming and inclusive, while putting in place a protection from anyone sullying the sanctity of marriage. This only adds to the confusion which will have a terrible effect on the people within the Church, and drive a deeper wedge with all those "unchurched" who have written off the institution and anyone associated with it as irrelevant, stupid, and infantile.

Phoebe said...

It seems to me they are putting the church above God, sadly worshiping the institution but also thinking they need to protect it.
I love the church, but worship God. I do not believe I can limit God's actions. And I believe God is perfectly capable of protecting God's self.

Galen said...

As always, a superb and thoughtful post. I also find that Phoebe's excellent comments are echoing a theme in my mind of late; the necessity of not confusing God with God's church.
There are countless stores, around the world, of situations in which the church has rejected the very people whom Jesus directed His followers to love. When this happens, the culture - quite understandably - concludes that we Christians are the worst of hypocrites.
We gotta do better . . . with God's help, of course!